Twitter and the Book of Kells: A Speculation

On May 12, 2010, I attended the San Francisco manifestation of Carl Malamud’s road show on legal information. Carl has criss-crossed the United States putting on programs about government information in general, and legal information in particular. The San Francisco/ Berkeley version of the program included luminaries from the world of information, law, librarians and information cowboys. If you want to see my bit, here is a link.

Questions like, “How can we organize a movement to determine exactly what types of information states already make available digitally?” sat side by side with questions like, “Can I get Twitter updates when a relevant case comes down?” The day ranged from cutting edge to old fashioned bibliographic planning. It was quite impressive. 

Almost a month later, on June 8, I visited Newgrange, a passage tomb mound in County Meath, Ireland. Five thousand years ago, the Celts erected this huge edifice, with a 60-foot stone tunnel leading to a cruciform vaulted chamber. The opening above the main entrance to the passage allows the rising sun to light first the passage, and then the central chamber, at dawn on the day of the winter solstice each year. The Celts had only stone tools; and did not possess the wheel. But they moved stones weighing more than 20 tons dozens of miles to the site. They also somehow calculated the correct angle to catch the winter solstice. The Celts had no written language, though there are symbols carved throughout Newgrange. No one knows what they mean. It was quite impressive.

Falling so close together, these two events created an information mash-up in my mind. Gutenberg figured out how to use movable type on a printing press over five hundred years ago. The technology of paper, book making, indexing, abstracting and libraries followed on, and before Gutenberg we had manuscripts and scrolls. The Chinese were ahead of the West on this point, but not by that much. In increments, our information worlds changed completely.

The movement to digital information has caused us to recreate the use of writing using new tools. But will the written word be the stopping point, or is it like the carvings at Newgrange — a means of communication that will be replaced and seem quaint in the 22nd Century? Will our great monuments of information in the form of written communication amaze and puzzle future scholars? And what about social networking with its use of images, video links and ever-changing format — are they the beginnings of a new form of communication? Is our relationship with text changing? It has changed before. 

Peter Tiersma has written a fine article about textualism and the law. “The Textualization of Precedent,” 82 Notre Dame Law Review 1189 (2007). He follows the movement from the oral to the written tradition in the law. Will there be another step? A precious few scholars read judicial opinions from first word to last; and apparently no one is reading law review articles any longer. Google is taking us to a world of arrayed retrieval of snippets of information. Is the narrative form best suited as a medium for conveying information? Will we retain the written word but morph its usage into the text message abbreviations into a new patois?

Perhaps the Irish countryside and the lore of the Celtic peoples have addled my already questionable brain, but maybe we are at the endgame of print, and of print as expressed in digital form. Not that it will all change in the next year, or even the next fifty years. But 5,000 years from now? I wonder if the tourists will have reason to speculate. 


  1. Thought provoking article! You remind me of an English professor I had in university during my first degree, exploring (textploring?) language and how we use it. Quite often, how we state soemthing is as significant as what we are stating. In my brief life, I have witnessed a dramatic shift of formal to informal use of language, heavily reflecting the digital age. Our recorded voices are as you said mere snippets now. I’m still shaking my head at the Library of Congress in the US recording Tweets. I look forward to experiencing some answers to some of your questions.