This first week of quals reading has been about the emergence of the information society during the twentieth century. Gleick’s book explodes that timeline and brings previous centuries into play. The Information has similar concerns to The Closed World insofar as it attempts to make causal links between the fields of computing, information science, and cognition: for both, information structures what we understand as consciousness and what it means to have intelligence. Both are also interested in how basic communicative elements—words, metaphors, these inherently literary objects—condition the formation of both information and its attendant information society.

Gleick’s book is a doorstopper and I don’t expect to be able to get to all of it in this first pass. What I’m reading for is this: How do the strategies of literary studies emerge from or condition the production of the information society? Are literary or media studies a part of the information society? Key to its formation? Counterhistories? Certainly we as scholars are involved in the turn toward information: Vannevar Bush’s plan for the memex evinces a long-standing anxiety about a preponderance of information and our inability to master it as standing in the way of knowledge production (in my investiture in concepts like failure, so key to media archaeology or queer theory, I am not entirely sure this view holds water anymore!). The information society promises to solve the problem of scale even as it seems to produce the problem of scale in the first place. Without a translation of our world into data, would we sense so keenly its vast mystery, and would we feel so driven to master it?

I’m also glad that I read Edgerton first in this cycle, because there’s also a question of historiography here: how does Gleick write the history of information and what does it include? Does it center innovation or use? And what are the stakes of its choice?

Summary

  • Information is the substrate of modernity, and Gleick tells (a fairly normative) version of its history. For Gleick, information addresses the problem of communication, particularly communication over vast scales, times, and cultural difference. Information is also a worldmaking paradigm: a way of encountering matter and culture and rendering it calculable and manipulable.

Keywords

  • information
  • information society

Notes

  • Tracking the book as a whole, I note that Gleick begins with literacy and ends with science: we begin in the written word and end in a very different set of terrains and disciplinary formations.

Prologue

  • Quantification requires the reduction of meaning within key terms: “A rite of purification” (8).
  • Following Edwards’ interest in computing-as-metaphor, here we also find a reverie of how information is central to the development of twentieth and twenty-first century science: it is the Borg, encapsulating and taming everything. All pursuits (technical and scientific at least) become variety of information theory (7–9). What are the limits of this thinking? Are we doing the same thing in digital studies? Literary studies?
  • For Gleick, information science offers the most compelling, or at least most persuasive, model for understanding how the world works. This is one of the book’s values for my project: information as an act of worlding. Interesting then that the one science that seems to hold out the most against information science is quantum physics, which Barad will later use as a similarly compelling theory of a world. (9–10)
  • Note the omnipresent and assumed “we” in this book. Gleick is speaking from a specific position and we need to complicate that.

1: The Talking Drum

  • Gleick begins his story in an infrastructural vein: information transfer as a problem of geography and physical matter, to which the talking drum, the bonfire, and the magnet are all temporary solutions (17–19).
  • The talking drum section is interesting but mostly anecdotal—it operates more as a “hey, I’m not entirely Eurocentric!” gesture than anything else.

2: The Word

  • Starts by invoking Ong’s secondary orality (28).
  • But we really start to veer into uncited popular science claims. Claims about the origin of the alphabet and the value of language in premodern contexts ring true with received histories, but Gleick leaves them wide-open to contradiction and theoretical imagination. The arguments put forward here are the linguistic and rhetorical equivalents of evolutionary biology: seductive in their seeming “naturalness” and simplicity, but also deeply political and situated in ways that Gleick presents as objective.
  • Central claim: the development of language allows for the depersonalization of information, such that it becomes manipulable through processes (logic) separate from embodied experience (39).
  • Lovely idea: “the ordered chaos that seems to guarantee the presence of meaning” (44) [re: cuneiform]

3: Two Wordbooks (Dictionaries)

  • Development of the alphabet as the severing of information from meaning: “to treat words strictly as character strings” (58). Language forms the prehistory of computational thinking.
  • Word lists as worldmaking, re: topical lists in Chinese and Arabic: “These lists were arranging not the words themselves, mainly, but rather the world: the things for which the words stood” (59). Cf. Young.
  • “The dictionary ratifies the persistence of the word” and the idea that all words are part of a giant interlocking structure (66).
  • Information proliferates: it’s easier to add more words to the dictionary than to take them out (this will take on material consequences later in the book) (69).

4: Babbage and Lovelace: Algorithms and Proto-Computing

  • Babbage’s difference and analytical engines: entirely speculative and failed machines. “He spent his long life improving it, first in one and then in another incarnation, but all, mainly, in his mind. It never came to fruition anywhere else” (80).
  • Gleick positions mathematics as the heir to language’s problem of universal communication: for Babbage, numbers are pure and universal (90).
  • The steam engine re-introduces the material, natural, and ecological into the mix (92). Mathematics made possible by fossil fuel substrate.
  • The story of Babbage’s engines is the balance of pure theory against practicality and the centrality of total failure to the primal scene of the development of computation. That being said, I’m wary of this Great Man (or Woman, since Lovelace will enter the scene) history, though I’m interested in how this initial failure worms its way into how we think about and use computation today.
  • Idea: the material turn in media studies is a correction of the 19th century’s attempts to dematerialize information for the purposes of rendering it calculable (109).

5: Telegraphy

  • Mid-nineteenth-century introduction telegraphy girds the earth in bio-wires: “He was neither the first nor the last to liken the electric telegraph to biological wiring: comparing cables to nerves; the nation, or the whole earth, to the human body” (126).
  • Electricity proliferates as a powerful and mysterious metaphor, exerting material consequences on the world w/o anyone really understanding what it was (127) [metaphors v. things].
  • First telegraphs were optical (!), developed by Claude Chappe in France during the Revolution (129).
  • Even just to write the failed attempts to make the telegraph alone would be an entire book, if not an entire career. Failure litters technological development like the dead: they far outnumber the living.
  • “Telegraph is an element of power and order,” according to one of the Chappe brothers. Telegraphy immediately gets taken up by governments and capitalists as a technology of control and command (think w/ Edwards’ C3I here)—a way to domesticate space and time (139).
  • Just as they will for ENIAC in another century, war and weather become the key fulcrums for the development of telegraphy: newspapers wanted bullitens of the Crimean War (146) and “the telegraph enabled people to think of weather as a widespread and interconnected affair, rather than an assortment of local surprises” (147). [Of course, this is an incorrect claim: as my work has shown, people were thinking of the weather as an interconnected phenomenon well before the telegraph.]
  • Great section on the emergence of wires as changing the topography and aesthetics of cities (151). “The wires resembled nothing in architecture and not much in nature.”
  • Another dimension emerging in this section and also in the Babbage one: the tension between code-as-executable-language and code-as-cryptography (155), cf Lennon.
  • Does media archaeology have a rigorous theory of failure? What common ground is there, if any, between failure and speculation?
  • This chapter then has a useful excursion into how telegraphy spurred interest in ciphers for economic reasons, and how these ciphers get taken up by literary writers of the day (if I were a nineteenth-century person, this would be a treasure trove) (162).

6: New Wires, New Logic

  • This chapter’s about the first half of the twentieth century: from Claude Shannon’s work with Vannevar Bush, to Kurt Gödel’s time at the Institute for Advanced Study, to the invention of the telephone. It’s a bit scattershot.
  • The Bertrand Russell model: “The invention of writing had catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning—to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination—and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols. In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seemed to be coming together” (177). But Gödel comes along and blows the whole thing up with the Incompleteness Theorem (184–85).

[Time is short so I’m going to skim through the middle chapters, which flesh out the development of Shannon and Weaver’s information theory, Wiener’s cybernetics {consider returning back here for context after you’ve read Cybernetics}, and genetic code. The last three chapters are a bit more relevant, on quantum physics and the physical substrate of information, Borgesian proliferation, and the contemporary moment.]

Archive and Impact

  • James Gleick is a science writer and journalist, and it shows: this is a meticulously researched book but it loses some of its impact based on its style. No citations, prone to big explanatory stories: I’m not saying it’s not nuanced, but I think this book is most useful to me for how it lays out a (fairly normative) history of information theory. There are really few women and to my reading not really any people of color? (Turing’s queerness merits a two sentence throwaway, and then he dies.)
  • This is also the kind of story that Edgerton would despise. It’s structured by Big Stories of Massive Inventions by Men of Renown (all young, brilliant men at MIT/Harvard, of course). It revels in “theory”: it announces itself in the subtitle as “a theory,” and the NYT’s review calls it “sexily theoretical.” This relationship to theory is interesting: the imprimatur of theory gives Gleick the opportunity to set aside lots of political considerations and focus instead on information theory as a raw, explanatory phenomenon. Even the chapter announcing that “information is physical” turns out to be mostly about theoretical problems in quantum mechanics. This is “theory” in the scientific sense: explanatory models abstracted from physical reality, but that nevertheless tell us something meaningful about that reality. It’s a kind of theory that feels hopelessly outdated these days, particularly in light of the theoretical innovations we’ll get in the Anthropocene part of my reading.
  • And it ends with an entirely insincere techno-optimism, the sort of argument that Silicon Valley depends on in order to legitimate its work. I’m not pleased or convinced by it: it feels dated in that way that only the immediate past can.
  • So of what utility was this book to my work? It has been incredibly useful as a primer to the normative history of information science. This book’s archive is filled with the classics of the field: Claude Shannon is a minor deity; it relies on the same works of cognitive psychology, linguistics, and communications studies that Edwards does in the cyborg/AI section of The Closed World. One of the things I’m going to be interested in finding out is how much I take from McLuhan, Innis, and Mumford—foundational to communications and cultural media studies, but deployed in ways that I find kind of unsettling and reductive in these past few readings.
  • Finally, I’m looking forward to reading Hicks tomorrow because I feel like I’ll finally get a picture beyond the masculinist Big Names and Ideas history that I’ve gotten so far. I need to return to Edgerton because I’m realizing that his model of historiography is something that…does not seem to be the norm, at least in my (extraordinarily limited three days!) of reading so far.