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to connect (kuh-nekt)

verb [I or T] /kəˈnɛkt/

  1. bring together or into contact so that a real or notional link is established
  2. associate or relate (something) in some respect

The Truth and the Lost Scribbler

Background

In 1970 when I was just seven years old, my great uncle John Singleton PhD, FRS, who had always indulged me, died childless, leaving his house together with his scientific research papers and artefacts in trust to me until I turned thirty.

Many of his findings proved to be at the very least esoteric, centring on a hybrid bird known as the Scribbler which appeared in a number of ornithological reference books.

I have built on his collection with items that reflect my own interests in social history and anthropology I have found my own references in the most extraordinary of locations: as the preferred source of quills for pens, as a symbol for eighteenth century satire, in poetry and nursery rhymes and as a remarkable pet. Now I too, have slowly become so consumed by the Scribbler but still have moments when I doubt the entire project.

Nathan Roberts PhD

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Background

In 1970 when I was just seven years old, my great uncle John Singleton PhD, FRS, who had always indulged me, died childless, leaving his house together with his scientific research papers and artefacts in trust to me until I turned thirty.

Many of his findings proved to be at the very least esoteric, centring on a hybrid bird known as the Scribbler which appeared in a number of ornithological reference books.

I have built on his collection with items that reflect my own interests in social history and anthropology I have found my own references in the most extraordinary of locations: as the preferred source of quills for pens, as a symbol for eighteenth century satire, in poetry and nursery rhymes and as a remarkable pet. Now I too, have slowly become so consumed by the Scribbler but still have moments when I doubt the entire project.

Nathan Roberts PhD

Installation

Click to enlarge…

Singleton's office, reconstructed from images taken in the 1950's, contains the majority of the collection together with the Britannica, bound in embossed leather, sitting in its custom-made bookcase, the ultimate symbol of education.

A window divides Singletons' desk from that of his nephew. Here, he works to compile his definitive catalogue. We find the latest MacBook displaying an entry from Wikipedia. The solidity of information contained in the book, has been displaced into ‘bits’, authoritative facts which immediately fly down fibre optic connections.

A scanner digitises the precious documents which will be uploaded to ‘the cloud’ and from an Alexa Echo a disembodied voice, our twenty-first century oracle, or agony aunt plays stories of the lost bird.

We are posed a question, ‘In the digital age, are online resources such as Wikipedia, Pinterest or Ask Alexa any more reliable than the encyclopaedias, museums or oracles of the past?’ To search for the answer, we travel to a world where truth and legend meld with science and folklore, a place inhabited by a chimera known as the Scribbler Bird.


The Enlightenment and the Scriblarians

The beginning of the eighteenth century is seen as the start of the age of enlightenment, truth was either based on ‘facts’ or logical deduction, where 2+2 can only equal 4, or on ‘authority’ the ultimate authority being that of the church. According to the Professor of history David Wootton at York University, ‘beneath these two accepted knowledge bases, there was only opinion, rumour and gossip, and the world was unreliable and untrustworthy’.

The institution of the Roman Catholic Church had been questioned during the Reformation, and found wanting. Now, philosophers and mathematicians were beginning to question the lesser authorities of the ancient philosophers.

It was in this environment that Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, together with a group of fellow Tory literati formed the Scriblerus Club, in 1714, as a platform to voice their satirical reflections on the philosophies of the enlightenment thinkers, and ‘all false taste in learning’. Taking the Scribbler Bird together with its literary associations as its icon, and drawing particular inspiration from Jonathan Swifts's Battel of the Books (1704), a satire on the struggle between the 'Antients', philosophers such as Homer and Aristotle, and the ‘Moderns', for instance Bacon and Descartes’, the club embarked on writing the personal memoirs of a collective, alter-ego of the fictitious Martinus Scriblerus.

The Authority of the Oracle

In ancient Greece, it was believed that you could communicate with the Gods in certain times and places and through certain people in order to obtain advice and predictions for the future. However, answers were often obscure and could be interpreted and applied to many different outcomes.

In medieval Europe, for those who could not afford a physician, it was the Wise Woman to whom people turned for advice on illness and medical conditions.

In 1691, a printer, John Dunton, realising he had no one to turn to for advice on an affair he was having without revealing his identity, launched the Athenian Gazette, the first incarnation of the ‘Agony Aunt’ and interactive magazine.

Currently the Alexa device is in the early stages of development, and only listens when the wakeup word Alexa is used. Amazon however, have filed a patent to listen to all conversations allowing what they promote as the possibility for future ‘targeted marketing’. In the same way as Facebook have been exposed for exploiting the information and 'truths' they have learned should we beware this Orwellian move by another global 'institution' to harvest this data or embrace the opportunities it brings for faster access to information and products?

The Authority of the Institution

In 1517, when a monk and German Professor of theology Martin Luther nailed his pamphlet The 95 Theses, rejecting the sale of indulgences for the benefit of the church, to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, he began a revolution which ultimately lead to the disestablishment of an institution that had ruled people's lives for the previous 1,500 years.

The Roman Catholic Church, as God's representative on earth, was seen as the ultimate authority and the social network which bound a worldwide community together. Today the platform for our social network is Facebook, where we share and announce intimate information and secrets. As technology writer Mic Wright postulates, the medieval indulgence, or prayer for one's soul, is traded for the 'like' and the more 'likes' you attain, the more your message will be promoted.

Some 500 years after Luther, Christopher Wylie has blown the whistle on the use of the information, harvested and sold by Facebook to Cambridge Analytica. Similar outrage is building today as the magnitude of the exploitation of trust by a global organisation in order to grow its shareholders wealth, and the implications of such a betrayal are beginning to be uncovered.

Both these global institutions have been exposed for misrepresenting the truth for money and either have, or are, paying the consequences. Whether Facebook has the same resilience and structural strength to recover as the church remains to be seen.

Authority of Text

The encyclopedia Britannica was first published in magazine format, in 1768 and in a novel taxonomical format where related topics were pinned together alphabetically as a series of essays.

Like the Scriblerus project, this too was written under a pseudonym, ‘A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland’ although it was in fact authored by only one man, William Smellie who borrowed freely from authors such as Swift and unreservedly accepted the unreliability of the information.

‘I wrote most of it, my lad, and snipped out from books enough material for the printer. With pastepot and scissors I composed it!’ ‘With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental.... men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances.’

— William Smellie, at a meeting of the Crochallan Fencibles

Launched in 2001, Wikipedia is now the world’s fifth most popular website with the concept that there should be no central editorial control a ‘neutral point of view’ (NPOV) policy, contributions from highly qualified volunteers contributors and an elaborate peer review process. The history of revisions to each article freely available. However, in academic papers it is seen as a tertiary source and we are discouraged from citing it in academic or journalistic research.

In 2010, Britannica ceased to be issued in printed form and now sits on virtual shelves costing a mere £1.75 per month alongside Wikipedia its freely available cousin. It is for the ‘subscriber’ to choose which speaks with the greater authority.

The Authority of Ownership

From the fourteenth century, collections containing both ‘artificialia’ and ‘naturalia’, were assembled by the powerful and wealthy as cabinets of curiosities. Owners arranged and rearranged objects to delight and impress friends and visitors, becoming their curators and authorities merely through the act of ownership. Some four hundred years later, as these private collections began to be dispersed into museums, the tales and truths of the owners became attached to the objects as authoritative narrations, accepted without question.


The website Pinterest, cites itself as the world’s catalogue of ideas. Freely accessible to all, it is used by 150 million people around the world every month, and a virtual vitrine where subscribers can assemble their own personal collections of diverse objects from across the globe. In the words of Andrea Witcomb, PhD, these virtual collections force a ‘non-hierarchical space of communication’, ‘flattening social hierarchies and territorial boundaries’. Once again, we are able to attach our own truths and associations in our arrangements of 'objects'.

The Window Between Past and Present

The desks of Singleton and Roberts are connected, the wall divides, the window unites past with present. Only the visitor can interpret the image as a whole. On a purely aesthetic level we reminisce on old technologies. Should we look further, we uncover more subtle references to the evolution of the truth, and the adaptations it has taken.

In the golden age of the radio 1930's and 40's demagogs and politicians, such as Hitler and Churchill, were able to influence and inspire the public directly with no fear of the filter of the journalist. Once again, through the use of Twitter, politicians have a platform for self-broadcast, bypassing any form of journalistic commentary and selection.

As the idea of ‘fake-news’ is expanded, as once again we are faced with life in a world of uncertainty, a place where we can trust nothing. Hearing only gossip, opinion and rumour, it is up to the individual to choose which information source he trusts and to seek out his own reliable origins outside the personal echo chamber.

‘Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and decide whether any part of it is worth keeping’

– Virginia Woolfe, A Room of one's Own (1929)

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The "Antients" and the "Moderns"

noun [C] / tæb.lət /

  1. A slab or plaque, as of wax or clay, with a surface that is intended for or bears an inscription, esp. one of a pair or set.
  2. Wireless portable devices that utilise a touchscreen or a stylus pen to access or process information.
  3. A small flat pellet of medication taken orally.
  4. A small flat cake of a prepared substance, such as soap.
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noun [C] / tæb.lət /

  1. A slab or plaque, as of wax or clay, with a surface that is intended for or bears an inscription, esp. one of a pair or set.
  2. Wireless portable devices that utilise a touchscreen or a stylus pen to access or process information.
  3. A small flat pellet of medication taken orally.
  4. A small flat cake of a prepared substance, such as soap.

[Tabula rasa, Παρθένο υπολογιστή meaning “blank slate” origin – wax tablet used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it, to give a tabula rasa

This installation consists of a cabinet containing a set plates depicting six figures all using writing tablets.

Three of these plates are copies of genuine Greek pottery which depicts the use of the wax writing tablet. The other three show the use of the tablet today.

A second cabinet contains a selection of modern day tablets and stylus' cast in wax.

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