Information at “Indian Key,” 1840

If you ever find yourself bored with the internet, tired of movies and music and magazines and books and so on, take a moment and think about the world of information available to Henry Perrine’s teenage children on a tiny, 12-acre island in the Florida Keys in 1840.

We had an abundance of books and papers, but only a monthly mail. This mail we generally had brought in a bushel basket & had our arrangements so made that for at least a week after its receipt our household duties should not seriously interfere with our enjoyment of it.

Hester Perrine Walker, 1885

A whole week to bask in the glory of the monthly mail! I spend less than a second with most of the things I see online. For young Hester, each piece of information must have been a treasure, a thing to be turned over and over in her mind and discussed again and again. It’s difficult for me to imagine as I go about my historian’s work of empathizing and visualizing.

We are blessed and cursed with information. Blessed by abundance, maybe we don’t take the time to really process the things we read and see. I know I don’t.

p.s. — in light of last night’s post, think about what it means that the first group of settlers in this extremely remote area decided to put down roots in a place they called “Indian Key.”

A Thought on Indexing and Power

Tonight I was reading a book on indexing and abstracting–Brian O’Connor’s Explorations in Indexing and Abstracting (1996)–and had to stop and think about one of O’Connor’s guiding principles: “a subject is not an inherent element of a text.”

What do you mean? I thought. Doesn’t every text have a subject? Well, first of all, no. Many texts don’t have a subject, or they merely imply a subject, or they contribute to a composite subject. Ok. So then I wondered: isn’t this just hair-splitting? I had to think about it a bit more to realize that O’Connor’s point is bigger than that. The subject does not inhere in the text. You have to examine the text to understand its subject–or lack thereof. You have to master it.

But mastery is something else entirely; something not hair-splitting, but hair-raising. Mastery is the exercise of power.

The huge and ever-expanding power of technology companies in our lives today underlines an enduring cliché: information is power. But raw information is useless. Real power rests in the hands of information brokers: those who can master texts well enough to make the information they contain accessible to those who need it. This is the most significant reason why Google is so powerful. We all desperately want and need the information on the internet, but no one can sort through it all. We need a tool, therefore, that can match the questions in our heads to the answers other people have written down, and Google has done it better than anyone else.

I mention Google and the power of tech companies only to point to my insight from tonight’s reading. As a historian, I have learned all too well that both recording and interpreting information are vital instruments of power. Indexing, abstracting, describing, and organizing are instruments of power, too, which connect the recorders with the interpreters. Because the subject is not inherent in the text, to describe it is to power over both the writer, who may not have meant what the indexer says they did, and the reader, who may not ever be able to understand what the author meant because of the indexer’s choice.

This is an awesome power. It should not be taken lightly.