Today I have been checking HootSuite in between gardening in the intense heat of a Mongarlowe Summer.

By good fortune I came across a link to Tim Kastelle, John Steen and Mark Dodgson‘s Innovation Leadership Network Blog and their post about Networks and the Information Glut. In a discussion of the Republic of Letters project at Stanford University they observe that:

The fundamentals of innovative thought haven’t changed since the 18th Century – it’s always been aggregate, filter and connect. The great thinkers of earlier times corresponded extensively because it helped them aggregate information from a wide variety of disciplines and sources. Once they did this, they had to be skilled at filtering the data to figure out what was useful, and then they had to connect up the filtered data to create innovative ideas.
And, of course, once they had the great ideas, they had to execute them, and then get them to spread. Even though the media that transmits the data to us are different now, aside from that, not much has changed.

Their post is illustrated with Stanford’s video of Tracking 18th century social network through letters. They acknowledge Mitch Joel and he in turn thanks Hugh McGuire (“I can’t recall where I found this, but it’s very very cool”) for the link to the video
I am fascinated by correspondence and pursued the Stanford Project details (CCK08 instilled in me an inveterate interest in networks).
There is a wonderful visualisation tool for the Republic of Letters project. For 1629-30, the database has this information:

Over 196 years, the correspondence network looked like this:

The Mapping of the Republic of Letters project at Stanford observes on its home page:

Before research universities and disciplinary colloquia, scholars depended largely on correspondence networks for the dissemination and exchange of ideas. These informal communities, collectively known as the Republic of Letters, pose considerable challenges to the modern historian, as their contours blur and shift over time. With the help of advanced visualization techniques, this project is literally “mapping” the Republic of Letters, by plotting the geographic data for the senders and receivers of correspondences. These maps will allow researchers to perceive the larger patterns of intellectual exchange in the early-modern world and raise new questions about the importance of places, nations, and cities, in the circulation of knowledge.

Tim, John and Mark point out that:

Even though we often feel like we’re overwhelmed with information and data to be absorbed, the information glut is nothing new. Think about the volume of connections shown in the video. Or think about Charles Darwin – over the course of scientific career he sent over 15,000 letters. It’s safe to assume that he received just as many. Think about how much time he would have spent reading & writing letters, and how much new information and ideas would have been included in that – it’s probably more than we’re spending writing our blogs, updating our statuses and twittering.

The blog post and the Stanford project reminded me of the role cartographers played before the time of the Republic of Letters. They aggregated stories of travels and visualised them. The Fra Mauro map is a wonderful example of the role trusted sources played in aggregating a global sense of place.
I note that the Stanford project is exploring larger patterns of intellectual exchange. The digital exchange of ideas is amenable to mapping too and I have been very interested in Valdis Krebs‘ work in this regard. I liked his discussion of Paul Erdos’s work.

Paul Erdõs … was an expert in the mathematics of networks. Erdõs practiced what he preached — he was a weaver of social networks and thus a builder of social capital. Erdõs was known for traveling the world and collaborating with mathematicians on problems and proofs he found interesting. He would actually live with his collaborators for a week or two while they worked out the proofs. Then he would travel on to the next collaboration. Many scientific papers resulted from these intense face-to-face collaborations. Erdõs had 507 co-authors, some of whom collaborated with each other.

I think the sociology of knowledge has a great deal to add to this debate too. A personal learning environment has profound social connections and embodies the classical sociological juxtaposition of private troubles and public issues. Whenever I check HootSuite or the Nourishment section of my blog I am staggered by the productivity of the new age of correspondents but thanks to Tim Kastelle, John Steen and Mark Dodgson understand that busy people work hard to communicate.

This thought took me back to 1629 and Thomas Hobbes’ letter to a European correspondent. I wonder if the letter started:

Please excuse me writing to you but I have an idea for a book

The reply came back in 1630!

I think 1651 would be a good year to publish … Can you send me a chapter a year … but remember to back up your work!

Photo Credit Message in the Bottle


    • Tim
      I am delighted you called by. I thought your post was fascinating and it led me on a delightful journey.
      Best wishes

  1. […] As well as being very late on meeting Andrew, Jen jack and their friends, I appear to be two millennia behind Cicero. I like Tom Standage‘s proposal that “social media does not merely connect us to each other today—it also links us to the past”. Reading about Cicero’s web as one of many historical antecedents of today’s social media reminded me of the remarkable Republic of Letters. […]


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