Size Matters

I had intended to use that phrase for a section of my chapter on encyclopedias, but it'll probably get folded in to some larger chunk with an equally inappropriate heading that someone with more sense than I have will eventually make me change.

The last part of that sequence has thus far gone for far more than mere headings.

It's a subject that has been endlessly covered by scholars of compendia from antiquity straight through the eighteenth century. Ann Blair has called it the "experience of overabundance," which is a terrific phrase for it as people have been whining about the "multitude" of books long before the printing press made it abundantly clear (overabundantly clear?) that all that already was was going to become a mere fraction of what would be. I could make that clearer but won't. Vincent de Beauvais, for example, compelled by the multitude of books and the "slipperiness of memory," put together 10,000 chapters worth of at-hand information about the arts, sciences and history in his Speculum Maium, or "Great Mirror," which went unrivaled in size and scope until the mid-eighteenth century. And he did it in the thirteenth century.

One of the main reasons both encyclopedias and periodicals (the reviews and magazines) are the length they are is because of time and space restrictions--or so you'd think. They often say, "I'd have added more here, but production is already behind schedule," or "the additional expense would price us out of the market" or somesuch. Paper got cheaper and people got richer, of course, so in the never-ending quest for epistemological completeness encyclopedias did in fact get longer. A lot longer. As in measurable in feet longer. And heavier, and more expensive. If I don't plan to keep them on the floor I need the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure my shelves can support the weight.

But then there's the reader's part in all this. Wikipedia, about which I don't know nearly enough, is theoretically released from the material aspects of length. Server space might be an issue, but not really--or at least, not to the extent that space was an issue for its meatspace ancestors. But Wikipedia still has length restrictions on its articles, and that to me is terribly interesting.

Harris' Lexicon Technicum breaks everything down into dictionary definitions. Chambers has articles that run to several pages, but in principle it relies on cross-references to render the connections between all the parts of knowledge. The first Britannica digests it all into systems and treatises because the cross-referencing was confusing and didn't work. There's a tension between length and comprehension--too short, you lose the sense of the whole; too long, you start to lose the details. This is the limitation imposed by the human--this is why to some extent the medium doesn't matter.

Wikipedia has (relatively) unlimited space; paper means nothing, shelf space is irrelevant. But we still get this as a big 'old flag on top of the entry on the Roman Empire:

This article may be too long.
Please discuss this issue on the talk page; if necessary, split the content into subarticles and keep this article in a summary style.

The page on article length, to be fair, does suggest that there are in fact technical limitations. Some browsers apparently balk at things that are too long. But the readability issue comes first, and it says this:

"Readers may tire of reading a page much longer than about 6,000 to 10,000 words, which roughly corresponds to 30 to 50 KB of readable prose."

Now if I read 6,000 to 10,000 words about the same thing divided over ten different pages, am I not going to tire?

Kurzweil better be right. Wikipedia is just silly without a transhuman.

I wish this were better thought out, but I'm hungry and late for King Lear.