Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

07 MARCH, 2012

From Francis Bacon to Hobbes to Turing: George Dyson on the History of Bits

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What Sir Francis Bacon has to do with the dawn of the Internet and the inner workings of your iPhone.

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” proclaimed twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing in 1936.

The digital text you are reading on your screen, which I wrote on my keyboard, flows through the underbelly of the Internet to transmit a set of ideas from my mind to yours. It all happens so fluidly, so familiarly, that we take it for granted. But it is the product of remarkable feats of technology, ignited by the work of a small group of men and women, spearheaded by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Legendary science historian George Dyson traces the history and legacy of this pioneering work in his highly anticipated new book, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, based on his 2005 essay of the same name — the most comprehensive and ambitious account of that defining era yet, reconstructing the events and characters that coalesced into the dawn of computing and peering into the future to examine where the still-unfolding digital universe may be headed.

It begins with a captivating promise:

There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.”

The book is absolutely absorbing in its entirety, but this particular abstract on the history of bits illustrates beautifully Dyson’s gift for contextualizing the familiar with the infinitely fascinating:

A digital universe — whether 5 kilobytes or the entire Internet — consists of two species of bits: differences in space, and differences in time. Digital computers translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence — according to definite rules. Bits that are embodied as structure (varying in space, invariant across time) we perceive as memory; and bits that are embodied as sequence (varying in time, invariant across space) we perceive as code. Gates are the intersections where bits span both worlds at the moments of transition from one instant to the next.

The term bit (the contraction, by 40 bits, of “binary digit”) was coined by statistician John W. Tukey shortly after he joined von Neumann’s project in November of 1945. The existence of a fundamental unit of communicable information, representing a single distinction between two alternatives, was defined rigorously by information theorist Claude Shannon in his then-secret Mathematical Theory of Cryptography of 1945, expanded into his Mathematical Theory of Communication of 1948. “Any difference that makes a difference” is how cybernetician Gregory Bateson translated Shannon’s definition into informal terms. To a digital computer, the only difference that makes a difference is the difference between a zero and a one.

That two symbols were sufficient for encoding all communication had been established by Francis Bacon in 1623. ‘The transposition of two Letters by five placeings will be sufficient for 32 Differences [and] by this Art a way is opened, whereby a man may expresse and signifie the intentions of his minde, at any distance of place, by objects… capable of a twofold difference onely,’ he wrote, before giving examples of how such binary coding could be conveyed at the speed of paper, the speed of sound, or the speed of light.

That zero and one were sufficient for logic as well as arithmetic was established by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1679, following the lead given by Thomas Hobbes in his Computation, or Logique of 1656. ‘By Ratiocination, I mean computation,’ Hobbes had announced. ‘Now to compute, is either to collect the sum of many things that are added together, or to know what remains when one thing is taken out of another. Ratiocination, therefore is the same with Addition or Substraction; and if any man adde Multiplication and Division, I will not be against it, seeing… that all Ratiocination is comprehended in these two operations of the minde.’ The new computer, for all its powers, was nothing more than a very fast adding machine, with a memory of 40,960 bits.”

Turing’s Cathedral, though dense at times, is fascinating in its entirety.

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01 MARCH, 2012

Memory Is Not a Recording Device: How Technology Shaped Our Metaphors for Remembering

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Debunking the myth that memory is about “reliving” a permanent record stored in a filing cabinet.

Last year, Joshua Foer set out to hack his memory. Last week, Jonah Lehrer examined the promise and peril of memory erasure. But what, exactly, is memory — and how does it work? A new book by Alison Winter tackles precisely that — Memory: Fragments of a Modern History explores how the science and understanding of memory evolved over the past century, from early metaphors that likened it to a filing cabinet to the quasi-science of the prewar era’s “truth serums” to the psychology of false confessions and the latest neuroscience breakthroughs on how remembering works.

One particularly fascinating aspect Winter examines is the entwining of technology, media, and cultural accounts of memory. The book, Winter points out, “may tell us as much about how to approach the history of information media as as it does about human memory.”

The modern sciences of memory emerged when newly developed sciences of mind coincided with the proliferation of new media: technologies for recording, transmitting, and recreating sounds and images. Photography, the phonograph, and the moving image all developed between 1850 and 1900. They became identified with memory process in a series of associations that shaped both how those processes were understood and how the technologies themselves would be used. Throughout the twentieth century, memory researchers continued to look to the most recent, cutting-edge recording technologies for insights into the nature of remembering.

[…]

There was never just one way to use recording technologies to think about memory. At one extreme, researchers suggested that they were models for memory itself. Perhaps, they reflected, memory was an internal recording that could be replayed at will… But on the other extreme, researchers also used recording devices to define precisely what memory was not. For a number of scientists, the idea that memory is a recording device rests on an unrealistic fantasy of accuracy and permanence. Instead of practices that facilitated ‘reliving’ a permanent record, they sought out ways to reveal an ineradicable role of interpretation… in the construction of knowledge and memory.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of knowledge in the age of Information Overload, and “memory” has always been a centerpiece of “knowledge.” But at a time when the rift between accessibility and access to information is gaping wider than ever, memory as a foundation for knowledge is shifting from retentional to relational, elevating the importance of the ability to retrieve and connect information over that of the ability to retain it.

As we move from storing units of data — books, music, images, footage — to saving pathways to and among them, our frameworks for thoughtful interpretation, which include the curation and contextualization of information, will become of crucial importance.

Winter, of course, goes in much more depth in Memory — well worth a read.

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29 FEBRUARY, 2012

Full Spectrum 2012: 10 Books on Sensemaking for the TED Bookstore

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A reading list for combinatorial creativity.

This week, I’m at TED, where I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore around this year’s theme, Full Spectrum. Here are my picks, along with the original text that appears on the little cards in the bookstore, and my blurb about the selection:

I believe creativity is combinatorial — it’s our ability to take existing pieces of knowledge, information, insight, and ideas that we’ve gathered over the course of our lives, and recombine them into new ideas. Curation – the purposeful filtration of information – is what fills our mental pool of resources with the most meaningful building blocks of creativity possible. In a way, it’s a sensemaking mechanism for the world, allowing us to see not only why different pieces matter but also how they relate to one another and might fit together. Gathered here are 10 curated books on the loose theme of sensemaking, from a visual history of the timeline to a biography of information to a handmade exploration of Indian mythology.

THE INFORMATION

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick:

Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, science writer James Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern ‘creatures of the information,’ to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges. Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency. But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Take a closer look here.

PEOPLE

People by Blexbolex:

Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread by beloved French illustrator Blexbolex features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness, and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

Peek inside the beautiful spreads here.

CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton:

This lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain. From literature to art history to technology, it offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

Take a closer look here.

344 QUESTIONS

344 Questions by Stefan G. Bucher:

This delightful and light-hearted pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists illustrated in designer Stefan G. Bucher’s unmistakable style will help you figure out life’s big answers. Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved cross-disciplinary creators, including TEDsters Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Take closer look at these illustrated gems here.

THIS WILL MAKE YOU SMARTER

This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, edited by John Brockman:

Every year for more than a decade, intellectual conductor and Edge.org editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, he asked: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and TEDsters, are gathered in this formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. But what makes the book — and Brockman’s general approach – most exceptional is that it’s an invitation to cross-pollinate disciplines and intellectual comfort zones as we strive to better understand ourselves and the complex world we inhabit.

Read some of the answers here.

WATERLIFE

Waterlife* by Rambharos Jha:

For the past 16 years, independent Indian publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Screen-printed by local artisans with traditional Indian dyes, Waterlife explores the marine wonderland through Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

*Waterlife isn’t out until April, but we were able to arrange for a “world premiere” at TED — thanks, Jenn.

Peek inside Tara Books’ other remarkable handmade books here, here, and here.

NOTATIONS 21

Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer:

Inspired by John Cage’s iconic 1968 Notations and originally released for its 50th anniversary, this ambitious tome reveals how 165 composers and musicians around the world are experiencing, communicating and reconceiving music visually by reinventing notation. From acclaimed musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi to emerging global talent, this magnificent tome examines how both the technology and the expectations of this unique synesthetic language have changed over the past half-century.

Peek inside here.

YOU ARE HERE

You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon:

This beautiful and meditative compendium of maps and musings on maps explores, in the broadest possible terms, the human condition though 50 full-color and 50 black-and-white cartographic illustrations, ranging from a humorous diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia to a canine view of the world to hand-drawn maps of shelters along the Appalachian Trail. A selection of diverse essays contextualize the maps within the larger conceptual narrative exploring humanity’s compulsion to map and chart its place in the universe.

Peek inside here.

THE ART OF MEDICINE

The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination by Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes, and Emma Shackleton:

This lavish volume offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. These magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.

Peek inside here.

SHAPES FOR SOUNDS

Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson:

This beautiful tome explores one of the most important technologies ever invented – the alphabet – through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.” Though full of stunning illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets —this is no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

Peek inside here.

For more TED-related literary stimulation, don’t forget this “Full Spectrum” reading list of 7 books by this year’s speakers.

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