The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Gavin Craig § Matching cuts / 2014-08-31 16:33:56
Tim Maly § Sooo / 2014-08-27 01:35:19
Matt § Sooo / 2014-08-25 02:10:30
Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-25 00:49:38
Robin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 20:47:35
Doug § Sooo / 2014-08-21 20:40:50
Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:23:13
Gavin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:10:44
Robin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:06:14
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of global technoculture. Follow him at

Calculating the Weight of the Object

curta Image courtesy of Grant Hutchinson.

William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is likely a familiar novel to readers of Snarkmarket – if not in content, then in its tone and its concerns. It is a tale of Cayce Pollard, a strange marketing-savant with a literal sixth-sense for design, and her quest to solve the mystery of both “the footage” – a series of loosely connected video fragments released anonymously online – and her father’s disappearance on September 11, 2001.

Among the things that struck me about the text was the fuzziness of the real — the fact that the mysterious videos at the centre of the story hover in an odd liminal space of being both true and false, referring to “reality” and not. It’s an aspect of the text intimately tied to digital tech – to the novel’s sense of the “virtual” nature of a virtual world, an approach which can often produce a split between an assumed real thing and its digital corolloary (think, regardless of how you feel about the implied hierarchy, of the book vs. the ebook, the face-to-face interaction vs. the online one etc).

As a result, it felt like certain things in the novel that were solid, physical, heavy were almost like a relief – a kind of in-focus reprieve from a world otherwise viewed through a kaleidoscope. Protagonist Cayce is obsessed with signs, and systems of meaning – and remaining ambivalently illegible – but also takes comfort in the unambiguous weight of a locked door, her crisp, black Rickson’s jacket, the strain on her muscles during a morning’s workout.

And then there was the Liechtensteinian calculator – the Curta.

The Curta is a mechanical calculator, but to say that seems to do it injustice. It can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and even square roots and more. Gibson describes it as “heavy, dense, knurled for gripping”, seemingly “executed by a small-arms manufacturer” while “the sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five millimeter camera.” It also just looks really freaking cool. Like a hand grenade of math.

Watch this video relating its history and explaining how it works. Because, though I hesitate to use the phrase, it will blow your mind. And if that wasn’t enough, its inventor Curt Herzstark, perfected it while interned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Yeah.

This came to mind because I was double-checking a reference today for a dissertation chapter which is partly about Pattern Recognition. While writing that torpid thing, I apparently thought that “as a calculator, [the Curta] is a thing bound up in ‘non-significatory’ actions, a material object meant to produce ‘immaterial answers’” – but that this “pre-digital device is meant to perform functions now hopelessly intertwined with electronic technology, and thus is itself a fetishistic sign of pre-internet technology and industrial manufacturing.”

Now I think that may be an uncharitable read.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between objects and activities. It’s something obviously affected by digitally-enabled multi-functionality. The digital object doesn’t so much have “a function” as a series of functions under an umbrella of one or two metafunctions – to wit, “this device is what I use to keep up to date” or “my tablet is what I use to read everything from the news to novels.” The association between object and function that was often one-to-one has become multiplied, perhaps receding into infinity (what, really, is the limit of what you can do with your iPhone?)

But more than that, though I know it sounds like mere tautology, the function of physical devices is related to their physicality. How they operate and what they do in 3D space is dependent on the manner in which they occupy that space. Maybe it’s my digitally-addled brain that needs reminding of that, but it somehow feels like a point worth repeating. And the Curta, in a world in which even the scientific calculator feels arcane, just seems so fascinatingly, resoundingly, undeniably physical. And perhaps it’s because of that physicality, but something about it thus seems so purposeful.

It is easy to get caught up in romanticizing the object we can touch, just as we here on Snarkmarket can occasionally get a bit too attached to pixels you can interact with and manipulate. But I’ve been wondering lately if, beyond the chatter about the attention economy or a supposed “inherent” nature to print or screens, there isn’t something pleasurable in the object that performs but one function. Physical or digital, it doesn’t matter. All I mean to ask is if there isn’t something to be enjoyed in a conscious minimalism of function rather than form – that one might find relief in the simplicity of a one-to-one relationship between an activity and a thing.

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A Palimpsest of Code

I don’t know enough to assert one way or another whether the Google Books ruling is ultimately a “good” or a “bad” decision. What I do know is that it is fascinating.

US District Judge Denny Chin’s decision is, to my mind, far more interesting than a legal ruling has any right to be. I say this because at the core of the legal decision is a mind-twisting idea:

The display of snippets of text for search is similar to the display of thumbnail images of photographs for search or small images of concert posters for reference to past events, as the snippets help users locate books and determine whether they may be of interest. Google Books thus uses words for a different purpose — it uses snippets of text to act as pointers directing users to a broad selection of books.

Similarly, Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before. Google Books has created something new in the use of book the frequency of words and trends in their usage provide substantive information.

Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read book. Instead, it “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.” Hence, the use is transformative.

Think about that: turning text, already one form of “data”, into another form of data is “highly transformative”. It’s a translation of sorts, but if translation is a kind of chemical reaction, then the source material here is both reactant and catalyst, the thing being changed and the thing left untouched.

It’s as if on a printed page you have letters and words functioning one way, and then underneath it, as a kind of a trace, is an  entirely separate code system that contains meaning temporarily invisible to the reader. It’s a palimpsest of code!

Now, here’s what I’m wondering: What are the narrative possibilities of a text that is always operating in two, mutually incompatible but still comprehensible languages — as if a printed page or a section of text always has hovering just above or below a holographic page of code? What might a book look like or do if it put itself forth in two distinct ways, as always both prose and programming language, narrative and the database?

In a sense, we have something like an analogous precedent. You could, if you wanted to, read Ulysses utterly unaware of the sprawling network of references, focusing on the ostensible narrative. “Underneath” — or perhaps more accurately, alongside — is another sign system of meaning, working its way “invisibly” through the text. Diving into that set of code opens and up and eluciates the text in no end of rich, meaningful ways, situating the novel in both its aesthetic and ideological context.

Can we do that with code? What I do not mean is an executable hidden in the margins, opening up a game or a movie about the book. Instead I’m talking about bits of meaning, marked out in inconspicuous ways that only reveal themselves if the interpreter approaches them in the right “language” — patterns, repetitions, cadences, or rhythms, only readable by the machine but full of human possibility.

Imagine a novel about a musician that reveals its off-kilter time signature through measured instances of the word “beat”, or a text about the immigrant experience that ran unseen contradictory interpretations of key moments backwards through a narrative.

Have we been going at the connections between literature and code all wrong? Should we instead be focusing on an interrelationship between the two that is as constitutive as it is invisible, unreadable?

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