15 June 2021

Every gain also represents a loss

This is Lab Test #05 from the Digital Habit Lab

Each week we release two new experiments from the Digital Habit Lab, launching on Kickstarter later this year. It is designed to help you bring awareness to your digital habits and make them more intentional.

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Johannes Trithemius didn't have an easy childhood. In 1463, aged just one year old, his father passed away and although his mother soon remarried, his stepfather was an abusive man. Johannes found refuge from this hostile environment in a world of study but even this bore the wrath of his stepfather who disliked education, forcing Johannes to study in secret.

Despite (or perhaps spurred on by) these difficulties he excelled in his studies, learning Greek, Latin, and Hebrew before escaping home aged 17 in search of teachers who could expand his knowledge further.

Several years later, in the deep winter, Johannes was journeying back home when a surprise blizzard forced the young scholar to seek shelter in a Benedictine Abbey—a chance occurrence that would quickly shape the rest of his life.

The Benedictine Abbey of Sponheim where Johannes Trithemius took shelter c. 1650

The moment that the door to the Abbey closed behind Johannes, sealing him from the howling and bitter wind, he was struck by its environment. He stayed there for several days, inspired by the lifestyle of the monks which was devoted to education and self-development—so much so that he decided to take his own monastic vows immediately.

Over the course of the next two years he was elected abbot and devoted himself to the repair and improvement of the monastery. One of his greatest passions was the library, and he oversaw its growth from just 48 books when he arrived to over 2000 when he left the Abbey in 1505.

It just so happened that this period in time was a particularly important one for scholars and education in general, as just 30 years prior the Guttenberg Press had been created. This was the first time in the west that moveable type had been implemented to mass produce works such as the Guttenberg Bible, which was the earliest major book that underwent mass production. This marked the beginning of the printing revolution, facilitating the wide circulation of information and ideas.

Impressio Librorum (Book Printing), plate 4 from the Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times), c. 1580–1605; in the British Museum.

You'd be tempted to think, then, that Trithemius would have been keen to acquire a copy of this marvel as part of his collection. However, despite his passion for education and the curation of knowledge, Johannes was not always in favour of printed books. Without a doubt he would have been happy at the ability of the printed Bible to bring the text to a much wider audience, yet he was also keenly aware of the potential losses which this automation brought about.

Scribing out the Bible by hand was one of the major activities carried out by monks at the time, and Trithemius wrote a text, 'In praise of scribes', which made clear his understanding of the crucial role which this laborious act played in the development of a monastic:

[The writer,] while he is writing on good subjects, is by the very act of writing introduced in a certain measure into the knowledge of the mysteries and greatly illuminated in his innermost soul; for those things which we write we more firmly impress upon the mind…While he is ruminating on the Scriptures he is frequently inflamed by them.

Medieval hand illuminated manuscript; Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis. Latin. France, ca. 1525.

Trithemius is describing how writing out the texts by hand is in itself an act of devotion, and that the time spent undertaking this mammoth task creates a deep and intimate link between the scribe and the knowledge represented by the words themselves.

So Trithemius was not against printed books (indeed, 'In praise of scribes' was itself set in print) and yet he was careful not to embrace them in all circumstances. Through reflection he weighed up their impact against their deeper purpose, and passionately defended the old and less convenient option when he saw the deeper loss that would be incurred by abandoning it.

In light of this it's worth taking some time to consider our own contemporary lives and the constant barrage of new technologies and digital services available to us. While they will mostly be affording us some tangible benefit or convenience, what potential loss could they represent in our lives if we start using them without any careful critical evaluation?

Ok, now what?

Below are two experiments from the Digital Habit Lab to help you consider the gains and losses associated with your regular digital habits. Over the next week, try playing with these and observe what happens to gain insight into your own habits.

We would love to hear how you get on, so do get in touch and let us know what you find!