Commonplacing: an extension of memory

POSTED: March 17, 2009

What follow are notes from a talk I gave at a conference called Digital Memories, in Salzburg, on March 17, 2009


I live in Finland where cultural life has taken interestingly different turns from those taken by the Anglo-Saxon cultures. Some aspects of cultural life still flourish in Finland when they have died in England and America. Personal diaries are still bought and kept.

My partner’s mother has kept a diary for seventy years, and she still has all of the volumes available to her on a shelf in her apartment. My partner has followed the same pattern, and she has kept a diary since she was eight or nine. Both of them regularly reread their diaries, but they also use them in specific ways that I shall return to in a moment.

The process of keeping a diary, and referring back to it, is something that used to be very common. In fact, from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century one of the marks of a civilised person was the commonplace book that they kept.

Somehow, though, the whole idea of commonplace books has slipped from public memory.


In his book Commonplacing in the Spiritual Traditions Norman Elliott Anderson says:

Commonplacing is the practice of entering literary excerpts and personal comments into a private journal, that is, into a commonplace book or, to use a 17th century synonym, a silva rerum (“a forest of things”). Typically the excerpts were regarded as exceptionally insightful or beautiful or as applicable to a variety of situations, and so as such they are often especially quotable. . . . The practice of commonplacing can be traced back in the European tradition to the 5th century B.C.E. and the Sophist, Protagoras.

Historically commonplacing has played an important role in education, and it has served as a vital tool of erudition.

In Schools in Tudor England, Craig R. Thompson says:

Boys … had to keep notebooks or commonplace books in which to record, and then learn, idioms, quotations, or figures useful in composition or declamation. Not a little of that wide learning and impressive range of quotation adorning Elizabethan literature comes from these commonplace books.

In The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, Samuel Eliot Morison says:

Students with literary tastes, in days when books were hard to come by, kept ‘commonplace’ or notebooks into which they copied out verses or prose extracts that particularly appealed to them.

Wikipedia says:

Commonplace books emerged in the 15th century with the availability of cheap paper for writing, mainly in England.

By the 1600s, commonplacing had become a recognized practice that was formally taught to college students in such institutions as Oxford. The commonplace tradition in which Francis Bacon and John Milton were educated had its roots in the pedagogy of classical rhetoric, and “commonplacing” persisted as a popular study technique until the early twentieth century. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were taught to keep commonplace books at Harvard University (their commonplace books survive in published form). Commonplacing was particularly attractive to authors.

Some, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mark Twain, kept messy reading notes that were intermixed with other quite various material; others, such as Thomas Hardy, followed a more formal reading-notes method that mirrored the original Renaissance practice more closely. The older, “clearinghouse” function of the commonplace book, to condense and centralize useful and even “model” ideas and expressions, became less popular over time.

From the standpoint of the psychology of authorship, it is noteworthy that keeping notebooks is in itself a kind of tradition among literateurs. A commonplace book of literary memoranda may serve as a symbol to the keeper, therefore, of the person’s literary identity (or something psychologically not far-removed), quite apart from its obvious value as a written record. That commonplace books (and other personal note-books) can enjoy this special status is supported by the fact that authors frequently treat their notebooks as quasi-works, giving them elaborate titles, compiling them neatly from rough notes, recompiling still neater revisions of them later, and preserving them with a special devotion and care that seems out of proportion to their apparent function as working materials.

Psychology and Theology

Gestalt therapy suggests that this process of regular reworking of memory and history produces a radically different sense of self. Commonplacing is a process of continual reintegration. This is useful, and its use would be recognised by people from Perls, and Eric Berne, to Osho and Krishnamurti, all of whom regard the disintegration of personality as a major cause of ennui and alienation.

The Cambridge theologian Don Cuppitt would go further. In Is Nothing Sacred? he argues that with postmodernism we have finally realised that the world is outsideless and exists only for us. In a world in which we accept that the god we worship is also the god that the culture in which we swim has itself invented, there is an overriding need to engage in personal pattern-making in order to structure ourselves to combat the void.

We are, in effect, what we remember ourselves as being.

We stopped remembering when education was industrialised. Frederick Taylor laid down the four underlying principles of this approach in his 1911 book Principles of Scientific Management where he stated that

In 1962, the historian Raymond Callahan wrote an account of how scientific management has affected education, called Education & the Cult of Efficiency. Much of his book recounts the influence of Taylor’s ideas on educational administration — everything from how to make better use of buildings and classroom space to how to standardize the work of janitors. Other aspects of scientific management in education treated students like workers. “The ability to add at a speed of 65 combinations per minute, with an accuracy of 94 percent,” wrote one reformer, “is as definite a specification as can be set up for any aspect of the work of the steel plant” (John Franklin Bobbitt quoted in Callahan, 1962: 81). Another line of reforms required teachers to document their teaching activities in order to minimize “waste.” …

The best example of Frederick Taylor’s ideas at work in education today are high-stakes standardized tests — tests which have a significant effect on funding for schools and the careers of individual students.

It was the growing acceptance that schools were a site of industry, and that pupils were raw material to be reshaped according to the short but complete instructions from the planning room that led to the dismissal of self-education, based on the performative remaking of memory.

The chronofile

Buckminster Fuller provides a demonstration of this process in action.

Although he never indicated that he knew anything of the commonplace book in 1917, he decided that he was “determined to make myself the guinea pig in a lifelong research project”, and that he would document every aspect of his life as part of that project. He named the expanded diary and journal he created for this purpose the chronofile. It was, in fact, a commonplace book intended to be used in a much more rigorous way.

Not only did he use the chronofile to capture the minutiae of his life, he used to subject its contents to regular, detailed analysis, and use these analyses as the basis of future action. All of this is explained at length in an article entitled Bucky, that was originally published in Marshall McLuhan’s magazine Explorations, and later reprinted in The Buckminster Fuller Reader as Buckminster Fuller Chronofile. He wrote that

The Chronofile consists so far of 250 volumes (half of them now bound in leather) containing (circa) eighty thousand letters, ie 300 to 400 pages per volume.

The first important regenerative effect upon me of keeping this active chronological record was that I learned to ’see myself’ as others might see me. Secondly, it persuaded me ten years after its inception to start my life as nearly ‘anew’ as it is humanly possible to do. Thirdly, it persuaded me to dedicate my life to others not myself, not on an altruistic basis but because the chronofiled last thirty-two years of my life clearly demonstrated that I was positively effective in producing wealth only when I was dedicated to others. Further chronofile observation then showed that the larger the number for whoom I worked the more positively effective I became. Thus it became obvious through the chronofile that if I worked for all humanity I would be optimally effective.

Fuller thus extends the traditional role of the commonplace book from recording data that passes in front of him (striking passages he has read, quotations from speeches he has heard, sketches of buildings he has admired) to include the recording of almost every aspect of his life, including reports of his appearances in the conversations of others:

I also keep a record of hearsay items published about my work and reported to me as having occurred over and above the items which I have actually received and entered into the record. There is a fairly constant percentage in the average of uncollected but reported items as ratioed to collected items. Reliable reports of the existence of uncollected items average twenty five per cent of the number of items collected.

It is from analyses such as these that he was able to form hypotheses about general social or economic trends, which he could then explore further. The chronofile enabled him to use his own life as part of his research laboratory, and thus everything he did, from taking a tram to attending a movie, provided data that would have a later educational value.

Blogs and wikis

Storage is at the heart of digital technology, and almost unlimted storage capacity is a defining feature. We can therefore reinstitute commonplacing.

The memi

In The Little Book on Living, Krishnamurti asked: “Why do you want to read others´ books when there is the book of yourself?” The memi can be seen as a way of rendering the book of yourself tangibly so that it can be studied whenever it is needed with a view to finding patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed and learning lessons that be otherwise be unavailable.

I have thus defined the memi as

a portable, personal, lifelong dataspace, under the control of its user, and capable of publishing to, and subscribing to, a range of networks simultaneously. At its simplest it can be seen as a combination of a diary, address book, aide memoire, personal library, expense sheet, notepad, and portfolio. Everything you might want to remember, or be reminded of, or reuse, can be found in one place, where it can be searched, sorted, linked and cross-referenced.

The memi is intended to store a lifetime’s worth of data, from birth to death. It is not an “official” document, maintaining a log of data that has been taken from you. Rather it s a personal record of whatever data that you wish to keep for later use: data you may choose to share or not share, in a spirit of radical transparency .

It draws from two separate cultural and technical thought experiments.

Vannevar Bush first proposed the idea of the memex in 1945 in an article in Atlantic Monthly. In this he grappled with the concept of living in a world of limitless access to knowledge. He prophesied a personal learning tool, and the descriptions he created of this tool lay behind my initial thinking about the memi. (In fact the very name memi is a convoluted homage to the memex.)

Ted Nelson proposed Project Xanadu, which was designed to link, and make available, all world knowledge. Importantly the aim of this was not interactivity, but participation.

In 1965, he presented a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery in which he first proposed the idea of hypertext, and first used the term. In many ways his ideas were similar to Bush’s with the important difference that his concern was not with the machine itself but with the information: the ways in which it needed to be packaged and addressed to make intuitive links between items possible.

He began by envisaging something similar to a word processor that would allow different versions and documents to be linked together nonlinearly, by association. From there he developed the idea of a global network of linked data, available worldwide, which he dubbed Project Xanadu. In 1967 he formally launched this, and although many people claim that the project has delivered nothing since, although it continues to exist, this is not true. The Transliterature open standard has been published and the first viewer for such documents is also now available.

In September 2007, Nelson and Robert Adamson Smith gave a plenary talk, Back to the Future, at HT07. The abstract makes clear that his current position has not retrenched despite the popularity of the web: “Others imitate paper (Word, Acrobat) and the constant 3D world we live in (’Virtual Reality’). Our system instead tries to create documents better than paper in a space better than reality.”

His initial ideas, which he has developed but never backed away from, are collected in the 1974 book Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Here he wrote that
paper media, whatever their disadvantages, have at least been compatible; you could store the books, magazines and notes on the same shelf, compare them on the same desktop. Not for the new media, whether electronic or optical or magnetic or computerised. Each one needs a separate device. You cannot presently make margin notes on a video tape. I say it will all have to come together again. We need a presentational and archival medium that can be as standard as paper, to reunify the present mess of separately beautiful and mutually unintelligible forms of storage, presentation and annotation. The hope may be a shared-standard data structure.

His concerns here are more cultural political than technical. He is concerned with the users’ abilities to derive meaning from the data at their disposal. He worries over the need to use technology to further autonomy, in the service of cultural democracy.

Interactivity vs participation

It may be useful here to draw a distinction between interactivity and participation, I will do this by quoting Henry Jenkins, writing in Convergence Culture.

Interactivity refers to the ways that new technologies have been designed to be more responsive to consumer feedback. One can imagine differing degrees of interactivity enabled by different communications technologies, ranging from television, which only allows us to change the channel, to video games that can allow consumers to act upon the represented world…. The constraints of interactivity are technological. In almost every case, what you can do in an interactive environment is prestructured by the designer.

Participation, on the other hand, is shaped by cultural and social protocols. So, for example, the amount of conversation permitted in a movie theater is determined more by the tolerances of audiences in different subcultures or national contexts than by any innate property of cinema itself. Participation is more open-ended, less under the control of media producers and more under the control of media consumers.


We can view the memi as an extension of memory, in the sense that Marshall McLuhan meant.

Viewing it in this way, we might ask ourselves: is this bad? We might remember that in Phaedrus, Socrates wrote that

The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth… They will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.

Was he right? Is this bad?