Tag Archives: Carolyn Marvin

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on phys.org announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,


Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at: www.readingancientschoolroom.com

There you have it.

Goats, spider silk, and silkworms

A few years ago (2008), I attended the Cascadia Nanotech Symposium organized by the now defunct, Nanotech BC (British Columbia, Canada) and heard Dr. Frank Ko speak. He is a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who leads the Advanced Fibrous Materials Laboratory and, in his talk, he mentioned that he had added spider genes to goats with the intention of easing the process of spinning goat’s milk thereby exploiting spider silk’s properties.

I’m never especially comfortable about mixing genes between species that, as far as I know, would never have occasion to mingle their genetic material together. It’s a little too close to ‘The Isle of Dr. Moreau’ (Victor Hugo’s novel which I have never read but have heard about). But there were people who had some similar concerns about electricity, which I take for granted, violating the natural order of things as per Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new. Consequently, I’m willing to think about it but not terribly happy to do it.

Getting back to spider silk and Dr. Ko’s work, he and others are very interested in exploiting the strength inherent in spider silk. Here’s a description of that strength from an article by David Zax on Fast Company,

Oftentimes, nature is better at building stuff than we are. Spider silk is an example. The tiny threads spun by our eight-legged friends has a tensile strength comparable to high-grade steel. If humans could harness the spider and turn it into a manufacturing agent, the industrial and commercial potentials could be immense. One problem, though: Spidey hasn’t been cooperating. Spiders just don’t spin the stuff in great quantities, and there is no commercially viable way of mass-producing spider silk.

In looking at Dr. Ko’s webpage I see that adding a spider gene to goats may have been his solution to the problem of producing more spider silk (and perhaps other issues as well),

An internationally recognized expert in 3-D complex fiber architecture for structural toughening of composites Professor Ko’s pioneering work on the development of continuous nanocomposite fibrils by co-electrospinning has provided a new pathway to connect nanomaterials to macrostructural design. With an objective to understand the structural basis for the outstanding combination of strength and toughness in spider silk Professor Ko has played a leading role in the study of nanocomposite fibrils from recombinant spider silk. It was demonstrated that 10X increase in strength and 5X increase in modulus were attainable with the addition of 1-3 weight % of carbon nanotube to the recombinant spider silk. Research has been extended to various filler geometry that include graphite nanoplatelet (GNP); nanoparticles such as nanodiamonds and various functional particles.

Zax’s article highlights a different approach to producing greater quantities of spider silk,

There is, however, already a silkworm industry, which yields most of the silk–less strong than the spider’s–that we’re familiar with. A few scientists got a bright idea: what if you could make the silkworm, which is already equipped for industry, spin spider silk?

Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. joined heads, and recently announced that they had succeeded in genetically engineering silkworms so that they produce artificial spider silks. Several biologists teamed up to splice certain DNA from spiders into the genomes of silkworms. The altered silkworms now spin cocoons that are a mixture of silkworm silk and spider silk. Though the tensile strength of the altered silk still falls well short of that of pure spider silk, it’s a step in the right direction.

I can certainly see benefits to this but I sometimes wonder if humans have enough humility and foresight as we embark on ever more subtle manipulations of life.

ETA October 29, 2010: If you are interested in the goat/spider issue, take a look at Andrew Manard’s October 27, 2010 posting on his 2020 Science blog. He’s running a poll on the question,

… why not take the gene responsible for making spider silk, and splice it into a goat [to produce more spider silk]?

Be sure to take a look at the comments, if you’re interested in the history of the technique, which apparently stretches back to the 1950s!

Interacting with stories and/or with data

A researcher, Ivo Swarties, at the University of Twente in The Netherlands is developing a means of allowing viewers to enter into a story (via avatar) and affect the plotline in what seems like a combination of what you’d see in 2nd Life and gaming. The project also brings to mind The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and its intelligent nanotechnology-enabled book along with Stephenson’s latest publishing project, Mongoliad (which I blogged about here).

The article about Swarties’ project on physorg.com by Rianne Wanders goes on to note,

The ‘Virtual Storyteller’, developed by Ivo Swartjes of the University of Twente, is a computer-controlled system that generates stories automatically. Soon it will be possible for you as a player to take on the role of a character and ‘step inside’ the story, which then unfolds on the basis of what you as a player do. In the gaming world there are already ‘branching storylines’ in which the gamer can influence the development of a story, but Swartjes’ new system goes a step further. [emphasis mine]The world of the story is populated with various virtual figures, each with their own emotions, plans and goals. ‘Rules’ drawn up in advance determine the characters’ behaviour, and the story comes about as the different characters interact.

There’s a video with the article if you want to see this project for yourself.

On another related front, Cliff Kuang profiles in an article (The Genius Behind Minority Report’s Interfaces Resurfaces, With Mind-blowing New Tech) on the Fast Company site describes a new human-computer interface. This story provides a contrast to the one about the ‘Virtual Storyteller’ because this time you don’t have to become an avatar to interact with the content. From the article,

It’s a cliche to say that Minority Report-style interfaces are just around the corner. But not when John Underkoffler [founder of Oblong Industries] is involved. As tech advistor on the film, he was the guy whose work actually inspired the interfaces that Tom Cruise used. The real-life system he’s been developing, called g-speak, is unbelievable.

Oblong hasn’t previously revealed most of the features you see in the later half of the video [available in the article’s web page or on YouTube], including the ability zoom in and fly through a virtual, 3-D image environment (6:30); the ability to navigate an SQL database in 3-D (8:40); the gestural wand that lets you manipulate and disassemble 3-D models (10:00); and the stunning movie-editing system, called Tamper (11:00).

Do go see the video. At one point, Underkoffler (who was speaking at the February 2010 TED) drags data from the big screen in front of him onto a table set up on the stage where he’s speaking.

Perhaps most shockingly (at least for me) was the information that this interface is already in use commercially (probably in a limited way).

These developments and many others suggest that the printed word’s primacy is seriously on the wane, something I first heard 20 years ago. Oftentimes when ideas about how technology will affect us are discussed, there’s a kind of hysterical reaction which is remarkably similar across at least two centuries. Dave Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog has a posting about the similarities between Twitter and 19th century diaries,

Lee Humphreys, a Cornell University communications professor, has reviewed several 18th and 19th century diaries as background to her ongoing work in classifying Twitter output (H/T Futurity). These were relatively small journals, necessitating short messages. And those messages bear a resemblance to the kinds of Twitter messages that focus on what people are doing (as opposed to the messages where people are reacting to things).

Dave goes on to recommend The Shock of the Old; Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton as an antidote to our general ignorance (from the book’s web page),

Edgerton offers a startling new and fresh way of thinking about the history of technology, radically revising our ideas about the interaction of technology and society in the past and in the present.

I’d also recommend Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new, where she discusses the introduction of telecommunications technology and includes the electric light with these then new technologies (telegraph and telephone). She includes cautionary commentary from the newspapers, magazines, and books of the day which is remarkably similar to what’s available in our contemporary media environment.

Adding a little more fuel is Stephen Hume in a June 12, 2010 article about Shakespeare for the Vancouver Sun who asks,

But is the Bard relevant in an age of atom bombs; a world of instant communication gratified by movies based on comic books, sex-saturated graphic novels, gory video games, the television soaps and the hip tsunami of fan fiction that swashes around the Internet?

[and answers]

So, the Bard may be stereotyped as the bane of high school students, symbol of snooty, barely comprehensible language, disparaged as sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, representative of an age in which men wore tights and silly codpieces to inflate their egos, but Shakespeare trumps his critics by remaining unassailably popular.

His plays have been performed on every continent in every major language. He’s been produced as classic opera in China; as traditional kabuki in Japan. He’s been enthusiastically embraced and sparked an artistic renaissance in South Asia. In St. Petersburg, Russia, there can be a dozen Shakespeare plays running simultaneously. Shakespeare festivals occur in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Portugal, Sweden and Turkey, to list but a few.

Yes to Pasco Phronesis, David Edgerton, Carolyn Marvin, and Stephen Hume, I agree that we have much  in common with our ancestors but there are also some profound and subtle differences not easily articulated.  I suspect that if time travel were possible and we could visit Shakespeare’s time we would find that the basic human experience doesn’t change that much but that we would be hardpressed to fit into that society as our ideas wouldn’t just be outlandish they would be unthinkable. I mean literally unthinkable.

As Walter Ong noted in his book, Orality and Literacy, the concept of a certain type of list is a product of literacy. Have you ever done that test where you pick out the item that doesn’t belong on the list? Try: hammer, saw, nails, tree. The correct answer anybody knows is tree since it’s not a tool. However, someone from oral culture would view the exclusion of the tree as crazy since you need both tools and  wood to build something and clearly the tree provides wood. (I’ll see if I can find the citation in Ong’s book as he provides research to prove his point.) A list is a particular way of organizing information and thinking about it.

Cloud project for London 2012 Olympics includes Umberto Eco?; University of Toronto researchers work on nano nose; Nano safety research centre in Scotland

Shades of the 19th century! One of the teams competing to build a 2012 Olympics tourist attraction for London’s east end has proposed digital clouds. According to the article (Digital cloud plan for city skies) by Jonathan Fildes, online here at BBC News,

The construction would include 120m- (400ft-) tall mesh towers and a series of interconnected plastic bubbles that can be used to display images and data.

The Cloud, as it is known, would also be used [as] an observation deck and park

The idea of displaying images and data on clouds isn’t entirely new,

… the prospect of illuminated messages on the slate of the heavens … most fascinated experts and layman. “Imagine the effect,” speculated the Electrical Review [Dec. 31, 1892], “if a million people saw in gigantic characters across the clouds such words as ‘BEWARE OF PROTECTION’ and “FREE TRADE LEADS TO H–L!”

(The passage is from Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new.) I’m not sure what protection refers to but the reference to free trade still feels fresh.

I always find technology connections to the past quite interesting as similar ideas pop up independently from time to time and I’d be willing to bet the 2012 cloud team has no idea that displaying messages on clouds had been proposed as far back as the 1890s.

The current project has some interesting twists. The team is proposing to fund it with micro-donations from millions of people. From the BBC article,

“It’s really about people coming together to raise the Cloud,” Carlo Ratti, one of the architects behind the design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told BBC News.

“We can build our Cloud with £5m or £50m. The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached.”

The size of the structure will evolve depending on the number of contributions, he said.

The cloud will not consume power from the city’s grid.

“Many tall towers have preceded this, but our achievement is the high degree of transparency, the minimal use of material and the vast volume created by the spheres,” said professor Joerg Schleich, the structural engineer behind the towers.

Professor Schleich was responsible for the Olympic Stadium in Munich as well as numerous lightweight towers built to the same design as the Cloud.

The structure would also be used to harvest all the energy it produces according to Professor Ratti.

“It would be a zero power cloud,” he said.

The team in addition to designers, scientists, and engineers includes Umberto Eco, a philosopher, semiotician, novelist, medievalist, and literary critic.

Yes, they have a writer on the team for a truly interdisciplinary approach. Or not. Eco may have lent his name to the project and not been an active participant. Still, I’m much encouraged by Eco’s participation (regardless of the amount or type) in this project as I think writers have, for the most part, been fusty and slow to engage with the changes we’re all experiencing.

At the University of Toronto (U of T), researchers are working on a project that they hope will be of interest to NASA ([US] National Aeronautics and Space Administration). From the news item on Azonano,

Thankfully, there is no failure to launch at U of T’s new electron beam nanolithography facility where researchers are already developing smaller-than-tiny award-winning devices to improve disease diagnoses and enhance technology that impacts fields as varied as space exploration, the environment, health care and information and media technologies.

One of these novel nano-devices, being developed by PhD student Muhammad Alam, is an optical nose that is capable of detecting multiple gases. Alam hopes it will be used by NASA one day.

Alam is working on a hydrogen sensor which can be used to detect the gas. Hydrogen is used in many industries and its use is rising so there is great interest in finding ways to handle it more safely and effectively. As for NASA, sometimes those rockets don’t get launched because they detect a hydrogen leak that didn’t actually happen. The U of T ‘nose’ promises to be more reliable than the current sensors in use.

Scotland is hosting one of the first nanomaterials research centres in the UK. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland officially launched the new centre today (Wednesday, November 11) at Edinburgh Napier’s Craighouse Campus.
She said: “Given the widespread use of nanomaterials in [a] variety of everyday products, it is essential for us to fully understand them and their potential impacts. This centre is one of the first in the UK to bring together nano-science research across human, environment, reproductive health and microbiology to ensure the safe and sustainable ongoing use of nanotechnology.”
Director of the Centre for Nano Safety, Professor Vicki Stone said: “Nanomaterials are used in a diverse range of products from medicines and water purifiers to make-up, food, paints, clothing and electronics. It is therefore essential that we fully understand their longterm impact. We are dedicated to understanding the ongoing health and environmental affects of their use and then helping shape future policy for their development. The launch of this new centre is a huge step forward in this important area of research.”

It’s hard to see these initiatives (I mentioned more in yesterday’s [Nov. 10, 2009] posting) in the UK and Europe and not contrast them harshly with the Canadian scene. There may be large scale public engagement, public awareness, safety initiatives, etc. for nanotechnology in Canada but nobody is giving out any information about it.

Nanotechnology, risk, science literacy and feelings; Canada’s Science and Technology Week 2009

The Swiss-based Innovation Society has waded into the discussion about nanoparticles and sunscreens  in the wake of the Friends of the Earth (FOE) report (mentioned here yesterday August 20, 2009).

They point out something I forgot. Despite disagreeing on the “risk  profile,” both the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and FOE advise that nanomaterials should be labelled so that consumers can make informed choices,  (I’m not sure if I’ve seen the phrase risk profile or if I just coined it but I hope it makes sense in this context.) You can read about the Innovation Society’s perspective in their media release on Nanowerk News where they also offer links to the society’s August 2009 newsletter. You have to register to receive it and the form is in German as is the page which houses the public portion of the August 2009 newsletter. So, I’m not sure what language the newsletter is written in although most of what I saw on their site is in English.

As this last week has featured a published study about two women workers who died due to nanoparticle exposure and the FOE report, I’ve been reminded of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School (mentioned here on this blog last week). One of the conclusions in the paper I read about nanotechnology and risk is that people will make judgments about emerging technologies quickly, with little information, and in line with their feelings (affect), and cultural values. In the experimental investigation they found that increasing scientific literacy (i.e. giving the respondents more factual information about nanotechnology) did nothing or very little to alter someone’s opinion once it was formed.

I can agree with this conclusion as far as it goes. I’ve observed the same process of adhering to an opinion despite any evidence to the contrary in myself and others. I noted yesterday that the FOE report did not mention the EWG findings which, in my opinion, damages their credibility and bears out the conclusions made by the team at the Cultural Cognition Project.

There is one thing which niggles at me. Technologies have emerged before, e.g. electricity. At the time, during the 19th century, it was highly contested (do take a look at Carolyn Marvin’s book, When Old Technologies were New) . Very inflammatory language was used; all kinds of “experts” emerged; scientists engaged in lots of public outreach; there were deaths and injuries; and there were predictions that life on earth would end.  Seems familiar, doesn’t it? Still, electricity has become ubiquitous for much of the world. If cultural values and feelings trump science literacy, how did electricity become ubiquitous?

The Cultural Cognition Project team seemed to suggest in their paper that once opinions have been formed they are largely intractable. If that’s so, regardless of which group’s narrative gains dominance wouldn’t the other group continue to resist? (Note: the Amish opted out from using electricity.) History tells us otherwise.

I am getting ready for my presentation at the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) so y9u may find that my posting schedule is interrupted. Happy weekend and here are a few final nuggets,

The Government of Canada, in the person of Rona Ambrose, Minister of Labour, has recognized Quantium Technologies (Edmonton, Alberta) for its innovation in the areas of “linking scientific research to commercialization, jobs and economic growth.” More can be found  in the media release on Nanowerk News.

Nanowerk News has also published a guide to the materials on their site, 10 things you should know about nanotechology. I highly recommend checking this out. Go here.

Canada’s 2009 Science and Technology Week will take place Oct. 16 – 25, 2009 (seems more like 10 days to me). You can check out the currently scheduled events (I’m sure this will be updated) for your province here,

There’s an interesting  story about the first copyright trial in 6th Century Ireland here on Techdirt.