February 18, 2008 Ben Peters

Proposal Musings I

The genre of dissertation proposal is as tricky as it is essential. How one is possibly supposed to write about a topic unburdened by the actual research or analysis to sustain it befuddles me everyday—and still I have got to do it. The worse part of it all is that despite the pain it brings I have to admit that I find proposal writing horribly useful. Simple sentences bear forth their ideas better than complicated ones. Ignorance and intelligence, both, stick out when put simply. And a proposal is something like a simple sentence, a first utterance, a monosyllabic squawk. (Good writing and clear thinking return to a state of simplicity too, only with less squawk.)

With squawking in mind, consider the following five points on why Eastern Europe may bear interesting and useful overlap with the twentieth-century history of the idea of information.

1. The Soviets may have had their own Internet project as early as the American had ARPANET. How and who envisioned the earliest “unified information network,” and under what guiding principles and politics could make a fascinating contribution to not only international Internet history but the cross-cultural origins of collectivist online culture.

2. The textbook story of the ARPANET, a distributed computer network, as essentially a defense strategy against single-strike Soviet missile attacks may be importantly wrong. Instead, as Ronda Hauben writes here, what-a-name James Killian, former MIT President and founder of ARPA, may have had a much more open research environment in mind, one with “centers of excellence” where failure was expected, positions were longterm and stable, and exploration of basic questions were encouraged. Here a fuller comparison of the ARPANET and its an open environment at the head of a closed military world could both harmony and dissonance in comparison with the research culture of Soviet society. The freedom to tinker trickled down from the top in both cases.

3. Soviet society, rich in censorship, lets us test the teeth of free speech (counterfactually, I suppose) while considering non-liberal models for the circulation of ideas and information. How people read the official newspaper Pravda, for instance, exemplifies tensions of interpretation latent but nonetheless in play in less censored societies. We all can make meaning out of formulas: when and where and how do formulas say more than their content? As the Russian phrase goes “v Pravda net pravdi, v Isbestii net investii,” or “In Pravda [Truth] there is no truth, in Izbestii [News] there is no news.” How transmission models fail–whether the propaganda mass media machine at the height of Stalin’s terror or the free market economics of Internet libertarianism–fascinates me.

4. The LDS (Mormon) project to gather genealogical and Church records in a granite vault in the Rockies in the cold war 1960s bears the stamps of both timely and timeless conceptions of information preservation–literally, of how we attempt to save ourselves with information. Manned 14-ton, nuclear-blast resistant doors to this day guard the way to the belly of the earth as well as the way to correlate record-keeping with the heavens.

5. The literature review is rich in Eastern European overlap. Many key theorists of information in the West thought about their work in explicitly militarized or pacifist terms. In the hard sciences, there is Norbert Wiener, the pacifist, cyberneticist, and son of first Slavic Professor at Harvard; Kolmogorov, brilliant Soviet mathematician, coworker with Wiener, and educational theorist; Von Neumann, violent anti-communist, Hungarian émigré, and collaborator on the US atomic bomb; Sakharov and Einstein, Soviet and American pacifists and nuclear theorists; or Shannon, whose mathematical theory of communication abounds in pre-Cold War references. In the social sciences, Fritz Machlup, perhaps the first information economist and Austria-American, coined the idea of information society in strict terms of national production and competition; Daniel Bell, the post-industrial sociologist of workers and their information machines, turned neo-conservative by Vietnam; Western Marxian media theorists like Herbert Schiller on information inequality and advanced capitalism, Dallas Smythe on audience commodification, and Kaarle Nordenstreng on cold war media theory in the US, the Soviet Union, and his homeland between, Finland; and network sociologist couple Manuel Castells and émigré Emma Kiselyova on the information-driven collapse of Soviet statism. In the humanities, Roman Jakobson, the émigré linguist, on poetry and signal strength; Jean-Francois Lyotard on post-modern information motion, contradiction, and flux. Each has their own vision of information, each dissented from the society and times that surrounded them, each made change in the working idea of information thinkable.

More squawks to follow.

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