Bellow’s Law


In my talk for George last week, I proposed 'Bellow's Law', which I thought I'd share here. 

In that Great American Novel, The Adventures of
Augie March
, Saul Bellow famously observes that ‘there is no fineness or
accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the
When we look at the impact of new technologies, the reverse would seem to be true also:

there is no
targeting of liberation; if you release one thing, you also release the

It is this knock-on effect that creates the era of uncertainty we
are in now. This can be seen as the law of unintended consequences, but I think the element of neighbourhood it adds is useful. We are seeing the liberation (that is obviously a term with
positive connotations, but let’s go with it for now) of a number of activities
that are facilitated by the digital, social network. These include the removal
of filters, freedom to publish and broadcast, the ability to share easily,
establishing peer networks without the need for travel, creating communities of
interest around diverse subjects, etc. It is why attempts by many industries to control what is liberated ultimately fail. You can't simply say we will liberate the music track from the whole album or from its physical format and expect record companies to stay the same. If you liberate one then others will follow.

In digital scholarship an example might be seen with publishing – once we have removed the filter to publish through blogs and other outlets then the neighbouring practices cannot remain unaffected: academic journals as the main source of knowledge sharing; the tenure process and what it recognises; research and dissemination; the granularity of research outputs and activity; course content. All of these begin to change because the pressure on one element in an interconnected system has been removed. It's not entirely unpredictable, but it may be one element in the sort of emergent behaviours Scott is interested in.

If you want to know what practices will be influenced by new technologies, then a good place to start is to consider what elements have been liberated by them, and then map the neighbouring practices, sure enough you'll see an activation across these soon. 

And we don't have enough laws named after great novelists. 

Leave a Reply