Monday, April 27, 2009

The Historiography of Information

Tracking the historiography of information is complicated by a number of factors. First, the term lacks a single, accepted meaning. Several definitions, some quite technical, have been advanced since the word’s derivation from the verb to inform (originally to enform) during the 14th century, but these meanings have not always proved wholly commensurable (OED). Second, according to many of these definitions, information has existed in one form or another far back in human history, typically well prior to the coinage of the term. In some cases, particularly as it is used in the sciences, the term is essentially a-historical, even taking on metaphysical meaning in the writing of some physicists and computer scientists. A historiography of history should, therefore, include investigations both into information itself, and into changing theories of information, the distinction between which is sometimes hazy. Third, the term has currency in many spheres and disciplines, applying potentially to philosophy, pure mathematics, sciences ranging from physics and to anthropology, media and communications studies, the tech sector, and, of course, common parlance. Its wide-spread application is both what makes the concept so powerful (used as a common referent, it can provide a conceptual, mathematical, and terminological common ground for disciplines that might otherwise be unable to communicate) as well as what makes the concept so frustrating and potentially dangerous (its application across disciplines can serve to erase important differences in how the term functions in various language games, causing stymieing confusion or ill-founded actions).

Prior to the 20th c., the act of informing had always required a receptive audience. Information enformed the form of the receiver’s mind much as an envelope enveloped a missive. But at some point in the mid-20th c., a new sense developed, one that re-defined the term abstractly, as that which is conveyed by a medium, making no reference to a receiving mind. Information was instead a formal or organizational scheme that was instantiated in a particular physical medium. Several historians have pointed to two documents in particular, Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics (1948 / 1961) and Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) as occupying an originating this new understanding of information. The historical number and range of histories that find their beginning here – N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999), an investigation of technological critiques of liberal humanism in contemporary literature; Christian von Baeyer’s Information (2003), a history of the concept of information in the 20th century; and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), a tracking of the influence of 60s countercultural figures and thought in the contemporary tech sector, all begin with one or both of the above texts – the diversity of these histories indicates the influence that these two texts had on how people conceived of information. This is, of course, too great a simplification. The OED points out precursors to this abstracted notion of information as far back as 1927, but it seems safe to say that the work of Wiener and of Shannon and Weaver codified and popularized the new notion.

It is important to realize as well that this new notion of information was not simply a process of abstraction (though it was that), but that it also contained more-or-less explicit historiographic element. In particular, Cybernetics argues for information a new heuristic for understanding history. Weiner calls his thesis “neither unfamiliar nor new,” arguing only that his work is the first to codify such assumptions about information mathematically, and even acknowledging that such rigorous codification has its limitations and that there remains “much which we must leave, whether we like it or note, to the un-‘scientific,’ narrative method of the professional historian” (155, 164). Shannon, and particularly Weaver, make it clear that they believe that their abstracted notion of information, one that they explicitly divorce from meaning, could be applicable beyond the realm of telephone network organization for which it was written (99, 114-17).

Indeed, several histories written well before this period seem to foreshadow the informational heuristic. In particular, William Godwin, both in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (particularly the more radical 1793 edition) and in his historical biography, Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1804), show an interest in tracking communications networks and how their structuration led to the propagation of certain ideas. Godwin’s line of thinking was likely influenced both by connection with the community of Rational Dissenters, a Christian sect that argued that the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized when, by conversing with fellow believers, humanity gradually improved its understanding of God’s will and through his familiarity with major players in the French Revolution (Philps passim). Such an approach to history also finds roots in 19th century histories of the railroads, such as Michael Angelo Garvey’s The Silent Revolution (1852). Garvey’s book is notable, too, because (like Godwin’s Political Justice) such networks become the means of achieving a utopian future, a theme that will re-occur later in the work of information-inspired futurists.

Information theory’s early technical articulation, as well as its antecedents in railroad history, have perhaps led to the typically materialist bent of most histories of information. Of particular note is the work of one of the most noted 20th century railroad historians, Harold A. Innis, who turned, by the end of his career, away from the study of transportation systems and to that of communications systems. Composed shortly before Wiener and Shannon and Weaver’s texts, Innis’s The Bias of Communication (1951) tracked the way communication networks inform broad historical trends from ancient Egypt up to the present day. His lectures cum essays argued that technologies of information storage have produced, such as the development of writing or the printing press, have led to a dangerous biases in our understanding of the world. In particular, he suggested that the rise of techno-science which such networks enabled led to dehumanization which might best be remedied by a new re-emphasis of oral communication (a belief that bears a curious resemblance to that of Godwin and the Rational Dissenters). Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings, published the same year, dealt with similar themes but treated them explicitly in terms of information theory as he had elaborated it. Equally materialistic, Wiener explicitly analogized communications networks in society to those in industrial machinery much as Innis implicitly analogized communications networks to railroads. Ten years later, Innis’s acolyte, Marshall McLuhan would further popularize materialist heuristics for understanding social phenomena, most notably in his Understanding Media (1964), in which he argued (in a move that mimicked Shannon and Weaver’s divorce of information from content) that it is not the content of a message that matters, but the medium that carries it, a notion he had the savvy to phrase in the advertisement-like slogan, “The Medium is the Message.”

Such interest in communication networks gained increasing specificity and detail in subsequent decades, focusing on specific aspects of different networks. These works deviated from the sometimes radical mediality of McLuhan’s work, but nevertheless maintained a focus on means of communication, even if they occasionally also admitted that the message could itself function as the message. Two example of this are Thomas Streeter’s Selling the Air (1996), which details the rise of “liberal corporatism” led to a broadcast model of radio rather than a peer-to-peer approach as typified ham radio, and Lawrence Lessig’s The History of Ideas (2001), which charts how the interaction between governmental policy and technological approaches to information sharing effect communications networks. Similarly, information theory serves as a heuristic for evolutionary anthropologist Kim Sterelny’s The Third Chimpanzee (forthcoming), which takes advantage of the broad applicability of information theory to create a common discourse between evolutionary biology, archeological, and anthropology in which he argues that the pivotal innovation that led humans to break off from other primates was our ability to use cultural forces to structure learning environments in which high-bandwidth information about tool-use could be passed down through generations.

Such focus on communication media was only the most obvious use of information by historians. As different disciplines began to take advantage of the concept’s robust applicability, and as engineers began using information theory to construct increasingly powerful computers, electronics, and telecommunications devices, the heuristic spread throughout the discourse of the sciences. The most notable example of this is probably James D. Watson and Francis Crick, who, by describing the structure of DNA, showed that the human reproductive system could be described informationally. Similar innovations in physics, most notably the rise of computational physics, which argues that the entire physical universe can be described as a massive computation and of the increasing use of computer modeling in the sciences have led at some physicists and historians of science (notably John Archibald Wheeler, Stephen Wolfram and Hans Christian von Baeyer) to argue that information comprises a sort of universal language in which the entire universe is describable.

Much of the debate surrounding information at present revolves around its use as a predictive heuristic. Since Edward Lorenz’s pioneering use of mathematical models to predict weather in the 60s, the sciences have increasingly come to use computer models to describe nonlinear systems. Such models can be thought of as informational histories of the future, and their demonstrable predictive power is evidence of their productivity. Such innovations have led some information scientists to declare that we are, to cite the title of Stephen Wolfram’s recent book, engaged in A New Kind of Science (2002). The presumed universality of such predictive techniques has proved particularly alluring to futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, whose The Singularity Is Near (2005) argues that information technology will soon become hyper-intelligent and propel humanity into a paradisiacal world of infinite informational (and sensorial) satisfaction. At the same time, many information theorists argue that such future histories are deeply flawed (the technical term is cockamamie) and that informational heuristics entail non-trivial limitations (see, e.g. Wimsatt, Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings (2007)).

[Works Cited in comments]

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ginger-Grapefruit Vodka Martini

2 oz Smirnoff vodka
1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
.75 oz ginger suspension
.25 oz honey

Combine grapefruit juice, vodka, and ginger suspension. Add honey and mix until totally dissolved. Stir over ice. Serve up with cherry garnish.

Ginger suspension: Bring 1 c. finely chopped ginger to boil in ample water. Simmer for > 90 min. Strain and reduce to about 4 oz.

[Tried it with gin, btw, and was sadly, sorely disappointed. The juniper ran wild over the other flavors. Particularly tragic because Gin & Ginger is so darned snappy as a drink name.]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Lyric Form of Wary Positivism

The Bias of Communication, by Harold A. Innis, the great Canadian economic-historian, tracks material constraints on communication over the course of roughly 7000 years of Western history in just under 200 pages. The terrific temporal coverage of the volume required that Innis move very rapidly through his material leading to a peculiar prose style:
The failure of the Counter-Reformation reflected the influence of force. The growth of industrialism, the interest in science and mathematics, and the rise of cities had their effects in the use of gunpowder and artillery. The application of artillery in destroying the defences of Constantinople in 1453 was spectacular evidence of the decline of cavalry and systems of defence which had characterized feudalism. The instruments of attack became more powerful than those of defence and decentralization began to give way to centralization. The limitations had been evident in the mountainous region of Switzerland and the low country of the Netherlands and in the success of movements toward independence in those regions. The military genius of Cromwell and of Gustavus Adolphus in using new instruments of warfare guarunteed the position of Protestantism in England and Germany. (Innis, The Bias of Communication, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1951 / reprinted 2006, p. 25.)
Structurally and rhetorically, this is a strange paragraph. It has a topic sentence, and its sentences generally support that topic, but it is basically without transitions. Each sentence just accrues upon the last. Note also that there are very few agents -- living breathing people -- acting within the sentences. Instead, the sentences' subjects are typically abstract qualities or inanimate objects ("the faliure of the Counter-Reformation," "the application of artillery," "the instruments of attack"), and predicates are typically governed by state of being verbs. When humans make an apearance (Cromwell and Adolphus) it is merely to take advantage of the inanimate "new instruments of warfare" which provide the humans' agency. The paragraph ends without a conclusion, without a sense that the evidence pesented led to any specific thing.

I want to liken this to a certain approach to landscape poetry exemplified by John Ashbery's poem "Into the Dusk-Charged Air." A typical passage:
The Rhône slogs along through whitish banks
And the Rio Grande spins tales of the past.
The Loir bursts its frozen shackles
But the Moldau's wet mud ensnares it.
The East catches the light.
Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
The Po too flows, and the many-colored
Thames. Into the Atlantic Ocean
Pours the Garonne. Few ships navigate
On the Housatonic, but quite a few can be seen
On the Elbe. For centuries
The Afton has flowed.
(Ashbery, Rivers and Mountains, New York: Ecco, 1962, p. 18)
Ashbery's poem moves the way Innis's paragraph moves. In both cases, the passages are structured like a landscape in that their internal components do not have a causal relationship with one another but are related primarily through spatial arrangement. Importantly, though, Ashbery's poem is not landscape but riverscape. Its spatiality is combined with a brutal temporal element normally absent from the peaceful genre of landscape (tho not necessarily from the Hudson River school's landscapes, a fact of which Ashbery, also an art critic and resident of upstate NY, would have been keenly aware). The poem shares a forward momentum with Innis's prose, which itself hurtles through history with the unremitting undertow of the St. Lawrence surging toward Niagra.

The reader experiences this as a sort of caught-up-in-ness. We ride the crest of Innis's prose and Ashbery's poetry not quite comprehending but unable to turn back upstream or swim to shore. This a historical anxiety as well, one particularly exemplified by the lack of historical agency typically presumed to accompany the ever-increasing current of techno-sceintific innovation. Which bring me to my last exemplum: Harper's Magazine's "Findings" column, which briefly recapitulates recent scientific studies in a rhetorical fashion which will by now appear quite familiar:
During the past summer, the number of zombie computers worldwide tripled, and the number of attacks by stupid grizzly bears in Anchorage, Alaska, increased sharply. Polar-bear cannibalism continued to rise. The earth's magnetic field may weaken sufficiently by 3500 A.D. [sic] to allow the poles to reverse. Half of all mammals were in decline, and globabl warming was chasing many plant and animal species uphill. A quarter of elephants in south Indian temples were found to suffer from tuberculosis, a moose in Wyoming was found to have contracted chronic wasting disease, yellow stunt rice disease struck the Mekong Delta, and scientists determined that HIV first infected humans as early as 1884. ("Findings," Harper's Magazine 317, no. 1903 (December 2008): 104.)
The column stresses moments of non-agency (zombiedom, massive environmental change, disease outbreaks), but it does so in the context of scientific discovery. It is the constant realization that we humans are hampered in novel, nasty ways. A weird, wary positivism inheres in this format. Just as the sublime terror that suffuses the images of the Hudson River Valley was coupled with an implicit politics of exploration and expansionism. Innis, it should be added, viewed his book as a polemic for education reform: another wary positivism.

Friday, April 10, 2009

From Cyberculture to Counterculture

I'm reading Fred Turner's engaging, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which tracks the influence of a certain breed of libertarian-leaning, cybernetics-influenced, Whole Earth Catalog-publishing hippie (personified by Whole Earth and Wired impresario Stewart Brand) on the computer industry. While I'm perfectly happy to acknowledge that the counterculture had a pronounced influence on the tech industry, I wonder what sort of audience would be interested in a book about the influence of starched and stodgy IBM engineers with 2.5 children, a slide rule, and a golden retriever. Probably no one, and because such a history is utterly uncool, even tho it may well have been the "dominant" influence, it remains oddly untold.

Contemporary tech people want the cultural caché derived from an association with the counterculture, especially as they themselves increasingly corporatized post-bubble-burst (the book was published in 2006, btw). As much as communalist-based organization techniques may have influenced some comp companies, just as many drew their structure from conventional business models and succeeded in spite of or even because of those decidedly un-hippie hierarchies. Turner's book -- and even more pointedly, Turner's book's success -- may say more about the desire to read the counterculture back into the history of cyberculture than on the counterculture's actual influence.