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September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.


June 22, 2008

Babbage’s noise

I’m working on a talk for Reboot, a very fun conference in Copenhagen. Because it’s an after-dinner talk, and because it’s a bunch o’ geeks, I plan on talking in a hugely preliminary way about some of what I’ve been researching for the past few months. I’m assuming the audience’s preemptive forgiveness. Also, with luck, they’ll all be a little drunk. At the moment, my talk is called “Babbage’s Noise,” mainly because I like the way it sounds.

I’m still trying to pick a thread through the morass of material I’ve happily sunk into. The outline I’m currently sewing together — unsuccessfully, so I reserve all rights to ditch everything and talk about Cluetrain or how everything is mixed up smooshy miscellaneous if I have to — begins by talking about Charles Babbage’s intense irritation about the hurdigurdy players outside his window. Babbage is, of course, routinely pointed to as having in the 1820s invented a precursor to the modern computer, which many say got just about all the elements of the architecture right. Fascinating guy. I then want to compare his use of the term “information” with the modern formulation, which comes from Claude Shannon, but which was quickly transmogrified.

Ultimately, I want to argue that Babbage’s machines had nothing essential to do with information in the sense in which we use the term in the modern age. Babbage thought he was applying Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labor to the production of tables. My talk will spend some time on the history of tables, because I think it’s really interesting. But the main argument against reading the modern idea of information back into history is that modern information is encoded and symbolic, neither of which were true for Babbage’s machines, although I grant that it sure looks that way.

And I think I have an overly-clever way of bringing it back to the modern sense of noise. (Possible spoiler alert, depending on where the talk goes: Communication theory generalizes based on the exceptional case when communication is derailed by noise.)

I’d be more clear about this, but I don’t understand what I’m talking about. And, yes, as usual, that won’t stop me. [Tags: ]


April 12, 2008

What I want to write about

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. [Tags: ]