Thursday, 20 February 2014

Little Essays on the Rules (7) Print on Demand and Publication Dates

Philip Harvey
This week my colleague Helen Greenwood at St John’s College in Auckland raised the question of dates in print on demand books. She has a book with a statement on the verso: This Print on Demand digital edition created … 2003.

“We already have a record in our catalogue for the 1990 original,” she says, “bearing the same ISBN. Do we have to create a new record for this 2003 POD edition? What happens if there are other PODs with different dates on the verso, do we create a new record for each of them as well? Where does this fit in the WEMI scheme of things?”

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, as Eliot liked to say. The idea that the digital edition was published in 2003 comes up against the reality that the edition itself was first published in 1990. Plainly we are looking at the same text in different media. Even though I personally treat PODs as impressions, because they are impressions, a separate record has to be created because the work is manifested differently.  

But are Print on Demand books (either print or digital) really to be thought of as impressions or reprints? Nowadays the producers of these works use any of a handful of invented publisher names, none of which carry much conviction beyond their purpose of selling stock online. Sometimes the producers don’t even bother with a publisher name. The Greenwood example seems not to care for the fact that the text first came out in 1990, not 2003. Such breaches of the conventions of publishing have become commonplace, which is why cataloguers some days need to be consoled with a second cup of tea.

The real issue, I think, is about the correct bibliographical date. Cataloguers are trained to rightly identify the exact date of publication, because our catalogues are expected to be authoritative. Students in their essays and theses, authors in their publications, are expected as writers to supply in citations and bibliographies the actual year the book came out, not some POD date that shows up in the library record, whether for paper or digital book, or from the back of the book next to somewhere like Lexington, Kentucky. When writers refer to the library catalogue, the unstated expectation is that it supplies accurate information. It remains the job of the catalogue record to give that firm, first date of edition. Cataloguers are being left to guess if and when a POD was first published, because the date history is not supplied in the item in hand (or is that in eye? in your face, perhaps?) and yet we know from the look of the work that it was published many years ago in print form. Do we scour old bibliographies and online sources to confirm an actual date? It’s our responsibility, but is that a productive use of our time? RDA encourages copyright date and maybe this needs to be included whenever possible, as it may in many cases be the only guide to the first date of publication.

Jenny Langenstrass (Fisher Library, University of Sydney) has replied to this today on the RDA-List by treating the POD as a discrete item. Her notes field is reminiscent of how we once treated books published by proper reprint companies.  

Hi Philip,
We would create a new record that can be shared in a network, so the 2nd date in the 008 is fairly open, as is the date in the 264. I hope these examples help.

Example an "on demand" book from University Microfilms International
008/06 (type of date/publication status) = q
008 960912q196520uumiu           000 0 eng d
264 #0 Ann Arbor, Michigan :|bUniversity Microfilms Inc.,|c[not before 1965]
500 ## Produced on demand.
534 ## |pOriginally published:|cLondon : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Example of an "on demand" PDF which is printed out and foldered
008     130620q201320uuenka          000 0 eng d    (2013 is when ABOUT Publishing first made the resource available)

245 10 Automotive sensors :|btrends & forecasts to 2020 /|cby John Day.
264 #1 London :|bABOUT Publishing Group,|c[not before 2013]
500 ## Published on demand.

590 ## Downloaded and printed for the University of Sydney Library, 2013.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Rationale for Purgatory

This is one of two short papers on Dante’s Purgatorio given by Philip Harvey at the first Spiritual Reading Group session for 2014 on Tuesday the 18th of February in the Carmelite Library. ‘Purgatorio after Inferno according to Dante’ is another essay on the subject, to be found at Philip’s readings site:

For our purposes it is worth knowing that the definition of Purgatory by the Western Church was only made in 1274, at the Council of Lyons. Dante (1265-1321) in that year was nine years old, living in Florence, which means he was of the first generation of Christians to grow up treating Purgatory as an officially sanctioned place of temporal punishment. One of the reasons Lyons had to make Purgatory into doctrine was because heretical sects like Albigenses and Waldenses had denied that Purgatory even existed. Dante is born into a world in which Purgatory has moved from being a need for purification of sin of the departed, to being a recognised corridor towards paradise, one that all human souls might have to traverse. In such a worldview it is unsurprising that Dante spends a large amount of his productive time and a third of his poem on Purgatory.

The church for the next two centuries after Dante’s death got itself into an almighty tangle over Purgatory by tying the teaching to a little thing called money. Families could pay priests to say masses for departed members of the family and built chantry chapels for the purpose. Only the wealthy could afford chantries.

The most serious development was indulgences, which meant finding penance for others, but with a price attached. The concept that a pardoner could relieve of your money (and your guilt as well) in return for releasing souls into paradise was, when put into action, a practice open to abuse and corruption. This practice of indulgences was one of the central causes of the Reformation, and even in Rome itself it was stopped by Pope Pius V in 1567, one of those examples of the Catholic Reformation picking up on the good ideas of the Protestant Reformation. In our own time Pope Paul VI revised the doctrine to say indulgences are really about increasing an individual’s fervour for charity. The English church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has this to say on the subject:

To understand how indulgences were intended to work depends on linking together a number of assumptions about sin and the afterlife, each of which individually makes considerable sense. First is the principle which works very effectively in ordinary society, that a wrong requires restitution to the injured party. So God demands an action from a sinner to prove repentance for a sin. Second is the idea that Christ’s virtues or merits are infinite since he is part of the Godhead, and they are therefore more than adequate for the purpose of saving the finite world from Adam’s sin. Additional to Christ’s spare merits are those of the saints, headed by his own mother, Mary: clearly these are worthy in the sight of God, since the saints are known to be in Heaven. Accordingly, this combined ‘treasury of merit’ is available to assist a faithful Christian’s repentance. Since the pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, it would be criminal meanness on his part not to dispense such a treasury to anxious Christians. The treasury of merit can then be granted to the faithful to shorten the time spent doing penance in Purgatory. That grant is an indulgence.

MacCulloch delineates the general obsession, as he calls it, with Purgatory geographically, saying that people north of the alps and on the Atlantic seaboard became more concerned with prayer as a ticket out of Purgatory than those south of the alps. As he phrases it in a sentence typical of his suave irony, “Dante Alighieri’s detailed descriptions of Purgatory in his fourteenth-century masterwork the Divina Commedia might suggest that southerners were indeed concerned with Purgatory, but his Italian readers do not seem to have transformed their delight in his great poem into practical action or hard cash.”

Martin Luther not only brought down the indulgence industry in the 1520s, he also shattered many illusions about Purgatory, those same illusions that were given palpable literary credibility in Dante’s, by then, old poem. The connection between sin and salvation is essential in Christianity. Penance and purging of sin certainly pre-dates the Council of Lyons, whose task was to set in concrete a collection of beliefs and related practices already common throughout Christendom. Isabel Moreira lays out an early history of Purgatory, starting in late antiquity. She says that Purgatory was “hardly doubted” throughout the Middle Ages, existing at the popular level more insistently than at the official level.

Purgatory was successful as an idea in these early centuries because it accomplished a number of important things: it impressed upon lukewarm Christians the need for ongoing penance; it suggested coherence at the point at which the scriptures and religious practice converged, as in the prayers for the dead; and it drew ordinary Christians within the eschatological net of salvation. Yet, I think we come closest to understanding purgatory’s success and longevity when we ask, not when did purgatory achieve doctrinal status, but when did purgatory achieve theological viability? The answer, I have suggested, is the point at which Origen’s universalism was repudiated in favour of an expanded access to salvation as was endorsed in the work of Bede. Purgatory’s future was assured once it was supposed that a broad segment of the Christian population could be saved by means of exposure to purgatory’s fires, even if they repented only at the very moment of death, and even if they were compelled to rely on the piety and resources of their “friends”.

So that when we read the 33 cantos of Purgatorio we are shown a version of the place (it is now a place) at a very precise moment in its evolution in religious awareness. We have to accept the idea that Dante wrote a poem about somewhere none of us can talk of with 100% certainty, the afterlife, using geographic forms like a mountain for Purgatory, which all of his readers knew to be a literary trick, but about which the place itself his readers decidedly believed in. It is, for us, a remarkable suspension of belief on their part to read Dante’s descriptions of Purgatorio knowing they are a fiction, while the whole time hanging on his every word in the certain knowledge that they and those they love will very likely find themselves in Purgatory itself at some future date. Anytime soon, in fact.

This is because Purgatorio the poem is an instruction about expectations. Dante meets two of the vital requirements of good storytelling: to entertain and to inform. Attentive readers of Purgatorio are wised up: they finish the poem better prepared than when they started. And they will read Dante ahead of other accounts because it is a superlative poetic accomplishment. While there are countless artworks and writings from the period that help explain Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise to believers, Dante’s Commedia is an artistic expression in its own league. It is like comparing the seven minute rock video on the subject with the three hour cinematic masterpiece put out by Dante Studios. There is time for both, but most people will more certainly be wowed and warned by the big new sensaround release at the local picture house. Soon to be out on DVD.

The question then remains, so how do we read the poem? We are each part of reception history, with our own 21st century (post-Paul VI) ideas about how to understand Purgatory, and how to read Purgatorio.   

Sources of quotes:

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A history of Christianity : the first three thousand years. Allen Lane, 2009, pp. 555-557   

Moreira, Isabel. Heaven’s purge : Purgatory in late antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 211.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Wendy Doniger becomes a hundred times more famous than she was before

Wendy Doniger is a modern English translator of some of the central writings of Hinduism. For those of us who run theology libraries, her name is associated with an English version of the Rig Veda, with translations of the Manu Laws, and other magisterial Indian texts that are the bedrock of religious meaning in the Subcontinent. She is a formidable Sanskrit scholar, an Indologist teaching at one of the hubs of religion studies in the United States, the University of Chicago. Wendy Doniger, we have known for years, is a serious representative of the pursuit of understanding about Hinduism.

None of these elementary facts seem to have impacted on the minds of protesters, bloggers, critics, and others involved in recent days in an eruption of vitriol directed at her 2009 book ‘The Hindus : An Alternative History’. In an intense legal action brought about by certain conservative and nationalistic, perhaps fundamentalist, Hindu groups the publisher Penguin India has been forced into a humiliating backdown in which it has agreed to pulp all remaining copies of Doniger’s book unsold in India. The consequent war of words online and elsewhere is easy to google.

The Carmelite Library holds several of her books because they are amongst the best, sometimes the only, modern versions of Hindu foundational works. ‘The Hindus’ was ordered immediately upon publication and has stood for some time now at 245.2 D683, available for loan any time during opening hours. My attention was drawn during its cataloguing to Doniger's excessively enthusiastic assertion that the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other ancient Hindu texts are "a hundred times more interesting than Biblical and Homeric texts". This is not something you hear every day. More interesting? A hundred times more interesting? Clearly we have a fan here. It is a statement it was hard to forget.

Doniger’s assertion comes from a deep desire to privilege Indian scripture and literature up against the major ancient works privileged by the West and its scholars. As a Sanskrit scholar she goes out to bat for India, as it were. She wishes to draw attention to these giant texts by engaging in her own battle of the giants. One can be sympathetic with her attitude, especially after we encounter Bibliolators and those who would turn the Bible into a paper pope. Western literature itself suffers from a lack of creative exposure to the Mahabharata and Ramayana, something that Doniger strives to correct through her translations, but also through her rhetorical flourishes. It’s her field and she is going to make a noise about it. We could all gain by increased absorption in the ancient writings of Asia.

To say something is a hundred times more interesting than something else is flamboyant argument. Interest is in the eye of the beholder, it is not based simply on someone else’s opinion, which is why all of this writing, East and West, will continue to have a readership.

The assertion tells me that Doniger is such a strong advocate of Hindu literature that she will say anything to grab more attention to its cause. She is colourful, that’s for sure, and perhaps that colourful form of argument finds its way as well into ‘The Hindus’. Reader, beware! But still, such strong advocacy would, you think, be just what Hindus in the Subcontinent should be cheering for, more attention being paid in the West to the formative classical scriptures of their religion. Instead of which, we see a powerful small minority of Hindus acting on behalf of the whole religion to make her book invisible in India. That the vast majority of Hindus have never heard of Wendy Doniger was the case, until this week. Now they can download ‘The Hindus’ or read it on the internet, in order to make up their own minds. They can follow the whole argument in the newspapers and probably learn more about the ins and outs of her theories than if they attended a seminar on the subject at the University of Chicago.

The Hindu hardliners have got their headlines. They went for the big target and have won, in their view, an important victory. This will not stop discussion of Wendy Doniger’s ideas about Hinduism, in fact will assist in an increase in book sales. The book has not been banned, it has just disappeared from sight. Hindus do not issue fatwas, otherwise she would be up there on the front page with Salman Rushdie. Whether her theories have an impact on thinking about Hinduism only time will tell, but this scandal, like so many scandals, has served to get people reading the book who would otherwise never have known about it. The one country where it will not be available to students for discussion, of course, is India itself. This must be causing some disquiet among academics in that country.   

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Little Essays on the Rules (6) [Brackets] and ©Copyright

Philip Harvey

Bifurcation of our catalogues between RDA-style and AACR-style continues apace.  A Queensland colleague, Annette McGrath (Queensland Theological College), raised the question of the 264 $c field for publication date.

In a record she  downloaded, the information entered was [2013].  In the book itself, the information was clearly given as (c) 2013 and there were no other dates suggested, no reprints or editions. Annette found this “fairly straightforward.” Can anyone tell me, she asked, why it was catalogued with square brackets around the date? She thought square brackets were only used when the date is uncertain. What is going on?

Many, many RDA and other recent records are coming to us with [square brackets] around the publication date, even though the date is stated clearly in the book. In the old AACR Rules, these brackets were only used where no date of publication &c. appeared in the item. Rule 1.4F7 gave several examples of what to do, all of them using square brackets. That was the precedent and all such records pre-RDA stay as such in our catalogue, with square brackets to indicate the date is a calculated guess, or lifted from a source outside the text.

In the old days it was fair to assume that such a presentation may have been made by a cataloguer who did not have the book in front of them, e.g. in pre-publication cataloguing through an agency.

Further notices on e-lists helped explain why bifurcation is active and growing rapidly.

Rebecca Kemble (University of Canberra) weighed in, saying that the brackets are there because the 264 1 is for publication information only. If the book doesn’t specifically state the year that it was published, the cataloguer can use the copyright date but place square brackets around it to show that the date of publication has been inferred. Copyright dates should be put in the 264 4 $c field.

With Annette’s example, the actual publication date of the book has not been given, even though the copyright is 2013 and was no doubt published in 2013. This does seem to break with the convention that a book with a copyright date published in the same year it is being catalogued is, by an astounding process of rational thinking, the year of publication.

RDA’s desire to include the various kinds of dates in different subfields has turned this rather obvious dating process into a rule-bound nightmare. Because we cannot say with 100% certainty that a book with c2013 actually came out in 2013 (though most of them did) we must now place [square brackets] around every instance where only the c2013 is given.

This practice further confuses the average user of our catalogue, not to mention the advanced bibliographer, who will have a combination of AACR dates where the brackets mean one thing and RDA dates where they mean something else.

Whether such rules will compel publishers to state the date on the title page more often is one of those questions we meet in our dreams. Unequivocal expressions of exact date at all times are not the rule in publishing.

In RDA language, the copyright date is a supplied date. While in fact, in vast quantities of books, copyright is the only date from which to infer publication year. It is, however, in RDA terms, not a secure or final date. No wonder there are so many records coming through with square brackets surrounding the date. I do wonder if all those records have given the source in a note.

Since RDA was introduced I imagine a great deal of heat and light has been witnessed on Autocat and other cataloguing lists about this matter, possibly in about equal measure.

Impishly I added on one list, it’s still fun to receive the first book of the new year in the previous year. Brill of Leiden are particularly good at this game and I fully expect the first Brill 2015 book to arrive in about November 2014.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

William Shakespeare and the Internet -- Big Data, Big Dates 1994-2014

It was twenty years ago today, in 1994, that the internet truly arrived, due in large part to the introduction of graphical browsers. It had ten million users. World Wide Web “traffic was equivalent to shipping the entire collected works of Shakespeare every second.”

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space. Few people in the world, other than scholars and aficionados, read all of Shakespeare over a lifetime and even a word like ‘incarnadine’ takes more than a second to say. Still, Shakespeare is reliably brought into the conversation when we want to register a benchmark, the problem here being, what kind of benchmark of value are we talking about with this statistic? I gape not at the impressiveness of the statistic but the impression it creates that something significant is being transmitted every second. One thing we know for certain, www is not shipping the equivalent of Shakespearean meaning every second. No doubt we have invented technology that can ship this amount of data, big and small, every second, and what are we to make of this but that we are very clever indeed. What a piece of work is man. The awkward truth is that Shakespeare’s imaginative writing, in toto, is not equivalent to the mash of undifferentiated information that streams in the firmament when computers talk to one another. While we are impressed by the length of lines sent rapidly in traffic, we do ourselves and Shakespeare a disservice by reducing his poetic achievement to a quantity. Moreover, a far greater danger exists in these blithe equivalents, which is to treat the collected works in print as passé, superseded, redundant. The World Wide Web, in this kind of context, appears to have undone the need for a collected works of Shakespeare. Yet how else do we read him? What is our preferred mode? In this brave new world Shakespeare himself remains alive and well online. There is even an Internet Shakespeare site  that is the latest word on the works, and includes all of the works themselves. It is like living with twins (a favoured concern of the man from Stratford). and the puzzle of these two equally remarkable creations, print and digital, occupies our minds often, some of us every day.     

To appreciate the exponential growth of the internet since 1994, today in 2014 Google alone “processes more than 24 petabytes of data per day, a volume that is thousands of times the quantity of all printed material in the US library of Congress.”

Should we drown our books? This time we reach beyond the confines of the works of Shakespeare with a statistic that wants to say the internet ships the entire collected works, period, every second. A petabyte is one quadrillion of bytes. That is quite a lot of bytes to chew on. It takes about four seconds to say Quadrillion. Shakespeare would have done something with Quadrillion and a good actor could have an audience laughing, holding its breath, or holding back the tears for minutes if the actor delivered the word Quadrillion just so.  Figures like this are unfathomable. They are impossible to get our minds around, even though neurologists tell us the human brain itself stores memories equivalent to about 2.5 petabytes of binary data. Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves if an irreplaceable cultural entity like the Library of Congress (or any library of substantial intellectual worth) is replaceable by petabytes. The implication, if not the import, of this statistic is that it could be, at least by those of us who think in the simple terms of quantifiable equivalence. Our recorded heritage may be being turned into something rich and strange, but how do we sensibly negotiate such change? While Google goes on processing, the Library of Congress goes on collecting the works that might otherwise vanish from sight through various forms of happenstance, and Shakespeare keeps on getting through to people by the most basic sounds of the human voice, with observations as worn and acute as “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We see all of these things as they are, yet how we learn to differentiate each according to its special value remains our present challenge. Instant karma is a promise of the internet today, though we know it does not always deliver on that promise. And it is not the massive scale of big data that speaks to us, but a few words of timely wisdom, wrought from experience in a time before electricity. 

Quotes in red come from ‘Are we puppets in a wired world?’ by Sue Halpern, The New York Review of Books, vol. LX, no. 17, November 7-20, 2013, pp. 24-28. The second quote is taken from one of the books under review, ‘Big Data : a revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think’ by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Friday, 7 February 2014

Mouse and Cat

Mouse and Cat, by Philip Harvey

Mouse, the input device we wheel around our desk all day. It is highly mobile and responds well to touch. Mouse has features such as a spinning nose and bilateral commands. Mouse can act as a hand support. Mouse is in its element zigzagging over a rubber mat or sprinting laps across the tabletop. Mouse manoeuvres. It appears to operate solely for our benefit. It has extra buttons and shiny Californian skintight outers. Mouse's trajectories typically translate into the motion of a pointer, but sometimes Mouse loses its grip. It can get lost in space. Occasionally it’s a trial, but a trial with no jury or judge, a waste of our breath, as the Mouse puts it in the famous book. Mouse muses. Mouse motions. Mouse idles until you return. It feeds on currents.

But what about who it is attached to by its tail?

Cat, sitting so still, but we know it must be computing all the time. It’s the quiet ones we have to watch. We have to watch them closely. Some of us have names for our Cat. We call it, for example, Felix, amazed and happy at its black body and broad white face. Cat sometimes seems to be laughing at us and holding its sides. Then there are times when Cat feels more like an unfeeling mechanical calculating machine. Cat counts and sums up. Cat stores away data all day, or is it just there because it has nowhere else to go? We watch annoyed as it goes slow, or entranced as suddenly it gets up to very high speed. It clicks its pause and leaps to the next display. Cat has a continuous existence, seeming to be up to something even when asleep in the corner, with all the lights out. It’s up to something alright. Stare into its face long enough, watch its changing forms, and we find Cat is a creature with nine trillion lives. Even now we are looking at just one of them.

And is the mouse playing with the cat? Or is in fact the cat in control of the mouse?

Mouse, that scurries around all day in circles doing a thousand little diverting directions. Mouse, oblivious to role reversal. And Cat, that smiles the while, unmoving but still smiling, sometimes seeming to disappear behind a screen saver, but not quite, the smile still fixed in space the entire time, with sometimes only the smile, like the Cat in the famous book.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia and the Internet

But if Dürer did not try to peer so deeply into the inner life of nature, as Leonardo did, nor feel its appalling independence, he was deeply engaged by the mystery of the human psyche. His obsession with his own personality was part of a passionate interest in psychology in general; and this led him to produce one of the great prophetic documents of western man, the engraving he entitled Melancholia I. In the Middle Ages melancholia meant a simple combination of sloth, boredom and despondency that must have been common in an illiterate society. But Dürer’s application is far from simple. This figure is humanity at its most evolved, with wings to carry her upwards. She sits in the attitude of Rodin’s Penseur, and still holds in her hands compasses, symbols of measurement by which science will conquer the world. Around her are all the emblems of constructive action: a saw, a plane, pincers, scales, a hammer, a melting pot, and two elements in solid geometry, a polyhedron and sphere. Yet all these aids to construction are discarded and she sits there brooding on the futility of human effort. Her obsessive stare reflects some deep psychic disturbance. The German mind that produced Dürer and the Reformation also produced psychoanalysis. I began by mentioning the enemies of civilisation: well, here, in Dürer’s prophetic vision, is one more way in which it can be destroyed, from within.

This lithe linguistic reconstruction of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving first came to general attention via television in 1969. As a fourteen-year-old viewer I was fascinated by how the words, so precise and direct, could describe the work while at the same time explain its meaning. The words came from Kenneth Clark, a lean patrician Englishman who seemed ever to be in some sort of pain to tell us exactly what he thought of any artwork. This particular passage of Civilisation (ess, not zed) was also striking to me because Clark was effusive about the negative message of the Dürer, a change from most of the show where he chose to accentuate the positive. It is this “brooding on the futility of human effort” and its effective explanation that has stayed with me ever since. The concept that learning, the humanities and the sciences, could be a burden as well as a liberation, a source of unhappiness as well as happiness, had been put into my mind. Clark was sending his viewers a warning, of which there are many in that series.

It was about the same time that we all went, one morning, on a school excursion to the IBM Building in Fitzroy Street, very near St. Kilda Junction in Melbourne. We had been popping holes in flimsy computer cards for some weeks, our objective being to send some no doubt elementary message into the monster machine on the ground floor of the place we were now visiting. Dimpled chads hung from the cards of some of the lazier students. The computer must have been two storeys high maybe, inside the building, and this was its main impression. Maybe it was its only impression, as there is only so long that schoolboys can stare at the walls of a large box before going ape. Serious men walked about the place, pointing out where things went in, why lights went on, and using statistics the while to wow us into submission. The scientists among us were wowed, the rest were wearied. I suppose what we were doing was Fortran and I have no idea really how high the computer was, it just felt that way. It would have been about the main computer in Melbourne at the time. Maybe it was the only computer, in Melbourne.

Over forty years later, and a whole lot wiser, there are days when we each stare at our personal computer screen with all the brooding melancholia of Albrecht Dürer’s dark angel. Like other sophisticated technological advances, the internet is thought of as, by nature, a civilised and civilising force. Its existence often goes unquestioned, as its presence approaches ever more toward omnipresence. Even omniscience. When an operation like Google brags that it wants and will have all knowledge available online we respond, “only in America”, knowing ourselves that such an objective is never attainable. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, as someone who is not German once wrote. But what has already been assembled online is beyond any one human to absorb, in fact. It is impossible to find everything of personal interest over a lifetime out there. Depending on your day, the internet is a godsend, a singular super-signifier, a handy device, a regular update, a miasma, a mess of messages, or a monster. Because we cannot now live in communication with society without talking, sometimes quite frequently, to a computer, its hold on our lives is potent, if not quite omnipotent, yet. We stay on course, or stray off track, or play. We peer deeply, or not deeply, into the inner workings of billions of tiny electronic connections. If we treat the thing as a tool and a game, we can keep ourselves lively.

If we think too hard about our appalling dependence on the internet, then we might start to worry. Upload and download lead to overload. We wonder what all of this information is doing to our minds. Google Image is so inexhaustible, it’s exhausting just thinking about it. One effect that must happen to many people is the melancholia observed in the gaze and posture of Dürer’s figure. While it inspires passion and interest, the internet can also lead to a simple combination of sloth, boredom and despondency, as common in literate as in illiterate societies. Kenneth Clark’s version of Dürer’s engraving causes me think of the internet, its potential for good and bad, and the thousands of wonders it leaves lying about. To borrow Clark’s own words, the internet reminds me of humanity at its most evolved. Her wings are the added lift we get from gaining information while not leaving our seats. The compasses, symbols of measurement by which science has conquered the world, define the space between my computer and the one I am visiting on the other side of the planet. The internet is chockfull of the emblems of constructive action, yet how effectively do we use them? Or are they just scattered about unused? Our search strategies are a saw, a plane, pincers, scales, a hammer, and a melting pot, yet we may find ourselves on occasion sitting here at the screen, pondering the awesome scale of knowledge and brooding on the futility of human effort. The polyhedron and sphere are the inanimate beauties of our thought, like the boxes that house our computers, but it is the dog at the feet of its mistress, sad and sleepy because her mistress is immersed and unhappy, that is the real beauty within the frame. Is the internet one of the “the enemies of civilisation”? Clark’s Spenglerian language, loaded as it is with ominous signals, sounds heavy and misplaced. Melancholia I has a ladder going into the sky and an hourglass with plenty of time to go. It has a rainbow across a sea and scales to balance the information. These are all positive symbols we could apply to the internet, once we are in the mood to use them.