For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about writing something that argues that the history of information is way more discontinuous than we’ve thought. Usually, we trace info and computers from Turing and Claude Shannon back through Hollerith’s punch cards, back to Babbage, and maybe back to the Jacquard loom, which used punch cards to control the patterns being woven. But I think this reads the modern idea of information back into machines that were not information-based at all. The loom cards look like punch cards, but they’re not really information, any more than a gear is. Or a comb is, for that matter.
When we discovered atomic theory, we were able to claim that historic objects were made of atoms all along. But I don’t think it’s the same with information theory. Reading info back into historical objects feels more like what happened when the universe started to look like clockwork.
This matters to me because I think we’re beginning to emerge from the Information Age. The paradigm is just starting to break. So it’s a good time to wonder how we ever managed to conceive of ourselves and our world as made out of information. How did we become information?
So, I’m not sure how to approach this, but I’ve been having a lot of fun reading about Babbage (including the new Difference Engine construction, as well as Doron Swade’s account of the first one), Hollerith, Turing, Shannon, and the rest of the cast of characters. I’ve also been poking around in some disciplines that reconceived of themselves as being about information, especially genetics. Some great stuff has been written about this. (E.g., “Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code” by Lily Kay) Every conversation leads to another three books, and every book leads to another ten, so I’ve been reading fairly randomly and quite happily at this point. (No, I have not yet read “How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics,” by N. Katherine Hayles, but it sounds spot on.)
I’m greatly enjoying the poking and the prodding and the not understanding.
Categories: Uncategorized dw