synthetic zero

March 15th, 2013

There’s been an increasing brouhaha in blogs and on Twitter over “digital dualism”; Whitney Boesel summarizes it adroitly here (while also pointing out an asymmetry in citations of female theorists in the debates). There seems to be a bit of confusion going on in the debate, however; even Jurgenson, who initiated this discussion with his blog post The IRL Fetish, seems to tacitly admit that there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between the digital and material worlds. But I think even that distinction is severely flawed: in fact, it makes perfect sense to think of the physical world itself in information terms; that is, rather than using a metaphor of billiard balls, so to speak, it is more apropos to think of the so-called physical universe in information theory terms, particularly in light of quantum mechanics. This perspective is sometimes called information physics.

This isn’t to say that the introduction of computers and networks has made no difference in our lives, or doesn’t represent a very important change; obviously it does. The change is not ontological, however. The physical world itself is “made of” information, as I noted above. Furthermore, all of human culture has involved sending and receiving signs using varied media, from speech to graphemes to paintings and poetry; even the human body itself can be seen as flows of information. Now information flow uses new systems which are far faster, which enable much more rapid copying and dissemination across vast physical distances which do not require owning broadcast media towers or printing presses. That is, of course, a change of a very important kind, but it’s not an ontological change, it’s not a creation of a new and separate world.

The world isn’t divided into the “real” and “virtual” any more than the introduction of radio or television divided the world into “real” and “on the air”. It’s introduced new channels for flows of information, and these flows have interesting, even radically new properties, but the existence of new flows doesn’t create a separate reality. We haven’t lived with these patterns of flows for very long, so they feel strange to us, and like every change they induce an instinctive counter-reaction; nostalgia for a past we are more familiar with, and a not entirely irrational fear that the change may introduce social, cultural, or physical phenomena into our lives which negatively impact our lives or destroy cherished features of the world we are replacing.

Bruce Sterling pointed this out quite poignantly in his always-funny and always trenchant SXSW closing talk: even as we change the world, even if in sometimes positive ways, we are simultaneously destroying parts of it. The internet hasn’t created a separate world but it has changed the world. Newspapers and bookstores are on their way out. Even things that came into being with the internet are getting paved over by later iterations of it, as the closing of Google Reader illustrates. The internet has facilitated and accelerated change, and it’s not always just for the better: what comes next rises over the ashes of what we’ve replaced. It’s worth thinking about what we might be losing as we move on, but the world hasn’t bifurcated, and there’s no “going back” to the “real” world — this is already the real world.

This reminds me of a story about my cousin Midori when she was a young girl, maybe 3 years old, visiting with my aunt and uncle. We were hiking in Tecolote canyon in San Diego, and she was throwing rocks into the stream. My aunt said, “don’t throw rocks into the stream, let natural process take care of it!” My cousin said, “But I am part of natural process!” “Natural” doesn’t always mean good or better, however. Denying digital dualism doesn’t foreclose paying attention to the features of change, for the better, the worse, or, as is usually the case, both.

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