Steven Johnson (2010) – “textual play” in commonplacing

I came across a good article recently about the commonplace book as applied to digital interfaces.  It is a 2010 article by Steven Johnson (

He starts with an interesting history of commonplacing as a memory aid, including a summary of Locke’s indexing methods, using it as a way to describe the practice of making associative links to create new ideas and new paths of thinking.

This area fascinates me, and is why I have a kneejerk reaction against the idea that a modern blog or a traditional diary/journal is a commonplace.  The commonplace physically brings discrete pieces of information together on a page, and is connected to the structure of the book itself, the tactile use of clippings, different handwriting styles/sizes, sections of the book and sometimes orientation of the words on the page.  A commonplace is not merely a transcribed list of excerpts with some additional comments, and this is why a printed version of a commonplace is helpful (especially so as not to squint over difficult handwriting) but, I feel, loses the soul of the creation.

Steven Johnson focuses on this act of creation and collage, and gives some examples of unique creations that can arise from such a practice.

He also makes some great points about modern commonplacing equivalents.  Rather than steer toward the usual handwaving about blogs/Evernote/etc, Steven’s take is that a closer “heir to the structure of a commonplace book” is the algorithmic page display you get when you complete, for example, a Google search – with its links based on popularity, additional recommended links based on your search history, explanatory pictures, and general descriptive information.

This, Steven says, is an example of the type of “textual play” that authors in the past used commonplace books for, for want of a better technology.

Steven goes on to say that “textual productivity” results in knock-on effects in the real world.  Providing information about the subjective ‘value’ of certain information creates new forms of value for a consumer him/herself, their contacts, and the marketers.

Steven ends with a plea for “textual productivity” to be given to the user.  The downside, as he points out, is that the traditional content creators can put many more restrictions on their work than before, stifling the creative impulse and the emergent properties that can come out if the end user were able to use “textual play”.

Blogs are a way of collation and distribution of information, but I see them more as a digital scrapbook, with little chance for real collaboration.  Evernote makes a start but in my opinion it is very much a trailblazer and is unfortunately the one that needs to work through all the kinks.  It will be the next generation of collaborative information value creation apps that will really make the impact.