Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Spam archaeologies - the Penny Post

If you thought spam is merely a function of digitally automated mass mailing, then consider this. In terms of expanding the logic of spam from the technical to the earlier 19th century standardisation through stamps and postage, and perhaps a more protocological understanding of how circulation of such processes as "post" (digital or human-hand held) functions, the introduction of the penny postage in England seemed to flag similar issues as spam in networks nowadays. A quote from the postal reformed Rowland Hill's diary from January 10 in 1840 gives an indication of what happened when the postage was standardized and cheapened:

"January 10th.--Penny Postage extended to the whole kingdom this day! ...I have abstained from going to the Post Office to-night lest I should embarrass their proceedings. I hear of large numbers of circulars being sent, and the Globe of to-night says the Post Office has been quite besieged by people preparing their letters. I guess that the number despatched to-night will not be less than 100,000, or more than three times what it was this day twelwe-months. If less I shall be disappointed." (quoted in Siegert, Relays, p.100)

In addition, what Siegert's book on "literature as an epoch of the postal system" inspires is a further systematic take on networks and procedures of mail that is of methodological advantage -- whether for archaeologies of overburdened postal networks, or for other network histories. If with Siegert as with Kittler we realized the very historical and hence contingent nature of such processes as "interpretation" in the hermeneutic, human-oriented sense, we are simultaneously in a position to realize the non-interpretational functions of current digital oriented processes of relay, reception, and sending.

Consider Siegert:

"What this [adopting a Shannon perspective to communication systems] means is that signals transmitted by the communications system at a given time tn are not viewed as the function of a data source or receiver--not, let's say, as the expressions or intentions of people looking for the understanding of other people--but instead as a function of factors in the system of communication itself." (p. 99).

Indeed, beyond semantic meaning and the need to decipher with tools of hermeneutic literature analysis, spam does not necessarily mean much even if it has a logic of very meticulous nature. Spam does an awful lot of thing, and relies on the address spaces, mass mailing, various gaps in security too through which it spreads itself, but as a meaningful message it, naturally, fails. What this means however is not the failure of spam as a cultural practice, but a failure of such perspectives of analysis that would want to decipher it from a representational/meaningful position.

This point is made even more clear when we realize that such a huge amount of current traffic in networks happens between machines and governed always by protocols; spamming machines trying to find the gap to impose their message, and filtering machines, firewalls and such trying to catch such messages on time. Despite the 150 years in between, the parallels between early times of standardized postal systems and digital network traffic is not far-fetched, as with the on-going automatisation of procecesses of post already back then, as Siegert points out:

"Had Hill succeeded with his printing press, the only thing missing would have been some kind of reading machine, and all of England's written communication would have been completely standardized and mechanized, from production right through distribution to reception."

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Doug Engelbart and HCI in the context of Simondon

Such techniques of eye-hand-ear-coordination that we take more or less granted like the mouse and WYSIWYG flag an interesting area of not only HCI development and design per se, but also a wider transformation concerning the understanding of supposedly human conventions and practices such as learning. What the work of such pioneers as Doug Engelbart flags is the same area of interests that Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler in philosophy, André Leroi-Gourhan in anthropology or for example Friedrich Kittler in media theory emphasize; there is no natural human being, but the most seemingly natural and primitive tools that we engage and interact with are formative to the "human-form" which is part of our milieu. Or differently put, our milieus of being are constantly formed even to an evolutionary degree of the tools that are formative of our being (superjects instead of subjects, as Whitehead writes in another context; and the way in-formation is understood by Simondon not as a substance but as a process of formation). Indeed, this is why archaeologies of HCI benefit from the wider discussions concerning the subject and the human-being in its milieus in order to develop a full-fledged understanding of the spheres in which computer design work took place.

A short clip of Doug Engelbart talking about his earlier projects.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

A Sunday morning at the Gallica Bibliotheque numérique

A bit out of context, and more out of sheer fascination than as part of any systematic message; felt compelled to post these images after stumbling on the virtual pages of Bulletin du Photo-Club de Paris (1894) on Gallica. Always such a fantastic resource for a media archaeologist!

The issue happened to have Albert Londe's article on his work on chronophotography, and participation at the Salpetriere-institute. This is indeed, to refer to Thomas Elsaesser's ideas, one crucial part of the S/M (this time science/medicine) contexts of cinematic technologies, and visual media history where the need for increasingly precise inscription mechanisms of the body was articulated together with hysteria, epilepsy and such maladies of the (female) corpse -- a topic that does not seize to interest me. (Also, btw. the topic of a wonderful recent book by a friend of mine; Mapping the Moving Image: Gesture, Thought and Logos Circa 1900).
- Image from the Bulletin; a special 12-lens mechanism part of the Salpetriere-institute laboratory for temporal-visual analysis and inscription of such illnesses.

- Another image from the same 1894 issue of the Bulletin, also Albert Londe and his series on chronophotography. A body in movement, a body in balance -- a fascination with the gestures of what the body can do -- and body on film, body inscribed as part of such time based technologies with span the too often assumed gap between entertainment (watching nude woman) and science/medicine (inscribing for analytical purposes women bodies as ill, hysteric bodies).