The image above is of the original manuscript copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Fire Sermon, part of his epic work The Wasteland. On it are marked editorial annotations, primarily those of his brilliant collaborator Ezra Pound, no mean poet in his own right. Although the onomatopoeic bird song at the start of the passage is left intact, the large passage crossed out in the middle, marked “B–ll–s” by Pound, never made it into the final edition. Neither did the words marked for excision by Pound, the clumsy and pretentious “I have seen and see” and the inappropriate “your” in the subsequent line. And Pound constantly critisizes Eliot’s use of wimpy qualifiers, writing after the line that includes the word ‘perhaps’, “dam per’apsey”. There is no ‘perhaps’ in the final version. Eliot’s wife also suggests the word ‘demotic’ instead of ‘abominable’ to describe Mr. Eugenides’ French. The shorter word also fits better with the metre of the line, and appears in the published version. So what survives of this page is:

Twit twit twit 
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea...

I can only sigh, and hope that one day I will find an editor as kind and ruthless as Pound was to Eliot. But suppose I did? How would this saviour of dense and ponderous prose work his or her magic on my etherial text, never once committed to paper for the editor’s surgery (Pound was fond of editing in green crayon)?

Malcolm Gladwell, he of the brilliant Tipping Point and expose of Olympic Sins, wrote a New Yorker article last year called The Social Life of Paper. In it, he argues that at present there is no replacement for paper, because paper offers several “affordances” that other media that capture words do not have:

  • spacial flexibility: easy to move around, sort, organize and prioritize in a tangible, physical, humanly ideosyncratic way, even before the author/user has decided if/how to categorize it (so it can be filed)
  • tailorability: easy to annotate in multiple, personal ways, without inexorably defacing the original, thus suiting itself to collaborative effort
  • browsability: easy to skip ahead, and back and forth to study two or more sections or passages in parallel

Gladwell defends the apparent mess of knowledge workers’ desktops, insisting that filing of the mounds of stuff on our desktops is inefficient, premature, and logically impossible. He damns filng cabinets (invented by the same Dewey who invented the library indexing system) as, at best, the final resting place for documents that are unlikely thereafter ever to see the light of day again. These stacks of paper are, he says, ‘contextual clues to unresolved ideas’. And the documents themselves, with earmarks, annotations, marginalia and ungainly attachments, are not knowledge themselves but rather support for the knowledge that resides in people’s heads, and hence any digitization that changes the organization of this ‘support material’ inevitably lessens, rather than increases its value.

‘The mark of the contemporary office is not the file’, writes Gladwell, ‘it’s the pile.’ The three-dimensional, multivariate physical desktop, with all its flexibility of arrangement, allows for ‘situational awareness’ that the misnamed ‘electronic desktop’ simply cannot replicate.

So, herewith, a challenge to software developers. Throw away all the preconceptions and Microsoft standards about how the computer should organize and display information and documents. Start with, dare I say,  a clean desktop, and invent new virtual surrogates for the physical desktop, and for the physical document, that replicate as closely as possible their ‘user experiences’ and convey their advantages: spacial flexibility, tailorability, browsability, and capacity for situational awareness. Gladwell’s right, but I don’t want to be tied to my desk, I want to carry it in my briefcase, and save some trees in the process.  And make it so instinctively obvious that we don’t need ‘user training’ to use it.

It’s time to obsolesce Dewey, desktops and paper. Surely there are some creative minds out there that are up to the task? My future editor thanks you in advance, as do I.

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  1. So do we place paper in the dustbin of history along with cunieform tablets? The electons that now store our information, thoughts, ideas, and creations are eternal but only so long as we can maintain the infrastructure that imposes our will on their organization.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    I think there will always be paper, it’s just that in future it will be erasable. As for the organization of electrons (I presume you meant that, rather than elections, an interestingly ambiguous typo), I am comfortable that we can bend them to our will as reliably as we manufacture from the strange mulch of fibre and bleach what we call ‘paper’, which has also been known to decompose perilously quickly.

  3. Darn “r” key sometimes it misses and I don’t proofread my post before hitting send. But yes our elections have much to do with history don’t they… Soon our elections will be electrons too, I fear without a proper audit trail (paper?) those electrons will be bent against our will if they haven’t been already…. great responsibilities and challenges lie ahead.

  4. Seb says:

    This story from a while back by Stephen Dulaney collects a number of observations on practical KM in the real world -

  5. language hat says:

    Great idea. I have no idea how to go about it, being barely computer-literate, but I am a Pound fan, and I’m pretty sure what he’s writing there is “per’apsez” (ie, “perhapses”) rather than “per’apsey.”

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Seb: Can’t get the link to work. Could you please re-send?language hat: I know better than to debate with you on this — I’m sure you’re right, though Valerie Eliot says it’s “per’apsey”. And calling yourself barely computer literate is surely the height of false modesty — I would wager you would have some excellent ideas on how to design this. What does your physical desktop look like?

  7. It’s the dash at the start that’s the problem–it makes it look like a local URL. This should work:

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, William. And thanks Séb, this is a great article. Wonder why I’ve never encountered Dulaney’s blog before, since his blogroll overlaps so much with mine.

  9. M. Mortazavi says:

    Dave. Thank you for your comment and link to this very nice material here. I enjoyed reading it. There’s not much editing that’s necessary. My only point is that I’m not sure if your wish at the end of your essay can be granted unless we create a physical environment in which we can use all of our limbs. Computers are notoriously bad at this sort of thing.Now, to the main topic.Paper is another form of technology. (At least that’s what I’m going to say in a blog that I’m now putting together in my head.)We just miss that (technology) aspect of paper. Paper is technology because it helps us accomplish certain things in certain ways. It’s a more suitable technology because somehow our physical being, i.e. our hands, eyes, movements, etc., are one with our minds. The Mind in the Body comes to mind. I think Dreyfus has solved the problem it its essence: It is simply insoluable. Whatever we do, each thing has its own essential being that cannot be replaced by some surrogate. (I touched on the unity of mind and body here.)

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