Thursday, 4 September 2008

We are the 100 Monkeys

I’ve begun to realise how long it takes for a concept to reach maturity and then when it is expressed technologically in one form, it is in fact the expression of a concept that seemed to have begun in another form. In other words, the real world follows thought.

Take for example the Edisonograph - an invention by Edison of a means of recording sound on a wax scroll. All praise to the inventor for the act of invention and to paraphrase Einstein, all of those inventors upon who’s shoulders he stood.

It seemed like an analogue invention: the way the signal was encoded on the scroll used analogue technology and was susceptible to all the faults of the analogue. Think of Chinese whispers, tell a tale from one to another and before long the tale is changed through reproduction. This is a simple way of understanding the analogue mode. It copies and also copies the faults of the medium until eventually all the faults outweigh the original content. This is called the signal to noise ratio. The content is the signal, the faults (hiss etc) are the noise. The signal to noise ratio is how much there is of one compared to the other.

I note that even in my language I refer to an earlier invention to describe the inscription of the wax scroll as writing, which refers to that of writing on Egyptian papyrus - I called Edison’s roll of wax a ‘scroll’. This speaks of our entire set of inventions before the digital as if they were all analogue in form. This is simply revisionism through hindsight. Projecting back one understanding upon everything that preceded it - and I’m about to embark on another revisionist projection and suggest that everything before the digital - was in fact digital.

Cultural ideas had begun to spread from culture to culture at the beginning of the analogue age and as soon as a commodity was invented to transmit value and therefore its culture, the wax scroll, the disc, the tape etc, then the digital age had begun. The East was privy to the culture of the west as was the West privy to the culture of the east - and each was of course as valuable as the other - and so it was ten centuries ago and more. Digital media was latent within analogue media. The printing press did that very same job as ten centuries before that, word of mouth with its analogue Chinese-whispers form, using letters carried between readers by non-readers or people telling myth and tale to transmit data from the thinkers of each culture to each other.

So to the concept of the hundred monkeys: when the hundredth and last monkey on an island learns to wash the potatoes (taught by a zoologist or anthropologist) then the first monkey on another island somehow seems to develop the ability to wash a potato before eating, as if by magic.

Nowadays children show each other their ipod or variant and even if they can’t speak the same language they exhibit their cultural leanings to each other by asking each other to listen to what their listening pattern is - this is simple demonstration. They use digital media - it’s just faster than learning a linguistically based language and could be argued to be a meta-language. It dispenses with the detail and cuts to the chase. So now we’re learning to communicate with other abilities derived from our sensorium (this is my favourite word to describe the overall set of senses, intuitions, emotions, physical state etc that we exist within). It avoids a spiritual description, but equally avoids that nullifying Aristotelian description much loved by the followers of scientism, determinist or materialist. I use this because as Hamlet told Horatio, to paraphrase, there are more paradigms dreamed of in our current intellectual grasp.

Chomsky proposed the dependent origination of language and thought, a concept cherished by Buddhists - that everything arises in relation to everything else. Westerners say you can only know one thing about something to the exclusion of other things (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). We romanticise Eastern thinking by imagining that the sanguine response to that contention is that the wise Buddha figure sits patiently by reflecting that this is not so, that all you have to simply defocus your ratiocinations and mentations and various anxious frontal lobe activity that are constricting your ability to perceive both at once - that is, the mental activity of alienation that is so beloved by cold-climate western thinking.

In all of this, that which appreciates logic in us, “this fact, this fact, this state, this idea should follow each other” and the prime form of logic is simply ‘yes and no’ - the two digital states when encoded into voltage. Philosophically of course this might break down when applying the Buddhist philosopher Nargajuna’s thinking: “Neither this, nor that, nor both and also, neither”. Perhaps there’s an extension to digitality when we transcend yes and no. Nargajuna was probably quite happy washing potatoes when he had to. There’s a line form a story by John Cowper-Powis that comes to mind as a critique of the inebriation that can be caused by mentation and ratiocination: An old housekeeper is in the kitchen washing potatoes as the old gardener comes in and sits at the table and muses philosophically about the events that happen in a garden. “She listened with the patience of women of all ages, as men as they are wont, muse upon things greater than themselves”.

So with a mind to the women who might be smiling to herself as I say this, as well as the Buddha sitting with the Bonopo Monkey in the corner: at the moment it seems to me that digitality is in fact a simple washing of potatoes before we eat - after all, aren’t we supposed to be apes too?