Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Trouble with Modernity

When I first started designing with LEGO Technic in the mid-1980s, I went out and bought a number of fancy tackle boxes to hold all of the different pieces. I would make something, use it for a while, and then break it down into its ABS atoms, putting each beam, brick, axle, gear, wheel, pin and plate into its own little compartment. It's a very modern impulse, to see things in terms of abstract, discrete, separable units which can be arrayed into a grid.

Later, when I was working on my PhD, Deborah Fitzgerald suggested that I read Douglas Harper's ethnography of technology Working Knowledge. It's really a great book, a study of a craftsman named Willie who runs a small shop in northern New York. When I came across this passage I had a moment of enlightenment:

For Willie "junk" cars are a storehouse of parts. It is not only the major components, such as engines and transmissions, that are valuable when a car is junked. The small parts, even brackets or fasteners, also have value far beyond their simple monetary worth. This is especially true for a mechanic like Willie who works almost exclusively on a single make of car. Twenty or thirty miscellaneous junked cars sitting outside a general mechanic's shop would be hard to use efficiently. Twenty to thirty old Saabs, however, constitute a cache of parts for a rather esoteric automobile. Saab parts are hard to find and expensive. Because the cars Willie fixes are often seven to fifteen years old, the parts needed may be obsolete or unavailable -- even just a bolt with a specific length and thread. But the part is "catalogued" on a car sitting outside, ready to be used. (pp.152,154)

Up until that moment, I had always seen car junkyards as I imagine most people see them: messy, anti-modern even. The idea that every piece of a (partially) assembled car serves as a context for understanding and finding the rest of the pieces had never occurred to me.

Twenty years on, there are more and cooler LEGO parts to hack than ever before. Now, however, I tend to keep my previous creations as long as possible, disassembling them only as necessary. Knowing what I did before helps me to remember good idioms and prevents me from reusing bad ones. Having multiple prototypes in draft also lets me combine the best ideas of the bunch, or can provide a tangible signal when it is time to try a fresh approach. It's possible that this kind of messiness even helps us to be more creative. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark describes studies that suggest that our ability to imagine or visualize things is constrained in ways that our perceptual abilities may not be. Describing our ability to understand visual forms with multiple interpretations he writes

Given the evident constraints on our ability to find new interpretations using mental imagery alone, it is not surprising that the discovery of such multiple interpretable forms turns out to depend heavily on a kind of looping process. In this looping process the artist first sketches and then perceptually, not merely imaginatively, re-encounters visual forms, which she can then inspect, tweak, and re-sketch so as to create a final product that supports a densely multilayered set of structural interpretations. The fossil trail of this process remains visible in the sequence of sketches themselves. (pp.76-77)

Fossil trail, indeed. Designing from scratch is like trying to start every evolutionary process with atoms. You get a lot more variety if you can mix and match at successive levels of complexity (for more on this, see John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary, The Major Transitions in Evolution.) The modern impulse toward analysis and organization is a powerful tool, but we can't let the aesthetic get in our way.

In Web 2.0 applications, there has been a trend toward microcontent. On the plus side, this has led to easy remixing and the wonderful variety of mashups. We have to be careful, however, to maintain and index the context in which these chunks are used and reused. One of the fundamental principles of archival practice is respect for the original order of records. In a sense, this is akin to the practice of keeping mostly whole cars in junkyards. It may not appear to be the most "logical" way of preserving information, but in the long run it may turn out to be the must useful way.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Luddism Is a Luxury You Can't Afford

Anyone who works in digital humanities encounters self-proclaimed Luddites from time to time. I have to admit that these people used to annoy me a lot, but I've recently discovered that a sweeping dismissal of technology can make a nice jumping-off point for a more nuanced discussion. I now start by asking what kinds of technology people particularly dislike. Often the answer is that they don't like gadgets, especially ones that they can't figure out how to use. I agree that there are plenty of irritating and pointless gizmos in the world.

(Figuring out how to use these things may be their most interesting affordance. In the early 1980s, I once spent about 36 hours cracking the copy protection on a friend's computer game. The puzzle posed by the game turned out to be so inferior to the one posed by its security that I deleted the game immediately.)

I like to follow up by checking the depth of my interlocutor's commitment to Luddism. Are they willing to do without electricity? Anesthetics? Running water? Architecture? Clothing? How about literacy? I have yet to meet someone who knows the word "Luddite" who would actually be willing to give up the ability to read.

It turns out that what's really interesting about latter day Luddism is that it teaches you a lot about the visibility of particular technologies, and by extension, about the place of the human mind in the world. Someone who can sip a double tall non-fat latte while decrying technology isn't really a hypocrite. They just don't see how the drink in their hand is articulated with global flows of material, energy and information. In Being and Time, Heidegger famously distinguished between things being ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. While you're sipping out of a cup it is ready-to-hand. You don't notice it unless something goes wrong. If the seam melts and drops scalding coffee in your lap, the cup and the coffee become present-at-hand. Instead of being part of you, part of the untrammeled experience of drinking, they are now perceived as external, something you have to deal with. When people claim be Luddites, I think that they are really objecting to the experience of a class of things that always seem to be present-at-hand. It's hard not to like the things that have already become ready-to-hand. These invisible and pervasive technologies are exactly the ones that humanists should be thinking about, though, because they have the deepest implications for who and what we are. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark writes that "what is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props, and aids. This ability, however, does not depend on physical wire-and-implant mergers, so much as on our openness to information-processing mergers." "Tools-R-Us," he says, "and always have been." (5,7)

So enjoy the latte, the iPod, the microfiber clothing. By all means, cycle or take a train instead of driving a car. If you're really concerned about technology, however, remember that it has the most potential to be dangerous when you stop seeing it.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Hacking the Hacks

I think one of my favorite things about having this blog is that people occasionally take one of my hacks and improve it. This kind of collaborative stepwise refinement is, of course, a key argument for open source. I enjoy learning about other people's hacks and often incorporate their suggestions into my own working versions.

Last month, for example, Rob Nelson of the Technology Integration Program at William and Mary wrote some PHP code to create his own field-at-a-glance page for antebellum America. More recently, Matt Joyce greatly improved the exploratory bibliography code and posted a tutorial at his new blog Babbaging. Both Rob and Matt have nice clear explanations of what they did.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

History Appliances: The Metronome

I recently started reading John Thackara's new book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, where I came across this vivid depiction of the infinite archive

On just one single day of the days I have spent writing this book, as much world trade was carried out as in the whole of 1949; as much scientific research was published as in the whole of 1960; as many telephone calls were made as in all of 1983; as many e-mails were sent as in 1990 (p.5)

The statement provides food for thought on a number of levels. How long does it take for the volume of something to increase by a couple of orders of magnitude? What roles do transaction and information costs play? We might also think about converse situations: On a single day in year 18xx, more whalebone corsets were made than in the whole of 2005. Statements of this form allow us to formulate relations between different time periods in quantitative terms.

How might we convey such information about historic rates or volumes in a more tangible or peripheral way? Suppose we wanted to get a feel for the increasing amount of e-mail exchanged as the nineties unfolded. One possibility would be to hook up a stream of historical data to a metronome driven by a servomotor. As the years slowly scroll by on an odometer-like display, the tempo increases from largo, through adagio to hardcore techno. You probably have to turn it off at that point. Not only will the sheer volume of e-mail cause the metronome to tear itself to pieces if you let it continue towards Y2K, but hardcore techno was, as AllMusic tells us, "practically ... a dinosaur by the end of the decade."

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Monday, April 02, 2007

The Alien's Ruler

Back in the days of Usenet, there was a thread on rec.puzzles about an alien who comes to Earth, encodes the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica as a single mark on a metal rod and takes it back to his home planet. The gist of the puzzle was that (1) it's possible to encode information as numbers, and (2) if you concatenate a bunch of numbers together and precede them with a zero and a decimal point, you have the decimal representation of a fraction. Assuming the alien knows the length of the metal rod, each possible mark on it would correspond to some fraction.

You probably remember learning that if you're given two different fractions, it's always possible to find another that lies between them. Between three-fifths and four-fifths, for example, is seven-tenths ... not to mention an infinite number of close friends. So what prevents alien or human technologists from using metal rods as arbitrarily dense analog storage devices? Measurement.

Seth Lloyd works through the physics in his enjoyable book Programming the Universe (pp.22-24):

just as there are an infinite number of real numbers between 0 and 1, there are apparently an infinite number of possible lengths between zero meters and one meter. The reason that apparently continuous quantities such as the length of a metal rod can register only a finite amount of information is that these quantities are typically defined only to a finite level of precision. To see the trade-off between precision and information, think of measuring the length of that rod using a meterstick. The meterstick is made of wood. One hundred centimeters are marked and numbered on the stick. One thousand millimeters are marked, ten for each centimeter, but there is not enough room on the meterstick to number them legibly. You can use the meterstick to measure the length of the rod to the accuracy of about a millimeter. Below a millimeter, a meterstick does not measure distances well, simply because its physical characteristics give it a finite resolution. The total number of alternatives is 1,000, corresponding to three digits of accuracy, or about ten bits of information.

(Think of a bit as a switch that can take two values, 0 and 1. If you have two bits, you can store four alternatives: 00, 01, 10, 11. If you have three bits you can store eight alternatives: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, 111. With n bits, you can store 2^n alternatives. Since 2^9=512 and 2^10=1024, you need about ten bits to store 1,000 alternatives.)

Presumably aliens have better technology than wooden metersticks. But Lloyd works through a series of measurement devices, showing that each one doesn't buy that much more capability. With an optical microscope or an interferometer you might get six digits of accuracy (about 20 bits). With an atomic force microscope you might get ten digits of accuracy (33 bits)... but that requires the ability to sense individual atoms in the metal rod.

To get thirty-three bits of information about the length of our rod, we have to count that length in atoms: heroic amounts of effort are typically required to wring more than a few tens of bits of information out of a single continuous quantity such as the length of a rod. By contrast, if we use many individual quantities to register information, we can rapidly accumulate many bits. ... Our rod contains something like a billion billion billion atoms. If each one registers a bit, then the atoms in the rod can register a billion billion billion bits, far more than the length of the rod on its own can register. In general, the best way to get more information is not to increase the precision of measurements on a continuous quantity, but rather to put together measurements on more and more quantities, each of which may register only a few bits. This compiling of bits--or digital representation--is effective because the number of total alternatives described grows much faster than does the number of bits.

I bring up this thought experiment because I think it highlights what is interesting about digital history. Digital history isn't just about historical sources stored and manipulated on computers. That's pretty old hat, dating at least to Father Busa's work with automated concordancing in the 1940s. And digital history isn't just about historical sources represented in digital form, which dates back millennia. Instead the "digital" of digital history points us toward sites where the digital or analog representation of past events--or the conversion from one form to the other--plays a role in historical consciousness.

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