Meet the table. It’s the 16th-century equivalent of the smartphone: a portable device that no self-respecting Renaissance businessman would be caught without.
Tables were an upgrade on a centuries-old technology — wax tablets — that gave businessmen a way of quickly jotting down notes at a time when paper was pretty expensive and writing with an inkpot and quill just didn’t cut it on the go. “In the 1530s, on the continent and in England it was a status symbol,” says Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Inside of tables were souped-up paper pages, covered with gesso and glue, that could be written on with a metal stylus and then wiped clean with a sponge. Sometimes the tables shipped as blank pages in almanacs, but there were stand-alone versions as well. Some models bear more than a passing resemblance to the PalmPilot. And just like today’s BlackBerry, these tables were a must-have device — for a while.
The BlackBerry is still a conspicuous accessory with business folk, but Research in Motion’s recent mega-service-outage has only highlighted the device’s gradual fall from favor as iPhones and Androids — both essentially consumer devices — offer business users something a little different. Like the Renaissance table, the BlackBerry is an inherently useful device, but every technology has its time.
Tables had a long run. Thomas Jefferson had a set, and they were used well into the 18th century. They were so successful because they helped people manage the onslaught of information brought on by the printing press. Businessmen who were suddenly drowning in data needed a quick way to take notes. Some say they were even more helpful than today’s devices, which come wired for distraction.
There is a portrait in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. by Flemish painter Jan Gossaert showing a prosperous 16th century merchant with all of his business gear. He stares at the painter with a fixed, almost insecure glare. In front of his left elbow are his tables. “This guy had his portrait drawn with these bound tables: ‘Look how cutting-edge I am,’” Wolfe says.
Even Hamlet had a set. When the Danish prince learns of his father’s horrible murder in the play’s first act, what’s the first thing he reaches for? “My tables,” he cries, “meet it is I set it down!”
Tables met their match when paper became cheap, and pens dropped the whole quill-and-inkpot thing. Even though they were widely used for several centuries, few survive, Wolfe says. “That’s a sign that they were ephemeral and used to death.”
In fact, tables were largely forgotten, until Wolfe and a team of scholars decided to investigate them about seven yeas ago.
The writer William Powers learned about them from Wolfe’s research while on a Shorenstein fellowship at Harvard four years ago. They inspired the title of his book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, which is a study of our long-running battle with information overload (Socrates fretted over the problem, apparently).
To Powers, tables were a way of fighting back against the printing press, and the sudden deluge of information that came with it. “The reason it took off in the age of print is that it was a new technology that was inspired by the old one, handwriting, that helped people navigate the new one,” he says. “It helped them deal with the overload.”
The BlackBerry analogy is an apt one. RIM’s devices were a new technology inspired by old ones: desktop keyboards and client-server email services. But now the world is moving to even newer ideas, and though RIM is moving as well, the race may be lost.
Of course, one day, something else will usurp the iPhone. Even though he calls tables “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” Powers thinks that today’s smartphones — including the BlackBerry and the iPhone — don’t do a good enough job of helping us cut through the clutter.
Smartphones won’t do so, he says, until they take a tip from their Renaissance predecessor, and work more like paper. Yes, paper: a low-key technology that is portable and helps us focus on the task at hand by virtue of its dull simplicity. “Let’s face it. We all are feeling besieged and I think most of these technologies are now designed in a way to overwhelm us. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we need,” Powers says.
When the BlackBerry service went down last week, Powers got more than a few messages from people who thought he must be happy with the inter-continental outage, and from others who said they were finally taking the kind of data sabbatical he describes in his book, which talks about the virtues of thoughtful disconnectedness.
The blackout “was a source of humor for me,” Powers says, “but also a confirmation that, hey, all the faith that we’re putting in these things we should question. Because they’re not there. They don’t even have the kinks worked out.”
Photo: Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library