Steven Johnson on The Internet as a Commonplace Book, and The Future of Text

What happens to words when they migrate from the page to the screen? For an insightful discussion on the topic, I would recommend one of my favorite pieces from the last few years: Steven Johnson, “The Glassbox and the Commonplace Book.”

Steven opens his case with the metaphor of the commonplace book

“commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing.”

In many ways, we might do well in thinking of online text — in all of its forms — as having less of a self-contained existence as it does a fragmented origin; the end result of a culling-together of a constellation of sources from here and there, stitched together to create a new sense of meaning and form. The information we find online, on Google, etc., is to us now what the commonplace book was for 17th learners and readers (see image, left).

And more to the point, the beauty of the commonplace book depended upon the copying of text from one source to another:

“But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape”

We take copy and place for granted because of its ubiquity. But, at its core, copy and paste is the movement of text, of information, from one place to another. It’s the conspicuous absence of it that Steven finds most troubling as a potential long-term trend. For example: apps.

“They’re frozen there, uncopyable, unlinkable, like some beautiful ice sculpture … [Apps] have a lot of elements that I like. It’s precisely the skill and care with which they have been built that scares me, because that makes the frozen nature of the text seem more like a feature than a bug, something they’ve deliberated chosen, rather than a flaw that they didn’t have time to correct.”

So what?, you’ll wonder. But if information can be thought of as existing in a kind of ecosystem, then a productive ecosystem means information that goes somewhere, and does something —

“By creating fluid networks of words, by creating those digital-age commonplaces, we increase the textual productivity of the system. The overall increase in textual productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years.”

And that kind of movement in theory is good for everyone in the long run: “A single piece of information designed to flow through the entire ecosystem of news will create more value than a piece of information sealed up in a glass box.”

As we think about the ways in which our relation to words has changed as a result of the movement from print to digital, “The Glass Box and the Commonplace Book” is an excellent point for discussion and further thinking. It is hard to sum up better than Steven has already put it: “When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created.”


Surprise me


I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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