Karl-Erik Tallmo,
current research project

This text may not be re-published, printed or copied without the author's permission. Copyright © Karl-Erik Tallmo

  Last updated May 11th, 2002

Under the human sign:
from the history and future of
the dissemination of knowledge
and information

 Information wasted? This is the plaque that was sent into outer space together with the Pioneer X in 1972. In 1997 the capsule was still maneuverable. The signals took about 18 hours to travel the distance of 6 billion miles. On April 28th 2001, the capsule once more responded to a signal sent from Madrid (SvD May 2, 2001).

”FROM GORGIAS TO GORE” is a research project about the distribution of information and knowledge through history, which will result in a book. The title of this book will, however, not be the same as the initial project name - rather something like "Under the human sign - from the history and future of the dissemination of knowledge and information". The project is financed by a grant from the Swedish Foundation Culture of the Future.

In this project I will try to look upon information and knowledge in a very wide sense (money, law, and products - even tools - may in certain respects be regarded as information) and investigate the dissemination of them, orally, through manuscripts, through printed books and computer files. The relationship between the copy and the edition as well as the rise of the individual author and copyright are also important parts of this history.

Humans are the only thinking species, and information is essential both for the individual's internal self-communication and for external relations to other individuals. One presumtion is that the flow of information is indicative of social, economic, and mental states within the individuals and their communities in a similar way that different kinds of blood tests can tell a lot about a person's biological and medical status.

The study will also focus on earlier paradigm changes when it comes to the supply of information, and I will try to extrapolate into the future. Especially the topos  of knowledge will be investigated, e.g. where can knowledge be stored? - in our brains or on computer disks and bookshelves?

Man is the measure of all things, a classic epistemological dilemma, but perhaps one of the results of the new technologies, especially within artificial intelligence, will be that we will finally be able to get at least an evading glimpse of what it is like to view humankind from the outside.

Early artificial intelligence: To the left, the 64 hexagrams of the Chinese ”I Ching” (constructed appr. 2,500 years ago - if you speak Swedish, you may read more here), to the right the system of concentric circles used by Ramon Llull (13th Cent.)

A good point of departure - or rather a veritable point zero - for this project is Gorgias (483-378 B.C.) and his theses about the possibility to perceive, know and communicate:

(1) Nothing exists;
(2) If anything existed, it could not be known;
(3) If anything did exist, and could be known, it could not be communicated.

Gorgias was called the Nihilist, and his conclusions may be considered almost comically gloomy. I will, however, defy point 3 and try to write a book ...

Karl-Erik Tallmo
e-mail: tallmo@nisus.se

 Predictions of the furure. The movie ”Back to the Future” was released in 1985. About the same time we indeed returned to a belief in the future, a reborn techno-optimism spread around more and more, for the first time since the 50's. In the 50's we predicted the existence of beef pills and rolling sidewalks - and the waterproof sofa, which could be cleaned with a hose. This idea might never be realized ...

... but maybe this fantasy will. Here knowledge is instantaneously implanted into the brain from an outside source. This comic strip was drawn by Tony Strobl ( in Sweden it was published in 1960). The balloon texts read ”Imagine! In 5 minutes we will be geniuses!” ”Yeah, that machine crams tons of wisdom into your heads!”
(© Walt Disney Prod.)

A hundred years before e-mail. Pneumatic dispatch in Boston around 1890. This was one of the first attempts to combine pneumatics with electricity. The Bostonians also had plans to send whole mail bags. The oldest plan for a pneumatic mail system was made by Denis Papin in 1667. All the great cities of the world had their more or less experimental systems going in the late 1800s. Especially Berlin was famous for its Stadtrohrpost reaching out to the suburbs and totalling a tube length of 158 km. In America there were tube systems, made by Batcheller, in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, S:t Louis, and Chicago. At the time of the first world war, Swedish encyclopedia "Nordisk Familjebok" estimated the total length of post tubes in the world to appr. 4,000 km.

Norbert Wiener's seminal book "Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine" from 1948. What is information, and when does it communicate anything? Does it really communicate anything if we can't be sure the transmission is correct? Claude Shannon had said that "the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point". Wiener coined the term for control theory, cybernetics, deriving it from the greek word kybernétes, meaning "steersman". He emphasized the need for feed-back, from some monitoring device to the controller. This feed-back must not be either too slow or too fast, the timing is crucial. The spread shows some integrals from the chapter on time series.

"The newspaper of the future is printed via radio." From Swedish popular technics magazine "Teknik för Alla", issue no 5, March 29th, 1940. The caption says this is from the premiere of the world's first regular transmission of radio printed news, arranged by the American newspaper St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It takes around 15 minutes to transmit one normal-sized newspaper page. The machine contains a roll of printing paper and a carbon paper which runs over a rotating metal cylinder, equipped with a writing stylus. The original Swedish caption also says: "Att apparater av det här beskrivna slaget i en nära framtid komma att fullständigt; revolutionera hela nyhetsförmedlingen och därmed radikalt omforma tidningspressens karaktär och existensmöjligheter, kan numera betraktas såsom en given sak. Snabbast möjliga befordran av nyheter har under långliga tider varit tidningarnes förnämsta uppgift. Men det kan icke förnekas att detta behov numera kan bättre fyllas av radion, som också i växande grad övertager uppgiften. Pressens plats som nyhetsförmedlare hotas visserligen härigenom, men därmed är pressens roll ingalunda utspelad. Snarare kan man säga att tidningarna därmed återföras till den uppgift de fyllde under det fria ordets glanstid på 1800-talet: att kommentera och kritisera händelseförloppet och att utgöra språkrör för personliga uppfattningar och åsikter."

A few links of related content

My writings etc:

Knowledge-on-demand - can knowledge be switched on and off, and can it be stored outside of our heads?
The Debabelizing of the Internet - about automated translation, reading machines, etc.
About Jean Le Rond d’Alembert.
Svenska Nationalencyklopedin - kunskapsarv på CD-ROM (Swedish).
Copyright Alert - commentary on the World Intellectual Property Organisation's proposal for an addendum to the Berne Convention.
The electronic age - on the verge of total memory loss? - first article in a series of three about archival preservation problems.
The Electronic Word: An Epistemological Dilemma - lecture given at the Royal Library in Stockholm on December 15, 1997.
When Everyone Becomes a Publisher - lecture in Oslo, Norway, at the seminar ”Freedom of Speech and Censorship in a Global Perspective”, October 13th, 1997.
Konsten expanderar på Internet - och imploderar, from a lecture at the Valand University College of Art, Göteborg, 3 juni 1998 (Swedish)
The Personal Text Miner, an attempt to visualize the functions of a future reading tool, with possibilities to summarize and expand texts, analyze their content etc.

Other resources:

d’Alembert: Discours Préliminaire de l’Encyclopédie
On Knowledge (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771)
Nordisk Familjebok om kunskap - On knowledge from Swedish encyclopedia "Nordisk Familjebok", by L H Åberg, 1911 (Swedish)
The American Scholar (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The Salamander and the Parrot - apropos a Swedish Library Fire in Linköping, by Anders Andersson
Landskapslagarna - en spegling av medeltidens maktförhållanden. Article by Elsa Sjöholm (Swedish)
Hypereditioner av antik litteratur, by Mats Dahlström (Swedish)
På jakt efter den icke-linjära formen, by Åsa Harvard (Swedish)
From the Middle Ages to Multimedia, page about Ramon Llull by Thessa Lindof.
The Retro Future Archives

A few quotations for the road ...

Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, History

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, Circles

En tankes lik är ordet, som blev skrifvet.
Hvar är dess skönhet nu? - Hvad bitter ironi!
Dess jubel blev ett skratt, dess sorg ett skri.

Tor Hedberg, "Tanken", 1896

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from "The Rock" I

The radio and the telephone and the movies, that we know
may just be passing fancies, and in time may go
but oh, my dear, our love is here to stay

Ira Gershwin, Our Love Is Here To Stay

You're nothing but a shadow on a screen.

Debbie Reynolds to Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" (script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

How could they know just what this message means
The end of my hopes, the end of all my dreams

Herman's Hermits, "No Milk Today"

I have, by the way, a peculiar reading habit, developed in the recent years: I read only the right hand page of serious books. If it's a frivolous relaxing book, I read every word. But serious books I read on the right hand side only, because I have disovered enormous redundancy in any well-written book, and I find that by reading only the right hand page, this keeps me very wide awake, filling in the other page out of my own noodle.

Marshall McLuhan, CBC Television, July 20th 1967.

An den Dingen die unbegreifliche Basis der Realität, das, was sich mit der grössten Anstrengung nicht in Verstand auflösen lässt, sondern ewig im Grunde bleibt. Aus diesen Verstandlosen ist im eigentlichen Sinne der Verstand geboren.

Schelling, Aforismen zur Einleitung in die Naturfilosofi, 1806.

Imagine a medieval network of monasteries (and later, universities) as "nodes" of learning, text copying, cultural creation, and exchange of a wide variety of material, all using the universal language of Latin. Among monasteries, news traveled faster and more efficiently (when not disrupted by invasions) than we might imagine. This system of monasteries was the original Internet, albeit at fractional baud.

Rebecca E. Zorach, New Mediaeval Aesthetic - Learning from the Nerds of the Middle Ages

... that to turn the Books only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out."

The First Book of Common Prayer, 1549

Anybody with the time, literacy, and access fee can get together with just about any piece of specialized knowledge s/he may need. So, to that extent, the two-cultures quarrel can no longer be sustained. As a visit to any local library or magazine rack will easily confirm, there are now so many more than two cultures that the problem has really become how to find the time to read anything outside one's own specialty.

Thomas Pynchon, The New York Times Book Review, 28 October 1984

The world today is made, it is powered by science; and for any man to abdicate an interest in science is to walk with open eyes towards slavery.

J. Bronowski, The Creative Mind, lecture at MIT, February 26, 1953

The most stupid ideas can now in a moment be transferred into a thousand volumes and spread abroad.

Angelo Poliziano on the invention of printing, 15th Century.

(I would be grateful to anywone who could give me a more precise source for this quotation. Alan Moorehead mentioned it in The New Yorker 27 (February 24, 1951). Should anyone have a full citation, please contact me at tallmo@nisus.se!)

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