Category Archives: History

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…

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.)

 

Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.