The Internet and Comprehensive Ideas

The last few years have produced many histories of the internet. This includes the topic of the internet as a technology, as a product of social groups, as a medium, and as a cultural force.

Here’s one history that I have seen less of, and that I would love to see researched within a more conceptually unified scheme: all of the technologies, societies, media and cultures that lost their viability after the internet gained a mass foothold.

For example, the retreat from the ambition to be comprehensive, or a certain ideal of comprehensiveness. Three examples:

  1. A Metaphors Dictionary, a project that is pretty much what it sounds like. It was published by Elyse Sommer and Dorrie Weiss with Visible Ink Press. The final, reissued edition was published in 2001. Curiously, there was a companion guide to similes, which managed a second edition more than a decade later in 2013.
metaphors dictionary

Copyright Elyse Sommer and Dorrie Weiss. Fair Use.

  1. The American Library Association Guide to Reference Books, a reference guide to all the other reference guides. Its purpose was to help librarians select from tens of thousands of specialized references for addition to their library collections. According to Wikipedia the first one came out in 1902. The last one, the 11th edition, came out in 1996, after which the guide went online in 2009 before completely shutting down in 2016.

  2. The long-running, celebrated, sometimes-contested Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, a massive compendium of jazz album reviews reaching back to genre’s beginning. It was first published by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in 1992, and kept up through nine editions until 2008. Cook died that year, and while Morton put out another, smaller guide to the “1000 Best Albums” of Jazz in 2010, the project has seen no more updates since.

penguin guide jazz-ninth

Copyright Richard Cook and Brian Morton. Fair Use.

These works are so different that it is hard to make sense of them within a single trend. What they share is the aspiration to catalog a cultural object whose borders are so vague as to threaten the catalog itself. A dictionary of metaphor? There are scholars who argue that all of language is metaphor. And a reference book for reference books? Can we first take a few years to agree on the subject matter headings and the definition of a “reference?” And a “guide to [insert musical genre here],” to say nothing of two authors “reviewing” an entire genre?

I’d like to think that one could find a crowdsourced version of each project, but this is likely not true. More probable is that one could find most of the individual referents in each book somewhere online (e.g., digital annotations for the metaphors in Shakespeare, a WorldCat entry for a reference book, a Wikipedia entry for the musical albums), sans the catalog.

The idea of “being comprehensive” about something, and the intellectual power “to comprehend:” two words with the same root that express, it seems to me, very different aspirations. The people who created the above works probably had a different notion of what it meant to comprehend something, and because of that they felt empowered to at least entertain improbable ideas about comprehensiveness.

Tags media internet