Notes Information Apocalypse

Introducing Historiographica

Historiographica is the result of my fascination with exploring and adding to the documentation of visual history. My interest started years ago with the serendipitous discoveries of fragments that seemed to connect the dots between various significant cultural movements in design and information that have been all but forgotten until very recently.

A major recent inspiration was Alex Wright's book 'Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages', which I think I must have gotten a hold of last year around the same time as I submitted my 8x5 talk proposal. It's a fantastic book that brings together many important ideas from the history of information and communications that have previously been under-explored and ill documented. I'm crazy obsessive about this stuff (once I even went so far as to interloan Herbet Bayer's Atlas from a library in Sydney - no copies exist in NZ, and I just had to see and feel it's physical presence), so I guess Glut just tipped the balance and once my talk was submitted, I couldn't turn back.

The real catalyctic event actually occurred years ago, when I was researching a philosophy essay and stumbled across Leibniz's 'Introduction to a Secret Encyclopedia'. Almost immediately I was struck by the relevance of his ideas to the evolution of the internet. Many philosophers have tended to dismiss a lot of his work, judging poorly the many failed 'universal' systems of logic that he tried to create. But in this particular instance, there is a potency that sings out beyond a mere grasping at symbolic logic. Leibniz wants to open up access to human knowledge on a larger scale than text can do, breaking down the grammar gradients of language into easily manipulable symbols that can be objectively transfered and built upon. Clearly, these ideas were far too ahead of their time to ever make sense.

Much has been written about the Victorian Information Age, but little of it connects to the later history of information design and art. We only have a hazy understanding of the primary connections that forged the links between these significant social developments. In particular, I wanted to highlight Neurath, who is not as well known as he should be amongst designers and sociologists. Even many philosophers who are familiar with Neurath's writings as a logical positivist are still largely unaware of his picture language work. As I later discovered, it seems that in the 1930's, Neurath went far beyond the Vienna circle, and was in contact with social visionaries like Moholy Nagy, Otlet and Le'Corbussier, but very little is known about any collaborations that might have occured. Like Leibniz, Neurath made multiple failed attempts to build universal systems - his Encyclopedia of Unified Science in some ways overshadows his graphical work with Isotype, and offsets the very strange situation of social sciences during the course of World War II.

I think these resonances are a great way to begin looking at the history of ideas and beginning to develop a long missing macro view of the development of human communication and culture within the epoch of capitalism. Clearly, there's something significant about the greater historical cycle of failed attempts to build universal systems of thought and logic, and this has a lot of relevance for those engaged in URI politics (yep, the very backbone of the WWW has that self-same U in it, that same historical obsequience to utopian uniformity).

I'm fascinated that the universal systems that do hold sway in today's world are those of the computer and the mathematical view of information (let's not forget that Leibniz himself was largely responsible for inventing/discovering binary logic). There are some strong patterns here, most prominently the way that the definition of information itself has split into two quite separate realms. Mathematically, information means a choice between two states in a signal, wheras aesthetically, it means structure transmitting meaning and knowledge. Why do we have such a bicameral definition of information? When we say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, why do we have such a hard time defining what it is that binds these parts together?

The other missing piece of the puzzle is the work of Franco Moretti. His abstract models of literary history are a powerful reminder of the need to integrate actual scientific and design techniques into the study of history. In his struggle to come to grips with a new kind of social science, he has overridden the very significant terminology of graphs, maps, and trees. In a post-Sokal world this transgression would lead some scientists and philosophers to dismiss his work outright as post-modernist garbage. Actually, his work is brilliant, perhaps before it's time, and would greatly benefit from opening up to an awareness of computer science, statistics, and information visualization.

What I really wanted to end my Webstock talk with (but in 5 minutes, just couldn't quite find a way to freestyle/propel my way to in time) was the idea that we are obsessed with the internet as an organically evolving library that is growing forward into the future. What we miss is that we are also evolving backward to a deeper, more nuanced and accurate view of history. Since it looks as if we have already built the radiated library, it's now time that we started transcribing and populating it with real content.