Abstract: “Reconstructing Information” attempts to internationalize understanding of the emergence of information as a computer-compatible, or cybernetic, keyword before and during the cold war. Chapter studies include complimentary precursors to cybernetic thought in pre-Revolutionary Russian and American philosophy, the Soviet translation of cybernetic vocabulary for at first reforming and then reaffirming structural power in Soviet society, to an examination of why the Soviets failed to build a computer network equivalent to the US ARPANET. These and other cautionary tales help defamiliarize, broaden, and reconstruct a history of a term critical to the modern search for knowledge and social order.
In a word, decentralization. I had the pleasure of presenting a working paper and my first stab at such an argument at the Harvard-MIT-Yale cyber-scholars working group at the Berkman Center Tuesday, October 21, 2008. The other presentations were stimulating, and all took place leavened by warm food and the smart and generous folk at Berkman. It was a real treat. A paper draft is available for comment at bj[insert my last name here]@gmail.com and a video of the presentation is available online (here).
Building on the fantastic “InterNyet” article (here) of MIT historian of science Slava Gerovitch, I argued, in brief, that the Soviet attempts to build a non-military nationwide computer network (namely Victor Glushkov’s 1964 proposal for a hierarchically-structured information network that could harvest and manage all economic data for the entire Soviet socialist economy) in the 1950s and 1960s need to be understood in the context of decentralized politics, administrative structure, and network design. Decentralized networks are obviously different than centralized networks but what many forget is that they are also importantly different from distributed networks as well (for this distinction, see Paul Baran “On Distributed Communication” 1964). The fact that Soviet state structure was decentralized hierarchically, and that ministries did not share information or funding sources between themselves, offers both an explanation of why no comprehensive computer network design could survive fractured implementation as well as a cautionary tale today for our own largely decentralized world saturated, as it may be at times, with comparable levels of talent, enthusiasm, and vision that too could prove shortsighted. One particular case study, the origins of the Central Economic Mathematical Institute in Moscow and the irony of purposeful funding (both the lack of money and a channeled flood of money can kill a brilliant project), was examined in particular.
The note below crudely illustrates a distinction in two modes of information organization predating the twentieth-century invention of automated data management: flexible classification models demanded constant care and intelligent intervention from the outside, while stable models precluded human management except in its original design (the watch-maker).
To Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements and Dewey’s decimal classification (used in library card catalogs), the first offers a system that is discretely limited but self-contained in its parameters; the second is continuously expandable but bound to some form of external regulation. The first presents a discrete (though theoretically infinite) number of elements arranged by internal characteristics (e.g., atomic weight patterns); the second allows for any number of items to be organized in relationship to each other along a thematically-grouped alpha-numeric line (000 Computer science, 100 Philosophy, etc.).
Whither the human manager? Whence the human user? Once established, Mendeleev’s periodic table is relatively self-regulating and tautologically autonomous: it is so because it says so. To shift the order of elements would require a concomitant shift in the governing principles of the periodic table, which otherwise remains inflexible in its topological order (meaning, no matter what representation one may choose for the elements, they remain in the same relative order); librarians, on the other hand, are free to rearrange the order or place of titles according to their interpretation of the title’s content to pre-given topic categories (000 Computer science, 100 Philosophy, etc.), and they can add new titles between preexisting titles without disrupting the information order. Card catalogs work by relying on an external set of commonly held symbols (numbers and letters) and topics allow items to reordered continuously. Yet the freedom of data reshuffling comes at the cost of the system requiring a governing body external to it (e.g. librarians). These distinctions can be applied across modern society (Deweyian accountants and lawyers interpreting Mendeleevian spreadsheets and codebooks).
In a later note, I intend to push thinking how, if at all, automatic information systems (e.g., databases, brains as circuits, and search engine algorithms) breakdown these two caricatured systems for information organization. The search engine algorithm, for instance, is a mixed-system: it provides a relatively flexible (Deweyian) system of information organization but requires relatively (Mendeleevian) minimal intervention in the system.
This note draws on Glenda Claborne’s “Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Dewey, and Ranganathan: What can they tell us today about the organization of information?” A presentation at the 2005 ASIS&T-PNC Annual Meeting, May 14, 2005, Seattle, WA. [See options for viewing presentation].
A working draft of this very short paper can be downloaded for comment and review here:
The full-text .pdf download is available here. And kudos to the Manuel Castell and Larry Gross’ International Journal of Communications (IJoC) for setting precedent for the bright future of peer-reviewed, open-source, and smart online scholarly journals.
Peters, Benjamin. “Betrothal and Betrayal: The Soviet Translation of Norbert Weiner’s Early Cybernetics.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 2., 2008.
In the entry interim, I attended an excellent pre-conference to this year’s International Communication Association conference in Montreal, The Long History of New Media, organized by the journal New Media & Society, and hosted by the Department of Art History and Communication at McGill University. A draft bibliographic article on new media history can be found here.
Book review: Packer, J. & Robertson, C. (Eds). (2006) Thinking with James Carey: Essays on Communication, Transportation, History. (New York: Peter Lang) in Journal of Communication Inquiry, Oct 2007; vol. 31: pp. 366-370. Download here.
When do symbols have substance? When, and in what sense, does information matter? This project proposes to explore subtle changes in the idea of information over the twentieth-century, with special emphasis on how Anglophone and Russophone thinkers thought about the relationship between information plays in mediating humans and the physical world. While the symbolic abstraction of information dates back at least to Stone Age tally marks, the twentieth-century rendering of a quantifed language is peculiar for the power of execution it lent to the natural, social, and humanistic sciences colligated under the rubric of information.
Jonathan Zittrain of the Oxford Internet Institute gave his book talk, The Future of the Internet–and How to Stop It, today at Yale Law School in collaboration with Jack Balkin’s Information Society Project. Although Zittrain presents the dreamy benefits and dreary downsides of what he calls the generative Internet with equal ease (thus surprising his listener with his quiet middle-way conclusion), I find the more I hear of his work, the more I’m persuaded by his concluding call to self-checking generative communities as the desired social response to the unchecked dangers of libertarian Internet protocols and the few no-goodniks out there willing to hurt many to benefit the few. Groups of people united around generative solutions to security issues will do more good than policy and technological fixes.
With Tom Glaisyer’s invitation, I had the pleasure today of responding to the noted monetary economist Anna Schwartz’ review of Yochai Benkler’s book The Wealth of Networks. (Download any or all of the book here for free.) Using no notes, she delivered a trenchant series of critical reflections on Benkler’s work for 20 solid minutes. And, one may mention as it is only to her credit, she is 93 years old. That’s right, 93. Schwartz coauthored with Milton Friedman, perhaps the key neoclassical economic thinker of the last half of the twentieth century, the seminal A Monetary History of the United States (1963); she also reports she is working on a history US state intervention into foreign currency exchange from 1962, which continues her (truly) lifelong interest in money supply. May I be doing anything, let alone making 27 year-old PhD candidates very nervous, at 93! I found her charming and wonderfully ferocious.
She reads Benkler as arguing that the (intensive capital-holding, proprietary, market-based) industrial information economy is substantially different from the (low capital-holding, nonproprietary, nonmarket-based) networked information economy in that it allows social production to flourish in a new way that emphasizes individual voluntary choice of the factors of production. In the traditional industrial model, market signals or managers make such decisions; in Benkler’s networked model, individuals self-select projects based on their capacity, producing ostensibly a low-cost model of production. Benkler, in her reading, would have the second subsume the first. (This last point is patently wrong: he argues for coexistence of market and nonmarket forces, not the domination of one over the other–and, to prove the point, he does so in the market-friendly terms. An argument for their separation would ostensibly do well to separate vocabularies as well.)
She counters Benkler’s points with the assertion that all preexisting models of social production are flawed to date. The totalitarian model has under-performed as a non-voluntary mode of production; and almost all voluntary social production models have relied on charismatic leaders to urge production while requiring conformity and loss of individual freedom. The Kibbutz movement in Israel, among many other semi-religious communities (many in early American history), exemplify how social production can exhaust its founding community after a generation.
She wonders then whether there are sufficient signs of discontent or enthusiasm surrounding the idea of commons-based peer production to test the trajectory of such work; and points to omissions in the work such as an insufficient treatment of the networked model’s incapacity to produce hard-material goods for consumers, like cars or barges or highways; that the internet is a tool and all tools can be used for good or ill; and lastly that copyright is only one restriction to information flow and perhaps not the most important subject for reform: rather that the state directly intervenes itself in ways to render unusable any material procured by Freedom of Information Acts requests.
My comments were more youthfully optimistic, uncertain but hopeful. The book’s key points in my mind follow: Benkler’s book boils down to a lesson we should have learned from Sesame Street, i.e. share nicely. It successfully critiques intellectual property policy as an inefficient way of marketizing non-rivalrous information in the public commons; the fact that the reproduction or distribution costs tend toward zero means property rights no longer need to tax nonproprietary models of production; nonproprietary models rely on altruism and other motivations that do not easily lend themselves to exchange values. They also rely on the ‘excess capacity’ or time off-the-clock of laborers in fields like education, arts, scientific, and industry research. Even the act of voting can be read as a leisure activity. Benkler’s book looks to monetize social production in ways that will benefit all: in Lucas Graves’ fine phrase, all ships will rise when the tide comes in.
Despite whatever complaints, the information networked economy produces incredible amounts of use-value. We use it all the time, we even give back sometimes. How use-value becomes exchange-value is not only the central question at hand, it may in fact be the problem. I wonder not only how should we do it, but should we do it at all?
Does employing the language of competition and zero-sum games of law and economics reduce nonmarket social production to a battle with market production logics, which it will surely loose on its own terms? That is, will Benkler’s project of benefiting all by translating social production into the language of markets condemn it to the benefit of those most fluent in exploitation and enclosure? Finally, will the attempt to widen the calculus of competition, equilibrium, and efficiency to include previously unaccounted positive and negative externalities of the culture of social production, in the end, (a) monetize those factors into private gain for the well positioned, (b) break upon the corporate logics to the wider dynamics of industry survival (i.e. that everyone can benefit when we share knowledge), (c) both, or (d) something else? Is asking which one wins–nonmarket or market forces–already to have lost; should instead we ask how they can coexist? If so, what language do we have to ask it?
The questions we ask already perform the language we rely upon to answer the questions. If one asks about the utility of social sharing from a purely neoclassical economic point of view, his or her answer will tend to be pessimistic and backed by hard evidence. If one includes terms themselves based on optimism (altruism and other seemingly non-rational forms of generosity), his or her assessment will be more complicated and uncertain. Thank goodness for behavior economists struggling with the incongruities and gaps between human behavior and traditional incentive theory: may that field give economics, law, and the rest of us the language in which to ask better questions.
Benkler’s work is both important and weakened because it focuses heavily on the present. However, the timelessness of writing a book on Internet-related case studies and examples quickly dates Benkler’s book. A deeper historical perspective on the social production model implicit in human history can only fortify and stabilize the debate for itself. This is not a real critique, however. His one book does too much already, if anything. Future work in this vein should draw upon the past.
As Rasmus Nielsen has pointed out, it may also do very well to account for massive information infrastructure costs, the fiber optic cables, the wifi, and the laptops that the Benkler’s optimism depends upon in the international development scene.
In response to Prof. Schwartz’ comments, it is worth noting Kibbutz et. al. tend to be very close-knit, intense communities, whereas the virtue of peer production network communities tend to be the very weakness of that community. For the most part it is an interest in work, not a larger vision of relationships and life, that unites these communities. In Mark Granovetter’s influential 1973 title, it is “the strength of weak ties” that matters here. Lucas Graves also points out that networked peer production communities are united by, if anything other than the will to work, the very ideology of sharing. Analysis of the incentives driving these communities, then, must include the more complex calculations of human behavior.
Lastly, the optimism of Benkler’s book (or, for instance, his live wager against Nicholas Carr) may in fact be a structural component of his very argument. Both the economic logic and the tone it employs are, in a strong sense, faith-based. Faith, I argue, is fine provided one hard condition: that it leads to individual action. Without work, faith in any mode of human interaction is senseless. For those who would entertain Benkler’s optimism, we cannot forget the incredible amount of labor implicit in his call to collaboration.
Altruism itself is preconditioned on the applied belief we will (personally, incalculably, and possibly calculably) benefit from helping and sharing nicely with others. It is not surprising its best arguments depend upon the same logic.