Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara


Interfacing with Writing:

Clubs and Systems in Eighteenth-Century Print Culture


Clifford Siskin

English, University of Glasgow

(all rights reserved)



If we want to change our interfaces, we better change the tales we tell about them.  At present, interface tales do not constitute a terribly diverse or diverting genre; the limited storylines only serve to confine our sense of what interfaces are and how they’re made.  We all know, for example, the story of little Stevie Jobs who stalked into the park one day, stole the seeds from the lazy giant, and grew a Macintosh. Stanford’s Interface Project website gives us the longer version.  The giant Xerox had, in fact, itself copied the desktop seeds—including overlapping windows and mice—from Doug Engelbart’s SRI work for the Air Force in the early 1960s.  Instead of asking the biz school exam favorite—why the giant waited around for Jobs to grab and grow the seed—the Interface Project turns the same concern into what they call the “big question”: why did it take over two decades for Engelbart’s work to be realized?

The Project website features many links to interviews and essays speculating as to why it took so long, but I can give the answer in one just one click: it didn’t.  It didn’t take that long because it still hasn’t happened: Engelbart’s main work hasn’t been realized.  For him, the central goal was “augmentation” of what he called the “human system”; Xerox and Jobs appropriated some of the features of that system, but to a very different end.  Taking as their target users not human systems but office workers—defined as those interested more in tasks than technology—they shifted the interface agenda to “invisibility.”  Under the mantra of “ease of use,” the technology had to disappear.  Augmentation gave way to accommodation.

That’s a tale that I’ve told—but not about computing.  My area of expertise is the long eighteenth century, when the new technology was what Raymond Williams called “writing”—his shorthand for the interrelated practices of reading, writing, and print.  During that century, I’ve argued, writing veered from being experienced as a prescriptive and thus threatening technology to the domesticated and thus safe tool of Literature.  To turn to that history is to expand the repertoire of the interface tale to suggest that it’s more than just a boys’ tale, a series of heroic vignettes about individual entrepreneurship in particular and human agency in general, and more than just a Whig history about ease of use.  In juxtaposing the old and the new—as I’m about to do—I’m pointing not to a series of parallels (as writing goeth, so goeth computing), but to recurrent features of a genre—features out of which, I hope, other tales can be constructed.

The first two handouts provide an example of such a feature: [HANDOUTS] take a look at the protagonists of, on the one hand, Engelbart’s 1962 SRI report on Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Approach, and, on the other, An Account of the Fair Intellectual-Club of Edinburgh, 1719. Neither representation looks very human—no conventional faces here—but that’s because they’re both meant to enact the volatility of the category: the place where forms of technology and human processes meet to transform each other into something other.  Both the diagram and the titlepage are mixed forms that communicate both through design—shapes and lines and fonts—and through words, words that invoke a further multiplicity of forms: Engelbart’s H-LAM/T(Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained) and the eighteenth-century text’s combination of genres—account, letter, poetry—a combination that, as we shall see, serves not just to describe but to constitute the Fair Intellectuals.  Engelbart, as noted, insists that his protagonist is a “system” and, I will now argue, that’s precisely what the Club aspired to be.

Offered for sale in Edinburgh and London in 1720, the Account purports to be the first admission in print of the existence of a small secret society of women formed in 1717 in Edinburgh.  Betrayed by one of their own to a gentleman friend, the group felt compelled to protect itself against untoward speculations by clarifying its history and purpose.  In addition to the history of the formation of the group, the text includes a description of the “Rules and Constitutions” and transcriptions of talks given by two different members.  One of the most striking moments comes in rule XV which defines the conditions for terminating membership.  The two that are specifically named make for a particularly telling pair: you left the Club through either “Death” or “Marriage” (9).  These are young women-the age of admission was between 15 and 20--with only a brief window for intellectual activity before their “mutual Love and Friendship” for each other gave way to men or to some other deadening “occurrence” in the “Course of Providence.”  Not only is this-to my knowledge-one of the first, if not the first, club of this type on record at that time in Britain; the use of the term “intellectual” to describe the Club’s purpose was one of the earliest uses of that word in its particularly modern sense: as a word designating a very specific set of personal and social behaviors-behaviors to which these individuals aspired.

Their aspiration was transformation, and the technology they deployed was writing.  The Club’s explicit purpose was to rewrite its members-its Secretary, authoress of this account, emphasizes that the three founders all insisted on a “written scheme” (5); what they, in fact, wrote down was the imperative to write everything down: “All the Speeches, Poems, Pictures, &c. done by any Member . . . are carefully kept” (25).  Even the oral dimensions of Club behavior were grounded in writing: the “harangues” they delivered had to be “written” (8).

But why?  Why did these young women want to spend their brief moment of freedom between childhood and men immersed in writing?  To what end did they write?  What did they want out of writing?  What did they think writing could do? This is, of course, a strange set of questions for an academic to ask.  On the other hand, is there an academic who hasn’t posed similar ones to herself?  Perhaps it’s better, then, to remove all human selves from the formulation and opt for a Richard Dawkins-like reversal.  In his infamous “selfish gene” conceit, you may remember, human beings are the environment that genes render in order to survive; we are the means to their end.

So here’s the reformulation: why did the technology of writing gather humans into groups?  The answer, preposterous as it may first seem, was to propagate itself: this was writing’s way to ensure its own ongoing proliferation.  Why groups?  Because writing had to solve the same kind of reproductive problem faced by the most virulent of the rogue genes we call viruses: what to do when the host population becomes so bedridden that the virus has no means or place to go-when success, that is, threatens extinction—as with Ebola.  A human infected by the writing bug spends, as we all know, more and more time alone in chairs if not in bed, all forms of contact disrupted by the isolating experiences of immersion in a book or fixation on a blank sheet of paper.  For writing to spread-to circulate extensively and efficiently through entire populations-that tendency must be counteracted by new forms of sociability and publicity. In eighteenth-century Britain, the most obvious example was pornography; as the newly public form of private desire, it helped to incite that century’s rise of writing-a role that it appears to be reprising for the new technologies of the WEB.

A less obvious but more pervasive behavior was what David Kaufer and Kathleen Carley call “reverse vicariousness.”  They use the term to describe how infectious contact with writing was initially and then repeatedly secured-even over the spatial, temporal, and social distances that writing itself opened up (12--13).  “Even nonreaders,” they point out,

can positively register at social gatherings that they “know of” the book without actually having seen or read it first hand. We might call this phenomenon reverse vicariousness, because we normally think of immediate viewing or reading as vicarious experiences for face-to-face interaction. But, in this case, a viewer or reader uses face-to-face interaction to experience the viewer or reader role vicariously.  (66)

Writing, if you’ll indulge the “selfish gene” conceit a bit longer, puts us into new forms of face-to-face interaction in order to maximize its own circulation. The very technology that threatens to isolate us preserves itself by reinvoking the social through the workings of reverse vicariousness.  Thus the more saturated we are by writing, reading, and print, the higher the premium we put on an expanding repertoire of face-to-face encounters, from improvement clubs to tutorials to cocktail parties.

To see those forms as the invention of writing may seem a bit strange, but doing so allows us to demystify them, particularly the assumption that face-to-face interaction is “real life.”  The relationship between the real and any form of human interaction is always historical because it is always mediated through the dominant technology.  Starting in the eighteenth century, writing, through reverse vicariousness, valorized the face-to-face interface as “real”—a connection made so effectively that we remain deeply suspicious of anything else. It’s hard for us even today to accept the possibility that new forms of non-face-to-face sociability-through networks and on screens-may actually facilitate, in Sadie Plant’s words, “unprecedented levels of spontaneous affection, intimacy, and informality.”

Far from having a special relationship to the real, she contends, “face-to-face communication-the missionary position so beloved of Western man-is not at all the most direct of all possible ways to communicate” (143-144).  Scholarship on the so-called “public sphere” has certainly shared this predilection for the missionary.  Much of it is shot through with a nostalgia for the face-to-face that idealizes eighteenth-century social forms as lost models of democratic, civil society, forcing them to bear the suffocating weight of Habermasian desire.

     Whatever our own desires, if we wish to understand the Fair Intellectual-Club, it’s time to try a new position; as we shall see, what they saw when they were face-to-face was not each other’s faces, and their behavior was far from civil. By taking their lead and centering writing, we can also resist the siren calls of psychology that have seduced so many efforts at historical inquiry.  These women didn’t want to feel better; they wanted to be better.

The word they used was the same one that Engelbart uses again and again to explain his project: “improvement.” The Fair Intellectuals came together not just for individual improvement, but for the “Improvement of one another”-a concept repeated throughout the text.  The Club was their interface with the technology of writing for the purpose of improvement.  This mutual improvement was necessary, they argued, because of the “Disadvantages that our Sex in General . . . labour under, for want of an established Order and Method in our Conversation” (6). Pleasure was a secondary issue-an effect of the methodizing power of writing.  Thus the object that elicits the greatest pleasure in the Account is neither a text nor a painting nor a song, but the rewritten bodies of the Club members themselves:

You cannot imagine, Sir, the Joy we had when we found our selves conveened in the Character of Members of the Fair Intellectual-Club.  For my part I thought my soul should have leapt out of my mouth, when I saw nine Ladies, like the nine Muses, so advantagiously posed.  If ever I had a sensible Taste and Relish of true Pleasure in my Life, it was then.  (11)

This is augmentation: improvement through interfacing with a technology.  The women clearly understood writing to be the tool that transformed them—that gave to them the “Character of Members.”  But for us to understand how writing accomplished this feat, we need to be more specific, for writing can take other guises and do other kinds of work.  What kind of writing are we talking about here? What genre informs and contains all of the other genres of this written account and of the activities it describes, from letter to verse to scheme to constitution to harangue?

The formal feature that gives away the genre of the Fair Intellectual-Club is the one I’ve already cited: the insistence, in the very first sentence of its Rules and Constitutions, on “Order and Method.”  These are the keywords of system in the eighteenth century—not system as an idea but as a genre, the genre central to Enlightenment. Quoting Boyle’s preference-“I treat of the usefulness of writing books of essay, in comparison of that of writing systematically”-Samuel Johnson distinguished between systems and essays as the major forms of knowledge production, defining “system” as the “reduc[tion]” of “many things” into a “regular” and “uni[ted]” “combination” and “order, while an “essay” is a more fragmentary attempt-a “loose sally”-that subordinates method to the accumulation of things.

The method and order characteristic of system not only describe but configure all of the desirable behaviors articulated by the Club.   The Account itself is structured by them.  [HANDOUT]  Take a look at the third handout: this is one of the written faces of system in the eighteenth century.  The sketch of the Club’s history is a preface to the list of constitutional rules, and those rules clarify the need for and nature of the transcribed harangues that make up the rest of the Account: the inaugural speech by the first Speaker of the Club and an admissions address given by a new member.  The former, in its own words, is about the need for “Order and Regularity” (13); the latter is framed by the Secretary as an example of “Method” (25).

If we read them ahistorically-that is, without these generic features in mind-neither the speeches nor their frames seem particularly conducive to intellectual or sisterly harmony.  In fact, they come close to confounding them.  Far from encouraging reading and writing about the sister arts, “Mrs. Speaker,” as she’s called in the Account, spends most of her time warning against the dangers and hazards of such activity-the threat of disorder that they pose.  The Secretary’s written response after the transcription is, to say the least, surprisingly tart: “I leave you to judge, whether or not the Author of it deserv’d the Chair.”

The new member’s harangue is presented in a much more positive light, but it, too, has a surprising twist.  Asking from the start why she has been chosen, the initiate dismisses any explanation that has to do with content-her particular virtues or their opinions of them-and focuses instead on the structure of the “Occasion”: “Your Goodness and Charity have put you on a Method to try my Respect and Gratitude” (emphasis mine).

When I found An Account of the Fair Intellectual-Club, I expected a tale of aesthetic pleasures, intellectual freedom, sisterly goodwill, and, quite frankly, a good time, but what I found was order and method-an insistence on “Regulation” (5) that curbs pleasures, demarcates proper subjects, and invites criticism.  It’s tempting today to attribute those findings to individual psychology and politics or the disciplinary nature of Western institutions, but both of those explanations would miss a crucial historical point.  New technologies transform social relations; how they do so depends on the forms the technology assumes.  In the eighteenth century in Britain, writing, as I’ve been insisting, was the new technology and system was one of its hierarchically dominant forms.  Eighteenth-century clubs, I am arguing, were the social incarnations of the genre of system, sharing with that genre the informing features of method and order.

If that pairing seems strange to you, then just consider Kevin Kelley’s famous definition of “system”: a system is “anything that talks to itself”-a thermostat system, for example, has an endless conversation about whether to turn the furnace on or off.  But that is precisely what a club does; you join it because you want to be part of something that talks to itself. Just as the self-regulating power of a thermostat systematically optimizes the physical environment, so systematic interfacing in clubs optimizes the social; temperature is maintained in the former, while conversation is sustained in the latter. Improvement, as Engelbart puts it, is a “system-engineering problem,” one with comprehensive consequences: “the whole interface thing,” he observes, “can change the very language and the very structure and the very modes [in which] we portray our symbols and communicate and think.”

The Club was the Fair Intellectuals’ “thing” because it was where the need of the technology to propagate itself met the need of these women to change.  They turned to it with the “thought” that women “who excell a great many others in Birth and Fortune, should also be more eminent in Virtue and good Sense” (3).  One of the Club’s social functions was thus to provide the privileged with new markers of privilege at the moment that the old ones were losing their efficacy.  As established forms of identity eroded, these women took on a new character-the “character of Members.”

Our “thing” today is, of course, in many ways different, but there’s also a historical link: we also belong.  All of us, that is, are members or products of the disciplinary departments that emerged from the methodizing intellectual clubs of the eighteenth century.  Although many of us come to conferences like this to escape those aging groupings, I think it still behooves us to listen to the Voice of the Club.  Its tale of interfacing offers features that may enhance our own efforts at the genre:

·        First, the transformation of the Fair Intellectuals, as a pattern for the many powerful transformations of Enlightenment, arose not by suiting the technology to the user—making humans comfortable with writing—but by having the user perform the work of writing.

·        Second, the work of writing they performed was hard work—contra Jobs, Xerox, and the Big Question—augmentation is not realized in accommodation.  What writing did to them and what they did with writing was not easy but it was useful.

·        Third, that hard work was politically charged and not just market-driven—at stake were inclusive issues of social and economic status rather than rarified contests of entrepreneurial acumen.

·        Fourth, the status of women was a critical factor in writing’s rise; the absence of issues of gender from most of our interface tales is not only wrong—it’s wrong.

So, too, is the focus on the individual user, whether the office worker or the HLAM/T. In the Account, “improvement” is always “mutual.”  Perhaps it doesn’t always have to be.  But perhaps the reason that Engelbart’s vision of augmentation is still to be realized is his own focus on—and he uses the word repeatedly—the “individual.”  If that’s the case, then this weekend’s gathering of the Digital Culture Club may be a step in the right direction.