Homework for Lesson 31, Monday 10/28

Read the five brief selections on privacy. (If you’re behind on doing blog entries or just want some extra credit, you’re welcome to do a custom or freestyle one about the readings for this lesson.) Samuelson is short and kind of goofy, Raynes-Goldie is the longest and most academic but also really interesting, Betancourt is short and kind of interesting but maybe obvious, Ford is fiction set in the future and kind of sad when you think about it, and McKeon might surprise or disturb you. We’ll meet in AML 105.

Lesson 30: Google and the Business of Search

I’ll show an initial brief video to celebrate what today is, and then I’ll ask you: what did you think about the Google reading? What stood out to you? What do you know about how search worked before Google, and what do you think about how it changed?

Then we’ll watch three videos about Google. One thing to keep in mind, especially with the data center video: people often want to represent the so-called information economy as being “frictionless” or immaterial; as existing entirely online.

Google: “The Evolution of Search”
Wired: “Explore a Google Data Center”
Democracy Now: “Is Net Neutrality in Jeopardy?”

As a large group discussion question, to get us started after watching the videos: what are some of the material, real-world effects of the business of internet use and its personal and political consequences?

In small groups, I’ll ask you to discuss and come up with some answers to the question: what do the videos indicate about the intersection of money, politics, and information? Where do they offer similar ideas, and where do they differ?

Lessig’s “Right to Tinker”

Lessig talks about the “right to tinker” (47) and how new digital technologies enable that right, and seems to suggest that the impulse to tinker will make us a better culture, enabling the spread of new ideas and new forms of creativity. What happens when we put Lessig’s argument about creativity into play with Gleick’s ideas about how technologies evolve? Lessig is arguing that these new digital technologies enable different forms of tinkering: how did we tinker before these new digital technologies came about? He mentions the Wright brothers and their airplane, and Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail and their telegraph: one form of tinkering was mechanical (the airplane and how it works with the laws of physics and aerodynamics) and one was informational (Morse code and how it allowed distant communication): are those two forms necessarily completely different? I don’t think so.

When I was growing up, my first car was a huge old pickup truck; so big that I could actually open the hood and climb inside the engine compartment and sit on the wheel well and work on the engine. It was so old and rusty that parts broke off all the time. At one point, I was in rural West Virginia, driving along when I heard a clatter from under the hood and then the sound of the engine got really loud and hissy, so I pulled over and popped it open and had a look, and the bolt that held the air cleaner on top of the opening into the carburetor had sheared off, so there was nothing preventing bugs or dust or airborne debris from finding their way into the carburetor and the chamber and blowing up my engine. I didn’t have machine tools with me or any way to replace the bolt, so I tinkered: I found a couple scraps of wood and an empty plastic engine oil bottle and very carefully placed the air cleaner back on top of the carburetor and then balanced the wood and the oil bottle (without its lid on, so it could expand and contract some) right in the middle of the top of the air cleaner, and slammed the hood down, hoping that the the inside of the hood would press down on the oil bottle and wood and in turn on the air cleaner and hold it all together until I got to someplace where I could fix it. It worked.

That impulse to say, “Well, let’s hope this works” also helped me with computers. I had one of the first Macintosh models when I was in college, the SE-30 with the black-and-white 9-inch screen, and according to Apple, nobody was supposed to open up your computer except a licensed Apple service technician. I wanted to upgrade the memory, so I found the obscure kind of torx wrench Apple used for the screws, ground the sides of it down so it would fit into the deeply recessed holes at the top of the computer, and voided my warranty by cracking the case. I knew static electricity was a concern with the memory chips, so I made a grounding strap by folding an aluminum foil bracelet around some speaker wire and wrapping the other end of the speaker wire around the sink drain pipe, and managed to upgrade my computer without frying the circuit board. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I guess that qualifies as tinkering.

So I’m wondering: is there any difference between mechanical tinkering and digital tinkering; between doing a stop-gap repair on a truck engine and a minor upgrade on a computer? I don’t think so. The computer relies on physics just like the truck engine does. The thing is, tinkering has gotten more complicated: now we have tools on top of tools, both for our computers and for our cars. I’m not sure I could do with my car today what I did 20 years ago. On the other hand, computers have gotten easier to upgrade in some ways, but most of my tinkering now is with a text editor and CSS files: scripts that operate on pages that display on browsers that rely on protocols that are build on binary signals that themselves rely on the openings and closings of switches that happen both in my computer and all over the world. Tinkering has gotten a lot more complicated and a lot more indirect and multiply mediated. And as Lessig points out, there are now governmental laws as well as physical laws that regulate our tinkering, and that makes matters more complicated—and more dangerous—as well.

Stacked-Deck Fortunetelling

In “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush is fundamentally concerned with how we organize, store, and retrieve information. He imagines a system of associational links. Claude Shannon imagined a way of organizing information — encoding it — in ways that made it simpler to transmit. In “Twelve Blue,” Michael Joyce is concerned with how we tell, re-tell, and re-cycle through stories, how people, characters, settings, and events accrete and accumulate meaning in the ebb and flow of storytelling. Joyce’s story seems free-form, confusing, until we start to see patterns in how people relate to each other — but those people themselves seem familiar, at once fully realized as characters and yet as types or symbols or icons, something like the archetypes from the oral tradition: the virgin, the brave and foolish boy, the powerful seductress, the doomed best friend, the returned king, the inscrutable librarian, the guardian of the gate, the idiot man-child, the lonely girl. I think also of “Twelve Blue” as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure, or even as a game world to make one’s way through. The old games were stories, as well: card games that had the narrative of a battle (think the card game War, or more recently, Pokémon) or a journey. And yet we can calculate with cards as well, as in the Solitaire cipher designed by Bruce Schneier for low-tech secure communications. All these seem to me to come together in the prospect of using Tarot cards as game, as mnemonic, or as cipher.

A long time ago, I wrote about how  Steve Erickson in his strange and gorgeous novel Amnesiascope, proposes an American Tarot: in place of the Magician and the Fool, Death and the Lovers, Erickson offers “the Snakecharmer and the Boatman and the Moll and the Slave, the Witch and the Bounty Hunter and the Black Lieutenant and the Salem Mistress. . . the Blind Hitchhiker and the Ripped-Dress Debutante.” Erickson’s writing is habitually brilliant, but this idea — practically a throwaway, an aside in the novel’s hallucinatory and frightening beauty — is an idea I can’t let go. Had I the inventive skill and the time and the artistic ability, I’d create an entire deck, Major and Minor Arcana, of the American Tarot: The Pop Singer, The Gangster, The Salesman, The Skyscraper, The Student, Hollywood, The Welfare Mother, The Miner, The Senate Commission, The Minister, The Corner Store, The Late-Night DJ — what are our other icons? For the power of the Tarot lies in its archetypal echoes, the way these figures represent constellations of cultural, political, economic identities, activities, phenomena: they seem powerfully unique, but they stand for entire classes, arrays, matrices of possibility or calculation or recall. The Black Lieutenant carries a hundred thousand narratives of oppression and ascent, structural hegemony and individual agency, romance and loss; so, too, do all the other Arcana all compress their own multiplicities of narratives. The Arcana seem to me to be something like classes, in that they embody the stories people tell about themselves. The stories we tell about ourselves. We see other stories, as well.

We see the way they’re drawn and dealt, seventh shuffle and seventh cut, diamonds and hearts, spades, the club, the way they fall, the quadrifold crux, nexus, birth, school, work, death, the wings to either side, fortune, soaring to the possible wax-burn and smoke-trail plummet, Icarine, but to soar and hit it, the gold-paved street, the crystal halls and mahogany offices, the frosted glass through which to gaze, the sunny skies and shaded glades, fragmented, splintered like a stained-glass window, smashed save for the larger lies, super-sized, in the elliptical detail and the alternative history, the myth of celebrity and the lies of the scandal sheet made true.

We lie to tell the truths about our culture once removed from itself, our borrowed myths, our inflations and elisions. We see American culture in need of a Madonna the size of Paul Bunyan, a class mythology that is the self-conscious accumulation of simulacra, the sound bite as tall tale, fame and desire making even the false minutiae into a medium of exchange.

We see Harriet Tubman hanged in her wedding dress on a rural Maryland farm, hanged by one ankle, the trickle of blood from the rope’s abrasion, the scrape of hemp, down her bare leg, for her and the blessing of God, her features hidden by her fallen gown, and the shaming grace of her bare brown body, of the Klan, of the terrible science of blood and fire and fear.

We see John Luther Jones, one hand on the brake and the other on the horn, the final run from Memphis to Canton, the twisted wreckage of Cleveland steel, like metal could bend that way, could and can and does, the hunger of the boiler’s fire and a hopper full of coal, far away from the equivocal power of the city, the crowd and buzz and murmur, the great hive, the empty place, the rails’ whine and clack and rumble, the broken bit in the engine’s teeth, unbridled, the drawing-together of space, the one man who knew Leland Stanford’s golden spike had been inscribed with his name and the roar of a hundred thousand trains, who knew the sudden hush and collective held breath as a nation waited on Casey’s last ride.

We see old Joe laughing over his whiskey, his caved-in face, eight million before he was twenty-nine and the unforgivable stain of placating fascism, even Gloria couldn’t take that, Honey Fitz never forgave it, fired after two years as ambassador and he told his sons to take it as far as they could, to the limit, the Kennedy end, the cask and the casket, another end in the movement of metal, twist and jump and crumple, all our eyes, all their lives, alcohol and lead, stainless steel and fiberglass, and always, somewhere, fire.

We see the girl, eight years old and tiring of the suburban Kansas schoolbus ride, riding through Dred Scott’s territory, her angry father and the National Guard, the full magazine of an M1 Garand, Ike’s stroke and the slump of all deliberate speed leaving him like that, drooling, gibbering to President Dick in the anteroom of the D.C. Army hospital, one side of the face paralyzed in that place where the wheels on the bus go round, when all the old words for soul meant breath, psyche, spiritus, anima, oxygen to feed it, the end of the white city, energy, undirected, becomes hysterical, drives activity and empties itself into the future skyscrapers of Linda Brown’s Topeka.

We see the young officer with his blood-streaked chin, the flap of gristle from a child’s wrist still hanging from that front-teeth gap, the high-school quarterback hero, the one who knew like Kronos that when the barbarians came at least they were a kind of solution, the one who was both the father and the sacrifice when God said to Abraham kill me a son, his hair too short and still stinking of naphtha and the bright black and orange bloom of a treeline bombed, Lieutenant Calley hanged by the neck on the Capitol’s steps, burned, the flames beyond the cherry blossoms.

We see Paula Coughlin at the Gauntlet, the fallen face of the high-rise hotel, girders burnt and bent and the plane’s final fatal approach, the skyscraper superstructure, furious furtive gropes on the flat plane of the flight deck and steel beach, a slammed coupling against inch-thick plate glass on the thirty-first floor and the city spinning below, the blaze of its lights, high and horny and horrified, drunk on Molotov cocktails, the world in her left hand and the sword in her right, blindfolded, and changed for scales and a last cigarette.

We see, now, the trumps laid out, the components and futures of the stories we tell about ourselves: marketing analysis, compression ratios for spark and flame, four-barrel Halley carbs, Remington .410s, green tea, honey-colored suntans, superchargers, nocturnal emissions, fluorocarbons, teenage lovers, antioxidants, the NFL draft, instant coffee, tattoos, super-high octane, stain-resistant Orlon, Saran wrap, breast implants, Tupperware, Ritalin, A-400, stunt doubles, fast food, flame-grilled burgers, second mortgages, police auctions, police actions, friendly fire, eight-gauge and nine-grain, the wonderful world of Disney, full copper jacket, black bras, burning sensations, waxy yellow buildup, accounts receivable, disposable syringes, hilarious home videos, phone sex hotlines, new fat burners, Teflon politicians, dime-a-minute friends and family, 401(k)s, serial killers, fast-acting laxatives, lingerie parties, Jenny Craig, lactose intolerance, superheroes, special effects, lite beer, free-range chickens, family values, reaction formation, tie-dyes, duct work, crack, Atkins diets, Hanna-Barbera, anal sex, lapdogs, medicated ointment, junk bonds, hostile takeovers, hot Hollywood gossip, chopped and channeled 442 V-8s, open pit B-B-Q, AR-15s, Pilates, liposuction, tasers, pedophilia, poison tongue, poison mind, poison life, poison air; we see all this, the rising hum and hubbub and ignitory arcing spark of chance across the matrix of the American Arcana.

Information Management

The problem for which Claude Shannon was struggling to come up with a solution was the same one any of us face in a college course, perhaps more than at any other time in our lives, and it’s the same problem I find myself struggling with today: how to manage the overwhelming flow of information. Aaron Swartz helped to develop Markdown and the RSS 1.0 specification, both of which allowed people to manage information more easily. I use RSS a lot to keep track of the “new news every day” to which Gleick referred using Robert Burton’s 1621 phrase from The Anatomy of Melancholy. I’m currently about 600 pages behind in my reading: I’ve got the notes and text to read for a group of graduate students I’m working with on volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, your blog posts, a set of drafts for English 301, two hundred pages of materials for a section of English 302 that I’m teaching at the end of this semester, four books that I need to familiarize myself with in order to finish a large project I’m working on, three draft scholarly articles for which I owe people feedback, several webtexts to review for the online journal I edit, as well as the hundred or so emails per day that need sorting and answering. Certainly, I rely on algorithms to help me manage these: my email clients and RSS readers sort and prioritize for me, I use software to track changes and compare edits, and still I’m overwhelmed, drowning in the ocean of ephemera. Why?

I think Claude Shannon had part of the answer, and it has to do with his distaste for meaning. Meaning is what makes information hard to handle: it turns information into intellectual or emotional lived experience, something that you have to internalize. Shannon wanted to make everything algorithmic; to sort all information on the fly; to have a Babbage-style Analytical Engine that would rely only on the bits and the metadata to figure out where things go and what to do with them, 43-folders style. (Show of hands: how many people in this class use a GTD approach to task management? How many know about such approaches or feel like they might actually be useful? How many people use email rules or have different ringers for different groups of people on your phones?) All those things are rules for information that make us not have to worry about it until we want to experience it. And maybe that’s the big shift between our current situation and the way we used to live: a long time ago, we had to experience most things synchronously, in realtime. We couldn’t time-shift our lives. Without electricity, we learned most things about the wide world when the sun was up.

That also meant that we had to do all of our information-sorting by hand. If we had to sort a lot of information, it took a lot of people. What would have happened if the telegraph companies had actually kept records of every telegraph they sent, if they had figured out ways to sort those scraps of paper according to appropriate metadata, perhaps even the ones familiar to us today: author, date, subject? Word frequency? What could we have discovered?

Thomas Pynchon’s novel about World War II, Gravity’s Rainbow, begins with an instance of mass apophenia: Army intelligence analysts discover that the map of Private Tyrone Slothrop’s romantic assignations corresponds precisely to the map of V-2 rocket strikes on wartime London. The novel then begins to unravel and explore possible meanings or explanations for that correspondence. But what we should understand from Shannon, and what the novel makes clear, is that the only meaning we can apply to such circumstance is human meaning, and it is in no way necessarily related to the correspondence of data — to the information. The habit of apophenia exists only in human experience, and not in the operations of the universe.

The World Is Not As It Was

At the end of Chapter 1, Gleick writes that “Before long, there were people for whom the path of communications technology had leapt directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages” (27). We easily forget about predecessor technologies, about the way things were, and that’s part of Gleick’s point — but there’s also the point that those technologies fundamentally changed the way we thought and acted. How did you meet up with somebody before mobile phones? How did you make a copy of a document before the computer or the photocopier? That’s the looking-backward counterpart to Shannon’s question, “What if it were like this?” (Gleick 3). Gleick shows that the African talking drums remedied a problem as old as Western history long before Samuel Morse’s 1836 telegraph with ”a messaging system that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on good roads with way stations and relays” (16). In the West, before Morse, there were either binary messages (the signal bonfires, yes/no, 0/1), or there were runners: ten years before Leonidas held out against the Persians at the hot gates, it was a runner who ran 26.2 miles to deliver news of the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon, and circumstances didn’t change much for 2326 years — but when they changed, they changed radically. The world is not as it was.

It’s easy to think about the past as backward, instead of thinking about the perspectives of those who lived in those times as simply being radically different from our own. In the late 1500s and early 1600s in England, in the time of William Shakespeare and John Dee and shortly after the life of Thomas Elyot who used “intelligence” in the old military sense of its relation to “mutuall treaties or appoyntementes” (Gleick 7), magic was understood and experienced as real. That changed within the lifetime of Thomas Browne: in the space of about 100 years, Bacon (1620) and Descartes (1637) had invented the fundamentals of the scientific method, Newton and Leibniz had invented calculus, and the world had seen the birth of the steam engine, the fountain pen, and the pendulum clock. The world was a different place, and the nature of information (intelligence, in its old sense) fundamentally changed.

Or did it? At around the same time as the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon, the Greek philosopher Parmenides put forth his fundamental ontology: as the basis of all things, there is being and not-being. One and zero. On and off. That binary system is the talking drum, Shannon’s unit for measuring information, the dot and the dash that we combine and recombine and systematize into the numbers and alphabets that put together the code and programs and agreements and interfaces and computers and systems upon which I’m typing this now, continuing what Gleick describes as ”a chain of abstraction and conversion: the dots and dashes representing letters of the alphabet; the letters representing sounds, and in combination forming words; the words representing some ultimate substrate of meaning” (5). But none of this would work outside of the technological and cultural context in which it’s embedded, and which makes us not see experiences different from our own, perspectives different from our own.

The Interface Between Machine and Meaning

How much of a role does effort play in how we interact with digital technologies? In her first DTC356 blog post, Andi writes,

When I think of a world without the social media and technology we have now, I imagine a world that was connected in only a few ways instead of a million ways (twitter, facebook, blogging, etc.) to communicate with each other. Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats? Technology would not have ever advanced as far as it has today if it weren’t for these signals, tones, and phrases that began centuries ago.

The point about “having to listen intently” is important, because of the ways digital technologies seem to make communicating information so easy. Brown and Duguid talk about “the conduit metaphor” and how “[b]asic ideas of sending and receiving make digitization, for example, seem easy. You distill the information out of book or articles and leave the paper residue behind” (184). The problem is, though, that there are other important aspects of the act of communication that we often ignore: Continue reading