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<nettime> Transmissions of Intelligence
McKenzie Wark on Sat, 20 Mar 1999 18:51:09 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Transmissions of Intelligence


Transmissions of Intelligence
Fom the book to the internet, the way we communicate 
shapes the kind of society in which we live, argues McKenzie 
Wark.

THE VICTORIAN INTERNET:
The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth 
Century's Online Pioneers
Tom Standage
Weidenfeld and Nicholson
$35.00 hb 216pp

AVATARS OF THE WORD:
>From Papyrus to Cyberspace
James J. O'Donnell
Harvard University Press
$57.00 hb 210pp

THE RELIGION OF TECHNOLOGY:
The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention
David Noble
Alfred Knopf
$59.00 hb 273pp


Samuel Morse, who gives his name to 'Morse code', was an 
unlikely figure to end up famous. Remembered as the father 
of what was probably the greatest communication revolution 
of all of recorded human history,  Morse started out as a 
society portrait painter and an enthusiast for get rich quick 
schemes. he was also an amateur inventor. One of his many 
schemes involved a marble cutting machine that would 
make copies of famous statues for the masses. This was 
typical of Morse's imagination: he liked to think of ways of 
getting the good life to people to a bargain price.

The revelation that led Morse to invest so much of his life in 
the telegraph happened on board ship, returning from 
Europe to America in 1832. He was on his way home with a 
giant canvas, six by nine feet, on which he was painting 38 of 
the Louvre's greatest works. He had a notion to exhibit it and 
charge admission. What distracted him from finishing it was 
a demonstration of the potentials of a new invention -- 
electrical telegraphy. 

Quite a few people had dabbled in the business of trying to get 
an electrical pulse to travel down a wire in such a way as to 
convey a message from one place to another, but nobody had 
quite made it work. There were problems with producing a 
reliable electrical current, getting the current to carry over a 
long wire, and of deciding on how to make the current carry 
elaborate messages. But Morse was an optimist by nature. On 
seeing the shipboard demonstration, he is supposed to have 
said:  "I see no reason why intelligence might not be 
instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance."

It's a curious choice of words: the transmission of 
intelligence. It crops up twice in Tom Standage's very 
readable potted history of telegraphy, The Victorian Internet. 
As Standage reports, the telegraph met with much scepticism 
at first. Few people had Morse's imagination. Few people 
realised just what a revolution it would start. But once it got 
going, it really took off. In 1846 there was just 40 miles of 
telegraph line in the United States, running from 
Washington to Baltimore. By 1848 there was 2 000 miles, and 
by 1850, 12 000 miles. One the technical problems of 
designing, installing and maintaining underwater cables was 
solved, by among others, Lord Kelvin, the telegraph grew 
even faster. By the 1870s, there were 650,000 miles of wire. 
There were 20,000 towns that were, as Standage puts it,  
'online'. Australia went online in 1871.

It's a peculiar feature of the economy of networks that each 
additional unit of connection added actually increases the 
value of all the others. Washington to Baltimore is not much 
use to anyone, even in Washington or Baltimore. But when 
people can connect Washington to 20 000 other places -- you 
have a communication revolution. 

This business of the transmission of intelligence is the key. In 
biology, the evolution of specialised nerve cells meant that 
organisms could be any shape at all, and the extremities could 
still be in communication. Likewise, with the telegraph, the 
shape of human organisation was now free to follow any 
form. It was no longer necessary for people who 
communicate with each other a lot to be in proximity. It was 
no longer the case that the further away people were away 
from each other the less immediate power they had to 
influence each other's lives.

Telegraphy was essential to the running of the British 
empire. After the telegraph, colonial governors were 
immediately answerable to London. So too where generals in 
the field, who since the Crimean war have often been 
plagued by officials back home second guessing their every 
move. Telegraphy transformed the newspaper business and 
led to the invention of modern conventions of 'reporting'. 
Many newspapers around the world are still named the 
Telegraph. Telegraphy made modern big business and big 
government organisations possible, with regional or branch 
plants subordinated to head office. 

Perhaps most important, when combined with the railways, 
telegraphy led to what we now know as the 'economy'. As 
Standage so succinctly puts it: "Suddenly, the price of goods 
and the speed with which they could be delivered became 
more important than their geographical location." 
Information about what buyer want, what goods sellers have, 
and what price both are prepared to bid could now be 
available across whole countries, even across the world. 
What is often called 'globalisation' is really just the logical 
extension of this process of the instantaneous transmitting 
intelligence that began with the telegraph. Since the 
telegraph, information can move faster than people or 
things. As a consequence, political, military, diplomatic, 
economic and cultural power depends upon the timely 
transmission of intelligence.

It is appropriate that Standage calls his book The Victorian 
Internet. It's been fashionable in the 90s to think of the 
communication revolution of our time as the only one that 
matters. Actually, the internet, multimedia, hypertext -- the 
whole cyberhype lexicon, is really more a bunch of 
evolutionary steps than a big revolutionary one. If there is a 
significant breakthrough, I think it was the telegraph, which 
for the first time enabled information to move more quickly 
than anything else, thus shifting the balance of power to 
those with access to rapid communication. The internet is 
just telegraphy with pictures.

Ironically, most of the almost theological belief in the 
transforming power of the internet was once attached to 
telegraphy. Indeed, for a long time now, in Western cultures 
at least, technologies of all kinds have been viewed in a 
strangely spiritual way. The historian David Noble has 
tracked this convergence of religion and technology back into 
the middle ages in his book The Religion of Technology. 
Noting that many of the great American engineer inventors, 
including Morse and Edison, were often also deeply religious 
or spiritual, he proposes a whole framework for seeing the 
west as a culture steeped in the ideology of redemption 
through technology.

Technology and enlightenment are supposed to be at odds 
with religion and faith, but Noble thinks otherwise. Since the 
middle ages, he argues, the practical and useful arts, which in 
the classical world the educated treated as beneath them, 
became instead the object of serious intellectual 
consideration. "Technology came to be identified with 
transcendence." The most lowly became a route to the most 
exhalted.

A good Christian in the early middle ages would be one who 
tried to imitate the life of Christ, or what was much the same 
thing, the life of Adam. Before the fall, Adam dwelt in a 
world of perfect knowledge and in harmony with God and 
nature. After the fall, mere mortal men live in ignorance of 
divine and perfect knowledge, and rely on the contrivances 
and artifices of the useful arts to get by. 

The change that Noble identifies is in the attitude to these 
useful arts. The new view was that practical knowledge 
might represent fragments of the lost divine and perfect 
knowledge. Preparing for Christ's return might not be a 
matter of just a spiritual preparation. It might also require the 
recovery, bit by bit, of the lost knowledge of Adam, so that the 
perfect kingdom could be prepared for Christ's return.

The Benedictines were early advocates of this spiritualised 
attention to the practical. Noble credits them with a 
"medieval industrial revolution" in the use of windmill, 
watermills and agricultural technology. Johns Scotus Erigena 
provided the theological justification. Man is made in God's 
image, but this was usually taken to mean that only the soul 
is like God, but the physical and material aspect of human 
existence is something extraneous. Erigena argued that the 
physical aspect of man's being also partakes of the divine. As 
a consequence, the state of that physical being, its care and 
maintenance, and the technologies that sustain it, all have a 
spiritual significance. 

The monks began to pay serious attention to improving this 
life, here on earth. Writes Noble: "The recovery of 
mankind's divine likeness, the transcendent trajectory of 
Christianity, thus now became at the same time an 
immanent historical project. As a result, the pursuit of 
renewed perfection -- through myriad means which now 
included the advancement of the arts -- gained coherence, 
confidence, a sense of mission, and momentum."

Through many hundreds of years, Noble traces the lineage of 
the men of the book who espoused and refined this view of 
the world. "In the view of this emerging elite, the 
millennium had already begun that they were the earthly 
saints." The Franciscans were even more evangelical about 
the advancement of knowledge and technology than the 
Benedictines. They were keen on technology as an 
anticipation and approximation of the restoration of Adamic 
perfection. They were also interested in navigation and 
exploration -- only when everyone has been converted will 
Christ return. Noble makes a lot out of Christopher 
Columbus' attachment to the Franciscans. 

A marvellous quote from Paracelsus sums up the ideological 
principle Noble finds at work throughout: "When the end of 
the world draws near, all things will be revealed. From the 
lowest to the highest, from the first to the last -- what each 
thing is, and why it existed and passed away, from what 
causes, and what its meaning was. And everything that is in 
the world will be disclosed and come to light." Anyone who 
has been exposed to the cyberhype about the world wide web 
is likely to find this strangely familiar. The current crop of 
communication technologies are often promoted as the 
means to achieve a secularised version of the same vision: 
the virtual library in which all information is perfectly 
ordered for instant recall.

The English Protestants of the 17th century believed they 
were living near the end of the world, and given the 
religious sectarian violence of Europe they had good reason. 
The Puritan heightening of millenarian faith was intimately 
connected to the early beginnings of English empirical 
science. Francis Bacon, in particular, embodies this seemingly 
paradoxical combination of the spiritual and the practical. 
Noble draws special attention to the "the exaggerated 
anthropocentric assumptions of his 17th century Protestant 
faith." Before the fall, Adam was a mortal God, made of His 
likeness. The developing knowledge elite saw itself as 
embodying a bit of that lost divine perfection to the extent 
that it had recovered part of the universal knowledge from 
before the fall. They imagined Paradise as a place in which 
man, like God, was in command of nature. 

Things change a bit in the 18th century. "Attempting to know 
the mind of God by scientifically deciphering the divine 
design behind nature, which now came to be viewed as a 
God-crafted mechanism, entailed a greater identification with 
God than did a mere recovery of Adam's divine-likeness." In 
conventional narratives about the rise of science, the names 
of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell and 
Charles Babbage frequently stand for a gradual freeing of 
science from the mysticism of religion. Noble argues, to the 
contrary, that the ideology of technology as transcendence 
was what motivated their scientific experiments and theories. 
It was a way to get closer to the perfect knowledge of Adam 
before the fall. Even more boldly, it became a way to 
comprehend the mind of God Himself. 

The thread of Noble narrative takes us from Protestant 
England to the new world. "It was successive generations of 
millenarian Protestants who gave America its defining myth, 
rooted in the providential promise of new beginnings." The 
telegraph entered American culture not just as a worldly 
device but also as a divine one, ordained for spreading the 
Christian message. The first message sent by telegraph was, as 
Noble reminds us, "what hath God wrought!" Samuel Morse 
himself came from a very devout family. 

Reading The Religion of Technology, one gets the sense of 
wave after wave of facts mobilised to prove again and again 
one single idea. It's a bold idea, and one that provides a 
useful context for the millennial ambitions of cyberhype. In 
tracing the connection between advanced European theology, 
Protestant knowledge in England and its migration to the 
new world, Noble furnishes a reason for the concentration of 
millennial and transcendent themes in American writing 
about the internet and the information revolution. It is in 
California that Marshall McLuhan, the great prophet of the 
media as the sacred way back to the Edenic "global village", 
has enjoyed the strongest revival in the 90s. 

All the same, there are problems with Noble's history of this 
"ideology" of transcendence through technology. He has not 
really thought about the technologies that enabled this self-
appointed elect to perpetuate these ideas or impress them on 
the minds of others. For all the breadth of his interest in 
technology, Noble stops short of examining the role of 
communication technology. His is a world in which ideology 
passes from one great mind to another, with the odd 
mention of institutions that brought them together. 

Perhaps it is because of his rather odd job that James J. 
O'Donnell avoids this conceptual mistake. O'Donnell is both 
Professor of Classical Studies  and also Vice Provost for 
Information Systems at the University of Pennsylvania. Out 
of this dual experience he has extracted a quirky and 
enlightening set of essays, Avatars of the Word. 

O'Donnell's patch is late Roman antiquity, and he starts with 
some thumbnail sketches of the great men of letters at work. 
Then he pops up with a most unlikely proposition: "Erasmus 
and Jerome were their own first image managers." Jerome 
created an image of himself as a man of intellectual authority 
through a "self-adverting correspondence with the leading 
minds of his day. Erasmus, who edited Jerome's letters and 
wrote the first biography of him based on documents rather 
than myths, shaped not only his own reputation as a man 
steeped in written authority, but some of our still-current 
ideas about how write or read a biography, and how to edit 
someone's letters. 

In short, the kind of great men Noble chronicles as men of 
big ideas were also inventors of the means of exercising their 
intellectual power. They used the leading communication 
technologies of the day for the transmission of intelligence. 
They figured out how to influence the course of events and 
the thoughts of others through the transmission of 
intelligence. The means at their disposal were at lot slower 
than the telegraph, but were nevertheless very effective. 

The combination of classical historian and academic manager 
of information technology seems to give O'Donnell a 
singularly clear view of the often mystified way scholars have 
of seeing themselves in a 'tradition'. Great ideas don't just 
float from mind to mind because of their inherent brilliance. 
They have to be communicated. O'Donnell is aware of the 
whiff of heresy about this. "Critical scholarship runs into a 
hail of rhetorical bullets when it tries to adjust the idealised 
past to conform to the actual surviving evidence." We're still 
reluctant to look behind the great men, the great books and 
the great discoveries and inventions to see how the 
transmission of intelligence actually works as a form of 
power. 

A famous anecdote about Machiavelli's private life has him 
donning a ceremonial robe before entering his study, 
wherein he could confer with the great Pagan sages. 
O'Donnell's reading is an illuminating one. Machiavelli was 
writing at a time when the 'writer' was yet to be invented. He 
was a man used to the discourse of speech, a public act, 
conducted with some ceremony. So he created a little ritual 
for himself so that the act of writing would seem less strange. 

It's not an example O'Donnell uses, but I think the contrary 
portrait, of a writer at home with the very strange business of 
sitting alone in a study, writing to unknown other people 
who may not even have been born yet, is Montaigne. His is a 
much more intimate and equal mode of address. To him a 
reader is a friend, not a prince to be persuaded or a pupil to be 
instructed. 

It's no use studying something as ethereal as 'ideology' 
without looking at the very concrete means by which ideas 
have force in the world. Those means change over time. It's a 
different thing being Jerome, trying to use the hand-written 
letter that is hand delivered as a means of exerting influence, 
to being General Kitchener, using the telegraph to 
communicate with London from the Sudan about whether to 
make war or peace with a rival army. Noble gets an 
interesting take on half the story -- the source of the desire for 
technological advancement. But he doesn't follow the other 
half of the story -- the feedback loop by which available 
technologies shape the potential for the transmission of 
intelligence. 

O'Donnell notes that the power of Christianity was always in 
part dependent on its powers of communication. "Control 
over texts had brought control over people." Here we come 
close to an answer to the question Noble can neither ask nor 
answer: why was it that the ideology of technology as 
transcendence became an effective one in western history? 
Because of the power over the transmission of intelligence of 
the church itself. 

Particular kinds of communication technology might lend 
themselves to being put together in different sorts of ways. 
You can make quite different kinds of church, and quite 
different kinds of power, out of different means of 
transmitting intelligence. Centralising access and authority to 
interpret the Bible, as the Catholic church once did, produces 
a hierarchical organisation able to use its textual authority to 
maintain a degree of uniformity across space. Propagating 
and distributing the Bible, as the Protestants preferred, 
produces a more democratic, but also more differentiated and 
splintered culture. 

O'Donnell has some interesting insights into the way the 
technology for writing could be used to create a centralised 
and hierarchical kind of power. The quote Noble cites from 
Paracelsus sums up this desire -- for a world perfectly ordered 
from top to bottom and first to last. O'Donnell is a bit 
reductive about it, however. Writing, he writes: "makes the 
life of a community depend neither on spontaneous choice 
nor on the orally assimilated customs and wisdom of the past 
nor again on a charismatic leader, but rather on specific rules 
and regulations written down on the page." This may have 
been the case with the kinds of power the church once 
assembled out of writing, but as O'Donnell's own book 
attests, writing can be used in many different ways -- his own 
writing being an exemplar of the sceptical and democratic 
spirit in essay writing, writing as a discussion among friends, 
that was pioneered by Montaigne. 

The same is true of the telegraph. Standage gives examples of 
the use of the telegraph to coordinate the efforts of centralised 
powers over vast spaces, but he also gives some examples of 
quite the contrary kinds of uses. The criminal use of 
telegraphy to defraud bookies, the romantic use of it to 
subvert patriarchal authority, and the subversive uses of 
spies and revolutionaries might point to a more complex 
understanding of the relationship between communication 
and power. 

Even forms of scholarly power and authority are at stake in 
the uses that are made of communication, and the myths 
perpetuated about knowledge. One must be particularly 
careful when citing the great men and their illustrious 
names. O'Donnell is sceptical about the idea of the great 
chain of tradition, and as a scholar of late classical antiquity 
he is well placed to debunk the mythology of the canon. 
"Where late antiquity had seen disruption and the creation of 
a new tradition, early modernity... instead turned remarkably 
conservative in the face of the possibility of chaos. The 
deliberate emphasis on and systematic reacquisition of Greek 
and Latin classical literature created the illusion of a 
tradition." 

The authoritarian use of the transmission of intelligence is to 
insist on a central and sacred canon of authoritative 
knowledge that only the scholar, like the theologian 
beforehand, has access to. A more democratic view might 
stress, as O'Donnell does, the gaps and breaks, the 
improvisations, the extent to which culture always invents 
its own tradition. Tradition is a communication of 
intelligence in which in reality the present communicates to 
the future its ideal version of the past. 

At the end of the day, O'Donnell wants to undo the one-sided 
emphasis on writing and the archive as the sole font of all 
wisdom. Here he touches on a problem that surely has 
become ever more pressing since the telegraph first 
accelerated the velocity at which intelligence can be 
transmitted. There was always more than one way of 
transmitting intelligence, and the way it is transmitted may 
effect the way it is received. There may be a difference not just 
between authoritarian and democratic ideologies, but also in 
the means of communicating them. Indeed, contrary to 
Noble, the means of transmission, which he largely ignores, 
may have more impact than the ideas themselves. 

As O'Donnell remarks, "The notion that reality itself can be 
reduced to a single model universally shared is at best a 
useful fiction, at worst a hallucination that will turn out to 
have been dependent on the written word for its ubiquity and 
power." In not investigating the history of writing as a key 
technology, and his own practice of writing history as 
dependent on that technology, Noble has missed the point.  

Thinking about the means of communication seems 
particularly pressing in the 90s. This may not be the moment 
of a great transcendent revolution in communication, as the 
cyberhype of California's information technology moguls 
would have it. But it is a time when there might be a lot 
more choices than usual about what kind of communication 
technology we can have. The serious debate that needs to be 
had about this is really fundamentally about what kind of 
people we want our children, and their children, to become. 
Far more important than what great books they read may be 
the choice as to whether they have the capacity to live and 
love and work with a democratic or an authoritarian 
network of communication, in which they choose for 
themselves what counts as significant transmissions of 
intelligence. 

***

McKenzie Wark is the author of three books, most recently 
Celebrity, Culture and Cyberspace (Pluto Press, 1998). In 
collaboration with Brad Miller, he produced the multimedia 
work Planet of Noise (Australian Film Commission, 1997) 
http://www.mcs.mq.edu.au/~mwark




__________________________________________
"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
http://www.mcs.mq.edu.au/~mwark
 -- McKenzie Wark 
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