Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Sourcerer's Apprentices

I've been thinking about Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay "As We May Think" a lot lately as I finish up the manuscript for the Virtualpolitik book, so I was particularly interested to hear Wendy Chun's talk yesterday, which emphasized the "may" in the title of Bush's article, which was printed in The Atlantic Monthly and Life.

The first part of her paper dealt with the questions of critical hindsight that have been so important for new media studies, particularly as it has emerged from tired utopian/dystopian binaries and the hackneyed metaphors of double-edged swords that still play out in the mainstream media. In addition to pointing out the irony of the increasingly biological obsessions of bioart and nanotech critics in a field about hardware and software, she reminded the audience that a focus on future technologies made analysis of present ones difficult. As indicators of a possible sea change in the field, Chun emphasized many scholars' interest in getting beyond "vapor theory" and the influence of presentist work by Lev Manovich, Peter Lunenfeld, Geert Lovink, and even -- more recently -- novelist and onetime futurist William Gibson.

In answer to Paul Virilio's despair that online phenomena are gone by the time that a critical discourse can be formed about them, she suggested that it might be good to consider "getting beyond speed" and seriously interrogate the idea of memory instead. She was careful, however, to distinguish memory from the archive and not to associate memory with permanence either. Much as Derrida considers forgetfulness to be at the heart of the archive, Chun is interested in what she calls "the enduring ephemeral" as well as the "degeneration" of memory or that which we "repress and deny."

Despite her interest in getting beyond speed, she was still deeply engaged with questions about new media temporality. She pointed out that Lev Manovich argued that "where" an image is could be less important than "when" an image is and seriously presented McKenzie Wark's "theory as event" and Geert Lovink's "theory on the run" as legitimate critical alternatives to her view.

Although not many people in the room had read his essay, she also corrected those who may still idealize Vannevar Bush's ideas as precursors to the present by asserting that he was describing a mechanical analog future that can not come to pass. She also showed a truly bizarre animation of the Memex from Dynamic Diagrams that adopts a first-person present address about the device while suppressing its obvious anachronisms. She emphasized how strong this belief in a source or what she punningly called "sourcery" could be, and not only among Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart who looked back to the Memex as an origin for their ideas but also among those who have recently entered the field.

I was particularly interested to hear Chun point out how Bush obliterates the difference between machine reading and human reading and presents mechanical devices as error free, much as he presents media that never degrade. Lately I find myself rereading the passages in which Bush seems captivated with the promise of what he calls a “new symbolism” divorced from the irrationalities introduced by locality, language, and culture in which one day people will “click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register” or “manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits” to crank out “conclusion after conclusion” as consistently as a “keyboard adding machine.”

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