Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What If We Lost Loss?

The presentation by the University of Iowa's John Durham Peters yesterday about "God and Google" made some of the same rhetorical moves as recent talks by Virtualpolitik friends Benjamin Bratton (about the idea of a Google Caliphate) and Siva Vaidhyanathan (about Google's universalizing mission). Like these other scholars, Peters also traces back the history of "new media" far further back than its seeming computational origins.

He opened by enumerating three distinct functions that the computer performs: recording, transmission, and organizing, the last of which would prove to be the subject of his talk. He argued that media studies was far too focused on cinematic, photographic, or audiophonic origins and far too often ignored the history of indexical media, which he said was part of a "deeper history of media." He took issue with my UCSD Digital Higher Ed colleague Lev Manovich not for the part of The Language of New Media for which I have taken Manovich to task: his assertion that "[w]hile it is probably possible to invent a new rhetoric of hypermedia that will use hyperlinking not to distract the reader from the argument (as is often the case today), but rather to further convince her of an argument's validity, the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the modern era." (Manovich has since developed his thinking on the subject with interesting observations about "database rhetorics." Instead, Peters criticized Manovich's dichotomy of narrative vs database media, which make the novel and the cinema appear as hegemonic forms. (This is a position upon which Manovich also now takes a much more nuanced view.) As Peters asserted, almanacs and bibles are not read front to back.

Furthermore, Peters argued that there were many forms of "logistical media" oriented around indexing. In answering the familiar question, "what is new about new media?", he pointed to the work of Harold Innis in explaining his choice to explore "God and Google" and the "oldest and newest media." For Peters, Google's ambition to omniscience was explicitly indexical. He also pointed to the work of Hans Blumenberg and how technik was always opposed to nature. Using the categories of techne and physis, which were so important to Heidegger, Peters asked, "where is God?" He challenged the idea that "pure religion was only unmediated," when Luther's "sola scriptura" doctrine was so important in intellectual history.

Then Peters showed a number of examples of "logistical media," such as prayer flags and bells, and paid homage to the work of Alain Corbain. He noted that such bells could serve as an "auditory signature to orient you in time and space, and reminded his audience of how the Jewish shofar was imagined by Jacques Lacan as "the voice of god as a dead animal." He followed with a brief disquisition on the history of clocks, the Muslim Qibla, and his own religious tradition, which was organized around the Mormon temple

He argued that the "three ethical monotheisms are all media religions" and that writing is "the mother of all media," notale for its capacities for convenience, access, and tracking, even though "writing is radically unnatural." (Here he pointed to the research of Stephen Pinker and the role of language communities. He insisted that writing is "dangerous" and "mysterious," although histories of writing as a medium for preservation and transmission might be radically different, depending on if writing was first imagined as a vessel for poetry like Homer's or of ecomic records with primarily quantitative functions.

To understand the "use of writing in name," Peters emphasized two distinct traditions. In "Tradition 1" "the book holds everything " as in the case of the book of life or liber vitae through which God serves as writer and "everything tracked" in a "book of the living" or a "book of judgment." "Tradition 2" is primarily "bureaucratic" and is epitomized by the rule of Philip II and the royal register. (As a departent chair, Peters at this point joked about his own identification with Philip's view that "if it is not on file, it does not exist.) Peters also discussed the Doomsday book and the covergence of heavenly and earthly bookkeeping that such documents might represent.

Before moving to an exploration of the advent of the digital, he showed a slide of a beautiful Gijsbrechts paper machine. In retracing the origins of the digital era, he discussed Leibniz as a royal librarian and how for him "1" symbolized creation, while "0" symolized void. Then he pointed to the inventor Charles Babbage and his pre-quantum belief that the air itself is one vast library in which nothing is lost. He also acknowledged how the title of his talk drew on Norbert Wiener's God & Golem, who was primarily concerned with artificial life not AI, he argued.

At this point, he turned his attention to the rhetoric of Google itself, and how "white space means class" on the home page, which was also full of divination and randomizers, like other theological entities. In the assertion on the site "I feel lucky," he asked "who is I" and raised the role of interpellation as a concern. Then Peters noted that when Google announced their initial IPO offering in 2004, they chose the mathematical constant e to determine the price. He also illustrated his talk with the appearance of slogans like "In Google we trust" and "What would Google do? In his AoIR talk, Vaidhyanathan ran a search on "God" on Google, to demonstrate some of his claims about how the search engine worked. In Peter's talk, he ran a search for the results of a "God" and "Google" search. (Peters cited his friend Darin Barney as the inspiration for some of his thinking about Google in this section of his talk.)

He closed with what he considered to be a few essential distinctions about the search engine company:
1) Google is a content organizer not a content producer
2) The page rank algorithm is about a network logic of reading links with co-citation analysis in mind, which treats the Internet as an implicit voting system
3) Google orders by indexing not arranging and by tagging not trying to organize the entire web
4) Google is not omniscient, since most of the Internet is dark matter
5) Google is not omnibenevolent, as Google.cn shows, which essentially throws away part of the card catalog.
6) We should be wary of the Platonic fantasies spoofed by the famed 1993 "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog" cartoon.

He showed the "Parisian Love" Google Superbowl ad, not only to note the oddity of the company doing a mass media ad, which Google is famous for avoiding, but also for the reproductive narrative that it represents in which Google can actually make babies too. Thus the homosocial space so famously defined by Alan Turing can enable heterosexual coupling. Of course, I've written about Google Search stories before here on Virtualpolitik, but Peters reference made me look at them again on YouTube, and also find all the amazing parodies, most of which are tediously about planning a murder or dismemberment (see here, here, and here), but some of which are actually more developed like the "Is Tiger Feeling Lucky Today?" parody or "Google: Parisian Oops."

In concluding with a slide of Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, Peters insisted on the importance of the fact that none of them wrote although all could write.

In the question and answer session he talked both about the "erotic weirdness of new media." (It is worth mentioning that Peters is recently writing about pornography as well as new media.) He also asserted that "loss is part of the program" and "not incidental." He even expressed "two cheers for attrition!" and asked "what if we lost loss?" For those who haven't read Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, check out this review, which also mentions the Virtualpolitik book.

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