What Cicero's servant girl knew

Descartes is reputed to have remarked that the best that historians of Ancient Rome could hope to achieve was to know what "Cicero's servant girl knew"; the point of the jibe being to contrast science's steady progress with the fruitlessness of the humanities. (That I can tell, the phrase itself is Vico's paraphrase of Descartes' beliefs, cited in the course of Vico's defense of the humanities; see Croce, "The philosophy of Giambattista Vico", (1913), p. 292.) In fact, today's historians would view Descartes' description more as an ideal than an affront; an account of daily life by Cicero's servant girl would tell historians much that they would like to know. It is a commonplace that historical sources rarely say directly what you want to know: you have to wring the information out of them by careful interpretation.


One frequently gets the "Cicero's servant girl" feeling when reading earlier works in computer science -- particularly when one is trying to write the historical background chapters of one's thesis! A researcher in information retrieval writing in the 1970s, say, would scarcely think it worthwhile to explain in detail how information was actually retrieved then; that is, the process of going to an expert searcher, of formulating a query, of sending it off to be processed; the amount of time it took, the costs involved, the format the output came back in; let alone the subjective feelings of satisfaction, clarification, or frustration involved in the process. The researcher would instead assume that these matters were common knowledge to the paper's readers, as they would have been to readers at the time; but that common knowledge is now largely lost to readers of today.

Similarly, a researcher writing now would be thought odd if they spent any length of time explaining the contemporary search experience; how search engines organize results on the page, how the search toolbar is used, what activities are involved in locating the information you need. Some of the external phenomena of this might, of course, be captured by archives of internet material; but it is not possible to capture the integrated or subjective experience of it.

This came up for me today when I started to look for a reference on Yahoo's original directory services. Back in the early days of the web, Yahoo got its start not as a search service (as we understand it today) but as a directory service; that is, as a site that offered hand-curated directories of web sites, hierarchically classified by subject area. This can be seen as a partial realisation of earlier reflection on hypertext browsing as a form of information retrieval, such as Marchionini and Shneiderman, "Finding Facts vs. Browsing Knowledge in Hypertext Systems" (IEEE Computer, 21(1), 1988, pp 70--80). However, there doesn't appear to be a proper, descriptive reference on these early directory services. I'm making do with Chen et al., "Internet Browsing and Searching: User Evaluations of Category Map and Concept Space Techniques" (JASIS, 49(7), 1998, pp 582--603), which briefly discusses early directory services in the context of Marchionini's work on hypertext browsing.

This is something to bear in mind when writing our papers: we are writing them not just for our contemporaries, but also for posterity. Matters that are obvious to us may not be obvious to later audiences. Future readers of our work may miss the context in which it was created, and therefore misinterpret its motivations and assumptions. Of course, we cannot entirely avoid this process: it is impossible for us to know what points about our current environment must be underlined for the researchers of next decade and the decades beyond. Nevertheless, some effort to incorporate this contextual, historical information in our publications will likely pay off, in later comprehension and, perhaps, in later citations.

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4 Responses to “What Cicero's servant girl knew”

  1. Of course this applies to other technologies in our everyday life than search. I bet it would be interesting years from now to see various kitchen appliances, cars, cell phones, etc. in ways that depict their actual use, rather than their marketing images.

    I like your idea of publishing the seemingly obvious, however. Can one get tenure for that, do you suppose?

  2. william says:

    Perhaps there's room for an open access journal in the area?

  3. Have you looked at the Internet Archive? It fills that role to a certain extent; the question is whether this is sufficient for most archival needs, or if there is a class of archive uses that it fails to support. In any case, it's fun to poke around in it.

  4. william says:

    I noticed your blog post on it, and had a look at the early Yahoo! pages. Very nice. But not easily citeable.

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