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.

Dis-Content-ed Control: Five Posts on Information Mathematicians, Policy Failures, and Vaults

Part one of five. Rough talk notes follow below. Thanks to Chris Anderson, Jonah Bossewitch, Todd Gitlin, Tom Glaisyer, and Andie Tucher for their comments

The Cold War matters to the history of information at least for the simple fact its state-driven conflict funded, accelerated, and expanded the information sciences–among other forms of knowledge for money relevant to the unilateral promotion of bipolar conflict. Funding meant the atomic energy commission, behemoth dams and public projects, international tours for ballet dancers and jazz musicians, political radio programming like Voice of America, and research investment in fields such as astrophysics, geosciences, computer science, and communication research.

Funding mattered because it made possible the information sciences and institutions that would carry resilient distributed networks into digital technology. With the rise of digital networks, it seems, came a turn toward understanding information as disembodied and distributed. This modern turn, as I argue below, takes the matter out of information. It just stops mattering, if you will, both as a cognitive process of mind and a grounding in matter. This disembodiment, or content-stripping, of information plays into how we go about thinking about and regulating content-less control of human and machine intermediation.

One quick example of the rise of content-less-ness information control: the legitimacy of the Google algorithm depends on being blind to the content of the sites it ranks. Of course, humans game the cracks in totalizing systems of information organization: many countries censor content while search engine “optimizers” pander to the algorithm to get higher search result ranking.

Another example: While physical property organizes social relationships around the control of matter, intellectual property is a form of virtual control, control over imitable, copy-able express form rather than materially scarce stuff. As the second case study hopes to suggest especially, the rise of federated, distributed information environments around and after the Cold War dangerously promise unharnessed freedoms at the same time they enable an expansion of both the definition and control over information include all things regardless of their content. That move, I think, is folly (for reasons I do not fully explain here).

This thesis—that distributed digital communication has expanded means of information control that conceives of information as content-less, disembodied stuff—does not mean to suggest, however, that resilient distributed networks did not exist before digital technologies and the information sciences of the Cold War. As Jonah points out, centuries ago, Persian Kings sent multiple riders out to ensure message delivery, a kind of variable dissemination; University students around Gutenberg copied books in a distributed fashion: one person per page per book. Rather I mean that since about the Cold War (correlation or copresence, not causation!) a disembodied, distributed sense of information has become more pronounced in contradistinction from other ways of thinking about information—and that rise matters for how we rethink the control, circulation, and creative preservation of matter and information.

Information Etymology Notes

(This section draws on John Durham Peters’ “Information: Notes toward a Critical History” and Ken Cmiel’s “From Knowledge to Information” for word history evidence, however the categories and speculative leaps are mine.)

A common thread in my thinking is the folly that comes to those who isolate one sense and hold it superior to the others. We must recognize the multiplicity of the word information, and the ways its word history lives on today. In Wittengenstein’s metaphor, the word is an extraordinarily diverse city.1 Four primary sense (city districts?) of the word follow below in chronological order (from OED etymology):

One, “embodiment, infusion, impress,”(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”), where information impacts bodies and material objects, fire forges steel. (Information was to in-form, to give form: relationship between matter-matter.)

Two, “illumination and enlightenment,” religious emphasis of illumination shifts to the Enlightenment sense of knowledge. (Kant mind-matter.)

Three, “relevant facts or an item of new knowledge or received reports from,” the predominant and perhaps still most salient definition. Involves. Info has a subject, bound by relevance, a necessary mental process. Relevance too is content, and when encoded is fixed enough to make discussion of target messages reasonable. (Mind-mind.)

Four, “disembodied and distributed.” Unlike previous usages, the word in popular lingo can be free from necessary relevance to a specific object—material, spiritual, or intellectual. Info can be “out there”: unprocessed data. Information here has lost its signifier. (N/A: the promise of the possibility of meaning.)

The only significance of the state of a “bit”—0 or 1, the two phonemes in digitalese—is in its distinction to its opposite. Not much of a signifier or reference. The bit balances on a single point in a material world. (So too can the language of bipolar politics stretch thin one’s connection to reality.) Even to ask, as I hope to, “what does it mean that we gather information exponentially faster than we can understand it” presupposes the fourth sense of the word. I couldn’t ask the question if information were not separate from that which we understand.

These four senses above slide from matter, to body, to mind, to absence. As the 19th century Western fascination with energy entropy, fatigue, and thermodynamic heat-death attests (The Human Motor), energy fills the gaps between the four senses with relevant metaphors: between matter and body, energy is heat. Between body and mind, it is nerve. Between mind and virtual absence, it marks the line between self and other.

This preoccupation with energy and its relationship to information and attending insights into the relationship between heat and entropy, nerves and circuitry, systems with selves and others comes to a head in the post-World War II information sciences, namely cybernetics, information theory, and atomic research—the timely sciences of “information communication and control” (Wiener’s term for cybernetics).

Case Study Two: Parallel Information Frontiers: 1990 Internet and Eastern Europe

Part three of five.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Internet in the US grew extensively after 1994. The structural similarities between these two key information frontiers of the 1990s are striking. It could almost be the same story: the parallel failures of utopian visions of the world as purely distributed information environments.

First of all, the West heralded both frontiers as rich stores of untapped resource ready for investment. For the most part, the attending policies in early post-Soviet Russia sang the libertarian tune of “don’t regulate or deregulate information as quickly as possible.” Jeffrey Sack’s shock therapy, or the sudden release of price and currency controls in Russia, has proven more disastrous—but only some—than the sort of eager cyber-libertarian belief not to regulate the flow of information online. The followers of Stewart Brand (Brand himself has a more nuanced sense: see Kevin Kelly, etc.) who wanted to believe that information wants to be free and self-organizing remind us of Shannon’s reduced sense of information: all information is similar in form, thus, all information freedoms must be similar—or similarly unrestricted.

The ironic turn follows that the same libertarian philosophy that excited early visionaries (Jeffrey Sacks or Kevin Kelly’s satellites) also forged the rhetorical shield of free-market thought behind which established capitalism-savvy actors could enclose and privatize access to the same resources. Libertarianism meant to optimize and distribute profits yet allowed its seizure and centralization. The banner of free markets and the invincible logic of invisible hands came in defense to both the oil oligarchs that privatized state industries for pennies as well as to the copyright-heavy corporations that grabbed the pipes and distributional channels to the Internet.

Unblinking belief in information freedoms is bad news—or so at least goes this story of Lawrence Lessig, a legal scholar who lived in Budapest and Moscow in the early 1990s and who popularized “cyber law” (or the study of information regulation on the Internet). In a recent conversation, he confirmed that the early 1990s debates in Budapest and Moscow explicitly reminded him of the mid and late 1990s debates that sprung up around his work. Eastern European is an understudied inspiration for his work. Further interview with Lessig, Judge Alex Kozinskii, and legal scholar Eugene Volokh may tell more about the parallel bad bargains in both the Internet and their own Eastern European homelands.

Neoclassical economics sees in the world a distributed information environment, one where information is free flowing and uncontrollable—where information content is alike in form, where a dollar is a dollar, and equilibria are perfectly calculable (to at least a probabilistic rigor). Like digital utopianism of online culture creation, neoclassical economics depends on an invisible bulldozer to level the playing field in which all information is alike in form. Like Shannon’s sense of a bit being a bit, the neoclassical libertarian belief that all information is like in form can make us blind to context and content.

Case study one: Information Sciences around Post WWII MIT.

Part two of five.

The MIT cluster around Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon on cybernetics and information theory respectively gave information to technology into the 1940s and 50s. Their definitions are radical departures from what came before.

Norbert Wiener (1995-1964) began as a boy genius (home schooled and built and almost broken by his brilliant and overbearing father, Leo Wiener, an émigré and founder of Slavic studies at Harvard; Wiener recited classics in the original at 5, entered college at 11, and held a PhD in Philosophy from Harvard at 18). An ex-prodigy set to disappoint, in his twenties, Wiener befriended T.S. Elliot and worked in analytic philosophy and mathematics with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge, England and came to know von Neumann, among others in the mathematical capital of Europe at the time, Goettingen, pre-Nazi Germany. Despite the fact he detested lavish and large states, military projects, his science blossomed on the WWII study of anti-aircraft ground-to-air missiles—which realized that in the heat of battle, bullet, pilot, and plan acted in probabilistically predictable and similar fashions—and later, after a dramatic reversal following the death of Stalin in 1953, the study of the Russian “kibernetika” blossomed and remains to this day a popular field for the study of computers. Thus betrothed to the enemy, with a growing CIA file in America, Wiener’s work and politics—not unlike Sakharov or Einstein—crossed purposes.

John von Neumann’s (1903-1957) mathematics and politics did not cross purposes: for von Neumann both were decidedly militant, competitive. Von Neumann grew up in the teens and twenties in Budapest, Hungary. During this period, the tiny Jewish middle-class was trapped between serving the nobility of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire and joining the revolutionary lower class movements. Perhaps the product of fierce intellectual competition for opportunities to emigrate, the so-called Hungarian phenomenon produced noted natural scientists such as Dennis Gabor, Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Edward Telle, and chief among them von Neumann, as well as the liberal sociologist and historian Oszkar Jaszi and the communist philosopher George Lukacs. After time at Goettingen, von Neumann emigrated to the US, produced 36 major papers by the age 30, and found himself at home in the political competition of the Cold War.

At the time the marginalized Wiener was meeting with Alexei Kolmogorov in Moscow—possibly the finest Soviet mathematicians who had independently developed the mathematical relationship between information systems and biology—von Neumann was declaring himself a “violent anti-communist,” consulting with the CIA, the US Army, RAND, IBM, and developing strategies of mutually assured destruction, and favoring the preemptive attack.

On the diverging sense of information, to oversimplify, Wiener conceived of information as negative entropy, an integral measure of how much order was in a system, be it mechanical or biological. Information as the basic unit for all organizing systems. The result was his lifelong project: cybernetics, or in his words ‘the study of the communication and control of information,’ was set to become harbinger of universal “informational homeostasis,” Wiener’s near synonym for “world peace.”

Shannon, in turn, gave a technical definition to Wiener’s basic unit: information was not noise, (again a binary distinction: significant only for what it is not) stripping both information and communication of any necessary meaning, writing “these semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem”. In fact, Shannon resisted calling his work “information theory,” preferring his original subtitle “a mathematical theory of communication.” (In good Cold War tradition of exaggerating the success of funded projects, his interpreter, coauthor, and boss, Warren Weaver, expanded the scope of the theory by renaming their seminal book “/The/ mathematical theory of communication.” Weaver also wrote in the introduction that the theory could apply “indeed to all of human behavior”—the near exact opposite of the strictly technical sense of information Shannon developed for engineering problems.

A couple years before his death, Shannon wrote “I thought communication is a matter of getting bits from here to here, whether they’re part of the Bible or just which way a coins tossed.” Thus, the traffic of irreducible ‘bit’ (literally, a ‘digital binary,’ his coworker’s term), information become the content of communication; communication became the transmission of signal; and transmission become a traffic problem (cf. queueing theory and packet-switching as theories of waiting in line).

Case Study Three: The Granite Mountain Record Vault

Part four of five.

The Granite Mountain Record Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon, near Salt Lake City, Utah, which contains the equivalent of some 3 billion pages of genealogical records of the LDS or Mormon Church in microfilm and digital copy, can be read as an explicit and imaginative attempt to save ourselves with content-rich information. Three points follow on the timeliness, timelessness, and content-rich information of the vault.

One, the vault is also an artifact of cold war mentalities: its 14-ton doors were built to withstand a nuclear blast. It’s built in granite caverns removed from the neighboring Salt Lake City. It purportedly has places for top church officials to protect themselves in case of nuclear disaster. That is, the vault could literally preserve at least a few humans from nuclear apocalypse. This reminds of iconic media in the air at the time: Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove—where old men in charge volunteered to save themselves underground—was released in 1964, two years before the completion of the vault. Pat Frank’s /Alas, Babylon/ a post-apocalyptic novel of small town US was published in 1959, the same year LDS leadership approved the $2 million project—$14 million in 2007.

As a physical structure the vault is an impressive effort to preserve information from entropy. 65 staff members take careful pains to slow the decay of microfilm. The staff makes digital copies of the original as new content floods in daily from microfilm and digital imaging cameras in over 45 countries. From its beginning, it exemplifies the idea of preserving information by hoarding stuff—scarce material—to yourself.

Two, vault exists only because of an explicit and imaginative theological belief in the translational power of record keeping to preserve and save humans (Doctrine and Covenants Section 128, Revelations 20: 12, Malachi 4:5). Mormons are not unique in their belief that only their religion has the power to save, but the Church does have a peculiar way of getting about the many contradictions involved. (e.g., what of the fact that almost all the people to walk the earth have never even heard of the LDS Church?) It asks its members to do genealogy, or to organize human history by family trees, and then to perform the necessary saving ordinances (e.g. baptism) for deceased family members by proxy. Ordinance work requires two things: one, knowing at least a few of the deceased person’s biographical coordinates—name, birth date, birth place, death date, death place—and, two, a person who is willing to stand in their place to be, say, baptized in the deceased person’s name.

There may be no better example than the Mormon temple or its genealogical vaults of content-rich information work. Minutia of the record—a new name or a death place—excite the everyday people who do this everyday work; and the record must be exact, corroborated by multiple witnesses, to be transcendent.

LDS founder, Joseph Smith interprets Revelations 12:20 “whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” with the following: “taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven (DC 128).” For him, exacting content-rich record keeping is a necessary though insufficient condition to connect humans with the deceased. This may sound strange until you realize it is what historians do this everyday: they keep the dead alive with the content that lies between us and them.

The practices surrounding the vault may be in some ways extremely possessive: i.e., gather all the names of the dead into a mountain and make them Mormons in a temple (i.e. the Salt Lake Temple) cut from the same granite as the vault. But this reading unravels when the opt-out option to the ordinance work is considered. Not only is it true that, on Earth, if don’t want your family’s names there, your request should be granted, but that holds for yourself in the afterlife as well. LDS ordinance work is, as Phil put it, a bit like an afterlife stock option. The deceased can cash it if they want, or not.

The basic theological vision of Mormon theology then could be read as guiding corrective to the enthusiasm of open-source work. That is, imagine a world in which every person is empowered to help any other person—regardless of their relation to them—by proxy, at a distance, and over time. Mormons and copyright anarchist-collaborators believe this world already exists. In the LDS vision, the original author of the life on Earth can freely accept or refuse edits. The practice of collaboration with the otherworldly is rooted in not only content-rich information but in individual human labor. Enthusiasts online, I think, do not recognize enough how much real labor needs to go into virtual collaboration. No world can be totally virtual: even brain-in-the-vat thought experiments, like the Matrix, identify in its name a material base to reality, that is, a brain and a vat.

Three, with ongoing digitization efforts of the vault’s index and contents, the vault is a bit like a Fort Knox with a satellite dish, an outlet to saving information by sending it away (distributed, disembodied information). Even when all the vault’s contents are digitally preserved in the memory caches and Internet archives, the vault will survive on the promise that, even in catastrophe, the granite bowels of the earth and physical labor around the records will preserve its Geist.

In other words, the Mormon Temple, the granite vault, and Fort Knox all exist on the symbolic belief in an underling order. Knox promises hard currency in a market crash while the vault and LDS Temple provide progress in heaven through history on earth that, even in times of catastrophe, matter. Moreover, the underlying order rests on matter in all three cases (gold, granite, or microfilm).

Instead of a Conclusion

Post five of five.

In sum, the Cold War funded a vast amount of information projects. These three case studies touch upon a few of the larger political, legal, cultural, religious terms of a transition toward distributed and disembodied information, and toward the folly of increasing control over content-blind information under the philosophical pretext of furthering freedoms toward an egalitarian ideal of information distribution. Information distribution is a fine goal and a dangerous presumption about the way things are.

One, the Cold War funded information sciences—cybernetics, information theory, nuclear research, queueing theory, packet-switching, etc.—that invested digital technologies with a distributed sense of information.

Two, in the broadest strokes, early 1990s post-Soviet transition and the mid 1990s transition online tell the same story: a tragedy of expanded contentless-control. Let’s expand on Elihu Katz’ famous phrase, if it is true that God gave film to the humanities, TV to the social sciences, then how in the world did the lawyers get digital media?

Three, the Granite Mountain Record Vault can be read as an explicit and imaginative attempt to save ourselves with information, the vault exists as an artifact of a Cold War information mentality prevailing in 1960s, save by hoarding; the vault also exists thanks to a belief in the salvational, transcendental power of correct, content-rich information when joined with bodies of matter.

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.

Kalahari Arrow Exchange and Distributional Ownership

Imagine a mode of ownership based on distributional generosity. If it works in the Kalahari desert, who are we to say it couldn’t work in more resource-rich environments?

According to anthropologist Richard B. Lee in The Dobe !Kung (1984, sic), the San people (a group of bushmen hunter and gatherers) of the Kalahari desert in Botswana heed the following rule in distributing meat slain in hunting:

“The owner of the arrow is the owner of the meat.”
If your arrow slays the animal, you own the meat. The key to this amazingly simple rule is that for the San people, “ownership” means the right to distribute the meat to the village and beyond–not to do whatever one pleases with it.
But before considering the merits of ownership as the right (and responsibility) to give, first imagine what would happen if this wonderfully simple ownership rule were enacted possessively, in a winner-take-all scenario. Disaster could follow: angry and hungry men carrying loaded weapons would start fighting over whose arrow went in first. Fresh arrows would follow. Clashes over meat ownership could arise: whether it was the first arrow to strike or the deathblow to an animal, and how to assess either. Disputes could be settled rationally but, as reason tends to do, it could become complicated very quickly. In a few generations, the San people may be saddled with some body of property law adolescent to modern-day mass of property law. By the way, according to page 727 of the 2006 Intellectual Property Primary Law Sourcebook, the Director (presumably of a Patent Office: I don’t care enough to find out) is bound by law, when not specified otherwise, to charge $ .25 per page photocopied in preparing patents. Our law can be obese in reasonable detail, a testament to the opulence of our society: we graze some of our best analytic minds on fields of minutia.
But things don’t get bad in the Kalahari. Instead, the hunters exchange arrows for portions of carcasses slain through trade networks between and within villages. “Give me an arrow,” hunters say to one another, “and if I kill something with it, I will give some meat to you.” And then–the best part–they do it and they expect one another to follow in kind, despite the many grumbles. They share even when it hurts–giving fresh meat immediately or dried meat months later, as hunting and trade conditions allow–not because of some exotic configuration of soul but because surviving in their subsistence societies demands it of them.
Not only do hunters share meat with other arrow owning hunters, they share all the meat with their families, their villages, and other groups over which they have responsibility. The full balance of the hunt is for sharing. The widespread distribution of arrow sharing also helps level out significant differences in hunter abilities, and here some of my questions about how the San people balance incentives to hunt and to free ride on the efforts of others will have to wait. Oh, on a related point, Lee (p. 48-50) also develops in more detail how the villagers take considerable effort to put down and minimize the success of hunters. “Oh, you made us come all the way out here for that pile of skin and bones,” helpers say to a hunter who landed an animal too large to carry home, and without sarcasm. The point: possessive ownership rewards possessive egos; distributional ownership rewards distributional egos, or egos spread flat by their neighbors. Arrogance may be one of our more unfortunate and less considered economic ways of life.
Imagine, for a moment, that the ownership rule for the jungle lush in non-scarce wildlife we call online commerce were “the owner of the source is the owner of the meat.” This raises plenty of concerns to think through another night. (Consider distributional royalties across multiple-authors and multiple sources, or the many ways that creative work online isn’t like hunting in the Kalahari, despite the trade network similarities.) But until then, at least the law books would be simpler.

The Vault: A Mountain of Granite and Gold

Click on entry title to read the article discussed below (“The Vault: A Mountain of Granite and Gold” by David S. Ouimette in Ancestry Magazine, March/April 2005, Vol. 23/No. 2).

In summary of notes below, the Granite Mountain Record Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, contains massive amounts of genealogical records of the LDS (Mormon) Church. The purpose and history–from first exposure to microfilm cameras in 1937 to the dedication of the vault in 1966, to the present–can be read as a fascinating and significantly understudied case study (see last chapter, Mountain of Names, 1985) in the cultural history of information and twentieth-century cultural life. The story of the vault can be read as an explicit and imaginative attempt to save ourselves with information.

One, the vault itself is an explicit and ambitious project in information storage, maintenance, and preservation. Today it holds an equivalent of a reported 3 billion pages of information, with more flooding in from microfilm and digital imaging cameras in over 45 countries–a tremendous example of information preservation by storing, as well as of information preservation as saving.
Vaults are not networks. With modern distributed digital networks, we tend to save by sending away, instead of gathering to oneself. These two models for information preservation–share or horde, send or bury, ether or ground–diverge, especially in the role of physical matter. In the vault case study, information is embodied; online content is copy and copies of copies–doppelgaengers of an ephemeral original. In the vault information is matter and it matters that it’s matter especially to the staff of 65 people take careful pains to slow the onset of entropy and decay of the records.

Online information entropy exists too. The active, usable strength of links linking to other links is subject to distraction and shift over time. Matter decays; links break and activity dissipates. Severing a site suffocates links in the depths of the web, rarely to be crawled and never to be read by humans (see Michael Lesk’s unpublished article here). That is, entropy online expresses itself not in the deterioration of material over time (as it is the case of the vault) but in the entropic unraveling of information organization over time. Clusters, not content, go slack.

Generations from now this post may exist somewhere in the dark matter of the net: and if you could find it, it would likely look exactly as it does today. However, barring fundamental advances in information ordering, the online card catalog–or search index–you would need to locate this exact post would have to be powerful enough restore, like a time-machine, some approximate of the early link network and infrastructure. It may be as impossible for microfilm to survive indefinitely as it is to create a complete search index of all information online. Both require constant recache-ing, continual physical effort on our part. Hands, mice, and microfiche.

Two, the vault’s very existence, too, is predicated on an explicit and ambitious theological belief in the power of record keeping to preserve and save humans (Doctrine and Covenants Section 128, Revelations 20: 12, Malachi 4:5). In practice the LDS vision of global recording gathering has its limits, of course. Posthumous ordinance work (the theological reason for record gathering) is supposed to be an opt-out system. Don’t want your family’s names there, your request should be granted. Actually, LDS theology holds that the opt-out limitation observed on earth necessarily applies to the afterlife as well. LDS ordinance work for deceased family members, then, is a bit like an afterlife stock option. They can cash it if they want, or not. Or a bit like open-source work: accept or reject the edits; authorship by proxy and at a distance (online collaboration bridges space, LDS work bridges time as well); generosity as an incentive to collaborate. Both stock options and open-source collaboration are distributed models of information work–metaphors meant to favor the expansive theological worldview animating the vault. (Jack Balkin gets credit for sparking whatever is good in this thought.)

Three, the vault is also an artifact of cold war mentalities–the very opposite of an expansive worldview. Its 14-ton doors were built to withstand a nuclear blast. It’s built in granite caverns removed from the neighboring Salt Lake City. During the height of tensions with the Soviets, the vault could literally preserve evidence of humanity from nuclear apocalypse–no theological theories about the afterlife involved. (Pat Frank’s post-apocalyptic novel of small town US Alas, Babylon was written the same year, 1959, LDS leadership approved the $2 million project–that’s $14 million in 2007.)

Four, the vault is evolving. It has plans to make not only index but full content publicly available online. This move to distribute information catches the vault up to recent conventions of saving by sending, almost–except for the fact, that is, that the vault is still an active storage site, still rooted in the bowels of the earth.

By the way, the byline calls the author of the article, David S. Ouimette, an “information architect,” a curious and timely term apparently coined in 1976 by the architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman. Modern advances in Richter scales and entropy studies make architects (both informational and landed) adjust to shifting fault lines.


1. How did microfilm remain the medium of choice from 1937 to 1962? Were other options considered?

2. Were decision makers aware of the work of Vannevar Bush and memex?

3. Where else can we see information miniaturization (i.e. microfilm and microfiche, the individual pages of microfilm rolls) as a shield against nuclear Apocalypse?

4. How do theological institutions (like the LDS vault) and atheist societies (like Soviet documentaries, surveys, and economic reports) differ, if at all, in information preservation practices and policies?