Saturday, November 17, 2012

Return of the Scroll

William Cronon makes an interesting point:
The Roman invention of the multi-paged codex as a replacement for the far more ancient scroll represented an informational revolution that few of us now appreciate. As anyone who has watched the ritual turning of the Torah will understand, finding a single Biblical verse on a scroll is remarkably time-consuming. Finding it in a codex, on the other hand, is as simple as ruffling pages with one's thumb to find in few seconds what would take minutes on a scroll. Although no Roman would have said it this way, the codex remains one of the most powerful random-access devices humanity has yet devised.
Can physical books come close to competing with computers when it comes to search? Of course not. But when one wants to relocate a piece of information in a particular context, and when one remembers that context better than the information itself, then it can be surprisingly difficult for search alone to recover what one wants. What few of us recognize is that computer interfaces have for the most part retreated from the codex back toward the scroll. When we avail ourselves of the astonishing powers of Google, our "search result" comes back to us in the form of a list through which we must slowly—scroll. This is equally true of word processor texts and e-books. When we highlight or make notes in an e-reader and need to find our own annotations again, we do so via a laborious process of search which generates a long list through which we must scroll (often with the most woefully inadequate snippets as our only context) in the hope of relocating what we ourselves wrote. The same annotation or underlining that often took seconds to find in a physical codex can take minutes to relocate using the slow, context-stripping tools thus far available on e-book readers.



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