The Mechanized Hum of Another World

UPDATE: Here’s the link.The Mechanized Hum of Another World

This is a my first response paper. I was originally going to present a synopsis here and attach the full file as a Word document, but the attachment doesn’t seem to appear on my ‘blog. (If anyone has suggestions, I’m all ears.) So here’s the full, cumbersome, messy thing. I apologize in advance for any formatting issues or departures from MLA style — I don’t have the patience to figure out how to double-space in HTML. (Dr. H: Please note also that the WordPress clock is set four hours ahead — it is still Tuesday, Sept. 5, as I write this!)

Edward J. Crowder
Dr. Alex Halavais
ICM 501

The Mechanized Hum of Another World

In the middle years of the last century, thinkers including Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor correctly intuited the rise of vast new technologies – an information revolution – to accommodate the staggering volume of available research and data produced in the postwar world, and to manage the growing complexity of systems ranging from urban infrastructure to weapons technology. But as the century drew to a close it became clear that these new technologies (the Internet is one of them) had in turn begun to spawn new modes of inquiry, community and even societal structures (Hughes). These consequences were largely unforeseen and we are now just learning to tap them successfully.

“The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability, and something is bound to come of it,” Bush wrote in his remarkable 1945 essay, “As We May Think.” In it, he (more or less) accurately presaged the invention of hypertext, searchable archives and even the Internet. He foresaw profound changes to the way information is stored, culled, and shared. “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them…,” Bush predicted (56 years before Wikipedia; in fact, he somewhat under-reached in his vision of the technological progress that would underlie this revolution). He reasoned that the advances he foresaw must occur because scientists, in particular, need to be able to share information to progress in their fields of study, but were hindered because “publication [of research] has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.”

“The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.” (1)

Twenty-three years later, Licklider and Taylor, in “The Computer as a Communication Device”, recognized that the technologies necessary bring about these changes had already arrived, or soon would, and that, moreover, they would shortly become useful even outside the hallowed halls of the university science lab. They saw in the emerging computer technology the fulfillment of Bush’s vision: the power to share not only words, but also the data, research, and abstractions around which ideas are framed – “models” in their terminology. This, they noted, could be done over a vast distance. “In a few years,” they wrote in breathless understatement, “men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” In the boardroom as well as the laboratory, “when minds interact, new ideas emerge” (21). “The interplay may produce, not just a solution to a problem, but a new set of rules for solving problems. That, of course, is the essence of creative interaction” (24). Recognizing the societal value of this proposition, they foresaw that the new computer-based interactive technologies had applicability well outside the relatively isolated spheres of defense labs, universities, and corporations, given the availability of equipment and the establishment of protocols to foster interactive communication between diverse online communities. They then proceeded to set out the basic conditions necessary for the creation of the Internet.

They also foresaw that new forms of communication would bring about new social structures. Online communities, they wrote (echoing de Tocqueville), “will be communities not of common location, but of common interest”. This is plainly true today, to some extent, at least. Usenet groups, online games and social-networking sites, to name just a few examples, unite people from all parts of the globe around narrowly defined common interests. These things are new to the bulk of the populace, and are only beginning to take form.

This information revolution is creating other new societal structures as well, argues T.P. Hughes in “Technology As Systems, Controls, and Information”. The large, hierarchical systems that arose around the time of World War II to cope with increasing technological and social complexity are giving way to new, less centralized forms that can take advantage of the new ways to communicate and share information.

“Hierarchy, specialization, standardization, centralization, expertise, and bureaucracy became the hallmarks of management during the second industrial revolution. Flatness, interdisciplinary, heterogeneity, distributed control, meritocracy, and nimble flexibility characterize information-age management.” (101)

The value of these latter concepts has been for some time recognized among high-tech businesses, particularly in the Silicon Valley (101). They work on a human scale, lowering barriers to entry and fostering collaboration. Because of this, these “flat”, flexible structures are beginning to filter into the public sphere in the form of new types of information products — particularly on the Internet. Among the best known of these is Wikipedia – an online encyclopedia in which the users themselves post and edit entries, with little oversight by the site’s administrators. This collective editing concept is also being put to test among scientists as a possible replacement for the cumbersome process of peer review; Wired News has also launched an experiment using the same “wiki” format to edit a magazine article, which can be viewed at Happily, from the perspective of this essayist (a newspaper editor) the resulting article is overlong, unwieldy and tends to detour into tangents. Nonetheless, this approach has made inroads in a short period of time, and suggests a tantilizing model for other elements of society to follow. (The Greeks proposed operating a government on a similar principle; alas it has never really been put into practice!)

That the information revolution has arrived, more or less fully, can no longer be in doubt. It is, however, doubtful that, as Licklider and Taylor suggest, that its result will be that unemployment will “disappear from the face of the earth forever”, or even, as they also suggest, that “life will be happier for the on-line individual”. At the end of World War II, Bush was not quite so exuberant, but he saw some cause for optimism. “Presumably, man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems”, he wrote.

“The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.” (4)


Works cited
— Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” Atlantic Monthly. July 1945.
— Hughes, T.P. “Technology As Systems, Controls, and Information.” Human-Built World: How To Think About Technology and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 77-109.
— Licklider, J.C.R., and Robert W. Taylor. “The computer as a communications device. Science and Technology. 1968, 21-48.
— Rogers, Adam, “Peer Review – the Unsung Hero and Convenient Villain of Science – Gets an Online Makeover.” Wired Magazine. September 2006


4 responses to “The Mechanized Hum of Another World

  1. Hi Ed – if you want to fix the timestamp on your posts, go to your blog dashboard and click on “options.”

    Scroll down to the field that says: “Times in the weblog should differ by” and type in “-4”

    EST should display.

    You can also alter the actual timestamp on your blog posts by opening the menu on the bottom right that says “POST TIMESTAMP.”

    Hope this helps.

  2. Thanks, Maria. I did that last night, but I guess the timestamp doesn’t change once something’s been posted.

  3. Should give Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) credit for your title,”mechanized hum….”, no? From the song, “don’t take me alive”!

  4. Most of the post titles, as well as the name of the blog, are taken from Steely Dan tunes. It’s a wink and a nod to a great band, and I don’t think either academic ethics or copyright law requires a formal citation.

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