4.10.2007

Fractal Geometry and the Progress of Enlightenment


I was talking with a colleague today about the digitization of the archive. This is a fairly hot topic right now, and it's in the subtext of my still flailing dissertation proposal, but I thought I'd take a few minutes to express my thoughts on the subject.

As I have previously articulated, the progress of Enlightenment in the 18th century depended on a process of systematic reduction of an archive still in the making. Too much knowledge becomes as much an obstacle to Enlightenment as too little; as that which is discovered and set down proliferates, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend into Enlightenment's supposed epistemological endpoint: a System of the World. You just can't account for everything. The system, I'm suggesting, answered this problem with the emergence and proliferation of reducing mechanisms and an organizational hierarchy: the encyclopedia, the anthology, the novel, literary criticism. These became principal (but not exclusive) tools of temporal hiearchization; they separated that which was worth keeping from that which was not, and transmitted it to the present and future. Of course, it wasn't "pure" in the sense of a closed system. Cultural values determined standards of originality and "taste"; copyright law and taxes met with the marketplace and caused tremors. There was plenty that got in wrapped up into the system apart from the mere proliferation of texts.

Nevertheless, the technology made it so that some rubric of temporal hierarchization had to be in place. You couldn't keep all the books in one place; you couldn't figure out everything that was there to be kept; things rotted and fell apart. Choices had to be made; knowledge had to be reduced and contained whether materially or conceptually. Whether it goes to a "good" place or not, any "progress" would seem to depend on leaving some things behind.

The counterargument, of course, must involve the fact that societies change; values change; and what was left behind before might be more useful now. The eighteenth century, for example, wasn't trying to understand itself in the way that scholars try to understand it. We have (or think we have) a different purpose. So we attempt to recover the forgotten, the lost, the texts tossed onto -- to borrow a phrase from Harold Weber -- the garbage heap of memory. And a lot of good stuff has come from doing this. REALLY good, seriously important stuff.

So what's the problem with the digital archive, presuming that eventually, everything will actually be made available and set on equal terms? It can feel like the undoing of Enlightenment, the total victory of some sort of moral or intellectual relativism, the final fracturing of epistemology into as many shards as there are ones and zeroes. We put all that stuff aside in order to get somewhere--why dig it all back up again? I've said it before and I'll say it again--to believe in everything is to believe in nothing. How can you form a theory when you have to account for everything, which, as I've said, is impossible? Does anything actually change, with respect to scholarship, with a completely restored archive? Do we do the same work with the awareness that we're leaving more out? Or will our research actually start to take SO much time, and attempt such extravagant levels of comprehensiveness, that producing anything takes forever? And wouldn't THAT be the end of Enlightenment? Edward Young (and later Emerson, who was certainly no Enlightenment figure, but the substance of what he said is the same) was saying in the mid-eighteenth that people would be better off doing a bit less reading and a bit more writing. But these concerns are already well-trod ground.

Inifinity is the death of meaning. You need an endpoint to give anything you do purpose. It's only the fact that life ends that makes life special. So in that respect, the digital archive is a bad thing. We'll never be able to make sense of it all. Something will contradict everything. It won't cohere, everything will be refutable, and we'll all have to embrace nihilism. And that's just depressing. It might be the reality of things. But why should we be flummoxed by realities? History might not be teleological (religious doctrines aside), but wouldn't it be nice if we kept on thinking we could make it go someplace good anyway? If we treat it that way, might it not happen? Is that more important?

The only hope with respect to the digitization of the archive and the negative effects it could have on scholarship is the possibility that Enlightenment isn't over. That complete availability might return us to a purer Baconian enterprise. The eighteenth century attempted to systematize prematurely. Bacon warned us about that. Then Romanticism came along and splintered everything up into individuality and specialization. The disciplines burrowed narrow and deep for a couple hundred years. We exhausted the potential of what was available. And we have seen -- with interdisciplinarity, with dedesciplinarity -- the beginning of a return to systematizing. But perhaps we the moment has still not come.

I submit that we are trapped in a fractal. That knowledge, as a system, works the same way. The micro level looks just like the macro; the pattern repeats. Enlightenment built its systems out of print. We used what they built to build more systems. Our systems will be the foundation of larger systems. And we will discover that what we thought was a system--or a discipline, a theoretical approach, whatever--was actually just a tiny piece of a much, much larger system that operates the same way but contains everything built over generations of scholarship. I use the encyclopedia to demonstrate this. Every individual edition of an encyclopedia looks like the as of yet unwritten "master" encyclopedia, that will contain all the knowledge of its predecessors. It will be complete, just as each edition was "complete" in the time it was made. What if the entire system works this way? We're all just writing an unbound encyclopedia. What we do will be contained by the next one.

I'm not speaking metaphorically, here. I think the system of knowledge might actually work this way. We treat the Enlightenment like it's over. But the greatest trick the devil ever pulled...this is how the system organizes itself. We're part of that system.

Perhaps our not thinking we still serve its purposes is precisely what enables us to do so? We lose faith in the system--and in doing so we eventually engender precisely those conditions that Bacon predicted would enable the system to emerge?

Well? Anyone want to drink my Kool-Aid? If it all comes true remember you heard it here first. COPYRIGHT.

2 comments:

Daveybot said...

Haroooooom - fascinating thoughts, Scriblerus.

I'm thinking a lot of how we look at knowledge comes down to the processes by which we retrieve knowledge from - and add knowledge to - archives. The encyclopedia could be big, but it couldn't be infinite, and then of course there's all that tedious mucking about with things like 'revisions' and 'editing'.

I guess the nice thing about digitising is that data has become (largely) seperated from matter, and we seem to have switched from an industrial information production/recording model to one where information itself is the tool with which more information is recorded.

This doesn't mean that we've stopped filtering and editing, of course, but I would say that perhaps the larger pictures and systems of Enlightenment we're seeing are not necessarily the same shape as those smaller ones we built this system from. Maybe Schrodinger - or his cat - would have something to say about this: what works at a quantum level doesn't necessarily work at a human one?

I certainly agree with you about expanding our models of the System and realizing we're never really outside of it, but maybe there is a shift in how we relate ourselves to 'control' of the system?

St Jerome in his study had more or less everything collected before him. The Bodleian - and similar resources - was a bigger version but the extents were still at least known, catalogued, and just about under control. I think William Gibson drew a rather nice picture in Idoru of how one day we may view information more as a sort of sea though which we can just about navigate but which is well beyond our control, and our efforts and activity around parts that sea can be viewed as critical in understanding the content within.

In other words, it would seem that just properly understanding the System, Enlightenment, or Archive - whatever you care to call it - might just be enough to hop you up to the next level.

So maybe you are right - congratulations! what's the next level like? And do you think Wikipedia is the end-of level baddie that has to be defeated before getting there, or just another power-up?

;-)

Scriblerus said...

I would submit that humans ARE the quantum level. We're the most basic units of what we call knowledge, because all knowledge is a product of human effort. The system of knowledge itself (the archive, the global encyclopedia, whatever) has rules that organize it at the macro level (think relativity) but at the level of humans, it's unpredictable. Human X produces knowledge about the 18th century. More specifically, poetry, more specifically satire, and so on. We're all doing this, and there's really no telling why X chose what he chose, or came up with the ideas he did. The larger system of knowledge is an emergence -- the collective result of that which could not be predicted by actions of the individual.

Now I was thinking about control, and things like wikis. Hive minds, collective efforts, things like that. And in a way it comes down to some very old ideas about individuality and original genius. Do you want to be one of a thousand monkeys at the typewriter, or rise above?

But that's not really the problem. Wikipedia is clearly going to win, over something like the Britannica. Despite the bad media coverage about inaccuracies and intellectual vandalism, despite questionable authority, it'll eventually win out. Every technology is subject to this sort of thing. Wiki just makes it easier (check my entry, Wikirstaff Papers). As to levelling up--I'm positing that there will always be mechanisms of reduction. The cream, as it were, always rises to the top. The mechanisms are already emerging. We see them as administrative responses to bad press. But already the new technology is becoming selective. No anonymous users. Editors doing quality control. Big warnings about what's not up to par, what you shouldn't necessarily believe.

The great thing about wikipedia, or course, or perhaps the worst thing, is that it creates consensus. Things get knocked about until the editing settles down, and we call whatever remains Knowledge, or Truth, or Fact. The problem with consensus of course is that if it's wrong, it's very hard to change (poor old Galileo!).

The electronic age will allow us to do hitherto undone things, just as print did. But it's not the last. There will be something after it that will make it look hopelessly limited. This is all another power-up. Instead of a few thousand minds producing knowledge, we have a few hundred thousand, or a few million. You join wikipedia. They add your distinctiveness to their own. Everyone joins up. Humanity changes. That's technodeterminism for you. But as an operational system, it doesn't necessarily look much different than print, and before print writing, and before writing whatever.