Lit 80, Fall 2013

After reading the article “The Geology of Media”, published in The Atlantic, and Chapter 1 of Media Archeology this week, we had the opportunity to meet with author Jussi Parikka and other scholars on Friday to discuss media archeology. One of the main themes of our conversation was the importance of the nature of a medium. The physical essence of a medium and the process by which it is made are very important and often influence the messages sent through them. One clear example of this, which we have discussed previously this semester, is print vs. digital books. We had all agreed that it is easier to study and memorize things with a physical copy. As I learned today, there are even book subcategories within print vs. digital and each one can produce a unique experience.

Different techniques for printing/publishing books over varying time periods result in distinct types of books. The tactile sensations and look of the books themselves depend on the process and influence the message. One exciting story we heard about today was a digital copy of a book written over a hundred years ago that is going to be physically printed in a similar manner to how it was originally produce. This reverse translation from digital to old methods to create the facsimile is being done in part to make a statement that sometimes the process of making can be more important than the end result. To this point, we heard an example about an aborigine style of art focused on the form and not the product. With its focus on the material manifestations of culture, media archeology provides a great framework for critical analysis of such forms and practices. This theme also relates to the ways in which we have critiqued digital media thus far. Video games are a particularly apt example of how media impact the message. Due to how interactive and flexible they are, they are capable of doing unique things other media cannot.

Another big talking point from our discussion was that no matter what discipline, everyone should consider the physical and ecological impact of a situation as an ethical obligation. We think of data and the internet as virtual, but there is a physical basis. A cloud is not just a cloud, there has to be physical storage for all of it. Parikka provided us with the anecdote of the old paper mill on the river near his hometown in Finland that has since been turned into a Google data center. It is almost inconceivable to us that data needs to be cooled, but it in fact does have substance. This is problematic because the substances of modern technologies are often toxic chemicals. The environment is something we have really only discussed in this class in the context of the novels we have read, Neuromancer and The Difference Engine. In The Difference Engine, the proliferation of new technologies resulted in a very polluted environment. The environmental concerns in our society today are very real and since the creation of media is contributing to these problems, there is a role for ecological concerns in media archeology.

One of the most thought provoking ideas from our discussion was the concept of accidentality. The theory is that whether a media takes off or becomes obsolete is determined largely by accident. The example given was that text messaging initially became popular in Europe simply because the phone companies made it cheaper than phone calls, not necessarily for any reason having to do with the benefits of the technology itself. As we explore new topics as the semester continues to progress, I think it might be interesting to consider in each case that whatever technology we discuss only came in to existence by accident.

Entering this chat I had one main question. Why is Zielinski so against the idea of media archaeology becoming mainstream? Before the question was asked, Parikka explained how the scope through which culture is examined will affect its interpretation. Therefore, it is important that media artifacts be looked at in different ways, so they can be properly and more thoroughly explained. As quickly as this was answered a comment was made by Drew Burk that sparked my interest. He referred to an old professor who suggested how a lot of what we consider as progress today is the other side of catastrophe. Immediately I knew that this idea could be tied into my final assignment. I plan to explore how science fiction continuously depicts worlds in which humanity’s reliance on technology becomes its downfall and how our timeline relates to those worlds. Burk’s brief discussion of this topic has provided ideas for aspects of these fictional worlds and our own world. He explained how today we tend to “turn a blind eye” to the more destructive sides of technology and how moderation and balance of technology is the best way to prevent society from being overwhelmed. More importantly, he made me realize that we do not have to look too far down the line to see this downfall in our own timeline. In St. Louis, local police are discussing using drones to help reduce crime. This suggests a reliance on technology in one of the most important aspects of our lives, our safety. Even if you look at the manufacturing of technology. A factory in China experienced a wave of workers committing suicide because conditions were so poor as a result of society’s demand for new technology. Although I thought interpreting today to understand our timeline was going to be difficult, it appears that it may not be so daunting. All in all, this talk provided me with much needed insight that will help me in developing my final assignment.






Media Arch chat with Jussi Parikka and Drew Burk

Media Arch chat with Jussi Parikka and Drew Burk


Media Arch Chat with Jussi Parikka and Drew Burk

Scenes from Network_Ecologies Symposium

Well done #augrealities students!

    What would happen if there were computers in Victorian Britain? The difference engine as a typical work of steampunk is a novel that answers this question. In this novel, the authors, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, assumes that Charles Babbage not only succeeded  in developing his difference engine, a steam-powered machine that can do calculation but also  made it have the analytical ability. The appearance of this difference engine or a steam-powered computer changes everything from politics to art, from industrial design to scientific research, from social control to people’s lifestyle. With a machine’s appearance, an alternative history is created.

    From the fictive life in the alternative history shaped by a computational machine, we can always see the life of ourselves. For example, with a number Mike can know everything about Sybil. And also with a new number, Sybil could get away from the past and become a new person. Isn’t that number our Google account or Facebook account? From our accounts on Facebook and Google, a strange man has the access to the database can know everything we do in the “Cyberspace” from what we like to watch to what we do for living, from what we look like to what our habits are, from what we did the past and what we may do in the future. With a new account, we lose the friends on Facebook or Google plus and thus we can begin a new “life” online with totally new friends and even with  different digital personalities. That makes me think of Who owns the future. I begin to worry about what will big companies like Google and Facebook do with me in the future.

    In scientific research, the best way to know the function of an object is to see what is the difference between the results with and without the object. We cannot let history happen again to see the function of computers. But the intelligent authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling made it by creating an alternative history. Brian Mchale relates the novel to the postmodern interests in “finding a new way of ‘doing’ history is in fiction”. However, I think it is better to say that the novel finds a new way to reflect the reality and predict the future by a fictive story in history.


William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.

McHale, Brian (1992). “Difference Engine”. ANQ 5: 220–23.

Ian Miles, “The difference engine: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling 383 pages, £13.95 (London, Victor Gollancz, 1990)”, Futures, 23 525 (1991).

Reading The Difference Engine made me wonder more about how exactly the digital world and computation augment reality.  In the imagined London of 1855, there are no digital augmentations to reality at all, but since Babbage’s hypothetical Difference Engine (or really, his Analytical Engine, as his Difference Engine was only designed to evaluate polynomials), has become a physical reality, there are in fact what appear to be analog augmentations to reality.

While there is no “cyberspace” in the world of the Difference Engine, the presence of large-scale computation certainly has an effect on the characters’ day-to-day lives.  Every citizen has associated to them a unique number, which can be used to look up an extensive personal history (6).  Furthermore, given a good enough description of a person, it is possible to search for their government file and learn their number (163).  The imagined analog computers are also capable of keeping a shop’s records (13), and evaluating complex models for the movements of dinosaurs (141).  If we think of augmenting reality as simply adding on additional layers of information and tools with which we can better understand and interact with our world, then all of these things can certainly be thought of as augmentations to reality.  The idea that this could be the case for completely analog computers is an interesting idea, one that will affect how I think about the ways the digital world augments reality.

The Difference Engine Response

October 14th, 2013 | Posted by Matt Hebert in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)


The Difference Engine acts as an excellent lens through which to view both contemporary society and the intellectual ideals which characterize it. The novel presents us with a society that operates on the same information-focused infrastructure that defined the late 20th century, but also subscribes to many Victorian era morals that defy modern standards. Some of the ways that characters use the boons of computing technology would be considered downright despicable to a modern viewer, but follow logically from the social morals of the time. For instance, take Ned Mallory’s set of values.

He had, of course, read admiringly of the engineering feats of Suez. Lacking coal, the French had fueled their giant excavators with bitumen-soaked mummies, stacked like cordwood and sold by the ton. (pg 136)

In the eyes of a modern academic, the idea of casually burning pieces of history and cultural heritage, solely in the name of efficiency, is horrifying. At the time, it was a testament to mankind’s growing power over nature and the ability of information-centric thinking (efficiency) to expedite progress. The novel then leads us to consider what modern day practices with technology which seem normal now will be seen as equally abhorrent 150 years in the future.

The novel also chooses an excellent time period to discuss the growth of an information-centric culture. At the dawn of the actual 19th century, western society was still on the cusp of the industrial revolution, having just begun to seriously discuss malthusian economics and phrenology. It marked a point where society no longer regarded people simply as people. They were their punch cards and productivity reports. They could be defined as variables in a mathematical model, or even the dimples on the backs of their skulls. It could not be more fitting to view this time period through the lens of a computer. The ultimate message of the novel appears to be that, if given the necessary technological headstart, this society would have continued breaking down and objectifying the patterns of reality until information was the only thing of importance. By the novel’s conclusion in 1991, society exists within a computer as a series of simulations, where information is all that is important. This is the ultimate manifestation of societies detachment from humanity in favor of data.

In some ways, our society now has sobered in its quest for information and progress. We will catalogue private information in the name of security, but we won’t burn a mummy for fuel. Still, information mining and all forms of data-centric mentality are still rampant, made moreso by the advantages afforded by plastics, electricity, etc. The society of the difference engine got to where they were without an internet. If that is the ultimate fate of their civilization, what can we expect of ours?

In the early 1900’s, complex electric circuits came into being and boomed with the help of inventions such as the Edison’s tinfoil dictation machine, light bulb, and Bell’s telephone. Half a century later, the late twentieth century ushered a new information era with the inventions of the computer, internet and advances  in telecommunication and digital data transfer systems. Although it is irrefutably clear about the technological significance and the rich potential legacy the first emerging computer has left mankind, what would happen if a more primitive computer had been invented in the 1800’s, more than a century earlier? Would it change the information age as we see it now?

In their novel The Difference Engine , William Gibson and Bruce Sterling attempt to introduce us to exactly that kind of alternate history, specifically, a Great Britain in its Victorian age where Babbage actually manages to successfully invent the difference engine (computer). Gibson and Sterling, in the book’s settings, not only draw parallels to current technology and real people, such as surveillance systems, credit cards, Charles Darwin and “clackers” (hackers), but also delve into the imaginary aspects to give us a newer glimpse of other “more weird” inventions, such as the use of “punch cards” to program computing engines.

It is interesting to note that Gibson included many symbols and references that occur both in The Difference Engine and in Neuromancer , another novel where he defines the cyberpunk/cyberspace genre. Both books depict a society in which masses of people completely support and rely on fast emerging technology to live their daily lives. For example, in Neuromancer, almost all people can and do transfer between the real physical world and a digital cyberspace, whereas most people support a dominating Industrial Radical Party for rapid technology boom in The Difference Engine. There are, however, clear differences between these two as well. Neuromancer provides us with two domains, the real and the digital, which are bases on the 1980’s (when Gibson wrote his novel), whereas as The Difference Engine focuses more into historical aspects and educational guesses of an alternate piece of history that had not happened in real time.

Another aspect Gibson and Sterling delineate in The Difference Engine is that rapidly emerging new technologies causes intense industrial competition between countries. Those countries that cannot keep up with the fast pace of the information era will be eventually made obsolete. The novel implies this fact by exploiting on Japan’s rapid industrial rise in the twentieth century in real history. In the books settings, Britain aids Japan, who is desperate to boom to the point of even doing anything in return for the British, to become a leading nation in information technology and computer engines.

The Difference Engine, in a nutshell, gives us a comprehensive view into alternate history of early digital technological boom and its potential widespread effects on the industry and the society.



Gibson, William, Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

The computer is arguably the most indispensable cultural artifact of our generation. They are essential to our world’s infrastructure – it is the primary method of communication, information transference, transaction, and so much more. We have developed a subconscious reliance on technology to function as a society. Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine entertains a very profound and intriguing related concept in the most thorough way possible – what would our lives be like if the computer (namely, the Babbage’s Difference Engine) was invented almost 200 years before they were actually invented? Gibson and Sterling’s attempt to delve into this hypothetical situation is admirably ambitious and impressively complex. They depict a “speculative past” that loosely parallels our actual past, making assumptions about the supposed trajectory that technological inventions may have taken, as well as societal development that might have occurred following Charles Babbage’s successful creation of the computer. The setting of the novel takes place in 1800’s Victorian London onwards, and features important figures or organizations in London’s history (or fictional analogues) such as The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, the Luddites, the Labour Party, etc.

The value of reading this novel is not necessarily derived from its plot – it is instead the distinct structure and rich narration that make it stand out. The novel is divided into five separate iterations of a story, with the fifth iteration being written by the “Modus.” Essentially, iterations are revealed to represent computer-generated alterations of a similar story, which raises some interesting questions about the recording of history and the seemingly infinite variable possibilities of computers. The authors also took on the formidable task of creating a logical environment of an imaginary past. This includes creating systems of politics, economy, communication, and even fashion – they had to communicate an entire, immersive society different than our actual society merely through the art of storytelling. The technological innovations of the imaginary society have many notable counterparts in our real world, which makes the story a unique experience – it serves as a form of social commentary on our present society. Specifically, the balances of power and relationships in the novel based on the hypothetical invention of the computer may perhaps demonstrate how people use technology and information to obtain and consolidate power and develop relationships in our real world. While this novel’s plot might have come across as seemingly disjointed or incoherent, it is a very intricate display of society that neatly explores an alternate past, comments on our real-life present, and suggests an alternate future.

The Difference Engine

October 13th, 2013 | Posted by Sai Cheemalapati in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

After the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s and the integrated circuit a few years later, the seeds were lain for the computing age to take off. In the following fifty years, developments in electronics and circuitry would lead to a world economic boom and revolution unprecedented in mankind’s history. The idea for a purely mechanical computer was conceived more than a 100 years before the invention of the computer however – by British inventor Charles Babbage. It begs the question then – what would’ve happened if the computing revolution happened a century earlier with the creation of Babbage’s analytic engine?

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, takes place in a world where the above takes place. In this alternative history, Babbage completes his analytic engine – the sequel to the difference engine – and ushers the computer age in Great Britain in the mid 1800s.

The novel limits itself to a mechanical revolution – the transistor does not exist yet in this universe, and instead of having machines built around the integrated circuit, mechanical steam powered machines become commonplace. The technology that comes to Great Britain is steampunk in design. For example, there are steam powered carriages and televisions called Kinotropes. While a little suspension of disbelief is required to believe that steam is an adequate power source and that these technologies are actually possible, the world they create is very interesting to me. I’m personally very biased towards scientific research and development. If I could rule the world I would move entire economies to produce technologies in every field full time. I’ve always wondered what would happen if humanities focus shifted purely to the pursuit and development of knowledge, and I believe that great wonders would be produced in no time. This novel explores some lines of my fantasy in that Britain begins to turn towards science and hold scientific figures like Charles Darwin in high light. Other studies are pushed aside and science and technology are put at the forefront. As a result, technological progress proceeds at a breakneck speed as “modern” devices appear and globalization looms.

The Difference Engine

October 12th, 2013 | Posted by Sheel Patel in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

The advent of the computer and the internet has drastically changed the way the world functions and has even greater implications for the future. But what if the computer, or a simpler form of it, was invented in the early 1800’s rather than during the 1980’s? That is the subject that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling tackle in their novel The Difference Engine. The book delves into the idea of a society where Charles Babbage was successful in creating an iteration of a computer and the effects it takes on society in England. Although this book may seem dry and bland to many, the purpose and message can be seen through the descriptive narration rather than any firm plot. Gibson and Sterling provide and immersion-like experience where one can see the new technologies that have taken over society, stemming from Babbage’s Difference Engine. Things like automated cashiers, credit card systems, and even personal identification numbers can be seen in this faux society, centuries beyond their fruition in the real world. Other technologies like the kinotrope, a primitive version of a projector screen, can also be seen and its effects on society are immense.

One of the major points that I found interesting was the idea that Globalization, or the interconnecting of the world, seemed to have sped up due to this technology. Gibson and Sterling showcase this fact through the scenes of the novel where Dr. Oliphant is interacting with Japanese businessmen. These man bring along a robotic tea-pouring woman but yearn for Japan to learn and utilize the technology Britain holds. During the 1800’s in real life, many people did not leave their own countries and the world was still very defined in terms of national boundaries. Although there was a lot of trading going around the world, the images we have today of globalization and the interconnectedness of the world was not present. The fact that Japanese businessmen where essentially begging Oliphant for information on how Japan could access this technology and stating that “they would be willing to do anything for it,” showcases the fact that technology causes some countries to progress faster than others. In a society where technology was emerging, countries who did not learn to utilize it would rapidly fall behind in all aspects of the economy. Gibson and Sterling make this interesting connection between this faux world and today and inherently showcase the significant impact technology and computers have had on shaping interactions between nations and the world’s economy.