Sunday, March 23, 2008

From Encyclopedia to E!

What if Donald J. Sobol had been born in 1824 instead of 1924? He quite possibly would have become a children's author. He possibly would have even written detective stories for children, as Poe is credited with inventing the genre about the time Sobol would have been entering adulthood. However, it is unlikely that Sobol would have attained the level of fame he attained by virtue of being born in the 20th Century, as he almost assuredly wouldn't have invented a character named "Encyclopedia Brown."

Not that encyclopedias didn't exist in the 19th Century. The concept of the encyclopedia dates back to ancient times, and the modern multi-volume encyclopedia can probably be traced to the 18th Century (according to Wikipedia anyway, that what passes for an encyclopedia nowadays). But it was the latter part of the 20th Century that saw the entry of the encyclopedia into the forefront of pop culture and public consciousness, with not only Sobol's creation of the aforementioned boy detective, but also the ubiquity of door-to-door salesmen hawking not just Britannica, but the likes of World Book, Grolier, and the unfortunately named Funk & Wagnalls.

I'm not sure it is entirely possible anymore, but I wish somebody would do a study in order to determine how much money was spent on encyclopedias in the 20th Century, along with an estimate of how much time was spent reading them, in order to determine a relative cost of utility. My guess is that for many households, the encyclopedia represented a rather poor utilitarian yield on investment. (As a side note, my mom once related a funny story about how she and my dad, as a young couple, were urged by an encyclopedia salesman to consider the cost of a set in light of the cost of a newspaper subscription. "And after all," the salesman argued, "you just throw the newspaper away." My dad was persuaded by this argument--not to buy the encyclopedia set, but to quit throwing away the newspaper, a practice he maintained for a couple of years.)

So encyclopedias weren't even an entertainment option in a world where most households had four channels, no computer, and no video games. But then again, they weren't intended for entertainment. They were first published under the assumption that they could help create scholars. But I think the presence of encyclopedias had the opposite effect of inspiring scholarship. They were looked to as oracles, or as arbiters to settle ontological disputes. Instead of serving as a launching point for further study (the "see also" sections weren't quite as efficient as the hyperlinks we have today), the encyclopedia closed off discussion. And that, I think, is what made them so powerful as a consumer product. People could buy, not necessarily knowledge, but assurance of knowledge.

But why was assurance of knowledge suddenly such an important commodity? Perhaps it was a vague collective reaction to the awareness that we were entering what I termed in my last entry as the "Archival Era." A physical record of the sum total of human existence was a tonic to the anxiety inspired by the possibility that this total was more or less summed up.

So what then should we make of the decline of the encyclopedia? On one hand, the popularity of Wikipedia, and the sheer unlikeliness of its success as a social experiment, argues that although the previous medium of the encyclopedia is obsolete, the mechanism that drove its popularity is still very much alive (in the same way that the popularity of modern e-mail is a retroactive validation of the decision to launch the Pony Express). On the other hand, I think the death of the physical encyclopedia is also indicative of a society coming to terms with what it means to be in the Archival Era.

Now, rather than presume that any one entity can contain the vast wealth of human experience, we are more comfortable assuming that this wealth is diffused. And our comfort is allowing us to synthesize our knowledge in ways that were heretofore impossible. For example, the "Top Ten List" is a particular invention of the Archival Era. While this particular concept is synonymous with a certain late night talk show host, in fact it is now a commonplace in our culture. The countdown shows that seemingly comprise half the programming on cable television is another example of this phenomenon. Rather than construct behemothic books, we are now content to serve up trivial tidbits. This approach to disseminating information is mocked by some as ADD-pandering, and it might very well be. But despite that, could it be a fair and even desirable way to package information? I'm sure that the execs at E! aren't thinking of postmodern theories about the necessity of "deconstructing grand narratives" as they gleefully deconstruct the grand narratives constructed by the original authors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but their ignorance might actually lend validity to such theories.

Donald J. Sobol should be glad he was born in 1924 instead of 2024.


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