17 January 2008

The Cold War Factor in the Cyber History of the Idea of Information: from Von Neumann to Lessig

Notes toward a Research Statement

My research explores the humanistic imagination for communication in creative social-material complexes of technology, policy, and culture. In it I focus large questions of how humans arrange, control, and create meaning with the historical and international lenses of Eastern Europe. For example, my dissertation looks to locate cyber law—or the contemporary study of Internet regulation—in a longer history of the idea of information and its Cold War intellects and contexts. Below follow a few preliminary project notes and a reflection on the study and stakes of history in cyber scholarship. In my reading, the term cyber history should be understood to encompass more than the history of cyber scholarship or cyber law; the subfield rather ranges across any relevant human attempt to collect, coordinate, and govern (cf. Greek roots of cyber) physical data into meaningful form.

Since at least World War II, scientists, policy makers, and critics have increasingly struggled to stay conceptually afloat the machine-enabled wash of information. What does the transition of the term information from the early twentieth-century sense of “relevant facts” to the early twenty-first century sense of “infinitely amassable data” mean for contemporary attempts to regulate the human use of information? Such attempts often face a paradox at once technical and post-modern: how do we rethink a form of information that can be gathered faster than it can be understood? How can we creatively reform our policies, our social relations, and ourselves? The economic and semantic livelihood of the information society will follow in part our wagers on these, and other, questions.

My work looks to address these questions through a history of the idea of information and its intellects in the “long” history of Cold War, from the World War II early cybernetics of Norbert Wiener to the post-Soviet cyber law of Lawrence Lessig. Key objects of study will include the life, work, and transatlantic relations of key information society scholars ranging from the Hungarian émigré, belligerent anti-Communist, and brilliant WWII mathematician John von Neumann; to the father of cybernetics, son of a Slavic professor, veritable Soviet hero and collaborator, Norbert Wiener; to the Austrian-American economist Fritz Machlup and his Cold War coinage of information society in the early 1960s; to the post-industrial sociologist Daniel Bell and the US foreign policy that turned his liberalism into neo-conservativism; to network theorists Manuel Castells and (his spouse) Emma Kiselyova’s record of their early 1990s explanation of the information-driven collapse of the Soviet state; to the first mouthpiece of cyber law in the late 1990s, constitutionalist, and (a less noted fact) Eastern Europeanist Lawrence Lessig. (As I hope to explore in interview with Lessig, his perspectives on the nature of code, law, and corruption since the late 1990s may or may not coincide with his experience living in early 1990s Budapest and Moscow, where roller coasters of shock therapy and the Russian constitution challenged optimism about unrestrained freedom of information.) Other select figures in cyber law, such as Yochai Benkler on samizdat, or late Soviet émigré legal scholar Eugene Volokh or (less likely) Judge Alex Kuzinski may too be interested to share the thoughts on the relationship between philosophical underpinnings and the complexities of transition information policies.

In addition to close analysis of work and biographical vignette, the project also looks to examine and foreground the causes behind the expansion of information institutions and policies to expand during the Cold War, including, among others, the Cold War as a war fought with information over diverging ideals about the proper information society; the evolution of the Internet itself from ARPANET, the 1960s US military project to reduce single missile strikes by decentralizing intelligence across a nationwide packet-switching network; a comparison of information freedoms in free market and centralized command economies, peer-to-peer and samizdat technologies, advertising and propaganda models of public persuasion, and others; and the tensions exacerbated in the global spread of copyright and the human rights of privacy and free speech. These and other points will fall into place with further research.

Why Cyber History?

I propose here five suggestions to why cyber law needs history: First, it is not, as George Santayana said, that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it but that those who do history well are condemned to admit its ambiguity. In fact a craft of drafts rewritten every generation, history supplies no assurances about avoiding repeating the past. It may be at best a gauge for how little we know about ourselves.

Two, because revisiting ignored and untold elements of our contingent social genealogy can shake long-held assumptions, contextualize change, and challenge complacencies. Knowing what we do not know is strength, a weapon against sides too convinced of primogeniture and a precedent right to being right. For students of fledgling information environments like the Internet, there may be no richer streambed of insight for challenging centuries of accepted convention than that of new media history. All media, obviously, were once new. Moreover, since each medium was new before it was old, the history of new media actually predates the history of old media. A fuller spread of options for change awaits those who will critically examine the conjectural and constitutive moments in the novel past.

Three, because history occupies a rare kind of intellectual commons—a concern for what came before—shared among otherwise isolated fields. As all academic disciplines must make some claim to identify change or affirm continuity, even the most forward-looking scholarship gestures in form with literature reviews, panel data, or precedent toward satisfying the human curiosity for change. History also offers the best and perhaps only response to the moving-target problem puzzling students of the Internet in its ability to seek order not only in but across data streams of social change. My dissertation, for example, aims to coordinate and plot changes of the idea of information freedom online in a longer related story of information offline.

Not only do most fields employ remnants of historical study, many fields—cyber law among them—have ample space for the development of a historical subfield that, like legal and media history, roots itself in disciplinary substrata (art history, legal history, media history, science history, etc.). In part, then, my dissertation is an early essay in the subfield of “cyber history.”

Four, because history lets us tell stories that set the tone and trajectory for thinking about such subjects in the future. By this we mean not so much that history lets us peer into the future but that it lets us influence the way others in the future will think about us. The stories we tell about others will narrate those told about us. History must exist for its own sake.

Lastly, because history is fun, and those who agree are invited to join company in its cyber variant.

In sum, the stakes of history are many: a sharpened capacity for criticizing certainties, uncovering lost contingencies, pressing change, telling stories, and having fun will help cyber students and scholars address contemporary information problems. The project is as urgent as the history of information is long and understudied. Modern societies simply must do a better job caring for and sharing the rich stores and possibilities of mental work.

A Few Key Works

Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

Beniger, James. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the

Information Society, 1989.

Boyle, James. Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information

Society. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Castells, Manuel and Emma Kiselyova, The Collapse of Soviet Communism: A View from the

Information Society. UC Berkeley Press, 1995.

Cmiel, Kenneth. “From Knowledge to Information.” Unpublished article, 2005.

Edwards, P. N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War

America. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1996.

Lessig, Lawrence. Code, 2000, v. 2.0, 2006.

Machlup, Fritz. The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1962).

Olson, Mancur. Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships,


Pavlov, I. P. Conditioned Reflexes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1927.

Peters, Benjamin. “Betrothal and Betrayal: The Soviet Translation of Norbert Weiner’s Early

Cybernetics” in the International Journal of Communication (www.ijoc.org) 2008.

Siegert, Bernhard. Passage des Digitalen: Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften,

1500-1900. Brinkmann & Boss: Berlin, 2003

Trogemann, G., A. Y. Nitussov, W. Ernst, eds. Computing in Russia: The History of Computer

Devices and Information Technology Revealed. Alexander Y. Nitussov, trans. Vieweg,

Wiesbaden, 2001.

Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the

Rise of Digital Utopianism. U Chicago P, 2006.

Von Neumann, John and Arthur W. Burks. Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. U of Illinois

P, 1966.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 2nd ed.

Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1954 [orig. published 1950].


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