Writing in hyperhistory

There’s a well-known distinction between prehistory and history. History, we say, is everything after the invention of writing. This first happened around 7,000 years ago.

But we shouldn’t think of history as referring to a period in the earth’s development, but rather as a descriptor of how people live. That is, even after writing was first invented, many societies still lived prehistorically—without writing. Indeed, writing was invented many times, independently, in different parts of the world (China, Sumer, Egypt, Mesoamerica…). Even today, there are some remote tribes that live prehistorically.

But is the prehistory/history distinction enough? The philosopher Luciano Floridi posits that many of us today have moved into a different way of life, which he calls hyperhistory. In hyperhistory, “societies or environments where ICTs [information and communication technologies] and their data processing capabilities are the necessary condition for the maintenance and any further development of societal welfare, personal well-being, as well as intellectual flourishing.”

We can summarize the distinction in this way:

  • Prehistory – No ICTs
  • History – Society is enriched by ICTs that store and transmit information
  • Hyperhistory – ICTs have overtaken other technologies and now society depends on ICTs to function

 

Floridi very briefly discusses the concept of hyperhistory and what it means for warfare in the Computerphile video below.

Across Floridi’s many works on the topics, he discusses how hyperhistory plays out in economics, politics, warfare, information quality and other areas. The bottom line is that hyperhistory is new, and we are only beginning to grapple with its immense challenges. Floridi writes:

Processing power will increase, while becoming cheaper. The amount of data will reach unthinkable quantities. And the value of our network will grow almost vertically. However, our storage capacity (space) and the speed of our communications (time) are lagging behind. Hyperhistory is a new era in human development, but it does not transcend the spatio-temporal constraints that have always regulated our life on this planet.

And elsewhere:

It may take a long while before we shall come to understand in full such transformations, but it is time to start working on it.

When it comes to writing, what does hyperhistory mean? That’s a big question, but we can sketch some initial thoughts:

  • When there’s more information, there’s less time to devote to any given information. Not only is there more of it to read, but we have to spend more time organizing it and searching for it. Commensurately we’re seeing writing take different forms: shorter sentences, more lists, etc.
  • Non-text forms of information are proliferating. Big data visualizations, videos, etc.
  • Things change fast, and so writing on many topics quickly obsolesces.
  • Text is being processed more by other technologies than by humans. Machines cannot understand in the same way humans can—their “reasoning faculties” are quite different from ours. What does it mean to think of writing for the audience of both humans and machines?

Ah, things to think about…

Documenting the self

I’ve been hard at work on my dissertation proposal—I’m studying the processes of artistic self-portraiture—and I’ve been thinking about self-documentation. In modern society we seem to be compelled to write about ourselves. We make resumes and CVs, and we write bios for our social media profiles, which are becoming central for everything from everyday communication to dating and business. There are, of course, also many non-verbal ways in which we document ourselves, which is a focus of my dissertation.

The later work of Michel Foucault suggests that self-documentation is not new. On the contrary, many in Ancient Greece and Rome apparently kept hupomnēmata, or notebooks “to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.” These were fragmentary notebooks, but their result was not merely a collection of disjointed scraps; rather, they contributed to a new whole, along with the writer themselves. According to Foucault, the purpose of the hupomnēmata was to care for the self, which was an ancient directive. (Foucault laments that today we only recall know thyself, having forgotten about care for thyself.) As Foucault writes, “writing transforms the things seen or heard ‘into tissue and blood.’” People regularly returned to their hupomnēmata for nourishment.

The function of the hupomnēmata is quite different from the modern genre of autobiography, whose purpose is not to care for the self but to care for others. Autobiographies and many other self-documents are packaged for sale (in various senses), but the hupomnēmata were intensely private. They were more about the process than the product.

Today, some of us keep hupomnēmata. Mine, if you could call it that, is in Evernote. But I think this is a rare practice. On the other hand, many people cultivate something like hupomnēmata in their social media feeds. A Twitter feed, for instance, presents a seemingly disjointed collection of thoughts and snippets from the world, and it seems to be both like and unlike hupomnēmata. On Twitter (and other social media, or even ICT-made self-documents in general), are posts revisited as a means of self-care? Is the primary audience the self or another?

An episode from the history of typography

But they could afford typesetters. It’s hard to realize nowadays what that meant.

If you’re like me, you spend much of your time with electronic type. I was struck by how strange a state of affairs this really is recently when my brother sent me a video about a curious episode from the history of typography.

In the advent of computing, Bell Labs was instrumental in developing a lot of computing technology. As part of AT&T, Bell was a monopoly, which meant it didn’t have to be as cut-throat about its bottom line and could afford to allow a group of researchers to follow their curiosity even if their work didn’t appear to yield short-term profit. From this arrangement we got things like Unix, which is most likely at the root of the operating system you’re presently using; Bell Labs also helped bring about the democratization of type.

Before the 15th century (at least in the West), of course, nobody did typing. After Gutenberg, typing was a specialized skill. Not only did it demand extensive training, but the equipment was expensive. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Dr. David Brailsford reports that in 1979 the newest, most affordable typesetting equipment would cost $50,000—enough to buy a nice house.

A team at Bell Labs managed to get a hold of one of these machines, a Linotron 202. Fonts were provided on floppy disks, at great cost and in proprietary format by a company called Mergenthaler. The Bell team reverse engineered the fonts, which were in an obscure format, to create their own.

The video details a modern-day project hearkening back to the past. In 1980 the Bell team wrote a memo describing how they reverse engineered the fonts, as well as the problems they encountered with the 202 machine, but the memo was suppressed at the time. Today the “authentic” memo only exists as a photocopy of a photocopy, and so in 2013 Brailsford decided to recreate it using modern software but mimicking the functions of the original software and processes to make it as authentic as possible.

Today we take it for granted that a given computer has dozens of fonts and new ones are obtainable for free or very cheap. Even professional type families in the hundreds of dollars are vastly cheaper than they were a few decades ago. Thanks must go, in part, to the Bell Labs team.

(Thinking about this over the past week has got me a bit sidetracked—I even decided to typeset my dissertation proposal in Latex.)