Courseblogging Machine and Meaning

After a summer of upheaval, I’m starting to get settled into the new gig. I’m excited about both courses I’m teaching, and I’m keeping a courseblog with my students for one of them, an undergraduate elective (DTC 356) titled “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” It’s interesting: I get to look again at material and concepts I’ve become pretty familiar with in the past 10 years or so, stuff I have some ostensible expertise on and that I’ve been thinking about for a while and that I know other scholars in the field have considerable familiarity with, and yet this is the first chance I’ve had to teach a course like this — and so my courseblogging feels like a weird mix of old material, new insights, and responses to re-framings I hadn’t considered before. That’s a good thing, and I’ll post now (and continue to cross-post) some of my entries for the course, as a way to continue getting settled into the routine of the new gig. Plus I’ve got about eight billion thoughts about the big thing I’m working on that I want to share, and there are only tiny corners of it here, but that’s OK: there’s time.

So in thinking about recent applications of the Labor Theory of Value to the so-called information economy, one of the questions I posed to the students in DTC 356 was: how much of a role does effort play in how we interact with digital technologies? (Cross-posting begins here; longtime followers of this blog will notice the change in intended audience in relative degrees of explicitness.) In one DTC356 blog post, a student wrote,

When I think of a world without the social media and technology we have now, I imagine a world that was connected in only a few ways instead of a million ways (twitter, facebook, blogging, etc.) to communicate with each other. Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats? Technology would not have ever advanced as far as it has today if it weren’t for these signals, tones, and phrases that began centuries ago.

The point about “having to listen intently” is important, because of the ways digital technologies seem to make communicating information so easy. Brown and Duguid talk about “the conduit metaphor” and how “[b]asic ideas of sending and receiving make digitization, for example, seem easy. You distill the information out of book or articles and leave the paper residue behind” (184). The problem is, though, that there are other important aspects of the act of communication that we often ignore: as Brown and Duguid go on to point out, “[i]t’s not pure information alone, but the way the information was produced that supports interpretation” (185). This is what Lessig is getting at in his discussions of the borrowings of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and doujinshi, and what we were getting at in our discussion of cover songs and Girl Talk: so much of information is context. You don’t fully appreciate a cover version of a song unless you’ve heard the original (think about the 33,000+ covers of Gershwin’s “Summertime”), and part of the reason that Disney movies resonate so much (as Lessig suggests) is that they’re built on stories that our culture knows really, really well; stories that resonate with us. (Why so many Batman and Spider-Man movies, right?) So there’s this ideal that we have of some sort of pure, easily transmitted information — just a few 1s and 0s to decode, and if you know about logarithms and exponents, you can derive meanings from tables of numbers that others might not be able to see — but that ideal isn’t actually the way things work.

Information transmission isn’t, in fact, efficient. That’s the point of the story about talking drums (“allocate extra bits for disambiguation and error correction” [Gleick 25]) and the story about Clytemnestra receiving word of the fall of Troy 400 miles away in Mycenae: “To transmit this one bit required immense planning, labor, watchfulness, and firewood” (Gleick 16-17). Transmitting information is expensive, in terms of labor and in terms of capital — and in an information economy, context is kind of like capital. (Actually, in terms of the factors of production described by the old political economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, context is probably more similar to land than to capital.) One student asks, “Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats?” and of course that’s what we all do, all the time.

That’s also what computers do with 1s and 0s (true and false, high and low, fire or no fire). Computers use logic gates with transistors designed to let current through in certain ways and control other transistors, so that combinations of transistors with combinations of current going on or off through them according to how they’re designed to work in conjunction with each other — to signal AND, OR, or NOT, as well as more complex combinations like NAND, NOR, XOR, and XNOR — build up, store, and manipulate more complex numbers out of simple 1s and 0s. And because information-as-capital builds upon itself, computers have been able to get increasingly complex while their prices have dropped. Context builds on itself, and technology is a part of context. As Lessig points out, there was once a “distinction that the law no longer takes care to draw — the distinction between republishing someone’s work on the one hand and building upon or transforming that work on the other. . . Before the technologies of the Internet, . . . [t]he technologies of publishing were expensive; that meant the vast majority of publishing was commercial. Commercial entities could bear the burden of the law. . . It was just one more expense of doing business” (19). Now, though, because our technological context has become increasingly complex and avaiable to all, we’re all increasinly bearing that “burden of the law” and having to figure out how to revise our own social, legal, and political contexts to account for that increased complexity. Doing so requires not only attention to the alphabet and syntax and orthography and grammar of these 1s and 0s but also to the rhetoric: in moving from the high and low tones of the drums and the morse code of the battleship’s signal lamp to the mashup video of “Oh No” (if there had been a clip of Michelle Obama dancing to “Teach me how to Dougie” in that video, would it have been in the public domain?), we need to think about a rhetoric of remix wherein inventio is the current and the initiating spark, dispositio is the linking of gate to gate, elocutio is the purposing of the gates themselves whether NAND or NOR, memoria is the storage of what those gates arrange to produce, and pronuntatio is the moment of its transmission: the interface between machine and meaning.

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