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Meanwhile, I am glad share recent work on request, including the dissertation “From Cybernetics to Cyber Networks: Norbert Wiener, the Soviet Internet, and the Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism,” forthcoming publications, working papers, conference presentations, etc. Just let me know at bj[my last name] For a recent CV, click here.

Three Course Blurbs: Networks, Revolution, Utopianism

Here are several early course blurbs I’m playing with. The first builds off of Richard John’s superb course “Networks: History, Theory, Practice”; the second a lifelong fascination; and the third my current book project. I’d love to hear: what would your ideal course on these topics include? 


Networks: History, Theory, Comparison, Critique

This course surveys and examines the recent outpouring of work among sociologists, historians, psychologists, legal scholars, urban planners, cultural theorists and critics on the topic of networks (social, technical, digital). Organizing questions include, Why the preoccupation with networks, Why now? Why so many male authors? What does our imagination of the network reveal about our tools, sense and sensibilities, connections and culture—what do networks reveal about us? What do terms like groups, systems, structures, sets, crowds, multitudes, mass, etc. offer in its place? Perspectives examined include basic network theory, sociology, history, international comparison, and critical
theory. Texts include, among others, in network theory Barabasi’s Linked (2002); in sociology Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (2006), Castell’s The Rise of the Network Society (1996), Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008), Tilly’s Big Structures (1984); in history John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunication (2011), Otis’ Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (2001), Schnatz’ Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Literature and Film (2008), Turner’s “Triumph of the Networked Mode” (2007); from international perspectives, Grewal’s Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization (2008), Gerovitch’s “The Soviet InterNyet,” van der Vleuten Networking Europe (2006); and in critical theory, Galloway’s The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007), Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005), Rochlin’s “Networks and the Subversion of Choice,” among other works. For context, some attention will also be paid to works of journalism, literature, and visual art on the subject.

Riemann Sphere
Click for a space-time-media (video) demonstration

Space, Time, and Media Revolutions

Harold Innis once said, “Culture is concerned with the capacity of the individual to appraise problems in terms of space and time.” This course surveys and examines the basic relationships of space, time, and media in scientific and social thought. Questions include, What do media do other than store across time and transmit across space? What roles do technologies and their users have in governing and challenging perceptions of space (e.g., flat earth and fantasy fiction, Galileo’s telescope and heliocentrism, general relativity and simultaneity, avatars and virtuality), time (e.g., Biblical time and creationism, the eternal now and cosmology of medieval scrolls, Newton’s time-reversible calculus, universal heat death and Helmholtz’ thermodynamics, string theory’s knots, time travel and instantaneity, time warping and TiVo), and political-social-scientific revolution (e.g., printing press and literate life, Renaissance and objectivist scientific methods, quantum mechanics and postmodernism, digital media and copyright)? Texts include Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications (1950) and its world history told through time- and space-biased media; Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (1987) and Peters’ “Space, Time, and Communication Theory” (2003) for ways of injecting the idea of revolution (scientific, communication, and social) with contingency, context, and politics; Ludvig Holberg’s flat-earth comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723), Abbott’s Victorian satire Flatland (1884), Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1984), and Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1988) on writing and time, Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) on the spatial-temporal distortions of towers, calendars, glass, and clocks, Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1987) on transportation as cultural communication, Carey (1989) on the electric telegraph as the separation of communication from transportation, Rabinbach’s The Human Motor (1992) as an nineteenth-century update to unidirectional time, energy science, and labor politics, Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) on the pre-digital decline of the author and authenticity, David Harvey (1987) on space-time compression, Galison’s “Einstein’s clocks” (2000) on simultaneity, Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999) on media and instantaneous war, among others. Some attention will also be paid to expressions of the manipulation of time and space in other media, such as film, poetry, drama, and dreams.

Cybernetics and The Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism

This course surveys and examines the intersection of Cold War history, information politics, and social thought meant to evaluate and complicate the commitment to the idea that all information can be reduced to a common (digital, symbolic) structure. Although so-called “information universalism” occupies intellectual currents such as classic liberalism, neoclassical economics, Marxism, free speech absolutism, (post)structuralism, and others, this course takes information science—and in particular, the postwar rise of cybernetics—as a lens for focusing on some of the others. Questions include, How do the information sciences reflect the larger world that created them? What is the relationship between information in nature, technology, and political order—and how has that relationship changed over time? How does history color contemporary understanding of communication and code? Readings include both primary materials from the era, including C.S. Peirce’s semiotics and pragmatist ethics, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), John von Neumann (1944) on game theory, Norbert Wiener’s (1948, 1950) cybernetic critique of the information society, Roman Jakobson’s Fundamentals of Language (1957), Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War (1960), Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked (1969), Gregory Bateson’s Steps toward an Ecology of Mind (1972), Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, & Utopia (1974), and selections of recent works, including Paul Edward’s The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1998), Slava Gerovitch’s From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (2002), Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Anarchist in the Library (2004), Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), and Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Socialism (forthcoming), among others. Other media sampled will include films, science fiction, and art from the period.

Robert Darnton and the Future of the Library

Trinity College Library, Dublin, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth I

Last night I attended a lecture from Robert Darnton, the preeminent historian of 18th century France and Harvard’s Library Director. His lecture was titled “Google, Libraries, and the Digital Future” and is only one among the impressive Fall 2009 lineup at Columbia’s Heyman Center for Humanities. The lecture came in the wake of Darnton’s most recent piece, “Google and the Future of Books,” in the New York Review of Books, and more importantly, the groundbreaking open-source Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) initiative led by the new Office for Scholarly Communication. (Note: I am saving his treatment of the Google book settlement for a later post. Here I am mainly interested in taking stock of a refreshing vision of open-source scholarship from a historian I respect highly.) 

Darnton came across to me as an archetypal figure in a new class of open-source advocates: a mixture of established man of letters and one who takes delight in slightly perverse and totally public revolution. A career historian of the history of the book, especially the business history of the book around the French Enlightenment, Darnton has spent his life immersed in the world of books: he unearths, reads, studies, and writes books about books for a living. (The most famous is his wonderful The Great Cat Massacre, a thick description of how young servants found hilarity and political protest in killing the cats of their abusive aristocratic masters.) He gets books: they are not about romantic authorship or royalties. Books are about their readers and eye-opening discoveries. They are most useful when they are read, and many, many books are not read simply because the archives and special collections are not public. A few choice quotes from last night include his calling the 10 million volumes scanned in Google Book Search “the greatest monopoly in the history of this country” as well as two chord progressions straight from the Electronic Frontier Foundation playbook: “digitize and democratize” and “openness is the guiding principle.”

Behind the scholarly cautions and curtain of his talk there creeps a romantic notion of the benevolent pirate, a literary Robin Hood redistributing the royalty’s wealth to the poor (pardon the pun; the double meaning of royalty does not strike me as entirely innocent). “There is a lot to be said for piracy,” he remarked, fondly noting how 18th-century publishers raced to sell the most pirated copies of a bestseller to the waiting (and minuscule) literate public. Later he added “my heart is with the pirates.” On the longevity of copyright terms, he stirred applause with the line “the founding fathers got it right; Hollywood got it wrong.”

While he remains ambiguous on the details, the broad strokes of his vision of the future of the library are worth noting: the cost of open-source academic publication should be born at the production end, or by the institutions that house the authors themselves. The author’s institution pays fees to have their work published in open-source journals, so long as journals wave fees for those authors whose institutions cannot afford to cover the fee. The open-access scholarly subsidy will make it possible, he hopes, to displace the outlandishly expensive current commercial academic journal system with open-access equivalents. (For a civil disobedience response, see Mako Hill’s overprice tags.) And the fee waiver, in theory at least, lowers the entrance barrier to scholars in developing countries.

Taken to its unalloyed extreme, the future of Darnton’s library takes two forms: one, an omnipresent digital platform for maintaining public access to all current scholarship. Think a full-view Google Book Search without the possibility of corporate “cocaine pricing.” (You know, the first hit is free….) Two, a network of physical libraries devoted to accruing and preserving only the archives, special collections, and rare book libraries. On the first, digital scholarship online will fulfill what he calls “The Oberlin Argument”: solid schools without substantial libraries could massively benefit by digital access to the world’s books. (Had he called it “The Obafemi Awolowo Argument,” a university in southwest Nigeria, the global reach of the argument would be clearer.) Here his concern for the public good strike me as being colored by the question of the 18th century French publishers he studies: how does one get pirated materials to a privileged few, to the already academic elite? But never mind in whose name the plan is justified. Having spent his life successfully struggling to access and discover the obscured word (including The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France), Darnton wants now to reveal both the hidden and forbidden word to the world. His public view shares the promiscuous tone of the professional archivist: we must try to save, store, and share everything within reason. 

“The future strength” of conventional research libraries, he argues, will be “special collections rare books and archives.” It is, in many ways I think, the historian’s dream: a series of warehouse devoted to only the gray literature which cannot be found elsewhere. He points out that no single library acquisition budget can possibly manage to house an adequate range of available special collections and thus calls for academic libraries to form coalitions, to perfect inter-library loan, and to divide special collections topically among their allies. Columbia’s library system, led by Kenneth Crews, among other enlightened copyright moderates, is expected to join the compact on open access publication currently shared between five leading American universities. He argues against the “once hopelessly utopian” vision of the universal library with his own only slightly utopian vision. Yes, he realizes, digitization saps printed material of its lived quality: here he relates a memorable example of his reading Melville’s copy of Emerson’s “Prudence” in the Rare Books room as a freshman: no digital scan could ever impress him as deeply as hefting the book in his own hands. (Others have pointed out that medical researchers have used smell of vinegar to date cholera epidemics in archival documents: digits can reproduce, with loss, natural oral and literary senses but not yet taste, smell, pain, balance, and touch.)

Still, whatever its limitations, digitization opens the rare book room to the world. Add an affable, squirrely grin to the mix, and one gets Darnton’s vision of the future of the library. It is one where digital and printed material are not in competition: digital libraries will not replace the printed book. It may not even displace it. Instead, he sees “a revival of the printed book” in the arrival of Espresso book machines that can print and bind a book on demand in about as many minutes as dollars. (His Espresso book machine is only a moderate version of fascinating developments currently underway in additive manufacturing, especially 3D printing.) In my opinion, his slightly utopian vision is far preferable to both recent and perennial rehearsals of the decline of all things literate (such as this Washington Post article) as well as its opposite, as he put it, the “once hopelessly utopian” dream of the universal library.

Conference: Internet as Playground and Factory

Kudos to Trebor Scholz and others for organizing what promises to be a very fruitful conference on digital labor. Check it out:

Eugene Lang, The New School, NYC, Nov 12-14

Participants (and abstracts) include, among many others I look forward to meeting, Mark Andrejevic, Gabriella Coleman, Alexander Galloway, David Golumbia, Ellen Goodman, James Grimmelman, Orit Halpern, Lilly Irani, Carolyn Lee Kane, M. Christopher Kelty, Robert Mitchell, Nick Montfort, Gina Neff, Frank Pasquale, Ben Peters (me), Dominic Pettman, Hector Postigo, Howard Rheingold, Martin Roberts, Scott Rosenberg, Stephanie Rothenberg, Douglas Rushkoff, Ivan Sigal, Fred Turner, McKenzie Wark, Darren Wershler, as well as a September 29th (very) pre-conference with Andrew Ross, Richard Sennett, and Tiziana Terranova. That’s some group!

Beth Noveck and The Purpose of Negative Feedback

At a recent Personal Democracy Forum, Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO in the Obama Administration, New York Law School prof, and the supremely smart former director of the ISP at Yale asked for thoughts on how web 2.0 tools, or anything else, could help political campaigners “not only get the message out but bring it back in,” and in the process to inform and speed political movements. Rasmus Nielsen, my peer in the Communications PhD program at Columbia University, replied that “closing the feedback loop” often creates so much internal discussion it derails real political momentum. He names as example the 2,000 job announcements posted by the Obama administration, which brought 350,000 job applications, a mountain to manage. The high costs of cheap communication, Rasmus astutely notes, go largely unaccounted for. The subtext I read here is that hardy dictum among Democrats: do more, talk less. (Ironic, then, that a dictum has to be said so often to be a dictum.) So do something, and watch the full (2:23) exchange here.

Both Beth and Rasmus mention “feedback loops,” an oft used term. Beth asks to bring information back in, closing the loop; Rasmus points out that often generates distracting noise within an organization. I think the term “feedback” has if not a solution then at least analytical clarity to add to the conversation.

What is feedback? Simply, things go out and then some come back. First, political campaigners put out a message, which eventually comes back in an altered form. Then, to become true feedback, the returned message needs to influence future messages. To state it generally: Feedback is a process whereby part of an output of a system becomes an input to that system with the purpose of influencing future output. Other languages help color the term: retroaction in French, Rueckkopplung (back-coupling) in German, obratnaya svyaz’ (return connection) in Russian, and retroalimentación (back feeding) in Spanish.

Consider two types of feedback: positive and negative (not open and closed). The terms positive and negative here refer to an arithmetic multiplier and carry none of the normative sense of when, say, a businessman speaks of receiving “positive feedback” from a client. A positive feedback system amplifies (cf. positive) the next round of output. As Norbert Wiener and two colleagues wrote in their famous six-page 1943 article “Behavior, Purpose, Teleology”: “the fraction of the sign of the signal that which reenters the object has the same sign as the original input signal. Positive feed-back adds to the input signals, it does not correct them.” Examples of positive feedback systems include avalanches, snow melting on black mountain soil, malignant cancer, viruses, the nuclear arms race, keeping up with the Joneses, supernovas, and narrative climax: all these behave like positive feedback loops. They build until they burn out. Negative feedback to do the opposite: they check their own growth, they self-regulate. Examples include warm-blooded animals, the proprioceptive balance of the inner ear, steam-engine boilers with release valves, automated thermostats, ecosystems, and, of course, the Madisonian democracy of checks and balances. (Historian and philosopheor of science Otto Mayr finds feedback loops at the heart of liberal systems in his Authority, Liberty, & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe)

If Rasmus fears the positive feedback of a web 2.0-enabled conversation, Beth asks for a negative feedback loop when she requests something “manageable.” It’s a reasonable request: what could be more manageable than a self-managing conversation after all? So how does one build a negative feedback loop?

The “simple” key, my reading suggests, lies in building a conversation around a common purpose. In fact, according to the same 1943 article, all purposeful, goal-oriented behavior can be found in negative feedback systems. It stands to reason that if purpose is a higher order of negative feedback, then political conversation should be pursue purposes beyond conversation itself. If this seems almost self-evident, it should. Action-oriented groups already have change, not conversation, on the front burner.

Still, conversation framing remains an issue. Consider the difference between these an open-ended and a closed question: “what should we do about X?” and “submit proposals that analyze and address problem X by date Y. Selected proposals will be receive treatment Z.” Both questions propose to want answers to problem X but their purposes are very different. The first aims for conversation; the second, for solutions.

If change is the goal, build the question before you build the crowd. If conversation is the goal, best let the crowd build it for you.

In Mild Praise of Retraction

The jury is convening, even though it is still too early to pass judgment on Jytte Klausen’s forthcoming The Cartoons That Shook the World due from Yale University Press in November. The Cartoons promises to treat the 2006 Muhammad cartoon controversy and to do so without republishing the cartoons themselves. The first part of that sentence contains the real news: a book that looks to speak on the subject. Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, had written books on Muslims in Europe before the controversy. If interested, she wrote a Feb 12, 2006 Boston Globe editorial here.

But it is the last part of that sentence–the decision to not publish the cartoons–that has elicited a small spate of recent articles from the New York Times (here), the Boston Chronicle (here), the Chronicle of Higher Education (here), as well as the annotation and comment of (duh) bloggers. Nevermind that the Boston Chronicle reports (again, here) that eleven of the twelve cartoons are copyrighted and held in embargo by the royal library in Copenhagen, and that the artist of the twelfth cartoon (of a man with a bomb in his turban) makes brisk business with it by selling reprints. The majority consensus seems to take this decision as a failure of free speech. Names called include “dhimmitude” (originally from the Arabic for “protected”), “academic cowardice,” “self-censorship,” “chilling effects,” etc. “Plagiarist,”  may be next: after all, Klausen is deliberately not revealing sources she relies on….

Perhaps. The negotiated decision is far from ideal. Let’s dispense quickly with the obvious talking points of the other side: conversations that do not ostracize their interlocutors are also those most worth having, tolerance needs as fair a hearing as free speech (or else free speech is not doing its job, eh?), the overriding pragmatism of security concerns, that critics’ negative attention will only push book sales for Yale Press and Klausen, etc. But even this back-and-forth misses an overriding point: the very question whether the cartoons should be republished is for naught.

The cartoons already have been republished, many, many times online and offline, and almost anyone who knows how to find reading material on the subject can also find the cartoons themselves (my piece on search engines below develops this). I can think of plenty of compelling political motivations to republish the cartoons but convincing practical reasons escape me so far. Why not simply describe each cartoon in words, point to other sources, and move on?

Because there’s a larger issue brewing. Some media attract more concern about free speech than do others. Strangely, the ones that seem best at promoting free flows of information are also the most concentrated with concern. In part, many watchdogs for much treasure explains it. But it also seems like their bark may be worse than the bite. How does the fight for free speech change when so much of what has been spoken (or drawn) is already freely available? I am not sure. Content abundance online (of which a massive majority quickly disappears) surely does not justify censorship. But I am also not sure, to put it gently, that noisily proclaiming the failure of free speech is the best way to advance debate in the face of disagreement. The knee-jerk defense of free speech as a sort of symbol unto itself may detract from (I won’t say chill) the very substance of the conversation it is meant to protect. Promoting free speech at the cost of better speech is gratuitous. The more speech asks for more speech, instead of better speech, the less is said in the end.

Free speech deserves praise, and so does the right to retract and redact. How else can conversation be built, except partially and, to quote Kant (not the blog), out of the crooked timber of humanity? Here is two cheers for the right to retract in a world ripe with speech. As for the book, I look forward to postponing judgment until it comes out.

For a few more thoughts from 2006, I wrote an early meditation on the subject, focusing on the role of search engines in the Muhammad cartoon controversy. A proof is available here: (2007) “The Search Engine Democracy: Metaphors and Muhammad,” in The Power of Search Engines /Die Macht der Such-maschinen, edited by Marcel Machill and Markus Beiler, (Leipzig, Germany: Herman von Halem), 228-242. That book chapter builds on ideas I encountered in conversation with John Durham Peters and his Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (Chicago, 2005). And I should also point to Biella Coleman, whose brand new and award-winning “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers” (Cultural Anthropology, August 2009) has much to offer anyone interested in why, among the poets of code, the force of free speech is so strong.

(Published Version) And Lead Us Not…

Download here: Peters, Benjamin. “And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History,” New Media & Society, Vol. 11: nos. 1/2. (2009).

Watch for round two at the forthcoming ICA preconference, The Future is Prologue, May 21, 2009.

Typo correction: The sentence, “Of course, Mumford has been faulted by Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler for relying too heavily on the intrinsic logics of technologies, but still the study of ‘stuff ’ persists” originally read in the uncorrected proof, “Of course, Mumford has been faulted together with Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler….”