The Voynich Manuscript and Truth on the Internet – The New Yorker

Knowledge follows patterns of transmission. The old pattern of
transmission regarding the Voynich manuscript would have flowed from
academic research to peer review to publication to common knowledge
(possibly via a TV program or two). This is not to say that Gibbs is
wrong because he is a television researcher rather than a professor. He
is wrong simply because he is wrong. But the journey taken by this odd
exaggeration of a mystery’s death is a funny little hunk of evidence
about the way thought behaves now.

A great and insoluble enigma, one which has defeated the greatest
code-breaking minds of American military intelligence, is itself
defeated, purportedly. The T.L.S.—a venerable institution, one you
would expect to be well edited—publishes the announcement. Everybody
believes it for a moment, and that belief spreads with absurd rapidity
across the Internet. And then a few people with expertise and a platform
poke the balloon, and it pops. Just like that, the episode is over.

As I wrote here last year, Voynich enthusiasts will probably never stop
forming communities based on the manuscript’s secrets. Community,
speculation, imagination, sheer interest in medieval books: these are
all wonderful things. But it can be a little frightening for
medievalists, who ply a fairly old-guard sort of academic trade, to see
such a self-evidently wrong interpretation spread like wood lice. (And
one based on the speculative absence of missing pages, no less! There
exists no cheaper sticking plaster for a shoddy theory.)

But if the swift deformation of the old, imperfect model for generating
and transmitting knowledge across the culture is frightening, it is at
least very funny. Imagine what the author of the Voynich manuscript
would think of the speed with which that “solution” travelled! I suspect
that he or she or the group of them would have enjoyed the entire brief
affair. The manuscript itself may well be an enormous and expensive
joke. Those astrological diagrams, the “balneological” illustrations of
ladies in baths, all those plants. They could mean nothing.

The Voynich manuscript is a knowledge loop. Every bit of speculation
simply leads back into the mystery. In that sense, it’s a perfect emblem
of the Twitter echo chamber. Rumors flare, spread, die, and the next one
comes along. The book, meanwhile, stays just the same. Like the truth,
it’s a sly and resistant thing.


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