Media archaeology explores the components that make up various media elements and technologies and how the origins and interactions between these components have affected the way these medias have developed and established a role in our world. Jussi Parikka presents ideas and observations obtained through media archaeology in his article “The Geology of Media” and his book “Media Archaeology”, yet it was when our class met with the author that we were able to delve into the topic. One of the concepts associated with media archaeology that we discussed was reverse speculation—imagining what the world would have been like if things had gone differently, from a technology standpoint. I found it interesting to wonder, what would our world be like today if Bill Gates did not invent Microsoft? Where would computer programming be now? Would it have taken a completely different route in its design and function? And furthermore, how would that have affected other technologies—such as the development of Apple as a company, or computer software in general? Thinking in this way helps us to understand why our world is the way it is now, and thus we are able to trace the impacts the technology did have on our society and the development of other technologies based on the comparison between the path it took and the path it could’ve taken. This concept is related to William Gibson’s “The Difference Engine”, which explores what the 18th century would have been like if Charles Babbage had succeeded in the creation of the Babbage Engine. The speculative writing draws comparisons between what our world is like today and how it would have been (or how we imagine it would have been) in the past. By looking at the past in this light, we are able to see both how the computer plays a role in our society through the comparison between the known past and the speculative past.
Another component of media archaeology that I found interesting was the observation of technological effects and developments through their relation to Earth. It is easy to overlook that resources play a fundamental role in what is able to develop at what time. Media is more than just data, as it is the device that portrays the data that interprets it and has an effect on how it is perceived—the device gives the data meaning. Development of technology—specifically why certain technologies developed at certain times and how they became the way they are—can be analyzed based on the political economy of the time, particularly in relation to minerals and metals. Similarly, trends in wastes, energy usage, and exploitation of resources provide tracking sources for the development of media elements. The history of media can be traced through what it is made of—chemicals, the developmental processes, and subsequently the develop of technological processes necessary to create and produce the media element. Technology itself can be tied in to the destruction of the world as well, as it has just as much—if not more—of an impact on the world as it develops as the world has on its development. Media develops are thus correlated to pollution, changes in populations, and environmental factors such as storms, weather patterns, or events that affect availability of or accessibility to resources. And environmental pollution isn’t the only kind of pollution that can be traced through technological developments, but mental pollution as well. Though abstract, we are able to see how technology affects our everyday lives and the way we behave and interact. Essentially, geology affects our exposure to media, and our exposure to media affects how our reality is augmented—thus geology is the direct source from which our reality is augmented.
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.
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 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.
We live in a world where technology is an integral part of our lives—but how would our world be different if technology had developed at a different time? Better yet, how would the past be different if the technology that we use almost subconsciously on a daily basis had been available? In their novel The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling explore what the late 1800s would have been like if Charles Babbage had been successful in building a mechanical computer. Throughout the novel, the authors implement prototypes for technologies that are common in our world today—such as credit cards, social security numbers, calculators, and projectors. Some of the emerging technologies are even more advanced than what we have today, such as the ability to trace someone’s personal history simply by obtaining their “number”.
The entire novel in itself can be viewed as a prototype for the world Gibson created in his other novel Neuromancer. Both plots, when simplified, are elaborate heists to obtain a key to information—whether that key is a box of plastic cards or hacking into a computer system. Similarly, both novels contain depth in their settings. Neuromancer’s is more obvious, as the characters alternate between reality and cyberspace, and furthermore different layers of consciousness within cyberspace. In The Difference Engine, while the characters remain in reality, there are different dimensions established between social classes and the world’s they inhabit. In the cases of both novels, these different dimensions become intertwined through the characters’ interactions. The comparison between the two is interesting, as it demonstrates how technology—regardless of its level of progression—has a timeless impact on how its usage affects our interactions with our environment and others.
Which brings us back to the question of what our world would be like today if the Babbage Engine had succeeded—would we be far off from the world presented in Neuromancer?
I saw this and thought about how it connected with our discussion about how technology is affecting the way we act and think. It also made me lose a little bit of faith in humanity, if the tweets are genuine. As ridiculous as it may be, it does show how we are becoming more dependent on our connection to a virtual world and how priorities have changed as technology becomes a greater part of our lives.
Aside from its bizarrely accurate foresight, Neuromancer is an interesting novel because of the questions and ideas that it brings up regarding the relationship between humans and technology. In a mere set of decades, our society has transformed from a largely disconnected, isolated set of communities to a thoroughly interconnected digital network; in some way or the other, we are constantly transmitting or receiving data in our daily lives. Whether it is the infrastructures of our cities (traffic, navigation, consumerism, etc.) or keeping ourselves updated on our array of electronic devices, urbanized areas are almost completely dependent on technology. Additionally, the technology we are using is tending towards a more profound integration into our biological systems; new inventions are changing the way we perceive information from our environments. The implementation of QR codes, “Google Glasses,” and other marvels that augment reality are steps toward the complete unification of man and machine.
This is an idea that Neuromancer focuses on for the majority of the novel. Where exactly is the delineation between human and technology? As we become more dependent on our devices to orient ourselves in our changing environments, will we lose the characteristics that we currently consider makes us “human?” The characters in Gibson’s novel all feature some sort of technological miracle; they have been able to cure their drug addictions, develop veritable superpowers (fingernails, cybernetic implants), and even achieve immortality. Additionally, Gibson introduces characters who are able to willfully suspend their consciousness or jack into an alternate form of reality, “the matrix.” Such examples represent the extremes of technological integration – it is understandable that Gibson chooses to represent the characters’ reliance on technology similar to drug dependence.
The reader may find it very difficult to classify certain characters as human or technology. Most notably, Dixie Flatline – who is deceased but has his mind and consciousness stored onto a ROM – is able to interact with Case and Molly and the other characters of the novel. Would we consider him a human? Though he is not the physical manifestation of McCoy Pauley, he is still able to access his mind. Perhaps he is not human because he cannot create or learn new thoughts. This distinction could be a vital part of the definition of a human being. Additionally, characters that have serious prosthetics (Molly, for example) cause readers to wonder how much technological additions/replacements would be necessary to cross the threshold of man to machine. When does a character like Molly cease being human and become a super intelligent bio-computer?
We probably will not have such drastic technological advances as presented in Gibson’s novel in the foreseeable future. However, these examples illustrate important phenomena that are occurring in our present lives: we are co-evolving with the technology that we produce at an alarmingly fast rate, which has both useful benefits (such as increased perception and function) and dangerous risks of total dependence on technology and a lack of a separate, human identity.