Dancing Computers and Loom Libraries: Extrapolating Complex Information Delivery Systems from Historical Practices

By Eric Horwitz

Semiosis is second nature to us. The methods by which we transcribe and store information, the processes of creating and reading texts, are so baked into our everyday lives that we barely recognize them as inventions. People who we believe to be ‘ancient’ — civilizations who nevertheless succeeded many thousands of years of prehistory — believed writing to have been a miracle bestowed by heaven (Senner, 10-16). For our part, most of us seldom think about where writing comes from. If we do reflect on it, we might assume that writing is simply the best way (or the only way) to perform all of writing’s functions: our preoccupations are with the many hundreds of millions of bytes processed by a computer instead of the rote conventions of literacy. But that in the English-speaking world there should be some twenty-six visible orthographic marks and a handful of other numbers and symbols, that these should indicate English phonetics and be placed together to make words, that these words should be grouped into sentences with punctuation for clarification, that there should be this number of sentences on a page and that number of pages in a book, that a book should deliver information and move the heart within expectations of convention and genre, that there should be a library to organize these books, and that other languages though they use abjads, abugidas, or syllabaries, should be similar enough for translation — these are not inevitable developments. 

By looking at the early history of writing I hope to isolate key moments of its adoption and development into the primary medium of the literate world today. At the same time I hope to explore other methods of data collection and meaning transference, other systems of semiosis, and speculate on their potential to act as modes of literary communication as complex as the written word. In doing so I risk a Whiggish and deterministic approach to history, I flirt with clumsy teleology and notions of progress. I hope that these extrapolations are understood as not one-to-one equivalences on an imagined great path of history, as they would be in an inelegant alternate history. I don’t intend here to elevate writing above speech, song and dance; nor to imply that my inspirations are in any way lacking their own semiotic richness and complexity. Rather, I intend this article as a playful investigation into possibilities, and as a reminder of how speculative fiction often presents as ‘universal’ what are really just the technologies and practices of a handful of recent powerful empires.   

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Eco-Sci-Fi Art and Interspecies Technology

By Stephanie Moran. This article was first published in Vector 292.

Since at least the beginnings of industrialism, technological innovation has incorporated attributes of animal perception and behaviour. More recently, this process has been recursively intensifying, in a process of ‘the biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology’ (Vehlken, 2019). Technologies inspired by nature deepen our understanding of natural systems, in turn fostering new technological developments: from the development of behavioural biology around 1900, through the use of media technology in biological research and the acceleration of bio-technoscience in the 1970s, to the use of simulation modelling and then computational-intensive modelling beginning in the 1980s, and most recently the rise of Machine Learning methodologies in Artificial Intelligence. Now studies of birdsong inform voice recognition software such as Siri and Alexa, while billionaire sci-fi fan Elon Musk is funding research into neural interfaces with the brains of mice and pigs.

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