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Re: <nettime> Galloway: 10 Theses on the Digital
Kermit Snelson on Wed, 25 Apr 2012 03:02:08 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Galloway: 10 Theses on the Digital

is there an ontology of the digital, or even a philosophy of it?

The founding fathers of "the digital," George Boole and Charles
Babbage, not only proclaimed such a philosophy but preached a
veritable ontological apocalypse. Few in their day had "ears to hear,"
however, and there are even fewer now.

To illustrate the point, I present four related texts: 1) an 1838 text
by Charles Babbage; 2) an 1845 rhapsody on Babbage's text by Edgar
Allan Poe; 3) a 1954 commentary on Poe by Marshall McLuhan; 4) an 1884
comment on Babbage's work by George Boole's widow, Mary Everest Boole.
I also include links to the original scanned page images, although
these are unlikely to work outside the USA.

1) Charles Babbage, from the chapter "On the Permanent Impression of
Our Words and Actions on the Globe We Inhabit" in his book _The Ninth
Bridgewater Treatise"_. London: John Murray, 1838


"The principle of the equality of action and reaction, when traced
through all its consequences, opens views which will appear to many
persons most unexpected.

"The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice,
cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and
audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker,
and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated
force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have
impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are
communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the total quantity
of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition. Each
atom loses as much as it gives, and regains again from other atoms a
portion of those motions which they in turn give up.

"The waves of air thus raised, perambulate the earth and ocean's
surface, and in less than twenty hours every atom of its atmosphere
takes up the altered movement due to that infinitesimal portion of the
primitive motion which has been conveyed to it through countless
channels, and which must continue to influence its path throughout its
future existence.

"But these aerial pulses, unseen by the keenest eye, unheard by the
acutest ear, un-perceived by human senses, are yet demonstrated to
exist by human reason; and, in some few and limited instances, by
calling to our aid the most refined and comprehensive instrument of
human thought, their courses are traced and their intensities are
measured. If man enjoyed a larger command over mathematical analysis,
his knowledge of these motions would be more extensive; but a being
possessed of unbounded knowledge of that science, could trace every
the minutest consequence of that primary impulse. Such a being,
however far exalted above our race, would still be immeasurably below
even our conception of infinite intelligence.

"But supposing the original conditions of each atom of the earth's
atmosphere, as well as all the extraneous causes acting on it to be
given, and supposing also the interference of no new causes, such a
being would be able clearly to trace its future but inevitable path,
and he would distinctly foresee and might absolutely predict for any,
even the remotest period of time, the circumstances and future history
of every particle of that atmosphere.

"Let us imagine a being, invested with such knowledge, to examine at a
distant epoch the coincidence of the facts with those which his
profound analysis had enabled him to predict. If any the slightest
deviation existed, he would immediately read in its existence the
action of a new cause; and, through the aid of the same analysis,
tracing this discordance back to its source, he would become aware of
the time of its commencement, and the point of space at which it

"Thus considered, what a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we
breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once
the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed
and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base.
The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever
written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their
mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as
with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows
unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements
of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will."

2) Edgar Allan Poe, "The Power of Words", published in the _Democratic
Review_, June, 1845


"Oinos. â Are not the starry worlds that, from the abyss of nonentity,
burst hourly forth into the heavens â are not these stars, Agathos,
the immediate handiwork of the King?

"Agathos. â Let me endeavor, my Oinos, to lead you, step by step, to
the conception I intend. You are well aware that, as no thought can
perish, so no act is without infinite result. We moved our hands, for
example, when we were dwellers on the earth, and, in so doing, we gave
vibration to the atmosphere which engirdled it. This vibration was
indefinitely extended, till it gave impulse to every particle of the
earthâs air, which thenceforward, and for ever, was actuated by the
one movement of the hand. This fact the mathematicians of our globe
well knew. They made the special effects, indeed, wrought in the fluid
by special impulses, the subject of exact calculation â so that it
became easy to determine in what precise period an impulse of given
extent would engirdle the orb, and impress (for ever) every atom of
the atmosphere circumambient. Retrograding, they found no difficulty,
from a given effect, under given conditions, in determining the value
of the original impulse. Now the mathematicians who saw that the
results of any given impulse were absolutely endless â and who saw
that a portion of these results were accurately traceable through the
agency of algebraic analysis â who saw, too, the facility of the
retrogradation â these men saw, at the same time, that this species of
analysis itself, had within itself a capacity for indefinite progress
â that there were no bounds conceivable to its advancement and
applicability, except within the intellect of him who advanced or
applied it. But at this point our mathematicians paused.

"Oinos. â And why, Agathos, should they have proceeded?

"Agathos. â Because there were some considerations of deep interest
beyond. It was deducible from what they knew, that to a being of
infinite understanding â to one whom the perfection of the algebraic
analysis lay unfolded â there could be no difficulty in tracing every
impulse given the air â and the ether through the air â to the
remotest consequences at any even infinitely remote epoch of time. It
is indeed demonstrable that every such impulse given the air, must, in
the end, impress every individual thing that exists within the
universe; â and the being of infinite understanding â the being whom
we have imagined â might trace the remote undulations of the impulse â
trace them upward and onward in their influences upon all particles of
all matter â upward and onward for ever in their modifications of old
forms â or in other words, in their creation of new â until he found
them reflected â unimpressive at last â back from the throne of the
Godhead. And not only could such a being do this, but at any epoch,
should a given result be afforded him â should one of these numberless
nebulÃ, for example, be presented to his inspection, â he could have
no difficulty in determining, by the analytic retrogradation, to what
original impulse it was due. This power of retrogradation in its
absolute fulness and perfection â this faculty of referring at all
epochs, all effects to all causes â is of course the prerogative of
the Deity alone â but in every variety of degree, short of the
absolute perfection, is the power itself exercised by the whole host
of the Angelic Intelligences.

"Oinos. â But you speak merely of impulses upon the air.

"Agathos. â In speaking of the air, I referred only to the earth: â
but the general proposition has reference to impulses upon the ether â
which, since it pervades, and alone pervades all space, is thus the
great medium of creation.

"Oinos. â Then all motion, of whatever nature, creates.

"Agathos. â It must: but a true philosophy has long taught that the
source of all motion is thought â and the source of all thought is â

"Oinos. â God.

"Agathos. â I have spoken to you, Oinos, as to a child of the fair
Earth which lately perished â of impulses upon the atmosphere of the

"Oinos. â You did.

"Agathos. â And while I thus spoke, did there not cross your mind some
thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse
on the air?

"Oinos. â But why, Agathos, do you weep? â and why â oh why do your
wings droop as we hover above this fair star â which is the greenest
and yet most terrible of all we have encountered in our flight? Its
brilliant flowers look like a faÃry dream â but its fierce volcanoes
like the passions of a turbulent heart.

"Agathos. â They are! â they are! This wild star â it is now three
centuries since with clasped hands, and with streaming eyes at the
feet of my beloved â I spoke it â with a few passionate sentences â
into birth! Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled
dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most
turbulent and unhallowed of hearts."

3) Marshall McLuhan, from the 1954 lecture "Catholic Humanism and
Modern Letters", published in Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek, (eds.),
_The Medium and the Light_. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999, pp 156, 169


"To put the thing briefly, Poe saw that poetry should be written
backward. One must begin with the effect that is to be achieved and
then seek out the means for obtaining that effect and no other effect.
Thus the same insight which enabled Poe to be the inventor of
symbolist poetry also made him the inventor of detective fiction. For
the sleuth works backwards from the effect of the event to reconstruct
the circumstances which produced the particular event or murder [...]

"The movie can teach us something more about perception and the poetic
process. The characteristic dream world offered to the movie spectator
occurs when we reverse the spool on which the camera has rolled up the
carpet of the external world. So reversed, the carpet of the daylight
world becomes the magic carpet of dreams, carrying us instantly
anywhere. Similarly, it would seem that the poet differs from other
men only in his conscious ability to arrest the intake of experience
and to reverse the flow. By this means he is able to externalize in a
work the actual process by which each of us in perception or cognition
incarnates the external world of existence. But every word uttered by
man requires a large measure of the poetic ability. Our words are
analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world."

4) Mary Everest Boole, from the chapter "Matter and Spirit" in her
book _Symbolical Methods of Study_. London: Kegan Paul, 1884

"In the year 1837, Murray brought out a book called "The Ninth
Bridgewater Treatise." It did not form part of the collection of works
on Natural Religion published according to the terms of the
Bridgewater bequest, but was printed at the expense of the author,
Charles Babbage. Its history is as follows.

"Mr. Babbage had conceived the idea that a machine might be so made as
to calculate series mechanically. Suppose I say to a boy, "Make out
the series of square numbers." The boy says to himself, "Once one is
one; twice two are four; three times three are nine;" and so on, till
he has squared as many numbers as I wish; then he brings me the
figures â 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, etc., all arranged in a row. If I say,
"Give me the series of cubes," he works out by himself, "Once the
square of one is one; twice the square of two are eight; three times
the square of three are twenty-seven," etc., and brings me the figures
â 1, 8, 27, 64, etc.

"Now, an enormous quantity of series calculation has to be done for
what we call "practical purposes" connected with surveying,
navigation, astronomy, etc.; and Mr. Babbage thought that he could
save time and expense by making a machine which, being "set" to any
particular series, would show in succession the series-numbers for so
many terms as might be required, without any human brain being
exercised on the calculation. He made his machine, and it answered
perfectly. It has never yet been much used, I believe, but nobody
doubts that it does what Mr. Babbage said it could do.

"But that was not all. As soon as this machine was fairly started, its
inventor began to perceive that it had powers which he had no previous
expectation of its having. It could do things that he had never
anticipated; it could teach him truths such as he had never divined.
Most of its series had exceptional terms!  â not errors, not
omissions, but veritable Singular Solutions.

"Now, Mr. Babbage did not say, as some parents do, "I made you; do you
dare to teach me?" or, "What right have you to any faculties but those
which I had planned that you should use?" Being a philosopher, he did
as all true philosophers do â he studied carefully this extraordinary
iron child of his own fashioning. His attitude towards it reminds one
of the face of the Madonna in some old pictures, gazing at the halo
round her baby's head. (I hope this does not sound irreverent; I did
not make Mr. Babbage's mind, and am not responsible for the fact that
he felt things in a different way from other people.) He perceived
that the utterances of his wonderful infant were a foreshadowing of
some mighty apocalypse awaiting its time to be revealed; and his
"Bridgewater Treatise" is a note of solemn prophecy.

"It fell on the world's ear almost unheeded ;â unheeded of the
religious, because he did not quote Scripture; of the romantic,
because they were sure that nothing in the way of machinery could
appeal to the imagination or the heart; of practical people, because,
"What use was it going to be to study unusual and exceptional facts?"
of the "healthy-minded," because "paying attention to exceptional
cases is morbid, and leads to fanaticism;" of the impatient, because
its moral was "Wait;" of the conceited, because it said, "You don't
know;" of the lethargic, because, if Mr. Babbage meant anything, he
meant so much that it was less trouble to suppose he meant nothing
than to rouse one's self to take in his meaning; of showy teachers,
because, if what he said was true, all that they had to show was going
to fade and be quenched in a brighter glory, like planets at sunrise;
of the world in general, for the very reason which ought to have
secured their attention â that Mr. Babbage was a man without a "bias;"
he did not care whether this or that religion was or was not true; he
cared for what his machine told him. The scientific did not dispute
the accuracy of his main statements, but, as a rule, they took little
interest in them. They fancied that they knew all that there was to
know about the nature of Law; they had no ears for any but those who
could tell them how the sort of laws with which they were already
acquainted worked in special directions.

"But the few who gave heed to Mr. Babbage's words found out the
meaning of the saying that, when arrogance has silenced the voices of
children of flesh and blood, inorganic matter shall begin to cry out
of some one who is coming in the name of the Lord" [cf. Luke

Kermit Snelson

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