Tag Archives: digital frontier

Science fiction capabilities, not scientific capabilities

Many of Rid’s tales unfold in the Defense Department and in the General Electric factory in Schenectady, New York, where Vietnam-driven businessmen, engineers, and government men created (unsuccessful) prototypes of robot weapons, and where Kurt Vonnegut sets his first novel, the cybernetics-inspired Player Piano. It turns out, although Rid does not say this in so many words, that science fiction has been as instrumental in the rise of the digital as any set of switches. Consider, for example, the creation of the Agile Eye helmet for Air Force pilots who need to integrate “cyberspace” (their term) with meatspace. The officer in charge reports, according to Rid, “We actually used the same industrial designers that had designed Darth Vader’s helmet.” This fluid movement between futuristic Hollywood design, science fiction, and the DOD is a recurring feature of Rise of the Machines. Take the NSA’s internal warning that “[l]aymen are beginning to expect science fiction capabilities and not scientific capabilities” in virtual reality. Or Rid’s account of the so-called “cypherpunks” around Timothy May. Their name was cribbed from the “cyberpunk” science fiction genre (“cypher” refers to public-key encryption), and they were inspired by novels like Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981), one on a list of recommended books for the movement on which not a single nonfiction text figures.

–Leif Weatherby, The Cybernetic Humanities


The medium is the memory

Rumsey draws a powerful analogy to underscore memory’s materiality. The greatest memory system, she reminds us, is the universe itself. Nature embeds history in matter. When, in the early 19th century, scientists realized that they could read nature’s memory by closely examining the Earth and stars, we gained a much deeper understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Geologists discovered that the strata in exposed rock tell the story of the planet’s development. Biologists found that fossilized plants and animals reveal secrets about the evolution of life. Astronomers realized that by looking through a telescope they could see not only across great distances but far back in time, gaining a glimpse of the origins of existence.

Through such discoveries, Rumsey argues, people both revealed and refined their “forensic imagination,” a subtle and creative way of thinking highly attuned to deciphering meaning from matter. We deploy that same imagination in understanding and appreciating our history and culture. The upshot is that the technologies a society uses to record, store and share information will play a crucial role in determining the richness, or sparseness, of its legacy. To put a new spin on Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, the medium is the memory.

Whether through cave paintings or Facebook posts, we humans have always been eager to record our experiences. But, as Rumsey makes clear, we’ve been far less zealous about safeguarding those records for posterity. In choosing among media technologies through the ages, people have tended to trade durability for transmissibility. It’s not hard to understand why. Intent on our immediate needs, we prefer those media that make communication easier and faster, rather than the ones that offer the greatest longevity. And so the lightweight scroll supplants the heavy clay tablet, the instantaneous email supplants the slow-moving letter. A cave painting may last for millennia, but a Facebook post will get you a lot more likes a lot more quickly.

–Nicholas Carr, When our culture’s past is lost in the cloud

A minor quibble: Carr ends his column by advising, “We should make sure that there’s always a place in the world for the eloquent object, the thing itself.” I know what he means by that, and it’s a point I agree with. At the same time, his definition of “materiality,” in this particular column, is a bit limited in scope. True, the “digital” record of a Facebook timeline is not the same as the “physical” record of, say, a diary. Both are still material. The difference is that the materiality of a Facebook timeline is scattered–into the code that structures a web site or whatever browser a person is using, into whatever hard drives or servers are tasked to archive the timeline and call it up on demand–whereas the materiality of a diary is self-contained: the book, the “thing itself.”

Electronic signals, we should remember, are material things, if we understand “materiality” to refer to anything with atomic substance. But Abby Rumsey’s point about the fragility of digital stuff is well-taken. Those digital archives are not only fragile in their material state (as anyone can attest whose computer has suddenly died before she could save the document she was writing), but they are, as noted elsewhere in the column, eminently mutable (as anyone can attest who has accidentally deleted the document he was revising before saving the latest change).

All of this is to emphasize the point Carr/Rumsey makes in that third paragraph: digital media are more immediately transmissible, but the meaning and form of communication are (perhaps) not as adequately preserved. The physical chassis of my laptop will likely outlive me in significant respects. The digital world housed within or accessed through it likely will not. Not in its current form. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that this very blog post does, in fact, physically exist. The electronic signals that sustain and transmit it literally exist; the codes for it are stored somewhere. But these various physical materials only come together in the form of this commonplace blog when the vast machinery of the Internet (including your machine and mine) is mobilized to make it so, for the fleeting moments of access. Not unlike the various chemicals and biological materials that house me for the scant few decades I–as in I Me Myself, the being whose history belongs to this body and mind–exist on this planet.

When I die, these materials will disperse, never to come together in precisely the same form again, never housing the particular meaningfulness or resonance of my life, as I have lived it. What I think Carr and Rumsey touch on, whether they know it or not, is whether the resonance of a human soul can be housed by media. If it can, it is less likely to be in digital form. Looks like Ray Kurzweil still has his work cut out for him.

The birth of crowdwriting?

We have entered a Brave New World in which one price cannot serve all, and sales points need to be calculated and contextually negotiated. And even beyond flexible price points, there is the possibility of ongoing “public patronage” in which the public “subscribes” to an individual artistSurely, it is only a matter of time before sites like Gittip, which allows users to donate a minimum of 25 cents a week to members of the technorati, expand to cover authors and artists.


What if, as Scott Turow fears, authors cannot adjust to the challenges of online distribution and piracy, leaving us with a system that rewards a writerly 1 percent of a few winners and lots of losers? One possible consequence is that idealistic, imaginative, and socially engaged members of our generation will feel compelled to make a more direct and practical impact on the world—rather than writing about social inequality, they might be “forced” to take jobs as policy-makers, for example. In fact, with the collaborative and interdisciplinary mentality behind many crowdfunded projects, such possibilities have already emerged.

Sarah Ruth Jacobs, “The Author in the Age of Digital Distribution”