"Signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process...to apprehend it you will
follow the signs...if you want the truth - I know I presume - you must look into
the technology of these matters...it is they after all which decide temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits...You must ask two questions. First,
what is the real nature of synthesis? And then : what is the real nature of
control? You think you know, you cling to your beliefs, but sooner or later you
will have to let them go." ---Walter Rathenau addressing I.G. Farben Generaldirektor Smaragd1
It was never my intention, in toying with the idea to undertake a historical overview of communication and information technologies, to stray blindly into some of the odd-angled corners I've found myself after starting my reading in May of 1999. To illustrate how elliptical
the path became (and will be in the pages to follow), my first induction into this problem came long before entering the Information Studies MA program at McGill University
, and was actually spurred by three concurrent circumstances. The first was reading Neal Stephenson's elaborate novel Cryptonomicon3
during the summer of 1999, a historical rendering of the advent of electronic computing by the research and intelligence apparatus of the Allies during WWII
. The second spark was that at the time I shared a house in Vancouver
with an amazingly well-read Croat-Canadian body-piercer, who, in the course of discussing the international 'police action
' by NATO
(at that time underway in the Balkans) encouraged me to read a history of the Crimean War
, in hope of better understanding why Eastern Europe is so, well, crazy. This I did, and was startled to find (having never given the subject much thought) even in 1853, communications technologies (namely the telegraph
) were playing a key role in the logistics
of warfare and the dissemination of news coverage from the front. Finally, I was at that time, wrapping up a two year stint in the legal department of the corporate head office of a multi-national cemetery and funeral home company. The company was still reeling from the aftershocks of a 1997 court settlement to the tune of 350 million USD after a jury in Louisiana
found them guilty of anti-competitive practices, and as a result, hundreds of said Company's locations were being sold off in an effort to streamline administration and raise badly needed operating funds. The end-result was a jarring insight into information mismanagement and firsthand experience of organisational crisis, problems which no information technology
All of these experiences and exposures pushed me into considering questions about data security and privacy, standards of information organization, retrieval and transmission, and how knowledge
can make or break any large-scale endeavour. Considerations of how technologies (often unquestioningly and invisibly) shape our understanding and perception of the data available in decision making also began to take hold. Technologies are human artifacts though, constructed by human architects, and only exhibit the values and delimiters which we imprint them with - and so it seemed to me to understand those limitations, one simply needed to start working backwards into the contexts, circumstances and personalities which shaped each wave of new tools. This bit of circumstantial uncovering shaped my initial proposal - to unpack the term information and try to exhibit how its qualification
and subsequent commodification
have been shaped by the technologies ever-emerging around it.
But the more I read, the more it seemed even this was insufficient, for it left out the critical human factor -for just as all technologies are molded by their makers (and therefore not really neutral at all, which seems to be endlessly asserted), so too all technologies impact upon their users (and maybe even more profoundly, their non-users). Examining the wired world, as it has been quickly emerged in the West since the advent of electrical telegraphy in the early 1840s, I would argue, would be stale, even meaningless, without also taking into account the rest of the world outside those first networks. The information and communications technologies available to the majority of the planet are, in many ways, at a state similar to the industrial nations 150 years ago. Physical movement is still the speed limit of information - whether it be by boat, train, camel or foot. IT
has only recently appeared in many regions (the Taliban
schools of Pakistan
or the shanty-towns of New Delphi
, for example) leading to largely unanticipated consequences (the unleashing of the globally-felt ILOVEYOU
virus from a small technical school in the Philippines
to the dramatic fluctuations of foreign currencies as on-line speculation proceeds 24-7
). Where there has traditionally been no infrastructure
, its difficult to measure the impact of information in technical terms. A more organic
approach is called for in these cases, and hopefully that will come together in the varied times and places selected, where information & technology have contentious.
In other words, we're going to try to take the long view along with the wide view. I hope it works.
Note 1: Thomas Pynchon
, Gravity's Rainbow
(NY: Viking, 1973), 167. Pynchon felt compelled to write his 760p. odyssey about the complexities of W.W.II
and the elongating impact of technology upon society and the soul, while in self-imposed seclusion in a Mexico hotel room (while mourning the recent death of a close youth author friend, Richard Farina
) - legend has it this process took eight years and the manuscript was hand-written on engineering graph paper
. Pynchon both served in the US Navy and worked as a technical engineer for the Boeing
Corporation before he wrote his first novel, V.
, set in part just before the outbreak of W.W.I
, another work deeply sceptical about the dehumanising aspects of modern technology.
Stephenson's novel is actually set both today and during the war, alternating between times from chapter to chapter, following the parallel exploits of members of the same families. The earlier generation end up having direct influence on the outcome of the war through their involvement in cracking the Axis ENIGMA
code. Later on, the grandchildren are involved in establishing the world's first 'data haven
', an impenetrable computer bank set up with the sanction of a Pacific Island micro-state which will therefore be beyond any government or corporate interference or control. Not co-incidentally, springing fully formed from this fiction, in the spring of 2000, the world's first actual functioning data haven, HavenCo
, was established off the coast of the British Isles on a war-time naval platform declared sovereign since the 1970s, known as SeaLand
. The website of Tibet
's government-in-exile, among others, now runs from the servers established by HavenCo.