Tuesday, April 28, 2009

historiography of/on/around this internet

“my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.” (5)

In describing her vision of the future relations between information, theory, and theorists in terms of fantasy, seduction, and dreams, N. Katherine Hayles taps into an undercurrent of aspirational idealism that is as palpable in many contemporary examinations of the twentieth century’s evolving theories of information as in the documents and practices of the time. Most obvious in the work of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who describes, in glowing terms, the possibility that “information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the … emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself” (8) this tendency to romanticize the disembodied flow of information is also apparent within more intellectual histories. An emphasis on diffuse yet interconnected systems of information and collaboration can lead to a sensitive history that avoids valorizing a few great men at the expense of those around them, but it can also lead to a masked enactment of that very mistake.

In histories of the information age, two kinds of information sharing systems are foregrounded: the newly-invented media themselves (e.g. radio, television, and the internet), and the structure of relationships that led to their invention and dissemination. As Thomas Streeter reminds us in his history of American radio broadcasting, “the electronic media did not fall from the sky or emerge fully formed from a test tube; they are the product of knowledgeable people doing things in a concerted, organized way, with certain purposes in mind” (7). His formulation carefully acknowledges both the people and their collaboration, avoiding the trap that Hayles cautions against in her description of the “posthuman.” She uses this term as a kind of shorthand for a point of view that “privileges informational pattern over material instantiation” (2), one she locates both in theories of cybernetics and in the literary and historical documents that surround those theories. Within the historical documents, “informational pattern” may refer to the networks of theoreticians and inventors who create the media, and “material instantiation” to the individual actors within those networks.

Extrapolated into the future dystopian world of Craig Baldwin’s “Spectres of the Spectrum,” that network of innovators, experimenters, programmers, and who-knows-who-else becomes a shadowy, ill-defined enemy, a media conspiracy called the “New Electromagnetic Order” that threatens to destroy the possibility of memory. In Baldwin’s vision of the future, embodied individualism is literally destroyed by this emphasis on interconnection; information sharing leads not to productive diversity, but to assimilation. Kurzweil’s singularity is Baldwin’s nightmare. In his version of the past, eccentric inventors like Nikola Tesla are portrayed as the na├»ve victims of a military-industrial complex that sought to assimilate their insights and inventions while denying them either formal or financial recognition. Here, this particular kind of inter-institutional information sharing is understood as a problematic necessity, contributing to a dominant hegemony rather than preventing it.

In competing histories of that same past, the collaboration between academic institutions, businesses, and the government is figured in much more utopian terms, as a kind of open-source ideal. In Why The American Century?, Olivier Zunz writes about an “institutional matrix of sponsoring universities, professional associations, churches, corporations, state and local governments, foundations, labor unions, and others” (26), a “diffuse national research establishment,” and a “radio empire connecting science, business, and the military,” as democratizing, practical influences that “defined new possibilities” and “stood in the way of special agendas” (17-19). Even the loaded phrase “military-industrial complex,” though used only twice in the entire history, is given unusually positive connotations, described as an institution that “Americans naturally credited … for serving democracy” (166).The individuals that Baldwin celebrates disappear into the institutions that sponsored them, as in Zunz’s brief history of radio, which lauds the Navy’s influence in the development of the medium, and among private-sector innovators, names only David Sarnoff, the former head of RCA whose rapid rise up the industrial ladder can be perhaps attributed more to his people skills than his technical ones. Though the informational pattern is the focus of Zunz’s analysis, one charismatic man is still credited with having created and maintained each instance of that pattern.

A single charismatic man also lies at the center of Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, a book that attempts to write equally about “[Stewart] Brand’s unique individual talents, the networking tactics he employed, and the increasing influence of the networks he helped build” (8). Though Turner argues that the “flourishing of nonhierarchical, interdisciplinary collaboration” he chronicles was first conceived within “a fabric of military-industrial-academic collaborations that has persisted to this day” (18), his primary focus is on the countercultural movements that spawned first the Whole Earth Catalog and then various online and business communities, culminating in Wired Magazine. These he describes as intentional communities, hand-picked groups of cultural figures that grew not out of an organic process of information exchange and cross-pollination, but out of the mind of one man: Stewart Brand. Though Turner nods to the fact that this emphasis on the network can function perversely as a hero-making rhetorical move, where “those who could most successfully depict themselves as aligned with the forces of information could also claim to be models of those forces” (260), this does not prevent him from being captivated both by Brand’s idealistic rhetoric and by the force of his singular personality.

Each of these histories struggles with the tension between historicizing the disembodied flow of information and recognizing the embodied persons who produce, transmit, engage, and utilize that information. Other writers, such as Lawrence Lessig, have focused on the material networks over which that information is transmitted, bringing physicality into their histories not by focusing on specific persons, but by focusing on the technical structures of information flow. Still, Lessig’s own cult of personality should not be ignored; within the community of those concerned with the future of the internet and copyright, he is undoubtedly more famous than most of the people he writes about. Like Stewart Brand, Lessig operates as a figurehead for a diffuse network of thinkers, capitalizing on his own personal charm and intelligence in an attempt to promote information systems that de-emphasize the individual. The paradox here is palpable, and potentially inescapable. Yet Hayles’s sense that we must attend to the complexity of embodiment is instructive here. Rather than understanding this as an imperative to isolate the individual from whom the rhetoric issues or who best embodies the ideals of a movement, we might take it as an enjoinder to attend to the multiplicity of ways in which the ideals are embodied, experiences ranging from active participants in these intellectual exchanges to the outliers who benefit from them.