20 September 2010

Working Notes has Moved

Working Notes has upgraded and moved to the new site:

Once the transition is complete, this site will automatically redirect to the new site.  

Meanwhile, I am glad share recent work on request, including the dissertation "From Cybernetics to Cyber Networks: Norbert Wiener, the Soviet Internet, and the Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism," forthcoming publications, working papers, conference presentations, etc. Just let me know at bj[my last name]@gmail.com. For a recent CV, click here.

23 February 2010

Three Course Blurbs: Networks, Revolution, Utopianism

Here are several early course blurbs I'm playing with. The first builds off of Richard John's superb course "Networks: History, Theory, Practice"; the second a lifelong fascination; and the third my current book project. I'd love to hear: what would your ideal course on these topics include? 

Networks: History, Theory, Comparison, Critique

This course surveys and examines the recent outpouring of work among sociologists, historians, psychologists, legal scholars, urban planners, cultural theorists and critics on the topic of networks (social, technical, digital). Organizing questions include, Why the preoccupation with networks, Why now? Why so many male authors? What does our imagination of the network reveal about our tools, sense and sensibilities, connections and culture—what do networks reveal about us? What do terms like groups, systems, structures, sets, crowds, multitudes, mass, etc. offer in its place? Perspectives examined include basic network theory, sociology, history, international comparison, and critical
theory. Texts include, among others, in network theory Barabasi’s Linked (2002); in sociology Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (2006), Castell’s The Rise of the Network Society (1996), Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008), Tilly’s Big Structures (1984); in history John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunication (2011), Otis’ Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (2001), Schnatz’ Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Literature and Film (2008), Turner’s “Triumph of the Networked Mode” (2007); from international perspectives, Grewal’s Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization (2008), Gerovitch’s “The Soviet InterNyet,” van der Vleuten Networking Europe (2006); and in critical theory, Galloway’s The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007), Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005), Rochlin’s “Networks and the Subversion of Choice,” among other works. For context, some attention will also be paid to works of journalism, literature, and visual art on the subject.

Riemann Sphere
Click for a space-time-media (video) demonstration
Space, Time, and Media Revolutions

Harold Innis once said, “Culture is concerned with the capacity of the individual to appraise problems in terms of space and time.” This course surveys and examines the basic relationships of space, time, and media in scientific and social thought. Questions include, What do media do other than store across time and transmit across space? What roles do technologies and their users have in governing and challenging perceptions of space (e.g., flat earth and fantasy fiction, Galileo’s telescope and heliocentrism, general relativity and simultaneity, avatars and virtuality), time (e.g., Biblical time and creationism, the eternal now and cosmology of medieval scrolls, Newton’s time-reversible calculus, universal heat death and Helmholtz’ thermodynamics, string theory’s knots, time travel and instantaneity, time warping and TiVo), and political-social-scientific revolution (e.g., printing press and literate life, Renaissance and objectivist scientific methods, quantum mechanics and postmodernism, digital media and copyright)? Texts include Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950) and its world history told through time- and space-biased media; Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (1987) and Peters’ “Space, Time, and Communication Theory” (2003) for ways of injecting the idea of revolution (scientific, communication, and social) with contingency, context, and politics; Ludvig Holberg’s flat-earth comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723), Abbott’s Victorian satire Flatland (1884), Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1984), and Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1988) on writing and time, Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) on the spatial-temporal distortions of towers, calendars, glass, and clocks, Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1987) on transportation as cultural communication, Carey (1989) on the electric telegraph as the separation of communication from transportation, Rabinbach’s The Human Motor (1992) as an nineteenth-century update to unidirectional time, energy science, and labor politics, Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) on the pre-digital decline of the author and authenticity, David Harvey (1987) on space-time compression, Galison’s “Einstein’s clocks” (2000) on simultaneity, Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999) on media and instantaneous war, among others. Some attention will also be paid to expressions of the manipulation of time and space in other media, such as film, poetry, drama, and dreams.

Cybernetics and The Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism

This course surveys and examines the intersection of Cold War history, information politics, and social thought meant to evaluate and complicate the commitment to the idea that all information can be reduced to a common (digital, symbolic) structure. Although so-called “information universalism” occupies intellectual currents such as classic liberalism, neoclassical economics, Marxism, free speech absolutism, (post)structuralism, and others, this course takes information science—and in particular, the postwar rise of cybernetics—as a lens for focusing on some of the others. Questions include, How do the information sciences reflect the larger world that created them? What is the relationship between information in nature, technology, and political order—and how has that relationship changed over time? How does history color contemporary understanding of communication and code? Readings include both primary materials from the era, including C.S. Peirce’s semiotics and pragmatist ethics, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), John von Neumann (1944) on game theory, Norbert Wiener’s (1948, 1950) cybernetic critique of the information society, Roman Jakobson’s Fundamentals of Language (1957), Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War (1960), Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked (1969), Gregory Bateson’s Steps toward an Ecology of Mind (1972), Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, & Utopia (1974), and selections of recent works, including Paul Edward’s The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1998), Slava Gerovitch’s From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (2002), Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Anarchist in the Library (2004), Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), and Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Socialism (forthcoming), among others. Other media sampled will include films, science fiction, and art from the period.

05 October 2009

Conference: Journalism and the New Media Ecology: Who Will Pay the Messengers:

Yale Law School, Friday-Saturday, November 13-14, 2009. Click for more information.

18 September 2009

Robert Darnton and the Future of the Library

Trinity College Library, Dublin, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth I

Last night I attended a lecture from Robert Darnton, the preeminent historian of 18th century France and Harvard's Library Director. His lecture was titled "Google, Libraries, and the Digital Future" and is only one among the impressive Fall 2009 lineup at Columbia's Heyman Center for Humanities. The lecture came in the wake of Darnton's most recent piece, "Google and the Future of Books," in the New York Review of Books, and more importantly, the groundbreaking open-source Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) initiative led by the new Office for Scholarly Communication. (Note: I am saving his treatment of the Google book settlement for a later post. Here I am mainly interested in taking stock of a refreshing vision of open-source scholarship from a historian I respect highly.) 

Darnton came across to me as an archetypal figure in a new class of open-source advocates: a mixture of established man of letters and one who takes delight in slightly perverse and totally public revolution. A career historian of the history of the book, especially the business history of the book around the French Enlightenment, Darnton has spent his life immersed in the world of books: he unearths, reads, studies, and writes books about books for a living. (The most famous is his wonderful The Great Cat Massacre, a thick description of how young servants found hilarity and political protest in killing the cats of their abusive aristocratic masters.) He gets books: they are not about romantic authorship or royalties. Books are about their readers and eye-opening discoveries. They are most useful when they are read, and many, many books are not read simply because the archives and special collections are not public. A few choice quotes from last night include his calling the 10 million volumes scanned in Google Book Search "the greatest monopoly in the history of this country" as well as two chord progressions straight from the Electronic Frontier Foundation playbook: "digitize and democratize" and "openness is the guiding principle."

Behind the scholarly cautions and curtain of his talk there creeps a romantic notion of the benevolent pirate, a literary Robin Hood redistributing the royalty's wealth to the poor (pardon the pun; the double meaning of royalty does not strike me as entirely innocent). "There is a lot to be said for piracy," he remarked, fondly noting how 18th-century publishers raced to sell the most pirated copies of a bestseller to the waiting (and minuscule) literate public. Later he added "my heart is with the pirates." On the longevity of copyright terms, he stirred applause with the line "the founding fathers got it right; Hollywood got it wrong."

While he remains ambiguous on the details, the broad strokes of his vision of the future of the library are worth noting: the cost of open-source academic publication should be born at the production end, or by the institutions that house the authors themselves. The author's institution pays fees to have their work published in open-source journals, so long as journals wave fees for those authors whose institutions cannot afford to cover the fee. The open-access scholarly subsidy will make it possible, he hopes, to displace the outlandishly expensive current commercial academic journal system with open-access equivalents. (For a civil disobedience response, see Mako Hill's overprice tags.) And the fee waiver, in theory at least, lowers the entrance barrier to scholars in developing countries.

Taken to its unalloyed extreme, the future of Darnton's library takes two forms: one, an omnipresent digital platform for maintaining public access to all current scholarship. Think a full-view Google Book Search without the possibility of corporate "cocaine pricing." (You know, the first hit is free....) Two, a network of physical libraries devoted to accruing and preserving only the archives, special collections, and rare book libraries. On the first, digital scholarship online will fulfill what he calls "The Oberlin Argument": solid schools without substantial libraries could massively benefit by digital access to the world's books. (Had he called it "The Obafemi Awolowo Argument," a university in southwest Nigeria, the global reach of the argument would be clearer.) Here his concern for the public good strike me as being colored by the question of the 18th century French publishers he studies: how does one get pirated materials to a privileged few, to the already academic elite? But never mind in whose name the plan is justified. Having spent his life successfully struggling to access and discover the obscured word (including The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France), Darnton wants now to reveal both the hidden and forbidden word to the world. His public view shares the promiscuous tone of the professional archivist: we must try to save, store, and share everything within reason. 

"The future strength" of conventional research libraries, he argues, will be "special collections rare books and archives." It is, in many ways I think, the historian's dream: a series of warehouse devoted to only the gray literature which cannot be found elsewhere. He points out that no single library acquisition budget can possibly manage to house an adequate range of available special collections and thus calls for academic libraries to form coalitions, to perfect inter-library loan, and to divide special collections topically among their allies. Columbia's library system, led by Kenneth Crews, among other enlightened copyright moderates, is expected to join the compact on open access publication currently shared between five leading American universities. He argues against the "once hopelessly utopian" vision of the universal library with his own only slightly utopian vision. Yes, he realizes, digitization saps printed material of its lived quality: here he relates a memorable example of his reading Melville's copy of Emerson's "Prudence" in the Rare Books room as a freshman: no digital scan could ever impress him as deeply as hefting the book in his own hands. (Others have pointed out that medical researchers have used smell of vinegar to date cholera epidemics in archival documents: digits can reproduce, with loss, natural oral and literary senses but not yet taste, smell, pain, balance, and touch.)

Still, whatever its limitations, digitization opens the rare book room to the world. Add an affable, squirrely grin to the mix, and one gets Darnton's vision of the future of the library. It is one where digital and printed material are not in competition: digital libraries will not replace the printed book. It may not even displace it. Instead, he sees "a revival of the printed book" in the arrival of Espresso book machines that can print and bind a book on demand in about as many minutes as dollars. (His Espresso book machine is only a moderate version of fascinating developments currently underway in additive manufacturing, especially 3D printing.) In my opinion, his slightly utopian vision is far preferable to both recent and perennial rehearsals of the decline of all things literate (such as this Washington Post article) as well as its opposite, as he put it, the "once hopelessly utopian" dream of the universal library.

04 September 2009

Conference: Internet as Playground and Factory

Kudos to Trebor Scholz and others for organizing what promises to be a very fruitful conference on digital labor. Check it out:

Eugene Lang, The New School, NYC, Nov 12-14

Participants (and abstracts) include, among many others I look forward to meeting, Mark Andrejevic, Gabriella Coleman, Alexander Galloway, David Golumbia, Ellen Goodman, James Grimmelman, Orit Halpern, Lilly Irani, Carolyn Lee Kane, M. Christopher Kelty, Robert Mitchell, Nick Montfort, Gina Neff, Frank Pasquale, Ben Peters (me), Dominic Pettman, Hector Postigo, Howard Rheingold, Martin Roberts, Scott Rosenberg, Stephanie Rothenberg, Douglas Rushkoff, Ivan Sigal, Fred Turner, McKenzie Wark, Darren Wershler, as well as a September 29th (very) pre-conference with Andrew Ross, Richard Sennett, and Tiziana Terranova. That's some group!

28 August 2009

Beth Noveck and The Purpose of Negative Feedback

At a recent Personal Democracy Forum, Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO in the Obama Administration, New York Law School prof, and the supremely smart former director of the ISP at Yale asked for thoughts on how web 2.0 tools, or anything else, could help political campaigners "not only get the message out but bring it back in," and in the process to inform and speed political movements. Rasmus Nielsen, my peer in the Communications PhD program at Columbia University, replied that "closing the feedback loop" often creates so much internal discussion it derails real political momentum. He names as example the 2,000 job announcements posted by the Obama administration, which brought 350,000 job applications, a mountain to manage. The high costs of cheap communication, Rasmus astutely notes, go largely unaccounted for. The subtext I read here is that hardy dictum among Democrats: do more, talk less. (Ironic, then, that a dictum has to be said so often to be a dictum.) So do something, and watch the full (2:23) exchange here.

Both Beth and Rasmus mention "feedback loops," an oft used term. Beth asks to bring information back in, closing the loop; Rasmus points out that often generates distracting noise within an organization. I think the term "feedback" has if not a solution then at least analytical clarity to add to the conversation.

What is feedback? Simply, things go out and then some come back. First, political campaigners put out a message, which eventually comes back in an altered form. Then, to become true feedback, the returned message needs to influence future messages. To state it generally: Feedback is a process whereby part of an output of a system becomes an input to that system with the purpose of influencing future output. Other languages help color the term: retroaction in French, Rueckkopplung (back-coupling) in German, obratnaya svyaz’ (return connection) in Russian, and retroalimentación (back feeding) in Spanish.

Consider two types of feedback: positive and negative (not open and closed). The terms positive and negative here refer to an arithmetic multiplier and carry none of the normative sense of when, say, a businessman speaks of receiving “positive feedback” from a client. A positive feedback system amplifies (cf. positive) the next round of output. As Norbert Wiener and two colleagues wrote in their famous six-page 1943 article "Behavior, Purpose, Teleology": “the fraction of the sign of the signal that which reenters the object has the same sign as the original input signal. Positive feed-back adds to the input signals, it does not correct them.” Examples of positive feedback systems include avalanches, snow melting on black mountain soil, malignant cancer, viruses, the nuclear arms race, keeping up with the Joneses, supernovas, and narrative climax: all these behave like positive feedback loops. They build until they burn out. Negative feedback to do the opposite: they check their own growth, they self-regulate. Examples include warm-blooded animals, the proprioceptive balance of the inner ear, steam-engine boilers with release valves, automated thermostats, ecosystems, and, of course, the Madisonian democracy of checks and balances. (Historian and philosopheor of science Otto Mayr finds feedback loops at the heart of liberal systems in his Authority, Liberty, & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe)

If Rasmus fears the positive feedback of a web 2.0-enabled conversation, Beth asks for a negative feedback loop when she requests something "manageable." It's a reasonable request: what could be more manageable than a self-managing conversation after all? So how does one build a negative feedback loop?

The "simple" key, my reading suggests, lies in building a conversation around a common purpose. In fact, according to the same 1943 article, all purposeful, goal-oriented behavior can be found in negative feedback systems. It stands to reason that if purpose is a higher order of negative feedback, then political conversation should be pursue purposes beyond conversation itself. If this seems almost self-evident, it should. Action-oriented groups already have change, not conversation, on the front burner.

Still, conversation framing remains an issue. Consider the difference between these an open-ended and a closed question: "what should we do about X?" and "submit proposals that analyze and address problem X by date Y. Selected proposals will be receive treatment Z." Both questions propose to want answers to problem X but their purposes are very different. The first aims for conversation; the second, for solutions.

If change is the goal, build the question before you build the crowd. If conversation is the goal, best let the crowd build it for you.

27 August 2009

In Mild Praise of Retraction

The jury is convening, even though it is still too early to pass judgment on Jytte Klausen's forthcoming The Cartoons That Shook the World due from Yale University Press in November. The Cartoons promises to treat the 2006 Muhammad cartoon controversy and to do so without republishing the cartoons themselves. The first part of that sentence contains the real news: a book that looks to speak on the subject. Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, had written books on Muslims in Europe before the controversy. If interested, she wrote a Feb 12, 2006 Boston Globe editorial here.

But it is the last part of that sentence--the decision to not publish the cartoons--that has elicited a small spate of recent articles from the New York Times (here), the Boston Chronicle (here), the Chronicle of Higher Education (here), as well as the annotation and comment of (duh) bloggers. Nevermind that the Boston Chronicle reports (again, here) that eleven of the twelve cartoons are copyrighted and held in embargo by the royal library in Copenhagen, and that the artist of the twelfth cartoon (of a man with a bomb in his turban) makes brisk business with it by selling reprints. The majority consensus seems to take this decision as a failure of free speech. Names called include "dhimmitude" (originally from the Arabic for "protected"), "academic cowardice," "self-censorship," "chilling effects," etc. "Plagiarist,"  may be next: after all, Klausen is deliberately not revealing sources she relies on....

Perhaps. The negotiated decision is far from ideal. Let's dispense quickly with the obvious talking points of the other side: conversations that do not ostracize their interlocutors are also those most worth having, tolerance needs as fair a hearing as free speech (or else free speech is not doing its job, eh?), the overriding pragmatism of security concerns, that critics' negative attention will only push book sales for Yale Press and Klausen, etc. But even this back-and-forth misses an overriding point: the very question whether the cartoons should be republished is for naught.

The cartoons already have been republished, many, many times online and offline, and almost anyone who knows how to find reading material on the subject can also find the cartoons themselves (my piece on search engines below develops this). I can think of plenty of compelling political motivations to republish the cartoons but convincing practical reasons escape me so far. Why not simply describe each cartoon in words, point to other sources, and move on?

Because there's a larger issue brewing. Some media attract more concern about free speech than do others. Strangely, the ones that seem best at promoting free flows of information are also the most concentrated with concern. In part, many watchdogs for much treasure explains it. But it also seems like their bark may be worse than the bite. How does the fight for free speech change when so much of what has been spoken (or drawn) is already freely available? I am not sure. Content abundance online (of which a massive majority quickly disappears) surely does not justify censorship. But I am also not sure, to put it gently, that noisily proclaiming the failure of free speech is the best way to advance debate in the face of disagreement. The knee-jerk defense of free speech as a sort of symbol unto itself may detract from (I won't say chill) the very substance of the conversation it is meant to protect. Promoting free speech at the cost of better speech is gratuitous. The more speech asks for more speech, instead of better speech, the less is said in the end.

Free speech deserves praise, and so does the right to retract and redact. How else can conversation be built, except partially and, to quote Kant (not the blog), out of the crooked timber of humanity? Here is two cheers for the right to retract in a world ripe with speech. As for the book, I look forward to postponing judgment until it comes out.

For a few more thoughts from 2006, I wrote an early meditation on the subject, focusing on the role of search engines in the Muhammad cartoon controversy. A proof is available here: (2007) “The Search Engine Democracy: Metaphors and Muhammad,” in The Power of Search Engines /Die Macht der Such-maschinen, edited by Marcel Machill and Markus Beiler, (Leipzig, Germany: Herman von Halem), 228-242. That book chapter builds on ideas I encountered in conversation with John Durham Peters and his Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (Chicago, 2005). And I should also point to Biella Coleman, whose brand new and award-winning "Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers" (Cultural Anthropology, August 2009) has much to offer anyone interested in why, among the poets of code, the force of free speech is so strong.

30 April 2009

(Working draft) Media we do not yet know how to talk about: a new media history preface

A (very) working draft of my paper for the ICA Pre-conference, The Future is Prologue, May 21, 2009, is available for download here.

The paper summarizes and expands upon some thoughts I gathered at the splendid
Media in Transitions (MiT) 6 conference at MIT, April 24-26, 2009.

14 January 2009

(Published Version) And Lead Us Not...

Download here: Peters, Benjamin. "And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History," New Media & Society, Vol. 11: nos. 1/2. (2009).

Watch for round two at the forthcoming ICA preconference, The Future is Prologue, May 21, 2009.

Typo correction: The sentence, "Of course, Mumford has been faulted by Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler for relying too heavily on the intrinsic logics of technologies, but still the study of ‘stuff ’ persists" originally read in the uncorrected proof, "Of course, Mumford has been faulted together with Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler...."

12 November 2008

(Working draft) Toward an Analogy in Cyber History: Judeo-Christian Traditions of Transgression in Material Property

For comments and criticism, a working draft of my article "Toward an Analogy in Cyber History: Judeo-Christian Traditions of Transgression in Material Property" can be found here.

05 November 2008

Dissertation Update: "Reconstructing Information in Cold War Cybernetics and Social Science"

Abstract: "Reconstructing Information" attempts to internationalize understanding of the emergence of information as a computer-compatible, or cybernetic, keyword before and during the cold war. Chapter studies include complimentary precursors to cybernetic thought in pre-Revolutionary Russian and American philosophy, the Soviet translation of cybernetic vocabulary for at first reforming and then reaffirming structural power in Soviet society, to an examination of why the Soviets failed to build a computer network equivalent to the US ARPANET. These and other cautionary tales help defamiliarize, broaden, and reconstruct a history of a term critical to the modern search for knowledge and social order.

Project Question and Outline: "Reconstructing information" asks, How did information become associated with computers in a cold war context? Whence the modern-day computer-compatible, or cybernetic, visions of social and scientific order? In particular, how can internationalizing the history of the association of information with computers help reconstruct and correct understandings of the philosophy and politics of digital communication in modern society? In effort to address these questions, my project also looks to denaturalize and challenge conventional thought on American triumphalism in the rise of computers.

The history of cybernetics—a variously understood postwar science of control and communication—helps focus and direct the narrative structure for these questions, beginning with the philosophical precursors of cybernetics, to the Sovietization of an initially western cybernetic vocabulary in at first reforming and then reaffirming structural power, to cautionary explanations for why the Soviets failed to develop an equivalent to the ARPANET or what historian of science Slava Gerovitch calls “the Soviet InterNyet.”

The introduction offers a literature review of critical information scholarship and a brief historical backdrop of how especially cybernetics helps capture the connection between the role information plays in cold war visions of the search for knowledge and social order. I hypothesize cybernetics as a particular rich postwar expression of a broader international movement to make analogies scientific and precise. Cybernetics can be understood as a “likening science” in the sense that it—like the English word like—contains three increasingly complex senses of structural analysis between events: analogy (“to be like”), affinity (“to like”), and application (“to liken”). Similarly, cybernetics sought a language with which to identify and bridge across traditions of discrete and continuous logics in mathematics, the leaps and the links implicit in the scientific method, and the digital and analog modes of media. Ever since, the resulting language has been one of information likened unto computers: the history of this often cold war process needs rethinking and reconstruction.

Each chapter in this project takes a different perspective and analytical lens to the problem of the cold war history of information. The first chapter takes a broad philosophical inventory of three overlapping senses of information in modern societies; the second chapter builds and then breaks an analogy between the lives and times of proto-cybernetic philosophers, Josiah Royce and Andrei Bogdanov; the third chapter moves from postwar America to the mid 1950s Sovietization of cybernetics; the fourth chapter parallels the failed Soviet economic network project and the US ARPANET in the 1960s; and the conclusion reviews and reflects on what the past may yet teach the present.

To touch on each chapter briefly: my partial drafting of the first chapter to date proposes three alternative sense of the English term information in modern history: one, information as a process of embodiment of matter and mind with form—an instructive although largely obsolete sense of the word dating from at least the 15th century on; two, information as relevant facts and communicable knowledge—the predominant sense in modern everyday English; and three, a computer-compatible abstraction of symbol. Each of these three senses of information—we could call them “formative,” “knowable,” and “cybernetic” senses—can help rethink contemporary understanding of the keyword.

The by now long-obsolete "formative" sense conceives of information as a process (cf. -"ation") by which some material is given form, and can be found in the verb inform and past participles like “informed consent” or informed voter”. Information gives form and imprint or change quality to consent or the voter, just as Milton thought “sun informs color” and “heat [of a blacksmith’s fire] informs metal.” It acts upon the world.

Knowable information, on the other hand, dates back to at least the Bacon’s empiricist and Kant’s rationalist union of mind and matter. The common phrase “for your information” assumes the transfer of content from one mind to another. We interact through it; it is the stuff of human communication.
A cybernetic or computer-compatible sense of information, however, does not require humans to be communicated. Rather, as abstract data independent of human cognition, algorithms can sort it; unread databases and automated messages can contain it. Humans access and act on cybernetic information, and its (often cold war inspired) systems in turn enacts it further. This chapter’s interpretive prehistory of the science and senses that can help defamiliarize contemporary uses of the term and preface closer case studies of cold war efforts to do the same.

The second chapter examines two primary philosophical precursors to the cybernetic sense of information, Josiah Royce and Alexander Bogdanov. Royce is remembered, when he is remembered at all, for being the last proponent of absolute idealism, a philosophy that engaged and lost in debate to William James’ pragmatism. This chapter revisits Royce’s later life and work as a dissertation adviser to Norbert Wiener and originally reads Royce as an early philosopher of cybernetics’ relationship to feedback. Fresh archival evidence shows that as a teenager doctoral student at Royce’s summer seminars at Harvard between 1910-12, Wiener was exposed to Royce’s vision of the scientific method as a way to conceive of both the natural world and the philosophical world as “self-representative systems” (1899). Royce’s work on maps within maps, causally looped infinite mathematical series, “exact resemblances” as precise analogies, and “self-representative systems” prefigure Wiener’s enriched sense of purposeful negative feedback as a control mechanism in 1943—an idea given shape by collaborative work on neurological behavior in the animal and semi-automatic ballistic studies.

In turn, I look to contrast Royce and Wiener respectively as a philosopher of absolute possibility and an applied poet of probability. At least two points about probability are worth developing: one, probability itself offers a discrete mathematical analogy between representations of the natural and the philosophical world, between a numerator of measurable events and a denominator of total possible events. In this sense, Wiener’s work with probability sustained a strict mathematical analogy between measurable world of his engineer peers and the thinkable world of Josiah Royce. Two, while Royce's philosophy misses the measurable world of information, entropy, and thermodynamics ranging from, say, Austrian chemist Ludwig Boltzmann to Hungarian émigré and Cold War game theorist John von Neumann, Royce’s work on infinite series does importantly resonate with his Russian contemporary Andrei Markov Sr.’s work on stochastic series, work that influenced Turing, Shannon, and Wiener, among other early computer philosopher-engineers. Royce's vocabulary, in short, offers an inspirational alternative to that of early cyberneticians.

The early draft second case study of chapter two explores the lifework of the old Bolshevik revolutionary, writer, economist, and philosopher Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928) a philosophical precursor to cybernetics he called “tektology” or “a universal organizational science.” Understood as a type of mathematics-less pre-cybernetics, Bogdanov’s tektology illustrates the historical contingency of the scientific analogies: while Bogdanov’s choice analogy between nature and society hints at a strong sense of collectivism, Wiener’s original analogy between animals and machines resonates with a western sense of individualism. The interaction between these analogies can help preface the postwar pacifist and leftist politics of Wiener himself with Leninist-Marxist concerns about social organization and labor expressed in the early science fiction of Bogdanov’s Red Star, the uneasy Bolshevik Evgenii Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopia We, and the Czech writer Karl Chapek’s 1921 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots.”
In brief, the completed third chapter draft, available here, examines how the language of Wiener's cybernetics was translated into the Soviet academic discourse and comments on attending ironies of the pacifist politics and militant applications driving cold war cybernetics.

The working draft fourth chapter asks why the Soviet Union failed to develop a national network project contemporary with the US ARPANET. Several leads in the working chapter include, one, that the first person to conceive of a national computer network for civilian use was the Soviet cyberneticist and Engineer Colonel, Anatolii Kitov; that Soviet economic cybernetics tried repeatedly but could not build this network in part, two, due to the cybernetic-inspired correspondence in the hierarchically decentralized designs of both Soviet networks and Soviet bureaucracies and, in part, three, because the technical support for the network failed to appear due to unregulated competition in the Soviet bureaucracy, while the ARPANET succeed in part due to state subsidies and centralized institutions that supported them. Whatever the shape of the final narrative, the failure of the Soviet networks offer a cautionary tale about thinking with cybernetics across information science and society. Pending a grant to spend the summer in Paris writing and researching under Bruno Latour, the case study of the French Minitel network (with its centralized state support and decentralized design) may add a third dimension to this chapter case study.

The unwritten conclusion will aim to review, analyze, and rethink what such reconstructed shifts in cold war cybernetics may offer and correct in contemporary understandings of information.

22 October 2008

Why the Soviet Internet Failed

In a word, decentralization. I had the pleasure of presenting a working paper and my first stab at such an argument at the Harvard-MIT-Yale cyber-scholars working group at the Berkman Center Tuesday, October 21, 2008. The other presentations were stimulating, and all took place leavened by warm food and the smart and generous folk at Berkman. It was a real treat. A paper draft is available for comment at bj[insert my last name here]@gmail.com and a video of the presentation is available online (here).

Building on the fantastic "InterNyet" article (here) of MIT historian of science Slava Gerovitch, I argued, in brief, that the Soviet attempts to build a non-military nationwide computer network (namely Victor Glushkov's 1964 proposal for a hierarchically-structured information network that could harvest and manage all economic data for the entire Soviet socialist economy) in the 1950s and 1960s need to be understood in the context of decentralized politics, administrative structure, and network design. Decentralized networks are obviously different than centralized networks but what many forget is that they are also importantly different from distributed networks as well (for this distinction, see Paul Baran "On Distributed Communication" 1964). The fact that Soviet state structure was decentralized hierarchically, and that ministries did not share information or funding sources between themselves, offers both an explanation of why no comprehensive computer network design could survive fractured implementation as well as a cautionary tale today for our own largely decentralized world saturated, as it may be at times, with comparable levels of talent, enthusiasm, and vision that too could prove shortsighted. One particular case study, the origins of the Central Economic Mathematical Institute in Moscow and the irony of purposeful funding (both the lack of money and a channeled flood of money can kill a brilliant project), was examined in particular.

02 August 2008

Who Made the Watchmaker? Dewey and Mendeleev on Information Organization

The note below crudely illustrates a distinction in two modes of information organization predating the twentieth-century invention of automated data management: flexible classification models demanded constant care and intelligent intervention from the outside, while stable models precluded human management except in its original design (the watch-maker).

To Mendeleev's periodic table of the elements and Dewey's decimal classification (used in library card catalogs), the first offers a system that is discretely limited but self-contained in its parameters; the second is continuously expandable but bound to some form of external regulation. The first presents a discrete (though theoretically infinite) number of elements arranged by internal characteristics (e.g., atomic weight patterns); the second allows for any number of items to be organized in relationship to each other along a thematically-grouped alpha-numeric line (000 Computer science, 100 Philosophy, etc.).

Whither the human manager? Whence the human user? Once established, Mendeleev's periodic table is relatively self-regulating and tautologically autonomous: it is so because it says so. To shift the order of elements would require a concomitant shift in the governing principles of the periodic table, which otherwise remains inflexible in its topological order (meaning, no matter what representation one may choose for the elements, they remain in the same relative order); librarians, on the other hand, are free to rearrange the order or place of titles according to their interpretation of the title's content to pre-given topic categories (000 Computer science, 100 Philosophy, etc.), and they can add new titles between preexisting titles without disrupting the information order. Card catalogs work by relying on an external set of commonly held symbols (numbers and letters) and topics allow items to reordered continuously. Yet the freedom of data reshuffling comes at the cost of the system requiring a governing body external to it (e.g. librarians). These distinctions can be applied across modern society (Deweyian accountants and lawyers interpreting Mendeleevian spreadsheets and codebooks).

In a later note, I intend to push thinking how, if at all, automatic information systems (e.g., databases, brains as circuits, and search engine algorithms) breakdown these two caricatured systems for information organization. The search engine algorithm, for instance, is a mixed-system: it provides a relatively flexible (Deweyian) system of information organization but requires relatively (Mendeleevian) minimal intervention in the system.

This note draws on Glenda Claborne's "Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Dewey, and Ranganathan: What can they tell us today about the organization of information?" A presentation at the 2005 ASIS&T-PNC Annual Meeting, May 14, 2005, Seattle, WA. [See options for viewing presentation].

31 July 2008

Publishing the Public Domain: Eight Notes toward a Digital Commons

A working draft of this very short paper can be downloaded for comment and review here:

17 June 2008

Betrothal and Betrayal: The Soviet Translation of Norbert Weiner's Early Cybernetics

The full-text .pdf download is available here. And kudos to the Manuel Castell and Larry Gross' International Journal of Communications (IJoC) for setting precedent for the bright future of peer-reviewed, open-source, and smart online scholarly journals.

Peters, Benjamin. "Betrothal and Betrayal: The Soviet Translation of Norbert Weiner's Early Cybernetics." International Journal of Communication, vol. 2., 2008.

15 June 2008

Working Draft: "And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History"

In the entry interim, I attended an excellent pre-conference to this year's International Communication Association conference in Montreal, The Long History of New Media, organized by the journal New Media & Society, and hosted by the Department of Art History and Communication at McGill University. A draft bibliographic article on new media history can be found here.

Book Review: Thinking with James Carey

Book review: Packer, J. & Robertson, C. (Eds). (2006) Thinking with James Carey: Essays on Communication, Transportation, History. (New York: Peter Lang) in Journal of Communication Inquiry, Oct 2007; vol. 31: pp. 366-370. Download here.

11 April 2008

(Draft Dissertation Proposal Blurb) When Symbols Have Substance: A Short History of Information from Cybernetics to Cyber Law

When do symbols have substance? When, and in what sense, does information matter? This project proposes to explore subtle changes in the idea of information over the twentieth-century, with special emphasis on how Anglophone and Russophone thinkers thought about the relationship between information plays in mediating humans and the physical world. While the symbolic abstraction of information dates back at least to Stone Age tally marks, the twentieth-century rendering of a quantifed language is peculiar for the power of execution it lent to the natural, social, and humanistic sciences colligated under the rubric of information. 

Of particular interest is the claim that information emerged as a symbolic abstraction in self-communicating systems independent of humans--a hypothesis I propose to try through a critical review of field as diverse as electrical engineering, computer science, atomic-, quantum-, and astrophysics, cryptanalysis, molecular genetics; neoclassical economics, psychology, communication research; literary formalism, semiotics, and phonology. Each of these fields struggled in its own way to formalize a system for describing part of the world; and each of these fields based its worldview in part on a common philosophy of human independence from the self-ordering forces of the material world. Key movements in the natural sciences turned to physical laws of electrical, particle, and energy behavior; the social sciences turned to the search for the calculable constants of human behavior (such as profit-seeking, Pavlovian response, and media reception); and the humanities turned to logical frameworks of symbolic interpretation. At the root of these and other intellectual developments on both sides of the Atlantic was a shared affinity with the mathematical turn toward logical, symbolic abstraction--perhaps both the philosophical root and remedy to the state-driven mass tragedies of twentieth-century. 

How has a mathematical turn influenced how we think and regulate questions of the substance of symbols or, in other words, What relationship does information have with the material world that humans inhabit, remains my leading question throughout. 

As proposed, the introduction will critically review scholarly literature on the recent history of information backlit by a discussion of alternative understandings of the topic; chapter one investigates the Faustian bargain of early twentieth-century information scientists (such as Norbert Wiener and Andrei Sakharov, among others) as, on the one hand, brilliant minds who operationalized symbolic abstraction into semi-autonomous systems of tremendous executable power and, on the other, conscientcious citizens well informed of the destructive capacity of their work (politically committed scientists such as John von Neumann and Alexei Kolmogorov may provide important counterbalance to this frame); chapter two addresses Soviet leads in the emergence of the distributed computer network and the possibility of a Soviet Internet project; chapter three explores how the evolving vocabulary of information has come bear on information policies in a digital age, especially copyright, over the escalation of transatlantic political conflict and sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In particular, the contemporary vocabulary of cyber law and copyright reform may be weakened by misunderstandings the Cold War fetishism of freedom has yoked upon political discourse of information freedom, control, and code. The symbolic abstraction of information from meaningful material form justifies neither the hurried and repeated expansion of copyright nor its opponent in the libertarian belief in freedom as trascendent, independent, or emblematic of (especially US) national culture. 

The project in method and content alike looks to argue that we consider the uncertainties of human history, and not its symbolic abstraction into information, as the material base through which to understand and regulate the human imagination of communication. The recent history of information tells us not only something of the ethics of science, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the substance of symbols like copyright. It also shapes the stories of freedom we tell about ourselves. 

02 April 2008

Sharing, Sanctioning, and Santri Sandals in Java

Jonathan Zittrain of the Oxford Internet Institute gave his book talk, The Future of the Internet--and How to Stop It, today at Yale Law School in collaboration with Jack Balkin's Information Society Project. Although Zittrain presents the dreamy benefits and dreary downsides of what he calls the generative Internet with equal ease (thus surprising his listener with his quiet middle-way conclusion), I find the more I hear of his work, the more I'm persuaded by his concluding call to self-checking generative communities as the desired social response to the unchecked dangers of libertarian Internet protocols and the few no-goodniks out there willing to hurt many to benefit the few. Groups of people united around generative solutions to security issues will do more good than policy and technological fixes.  

Zittrain's call to organize foremost as people has returned me to the classic of the cultural sociology of sharing, What about private property is cultural? Or perhaps for a shorter answer, what about private property is NOT cultural? Of the many possible examples that may make non-proprietary models of social interaction thinkable, consider the following: the moral education of santri (or students in traditional Muslim schools called pesantren in Indonesia) is intimately tied to the experience of communal property. 

The passage that makes this point from Ronald Lukens-Bull's fascinating A Peaceful Jihad: Negotiating Identity and Modernity in Muslim Java (Palgrave, 2005, p. 60) is worth quoting in full: 

"In most pesantren, the santri sleep on the floor in a room that may hold up to 80 other students. A room that I would judge to be adequate for one or two students, houses six to eight; the more popular the pesantren, the more crowded the space. The meals are meager: rice and vegetables. Further, although there is an acknowledgement of personal property, in practice, property is communal. Simple things such as sandals are borrowed freely. Other items, if not in use, should be loaned if asked for. The santri who habitually refuses to loan his property will be sanctioned by his peers and sometimes by the pesantren staff. I was expected to follow these guidelines as well and I often found my tape recorder and camera missing. They were always returned later, the camera with all of its film used and with a request to have the film developed. For the santri who does not share, sanctions may include teasing or a stern reminder about Islamic brotherhood and the importance of being ikhlas (selfless)."

It is interesting to note that, like the San people in the Kalahari (see my post here), this communal lifestyle is sustained in a resource-scarce environment. Like the San as well, however, the passing of personal property is not only of necessity but of moral and experiential worth to their community and culture. Students share not only because they will benefit individually if they do, but because the school community makes sure they will be worse off if they don't (e.g. teasing and sanctions) at the same time it prizes the moral virtue of ikhlas (selflessness) as a goal shared by all active members in good standing. The sanctioning mechanism is probably the less important of the two, as the virtues of selflessness and the aesthetic lifestyle take on a positive meaning that persists far beyond the circumstances of individual need. As Lukens-Bull writes "an ascetic lifestyle in the pesantren prepares the students for either prosperity or poverty. In the former, they will be compassionate; in the later (sic), they will be content" (p. 60). Scarce conditions do not seem a prerequisite to this communal property model, but shared values and socially enforceable stigmas do.   

12 March 2008

Anna Schwartz and Benkler's Wealth of Networks

With Tom Glaisyer's invitation, I had the pleasure today of responding to the noted monetary economist Anna Schwartz' review of Yochai Benkler's book The Wealth of Networks. (Download any or all of the book here for free.) Using no notes, she delivered a trenchant series of critical reflections on Benkler's work for 20 solid minutes. And, one may mention as it is only to her credit, she is 93 years old. That's right, 93. Schwartz coauthored with Milton Friedman, perhaps the key neoclassical economic thinker of the last half of the twentieth century, the seminal A Monetary History of the United States (1963); she also reports she is working on a history US state intervention into foreign currency exchange from 1962, which continues her (truly) lifelong interest in money supply. May I be doing anything, let alone making 27 year-old PhD candidates very nervous, at 93! I found her charming and wonderfully ferocious.

She reads Benkler as arguing that the (intensive capital-holding, proprietary, market-based) industrial information economy is substantially different from the (low capital-holding, nonproprietary, nonmarket-based) networked information economy in that it allows social production to flourish in a new way that emphasizes individual voluntary choice of the factors of production. In the traditional industrial model, market signals or managers make such decisions; in Benkler's networked model, individuals self-select projects based on their capacity, producing ostensibly a low-cost model of production. Benkler, in her reading, would have the second subsume the first. (This last point is patently wrong: he argues for coexistence of market and nonmarket forces, not the domination of one over the other--and, to prove the point, he does so in the market-friendly terms. An argument for their separation would ostensibly do well to separate vocabularies as well.)

She counters Benkler's points with the assertion that all preexisting models of social production are flawed to date. The totalitarian model has under-performed as a non-voluntary mode of production; and almost all voluntary social production models have relied on charismatic leaders to urge production while requiring conformity and loss of individual freedom. The Kibbutz movement in Israel, among many other semi-religious communities (many in early American history), exemplify how social production can exhaust its founding community after a generation.

She wonders then whether there are sufficient signs of discontent or enthusiasm surrounding the idea of commons-based peer production to test the trajectory of such work; and points to omissions in the work such as an insufficient treatment of the networked model's incapacity to produce hard-material goods for consumers, like cars or barges or highways; that the internet is a tool and all tools can be used for good or ill; and lastly that copyright is only one restriction to information flow and perhaps not the most important subject for reform: rather that the state directly intervenes itself in ways to render unusable any material procured by Freedom of Information Acts requests.

My comments were more youthfully optimistic, uncertain but hopeful. The book's key points in my mind follow: Benkler's book boils down to a lesson we should have learned from Sesame Street, i.e. share nicely. It successfully critiques intellectual property policy as an inefficient way of marketizing non-rivalrous information in the public commons; the fact that the reproduction or distribution costs tend toward zero means property rights no longer need to tax nonproprietary models of production; nonproprietary models rely on altruism and other motivations that do not easily lend themselves to exchange values. They also rely on the 'excess capacity' or time off-the-clock of laborers in fields like education, arts, scientific, and industry research. Even the act of voting can be read as a leisure activity. Benkler's book looks to monetize social production in ways that will benefit all: in Lucas Graves' fine phrase, all ships will rise when the tide comes in.

Despite whatever complaints, the information networked economy produces incredible amounts of use-value. We use it all the time, we even give back sometimes. How use-value becomes exchange-value is not only the central question at hand, it may in fact be the problem. I wonder not only how should we do it, but should we do it at all?

Does employing the language of competition and zero-sum games of law and economics reduce nonmarket social production to a battle with market production logics, which it will surely loose on its own terms? That is, will Benkler's project of benefiting all by translating social production into the language of markets condemn it to the benefit of those most fluent in exploitation and enclosure? Finally, will the attempt to widen the calculus of competition, equilibrium, and efficiency to include previously unaccounted positive and negative externalities of the culture of social production, in the end, (a) monetize those factors into private gain for the well positioned, (b) break upon the corporate logics to the wider dynamics of industry survival (i.e. that everyone can benefit when we share knowledge), (c) both, or (d) something else? Is asking which one wins--nonmarket or market forces--already to have lost; should instead we ask how they can coexist? If so, what language do we have to ask it?

The questions we ask already perform the language we rely upon to answer the questions. If one asks about the utility of social sharing from a purely neoclassical economic point of view, his or her answer will tend to be pessimistic and backed by hard evidence. If one includes terms themselves based on optimism (altruism and other seemingly non-rational forms of generosity), his or her assessment will be more complicated and uncertain. Thank goodness for behavior economists struggling with the incongruities and gaps between human behavior and traditional incentive theory: may that field give economics, law, and the rest of us the language in which to ask better questions.

Benkler's work is both important and weakened because it focuses heavily on the present. However, the timelessness of writing a book on Internet-related case studies and examples quickly dates Benkler's book. A deeper historical perspective on the social production model implicit in human history can only fortify and stabilize the debate for itself. This is not a real critique, however. His one book does too much already, if anything. Future work in this vein should draw upon the past.

As Rasmus Nielsen has pointed out, it may also do very well to account for massive information infrastructure costs, the fiber optic cables, the wifi, and the laptops that the Benkler's optimism depends upon in the international development scene.

In response to Prof. Schwartz' comments, it is worth noting Kibbutz et. al. tend to be very close-knit, intense communities, whereas the virtue of peer production network communities tend to be the very weakness of that community. For the most part it is an interest in work, not a larger vision of relationships and life, that unites these communities. In Mark Granovetter's influential 1973 title, it is "the strength of weak ties" that matters here. Lucas Graves also points out that networked peer production communities are united by, if anything other than the will to work, the very ideology of sharing. Analysis of the incentives driving these communities, then, must include the more complex calculations of human behavior.

Lastly, the optimism of Benkler's book (or, for instance, his live wager against Nicholas Carr) may in fact be a structural component of his very argument. Both the economic logic and the tone it employs are, in a strong sense, faith-based. Faith, I argue, is fine provided one hard condition: that it leads to individual action. Without work, faith in any mode of human interaction is senseless. For those who would entertain Benkler's optimism, we cannot forget the incredible amount of labor implicit in his call to collaboration.

Altruism itself is preconditioned on the applied belief we will (personally, incalculably, and possibly calculably) benefit from helping and sharing nicely with others. It is not surprising its best arguments depend upon the same logic.

07 March 2008

Information Discontents and Eastern Europe from Cybernetics to Cyber Law

More of the same, this time distilled into talk notes from my presentation at the Exploring New Media Worlds conference at Texas A&M last weekend, February 29-March 2.

Every word is, in Wittengenstein's metaphor, an extraordinarily diverse city (Peters, John Durham, "Information: Notes toward a Critical History"); as an Iowan from New York, I feel as if I've stumbled upon a metropolis in my study of the word information. Since at least Plato's dialogues on "form"—the root of information—and its Aristotelian relation to matter, the word has been a standing problem. I mark three key senses of the word:

One, information has a deep and almost forgotten history of meaning that which embodies, infuses, impresses material. (1605, George Chapman, “for love informs them as the sun doth color”; 1674, John Milton, “all alike inform’d/With radiant light, as glowing Iron with fire”) Like the sun makes color and fire forges iron: information gives form to, in-forms matter. This sense remains primarily in phrases like “informed citizens” and other social concerns of civic journalism.

Two, as a noun, the prevailing modern sense of the word is relevant facts, reports received, knowledge communicated (consider the phrase "for your information") it invokes a relevant subject, mental or material, and is necessary preconditioned on a cognitive process, or some sense of human understanding.

Three, I argue information is turning toward a sense of disembodied, distributed, and unprocessed data. Unlike previous usages, the word in popular lingo can be free from necessary relevance to a specific object; information can be ethereal or “out there”, stripped of a signifier, and, like the bit—that hardy phoneme of digitalese—blind to any meaning outside of its other, 0 or 1, incapable of containing anything outside its relationship to itself (OED, “information,” “inform,” “form”).

Even a regular puzzle today like “what does it mean that we gather information exponentially faster than we can understand it” presupposes a disembodied, discontented sense of the term—a dis-content. Such questions would be meaningless were information still inseparable from understanding. We may note too with Joseph Turow and Staffan Ericson how this transition in the word maps onto transitions in the architecture of media companies: the New York Times building is auspicious, the Tonight Show is visible but closed, and Google rents office space unconcerned by place or presentation. The varying ideas of information animating these media companies’ product may bleed into the industrial logic of architecture and corporate design.

At once too much and not enough, this short history of word spells a slide from embodiment to disembodiment, material to immaterial; or in three stages: one, what animates and impacts the mind; two, what the mind receives; three, what the mind could receive, promising only the possibility of meaning. All three senses can coexist usefully but I believe we may be forgetting the first and favoring the third.

The Cold War may important for two reasons: one, it funded and accelerated the information sciences that traded out the second semantic sense of information for the third technical sense of the word that could sustain distributed computer networks; two, it is also a periodization (itself a subject of fierce debate) ripe with human discontent and theorists critical of their surroundings and bipolar politics.

Consider a few working case studies:

1. The textbook story of World War II information sciences: The two shepherds of my third sense, Norbert Wiener's cybernetics and Claude Shannon's information theory gave computing a technical definition of information, stripped of meaning and ready for propositional logic and binary languages.

Too often overlooked, however, are the specific circumstances in which their work and lives took shape. As I write elsewhere, Wiener's cybernetics—"the study of information control and communication" that sought "information homeostasis" his near synonym for world peace—ended up winning support among the Soviets and suspicion from the American military, his original funder. Wiener in caricature was an ex-prodigy, a dark hero, a homeless pacifist, a tragic product of his own Faustian bargain with the military complexes that employed his pacifist science.

Shannon's story is less tragic, although his is also a cautionary tale of the work of controlling information being wrested beyond the creator's control. Shannon insisted to his death the field he became known for "information theory" was actually "a mathematical theory of communication." (As Cold War funders tend to do, his boss and interpreter, Warren Weaver, inflated the title of their famous little book to "the mathematical theory of communication.”) It is possible had Shannon's name stuck, the analytic distinctions and dialectic between the transmission or traffic vision of communication and its alternatives would be less muddled today.

In a strong sense, the story of the reception and extension of post world war II information sciences to the wider world is case study in the work words perform. The act of naming may be the closest equivalent moderns have to magic. It transforms our objects but almost never in the ways we intended. Stigler's law of eponymy holds that he or she who names something almost certainly did not create it. (Wonderfully, Steven Stigler, the historian of statistics, attributes Stigler's law of eponymy to the sociologist Robert Merton.) We are all poor apprentices of the power at the tip of our tongues and transistors.

Case Study Two: a Soviet Internet?

So where did we get the idea of distributed computer network? I imagine three parts of the story, part textbook boilerplate, part revisionist, and part speculative. The textbook history holds the ARPANET project, a nation-wide computer network and the predecessor to the Internet, was designed in response to a military initiative to minimize damage of single-strike Soviet missiles. As Jonah Bossewitch points out, in the attempt to connect computer with computer (not human with human as short-wave or analog wireless did securely nor even human with computer which only a few computer specialists could do at the time), the ARPANET helped ensure mutually ensured destruction policies in the absence of humans, a chilling vision for humans as well as an early empowerment of computers as communicating (and not only calculating) machines.

Part two, Ronda Hauben revises the military explanation behind the network by emphasizing the pioneering openness of the early ARPA research environment under James Killian, ex-MIT President. Killian called for distributed “centers of excellence” to be built, where the subject was basic research—not specialized military projects—and where failure was expected and research positions were long-term and stable. An open research environment may have led to both the need and the inspiration for federated work-based computer network. This is a reassuring revision: ARPA as an eye of intellectual calm in the center of military-state storm.

However, part three, it is also possible the ARPANET owes something to a classified and co-current Soviet Internet project. According to partially declassified CIA documents from 1964, the Soviets were working on a nation-wide computer network project called "Unified Information Network." Unfortunately, further evidence will have to wait this summer's archival work in Moscow and DC, and standing FOIA requests.

May imagination sing out in the meantime: It's possible the Soviets had the idea first, and we took it from them; or that the idea developed in parallel through a series of leaks in military intelligence; or that the idea sprung from the 1959 project to interconnect telephone and electricity grids in Russia; or from an extension of collectivist property and socialist philosophy that, like the ARPANET, nominally distributes participatory power while centralizing authoritarian power.... What—I wonder—did these scientists dream their network work would become: a military weapon, a tool for social empowerment or false consciousness, a bitter joke or utopian hope?

Or, I wonder, would the introduction of a foreign founder help reinvigorate the US Internet narrative? Political theorist Bonnie Honig suggests liberal narratives have long drawn on the symbolic politics of foreignness, and many of them count a foreigner among their founders: the house of David has its Ruth, a Moabite; Oz has its Dorothy of Kansas; Soviet cybernetics, its Norbert Wiener. What would a Soviet tradition do for the American Internet?

It could mean we should reevaluate our intellectual debts internationally; or that this is yet another example of that tired trope of Soviet theory v. American application; that we should rethink the virtues of state secret plagiarism; and that we should rethink perennial and pressing questions about the ethical practices of governments at war.

Even if the lead fails, the story behind the American ARPANET has surprising Eastern European intellectual debts. For example, the American and British invention of packet-switching—itself simultaneously international—owes much to the pre-Soviet mathematician Andrei Markov, and his Markov chains (a probabilistic way of accounting for fixed states and their decision trees, upon which Shannon's information theory also explicitly built). So does queueing theory, which was essential to packet-switching. Queueing theory is basically the mathematical study of waiting in line—both a serious subject of Soviet mathematicians and a way of everyday life in the Soviet Union.

Case Study three: Parallel Failures to Regulate Two Information Frontiers in the 1990s: Post-Soviet Transition and the Internet

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Internet began its steep climb in 1994. The similarities behind the two stories are surprisingly striking.

First of all, the West proclaimed both frontiers rich with untapped resource and ready for investment. The libertarian deregulatory or anti-regulatory policies to follow sped transition to free market and democratic societies almost overnight in countries like Russia, Ukraine, and East Germany (other countries like Poland have transitioned more slowly and more successfully). For example, Jeffrey Sack’s shock therapy instantly released price and currency controls to disastrous effect.

Similarly, the early and mid 1990s Internet debate was populated by an eager cyber-libertarian belief not to regulate the flow of information online. Stewart Brand line about information wanting to be free (he also said it wants to be valuable) became a misquoted mantra of Internet enthusiasts. It could have well been post-Soviet transition. Both groups have since fallen from influence, although the philosophy lives on.

The irony gets richer still. Two things resulted: policies and rhetoric. Its policies cleared the way for established capitalism-savvy actors to move in, enclose, and privatized resource access—and to do so under the very rhetorical banner of free-market libertarianism meant to optimize and distribute value. Oil oligarchs privatized state industries for pennies and copyright-heavy corporations continue to grab the pipes and distributional channels to the Internet.

For those who know the work of Lawrence Lessig, popularizer of cyber law (the study of information regulation online), the Internet-side of this story should sound familiar. But often overlooked is the fact that Lessig himself taught in Budapest and Moscow in the early 1990s. In a recent conversation, he confirmed that the early 1990s debates over post-Soviet transition explicitly reminded him of the mid and late 1990s debates that sprung up around his Internet work. Eastern European transition is both parallel to and an understudied inspiration for cyber law. I hope to explore this further in interviews with Lessig and cyber thinkers from Eastern Europe, Judge Alex Kozinskii, and legal scholars Eugene and Sasha Volokh.

In short, the patterned ways we think of information in languages of binary opposition matter. It spells folly, for instance, to make the common association that because all digital information is alike in bit form, it is equally free to circulate independent of material, substantial, and cultural-contextual barriers; or to presume information flows naturally to the rigorously calculable equilibria of bit and currency exchange. Consider how the political legitimacy of the Google algorithm, on one hand, depends on its being blind to the content of the sites it ranks, while on the other the company’s economic viability depends on the aggregation of that content into advertisements. Despite the information asymmetry in corporate logic, the distributed data of PageRank’s logic seems best regulated from a universal distance, from the Zen-like abstraction of statistics. But like the first sense of information, even mathematics—the lingua franca of abstraction underlying policies of cyber-libertarian anti-regulation, neoclassical economic theories of market transition, and information sciences alike—does not escape its material base: ten awkward digits (base 12 would have been more convenient; two extra toes, two extra factors: 3, 4).

Mathematics is no opponent. Rather I take issue with political extensions of its technical insights that script freedoms of information (civil, political, economic) into a language deaf to context and content. Consider here the last century's expansions of copyright. Conceived originally and soundly to promote arts and sciences as a way to give royalty incentives to creators in exchange for a temporary monopoly over their material expressions of their work, it, like the idea of information, has since grown in scope and duration to include all creative digital expression for life plus 70 years.

We cannot conceive of freedom and control as opposites like we did of Soviets and Americans. We may believe in freedom more than control in part due to lasting political logics of opposition. The public library is free only in that it is locked, controlled open; the corporate database is freer in a strict sense than are public goods. Debate about individual freedoms need to stand in the dirt of fact—no abstracted sense of freedom will do.

In sum, as we enjoy the heightened degrees of freedom, scope, and speed with which we can organize and circulate the ephemeral stuff we consider information, we would do well to pause to consider ways our shifting terms may be unthinkingly reinforcing pre-existing rhetorical, philosophical, and regulatory means of control. Thank you for your comments.