Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Phantoms and Images

A glowing tripod, finally, will let you know
that you have reached the deepest depth of all,
and in the light it sheds you'll see the Mothers.
Some will be seated, some will stand or walk--
there is no rule--for all is form in transformation,
Eternal Mind's eternal entertainment.
About them hover images of all that's been created,
but you they will not see, for they see only phantoms.

from Goethe's Faust, line 6283

I'm pretty sure there are mythological roots that Goethe is drawing from in this section, but I'm not sure of them. This underworld eerily resembles the degree of information access we are quickly approaching. Our fascination with "the sum of all human knowledge" goes way back, and I'm interested in tracking it. Interpreted from a contemporary perspective, this brief passage sums up some of the problems with total information awareness.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I've been reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. It's pretentious, silly, overwrought, and thoroughly entertaining. Thrown in are some nice bits about human / machine interaction and memory:

But Belbo had found in the machine a kind of LSD and ran his fingers over the keyboard as if inventing, variations on 'The Happy Farmer' on the old piano at home, without fear of being judged. Not that he thought he was being creative: terrified as he was by writing, he knew that this was not writing but only the testing of an electronic skill. A gymnastic exercise. But, forgetting the usual ghosts that haunted him, he discovered that playing with the word processor was a way of giving vent to a fifty-year-old's second adolescence. His natural pessimism, his reluctant acceptance of his own past were somehow dissolved in this dialog with a memory that was inorganic, objective, obedient, nonmoral, transistorized, and so humanly inhuman that it enabled him to forget his chronic nervousness about life.
Also, a pertinent article at NYTimes on the growth of a digital preservation movement in the sciences. I still worry about most art (especially work not recognized as "high" art) being lost, though, because the people doing the preserving might not care.

No one is suggesting that we try to hold on to every bit of data lingering in every obsolete corner. Choices must be made about the kind of material that should be kept fresh and accessible for 5 years, or 50, or 1,000. Census data? Put it on the “forever” drive, please. To-do lists? A little less crucial.
People outside the science and engineering crowd need to have some say in the decisions about what will be preserved using expensive long-term storage. Of course, the arts community could always set up some sort of trans-generational, ritualistic cult to ensure the preservation of culture. Maybe I've been reading too many novels.