March 7, 2008 Ben Peters

Information Discontents and Eastern Europe from Cybernetics to Cyber Law

More of the same, this time distilled into talk notes from my presentation at the Exploring New Media Worlds conference at Texas A&M last weekend, February 29-March 2.

Every word is, in Wittengenstein’s metaphor, an extraordinarily diverse city (Peters, John Durham, “Information: Notes toward a Critical History”); as an Iowan from New York, I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon a metropolis in my study of the word information. Since at least Plato’s dialogues on “form”—the root of information—and its Aristotelian relation to matter, the word has been a standing problem. I mark three key senses of the word:

One, information has a deep and almost forgotten history of meaning that which embodies, infuses, impresses material. (1605, George Chapman, “for love informs them as the sun doth color”; 1674, John Milton, “all alike inform’d/With radiant light, as glowing Iron with fire”) Like the sun makes color and fire forges iron: information gives form to, in-forms matter. This sense remains primarily in phrases like “informed citizens” and other social concerns of civic journalism.

Two, as a noun, the prevailing modern sense of the word is relevant facts, reports received, knowledge communicated (consider the phrase “for your information”) it invokes a relevant subject, mental or material, and is necessary preconditioned on a cognitive process, or some sense of human understanding.

Three, I argue information is turning toward a sense of disembodied, distributed, and unprocessed data. Unlike previous usages, the word in popular lingo can be free from necessary relevance to a specific object; information can be ethereal or “out there”, stripped of a signifier, and, like the bit—that hardy phoneme of digitalese—blind to any meaning outside of its other, 0 or 1, incapable of containing anything outside its relationship to itself (OED, “information,” “inform,” “form”).

Even a regular puzzle today like “what does it mean that we gather information exponentially faster than we can understand it” presupposes a disembodied, discontented sense of the term—a dis-content. Such questions would be meaningless were information still inseparable from understanding. We may note too with Joseph Turow and Staffan Ericson how this transition in the word maps onto transitions in the architecture of media companies: the New York Times building is auspicious, the Tonight Show is visible but closed, and Google rents office space unconcerned by place or presentation. The varying ideas of information animating these media companies’ product may bleed into the industrial logic of architecture and corporate design.

At once too much and not enough, this short history of word spells a slide from embodiment to disembodiment, material to immaterial; or in three stages: one, what animates and impacts the mind; two, what the mind receives; three, what the mind could receive, promising only the possibility of meaning. All three senses can coexist usefully but I believe we may be forgetting the first and favoring the third.

The Cold War may important for two reasons: one, it funded and accelerated the information sciences that traded out the second semantic sense of information for the third technical sense of the word that could sustain distributed computer networks; two, it is also a periodization (itself a subject of fierce debate) ripe with human discontent and theorists critical of their surroundings and bipolar politics.

Consider a few working case studies:

1. The textbook story of World War II information sciences: The two shepherds of my third sense, Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics and Claude Shannon’s information theory gave computing a technical definition of information, stripped of meaning and ready for propositional logic and binary languages.

Too often overlooked, however, are the specific circumstances in which their work and lives took shape. As I write elsewhere, Wiener’s cybernetics—”the study of information control and communication” that sought “information homeostasis” his near synonym for world peace—ended up winning support among the Soviets and suspicion from the American military, his original funder. Wiener in caricature was an ex-prodigy, a dark hero, a homeless pacifist, a tragic product of his own Faustian bargain with the military complexes that employed his pacifist science.

Shannon’s story is less tragic, although his is also a cautionary tale of the work of controlling information being wrested beyond the creator’s control. Shannon insisted to his death the field he became known for “information theory” was actually “a mathematical theory of communication.” (As Cold War funders tend to do, his boss and interpreter, Warren Weaver, inflated the title of their famous little book to “the mathematical theory of communication.”) It is possible had Shannon’s name stuck, the analytic distinctions and dialectic between the transmission or traffic vision of communication and its alternatives would be less muddled today.

In a strong sense, the story of the reception and extension of post world war II information sciences to the wider world is case study in the work words perform. The act of naming may be the closest equivalent moderns have to magic. It transforms our objects but almost never in the ways we intended. Stigler’s law of eponymy holds that he or she who names something almost certainly did not create it. (Wonderfully, Steven Stigler, the historian of statistics, attributes Stigler’s law of eponymy to the sociologist Robert Merton.) We are all poor apprentices of the power at the tip of our tongues and transistors.

Case Study Two: a Soviet Internet?

So where did we get the idea of distributed computer network? I imagine three parts of the story, part textbook boilerplate, part revisionist, and part speculative. The textbook history holds the ARPANET project, a nation-wide computer network and the predecessor to the Internet, was designed in response to a military initiative to minimize damage of single-strike Soviet missiles. As Jonah Bossewitch points out, in the attempt to connect computer with computer (not human with human as short-wave or analog wireless did securely nor even human with computer which only a few computer specialists could do at the time), the ARPANET helped ensure mutually ensured destruction policies in the absence of humans, a chilling vision for humans as well as an early empowerment of computers as communicating (and not only calculating) machines.

Part two, Ronda Hauben revises the military explanation behind the network by emphasizing the pioneering openness of the early ARPA research environment under James Killian, ex-MIT President. Killian called for distributed “centers of excellence” to be built, where the subject was basic research—not specialized military projects—and where failure was expected and research positions were long-term and stable. An open research environment may have led to both the need and the inspiration for federated work-based computer network. This is a reassuring revision: ARPA as an eye of intellectual calm in the center of military-state storm.

However, part three, it is also possible the ARPANET owes something to a classified and co-current Soviet Internet project. According to partially declassified CIA documents from 1964, the Soviets were working on a nation-wide computer network project called “Unified Information Network.” Unfortunately, further evidence will have to wait this summer’s archival work in Moscow and DC, and standing FOIA requests.

May imagination sing out in the meantime: It’s possible the Soviets had the idea first, and we took it from them; or that the idea developed in parallel through a series of leaks in military intelligence; or that the idea sprung from the 1959 project to interconnect telephone and electricity grids in Russia; or from an extension of collectivist property and socialist philosophy that, like the ARPANET, nominally distributes participatory power while centralizing authoritarian power…. What—I wonder—did these scientists dream their network work would become: a military weapon, a tool for social empowerment or false consciousness, a bitter joke or utopian hope?

Or, I wonder, would the introduction of a foreign founder help reinvigorate the US Internet narrative? Political theorist Bonnie Honig suggests liberal narratives have long drawn on the symbolic politics of foreignness, and many of them count a foreigner among their founders: the house of David has its Ruth, a Moabite; Oz has its Dorothy of Kansas; Soviet cybernetics, its Norbert Wiener. What would a Soviet tradition do for the American Internet?

It could mean we should reevaluate our intellectual debts internationally; or that this is yet another example of that tired trope of Soviet theory v. American application; that we should rethink the virtues of state secret plagiarism; and that we should rethink perennial and pressing questions about the ethical practices of governments at war.

Even if the lead fails, the story behind the American ARPANET has surprising Eastern European intellectual debts. For example, the American and British invention of packet-switching—itself simultaneously international—owes much to the pre-Soviet mathematician Andrei Markov, and his Markov chains (a probabilistic way of accounting for fixed states and their decision trees, upon which Shannon’s information theory also explicitly built). So does queueing theory, which was essential to packet-switching. Queueing theory is basically the mathematical study of waiting in line—both a serious subject of Soviet mathematicians and a way of everyday life in the Soviet Union.

Case Study three: Parallel Failures to Regulate Two Information Frontiers in the 1990s: Post-Soviet Transition and the Internet

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Internet began its steep climb in 1994. The similarities behind the two stories are surprisingly striking.

First of all, the West proclaimed both frontiers rich with untapped resource and ready for investment. The libertarian deregulatory or anti-regulatory policies to follow sped transition to free market and democratic societies almost overnight in countries like Russia, Ukraine, and East Germany (other countries like Poland have transitioned more slowly and more successfully). For example, Jeffrey Sack’s shock therapy instantly released price and currency controls to disastrous effect.

Similarly, the early and mid 1990s Internet debate was populated by an eager cyber-libertarian belief not to regulate the flow of information online. Stewart Brand line about information wanting to be free (he also said it wants to be valuable) became a misquoted mantra of Internet enthusiasts. It could have well been post-Soviet transition. Both groups have since fallen from influence, although the philosophy lives on.

The irony gets richer still. Two things resulted: policies and rhetoric. Its policies cleared the way for established capitalism-savvy actors to move in, enclose, and privatized resource access—and to do so under the very rhetorical banner of free-market libertarianism meant to optimize and distribute value. Oil oligarchs privatized state industries for pennies and copyright-heavy corporations continue to grab the pipes and distributional channels to the Internet.

For those who know the work of Lawrence Lessig, popularizer of cyber law (the study of information regulation online), the Internet-side of this story should sound familiar. But often overlooked is the fact that Lessig himself taught in Budapest and Moscow in the early 1990s. In a recent conversation, he confirmed that the early 1990s debates over post-Soviet transition explicitly reminded him of the mid and late 1990s debates that sprung up around his Internet work. Eastern European transition is both parallel to and an understudied inspiration for cyber law. I hope to explore this further in interviews with Lessig and cyber thinkers from Eastern Europe, Judge Alex Kozinskii, and legal scholars Eugene and Sasha Volokh.

In short, the patterned ways we think of information in languages of binary opposition matter. It spells folly, for instance, to make the common association that because all digital information is alike in bit form, it is equally free to circulate independent of material, substantial, and cultural-contextual barriers; or to presume information flows naturally to the rigorously calculable equilibria of bit and currency exchange. Consider how the political legitimacy of the Google algorithm, on one hand, depends on its being blind to the content of the sites it ranks, while on the other the company’s economic viability depends on the aggregation of that content into advertisements. Despite the information asymmetry in corporate logic, the distributed data of PageRank’s logic seems best regulated from a universal distance, from the Zen-like abstraction of statistics. But like the first sense of information, even mathematics—the lingua franca of abstraction underlying policies of cyber-libertarian anti-regulation, neoclassical economic theories of market transition, and information sciences alike—does not escape its material base: ten awkward digits (base 12 would have been more convenient; two extra toes, two extra factors: 3, 4).

Mathematics is no opponent. Rather I take issue with political extensions of its technical insights that script freedoms of information (civil, political, economic) into a language deaf to context and content. Consider here the last century’s expansions of copyright. Conceived originally and soundly to promote arts and sciences as a way to give royalty incentives to creators in exchange for a temporary monopoly over their material expressions of their work, it, like the idea of information, has since grown in scope and duration to include all creative digital expression for life plus 70 years.

We cannot conceive of freedom and control as opposites like we did of Soviets and Americans. We may believe in freedom more than control in part due to lasting political logics of opposition. The public library is free only in that it is locked, controlled open; the corporate database is freer in a strict sense than are public goods. Debate about individual freedoms need to stand in the dirt of fact—no abstracted sense of freedom will do.

In sum, as we enjoy the heightened degrees of freedom, scope, and speed with which we can organize and circulate the ephemeral stuff we consider information, we would do well to pause to consider ways our shifting terms may be unthinkingly reinforcing pre-existing rhetorical, philosophical, and regulatory means of control. Thank you for your comments.

Comments (2)

Comments are closed.