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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: ]

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