Some Notes on Text, and other Computer Data

Dónal Deery

At the present moment we are in the midst of a transitional phase, a period of cultural exchange between the world shaped by print, and the world shaped by computing. Text has migrated from the book into the computer. The Russian media theorist Lev Manovich has described some of the results of this transference:

On the one hand, [text] is one media type among others. But on the other it is a metalanguage of computer media, a code in which all other media are represented… It is also the primary means of communication between a computer and a user: one types single line commands or runs computer programs written in a subset of English; the other responds by displaying error codes or text messages.[1]

One might ask: is the privileged role of text within the computer, as outlined by Manovich, entirely unavoidable? Furthermore, is such an approach necessarily the most effective means to realising the full potential of the computer?

A 'Colossus' codebreaking computer at Bletchley Park during the latter stages of World War Two

We might begin by considering the words of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is said to have remarked, during the late Nineteenth century, that: “Our writing materials help write our thoughts”.[2]

The central axiom in the work of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist, was that all technological media affect human beings at the very level of cognition. He stated that: ‘…the effects of technology do not occur at the levels of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance’.[3]

McLuhan was greatly concerned with processes of transition between different media epochs, and he consistently warned that there was a great deal at stake during such periods of translation and metamorphosis. His contentions are thus particularly apposite to the present situation, and its hybrid issue, the text-based computer. McLuhan argued that:

Our typical response to a disrupting media technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. Failure to notice the new opportunities is also failure to understand the new powers. …This failure leaves us in the role of automata merely.[4]

McLuhan referred to this phenomenon as “the law of implementation”, whereby: ‘…we use the new to do the old, even if it doesn’t need doing at all’.[5]

Michel A. Moos develops McLuhan’s principle with specific reference to the internet, and delineates the ways in the mindset, perceptions, attitudes and habits ingrained by print culture are imposing their structures onto the network. Moos decries a perceived consensus: ‘…that the new electronic space be merely another archive, an additive, identic annex to the conventional library of print, so the work of testing ideas may remain that of embedding them in the system of reference that constitutes print’s technology of storage and retrieval.’[6]

Moos believes that print-biased organisational patterns as currently implemented in cyberspace inhibit the usage possibilities of this ultimate network by emphasising linguistic text above a model comprising various other media forms.

The difficulty in conceiving alternative methodologies for the net can be seen to stem from the conceptual restrictions imposed by the print-conditioning of the psyche. Channelling McLuhan, Moos proclaims:

That mass literacy, like all mass media, inevitably imposes its own culture-script upon us seems as alien to the literate as the realisation that literacy in itself is a mass medium. To take printed texts as a paradigmatic web of interconnected materials is merely to extend the ideology of mass literacy to all media.[7]

Moos postulates no clearly defined alternative models, his contention is merely that another net is possible, even though it may be extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, for us to imagine it.

For such a proposal, we might look backward to McLuhan, who speculated in the 1960s about how a global computer network might be utilised. Even today, his imaginative leaps seem rather breathtaking:

Already computers offer the potential of instantaneous translation of any code or language into any other code or language. If a data feedback is possible through the computer why not a feed-forward of thought whereby a world consciousness links into a world computer? Via the computer we could logically proceed from translating languages to bypassing them entirely in favour of an integral cosmic unconscious… The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind together and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems…[8]

McLuhan considered language itself to be a technology which separated humans from the world, and that disputes resulting from misunderstandings between individuals were the root causes of most every form of strife.[9] He viewed the computer as the means to circumvent speech, and to create instead a total network of minds exchanging thoughts with each other via an unprecedented means of perfect communication.

Whatever the technological hubris involved,[10] the radical ingenuity of this postulated network of minds is difficult to deny. McLuhan, despite his déformation professionnelle as a Professor of English Literature, succeeded in imagining a global computer network in which the text was wholly superfluous.

There are, of course, considerable difficulties with McLuhan’s vision of world-wired, wordless communication.

The most significant flaw is perhaps suggested in the above quotation from McLuhan, at the point where he refers to humanity becoming absorbed in the logos.[11] This word has a rather dizzying array of definitions, but here it is considered in the sense associated with poststructuralism, where the ‘Logos’ is a ‘pure order of intelligibility’, a kind of perfect meaning which is beyond words, although it is represented by words.[12]

McLuhan stated that the content of one medium was always another medium, and within this dictum he included spoken language, contending that: ‘The content of speech is not speech but a whole ballet of mental faculties’.[13] McLuhan believed that we do not need words; he proposed that human communication be achieved by computerised transmission of the very electrical signals which constitute our thoughts. There would be no conflict between beings immersed in pure and perfect meaning, in the logos.

Around the same time that McLuhan was making these prescriptive predictions, Jacques Derrida was working to explain how such concepts of pure and perfect meaning were paradoxically expressed in the imperfect, insufficient language of words. If I understand correctly, Derrida argued that every word could no longer pretend to be merely an impoverished sign representing the promise of perfect meaning beyond itself.[14] In 1967 Derrida argued that:

…language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the moments when its limits seemed to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.[15]

Thus, in a manner of speaking, it is language that is the creator of meaning and ideas before it is a means of describing them. It could therefore be argued that McLuhan’s entire conception of a means of perfect communication is, in itself, an effect of language, of placing certain words beside certain others.

McLuhan’s construct is subverted not just by the materialities of language, but also by the materialities of computing itself. All computer data is composed at its most basic level of numbers, strings of ones and zeros. The computing expert Andrea Laue phrases it thus: ‘all data passes through the computer as nothing more than pulses of electricity; the machine recognises two states: with charge and without charge.’[16] McLuhan’s notion of pure communication links the electricity in the brain to the electricity in the computer, without ever considering that this pure thought-energy would still have to be transferred – mediated, into binary code in order to be stored and transmitted.

This is in accordance with the principles of information theory as established in 1949 by the American mathematician Claude Shannon.[17] These principles underpin the digitisation of any type of data for storage and transmission: “Frequently…messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the communication problem.”[18]

Therefore, the computer is a device which is entirely indifferent to the meaning of the information which it processes, and within which, all information is the same. The German media theorist Friedrich A. Kittler describes it thus: ‘inside the computers themselves, everything becomes a number: quantity without image, sound, or voice.’[19] Text disappears, along with everything else, into numbers. This fact of computing is often forgotten, precisely because, as McLuhan pointed out, of the way in which technologies alter our psyches.

In response to this Friedrich Kittler proposes a computer whose operational processes are not hidden, but are instead visible to the user. Proceeding from the premise that light can be used to transmit computer data more effectively than electricity,[20] Kittler conceives of a computer made of light itself, wherein: ‘Every individual bit of information corresponds to an individual light pixel, yet these pixels no longer consist of countless phosphorescent molecules, as on television and computer screens, but rather of a single light quantum or photon.’[21] Such a computer might collapse object and representation; its most basic operations would be spellbinding light shows.

Kittler is aware that McLuhan’s dream of computer-aided transcendence is impossible, and offers instead his vision as the very apotheosis of the possibilities of the computer.

Photons colliding with semiconducting material, in an experiment at the University of Cardiff, conducted as part of research into quantum computing


[1] Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001. p74.

[2] Griffin, Matthew with Susanne Herrmann and Friedrich A. Kittler, ‘Technologies of Writing: Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler’, New Literary History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Literature, Media, and the Law (Autumn, 1996). pp. 731-742. Quotation taken from p731.

[3] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Oxford: Routledge, 1964 (2001). p18.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall. ‘The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment’ (1967), in: Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication, edited by Michel A. Moos, Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997. p113.

[5] McLuhan, Eric and Frank Zingrove (editors). Essential McLuhan. Ontario: Routledge, 1995. p296.

[6] Moos, Michel A. ‘McLuhan’s Language for Awareness under Electric Conditions’, in: Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication, edited by Michel A. Moos, Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997. p144.

[7] Ibid. p149.

[8] McLuhan and Zingrove (editors), Essential McLuhan, p262.

[9] McLuhan develops these ideas from the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Understanding Media, p85-7

[10] Bizarrely, certain computer scientists, chief among them the American Ray Kurzweil, are determined to    design and implement systems similar to those imagined by McLuhan.

[11] McLuhan and Zingrove (editors), Essential McLuhan, p262.

[12] Glendinning, Simon, Derrida: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. p37.

[13] McLuhan, Understanding Media. p8. Stearn, Gerald Emanuel (editor), McLuhan Hot and Cool, Aylesbury: Penguin, 1967. p75.

[14] This is a very crude paraphrasing of ideas detailed on page 75 of Glendinning’s Derrida: A Very Short Introduction.

[15] Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976 (1967). p6.

[16] Laue, Andrea, ‘How the Computer Works’, in: A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, Susan Schreibman with Ray Siemans and John Unsworth (editors), Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. pp145-160. Quotation taken from p147.

[17] Shannon outlined these principles in a book entitled: The Mathematical Theory of Communication, written with Warren Weaver, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949.

[18] Gleick, James, The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, London: Fourth Estate, 2011. p222.

[19] Kittler, Friedrich, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999 (1986). p1.

[20] This is the reason why fibre-optic cable (which utilises light to transmit data), has been steadily replacing copper wire (which uses electric current) as the basis of telecommunications grids for the past decade or so. Kittler, Friedrich A., Optical Media, Translated by Antony Enns, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010 (2002). p224.

[21] Ibid. p229.

Image Sources

Fig. A: ‘Colossus’ from the Wikimedia Foundation

Fig. B: Made using Wordle

Figs. C and D: Author’s own work

Fig. E: The University of Cardiff

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976 (1967). Print.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. London: Fourth Estate, 2011. Print.

Glendinning, Simon. Derrida: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Griffin, Matthew with Susanne Herrmann and Friedrich A. Kittler. “Technologies of Writing: Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler.” New Literary History 27.4 (1996): 731-742. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999 (1986). Print.

—. Optical Media. Translated by Antony Enns. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010 (2002). Print.

Laue, Andrea. “How the Computer Works.” Schreibman, Susan with Ray Siemans and John Unsworth (editors). A Companion to Digital Humanities. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 145-160. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment.” Moos, Michel A. (editor). Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997. 110-120. Print—. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Oxford: Routledge (2001), 1964. Print.

Moos, Michel A. “McLuhan’s Language for Awareness under Electric Conditions.” Moos, Michel A. (editor). Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997. 140-166. Print.

Stearn, Gerald Emmanuel (editor). McLuhan Hot and Cool. Aylesbury: Penguin, 1967. Print.

 

 

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