Dyson: Analogia

Sometimes when I read something, it connects in my mind to something else I’ve read. In this case, the connexion is made to Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media. Zielinski explored various technological and epistemic dead ends, and pondered where we would be today had any of those possible lines of development been pursued. The goal of such an archaeological excavation is not merely historical curiosity – although that is always a valid reason to go about things – but also a reframing of the present. Seeing how we are all equidistant from eternity, the various abandoned dead end media he explored were once (or could have been) state of the art technological cutting edge. Pondering where things could have gone puts the arbitrariness of where they actually went into perspective; the alluded to Deep Time consists of not taking historical contingency for granted just because we happen to live in the here and now.

Dyson has embarked on a similar project, albeit with ever so slightly less grand epistemic ambitions. Analogia tracks the development of digital technology from Leibniz to the present, and gives us the perspectives of those who happened to be on the other side of it. Not its opponents, per se, but of its victims. When the telegraph made its way across the continental United States, it did not bring good news for the Native Americans. These self-same tribes were not passive recipients of history, however, and responded to these news by quite literally hacking the telegraph wires. Chopping off a wire gave a tactical advantage in that it severed enemy lines of communication, but the act was not one in opposition to telegraphy specifically; they were firmly in the realm of Clausewitzian depriving your opponent of the capability of resisting, rather than of Luddite convictions.

This places the emerging communications technology outside the realm of inevitability. It is a rare thing indeed to place those who happened to be on the other side of technology as strategic actors using the full force of human rationality to oppose said technology. Usually, the story sets up the initial conditions, the requirements for the technology to work, the impediments in place, and what the clever men of applied science did to overcome these impediments. At best, locals are delegated to the status of “impediment”, and then swiftly removed from the equation as the march of Science and Technology continues ever apace. Inevitability had to be brutally enforced, and by pointing towards those who were subjected to the enforcement the inevitability is brought into question.

A reader of the book might not be immediately struck by this line of thought. The text moves from context to context, giving biographical and at times personal insight into the lives of a number of individuals. From Leibniz himself, and his petition to the Russian Tzar to build a very early version of a difference engine; to a trans-Siberian expedition from the very same Russian court to explore the east coast (before subsequently arriving at the west cost), and the various logistical challenges inherent in such an undertaking; to the supreme canoe-making of those who live in the arctic peninsula of Alaska; to the social circumstances surrounding the creation of the atom bomb. In all these individual, peculiar and at all times fascinating recountings, it is easy to lose track of the overall analogy; the meeting of analog and digital gets lost among the proverbial trees, as it were.

This is, perhaps, more of a feature than a bug. The whole endeavor is to not reduce these varied and skillful opponents of the coming digital order to an analogy. Part of looking at the world through the lens of deep time is that every moment is contingent, and every future moment following from any given moment was as uncertain as it is to us. This necessitates a certain amount of critical distance from history – the fact that we know how it turned out does not imply it was the only way things could have gone. This mode of thinking is inherently allergic to analogies; it ever so slightly defeats the point to posit that since something happened once, it is bound to happen again in the same manner. Thus, an extensive setting of the stage is required, to fully appreciate the magnitude of the collapse of eternity into one singular timeline.

What Analogia ultimately does is set the stage for our present moment, in all its contingent glory. There is no telling where things go next, and those who do try to tell you usually do so in the context of a sales pitch. And there are many, many sales pitches abound about the advent of artificial intelligence, the new digital frontier. It is an inevitable development, a preordained extension of destiny, the next step in human evolution, the next big thing, the done deal. All it requires is that we embrace it in our hearts and unilaterally allow it to happen. A digital manifest destiny, if you will.

As we have seen, inevitability has never been the case when it comes to new technological developments. There is little to suggest it would be the case this time around, and it will undoubtedly be interesting to see who among us will happen to be on the other side of this evitable inevitability. It will also be interesting to see where the new avenues of relentlessly analog wire cutting will take place. The future is not here yet; we still have time to be contingent. If history teaches us anything, it is thus.

Dyson: Analogia