User:ThomasW/Notes The Age of Erasable Books

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Shawn, Martin (2014) The Age of Erasable Books,[Online] Available: (14.10.2015)

Whether on hard drives or on centuries-old parchment, what appears to be lost is often only hidden. And the technology we use—both to record information in the first place and to recover it when it’s gone—reflect the fundamental values of our time.


Ironically, when these monks erased what were, to them, unimportant words, they unwittingly launched an entire field of study, fueled by such curious detectives, hundreds of years later.

Unlike today, when scholars can easily scan images into computers, then manipulate the images in multiple ways to discover what may be written underneath (without harming the original document), in Mai’s time, deciphering a palimpsest was incredibly difficult. Often, some pages were out of order; others were destroyed completely. In still other cases the parchment had been scraped multiple times making it difficult to determine what writing went with which text.

Projects such as the Archimedes palimpsest project use digital imaging in order to see text written by Archimedes that was written over by Byzantine monks. The Sinai Palimpsest Project uses similar techniques to help us understand the early Christian world.

Now, with digital media and technology, it has come to mean, particularly among media theorists, any text which has multiple layers. In other words, a web page which has multiple hyperlinks or a database which allows a user to filter results and create multiple meanings is a “palimpsest” in modern usage.

By recovering what had been erased, scholars are revealing something that was meant to be deleted, thereby revealing something about the people and the societies that created these works. Palimpsests help us understand how the study of technology reflects the technology itself.

computers often use a codec, or program that transfers information from one format into another, and a codec often loses content when moving between formats. In a way, palimpsests are a kind of codec.

Ultimately, the technology itself—whether it is a palimpsest or a codec—reflects the value society places on certain kinds of information.

So a medieval monk, who was probably more interested in the theology of St. Augustine than in the works of Cicero, could easily eliminate what he saw as unimportant and replace it with some text that was more valuable.

Different societies and their technologies reflect the values of their eras.

To a student of technological history, the value is in what has been lost.

So, the questions we should ask ourselves today: What information are we devaluing now? And what are the ramifications for the future? The answers will be reflected not only on the technology that we create, but on the learning we might hope to leave behind.