Total Noise Gets Louder

Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”

This week was a watershed for Total Noise. When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that.

The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call the “real world,” it’s hard to see now.

more here

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Taking Daylight Saving Time to Extremes

This is the weekend when the clocks do something—spring forward, it must be—and from now on Daylight Saving Time will always remind me of Marcel Aymé, born 111 years ago this month, a writer of “fantastic” stories, not much translated into English.

I stumbled onto Aymé not via Twitter nor word of mouth nor any of the Intertubes but browsing in a bookstore, the kind with tables, on which were displayed neat stacks of books lovingly chosen by the staff. I picked up a collection titled The Man Who Walked through Walls, put out by an independent London publisher, the Pushkin Press. The beautiful translation is by Sophie Lewis.

“Le passe-muraille,” monument to Marcel Aymé by Jean Marais

Aymé is the kind of writer who makes you think of Borges (but that’s too easy, of course; it’s almost worrisome how often I’m put in mind of Borges). “The Man Who Walked through Walls”—”Le passe-muraille“—is his most famous story, the referent for his monument in Montmartre.  The story that made me gasp with pleasure is the fourth, “The Problem of Summertime” (1943). For Americans, I think that should be “The Problem of Daylight Saving Time.” It’s about— well, never mind what it’s “about.” Let’s just say it expresses something about the nature of time that could not have been expressed, could not have been seen, until the invention of Daylight Saving Time (in French, l’heure d’été), along with time zones and the International Date Line and the other chronometric paraphernalia of modernity. The story is set in wartime. “At the height of the war, the warring powers’ attention was distracted by the problem of summertime, which it seemed had not been comprehensively examined. Already it was felt that no serious work had been carried out in this field and that, as often happens, human genius had allowed itself to be overruled by habit.”

How easily, the narrator remarks, time can be moved forward an hour or two! (His readers knew well that their German occupiers had just changed France’s time zone by decree.)

On reflection, nothing prevented its being moved forward by twelve or twenty-four hours, or indeed by any multiple of twenty-four. Little by little, the realisation spread that time was under man’s control. In every continent and in every country, the heads of state and their ministers began to consult philosophical treatises. In government meetings there was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time. It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.

So the authorities decide to do something dramatic. Never mind what. Something Borgesian. You could say that time travel occurs, if you construe the term time travel as broadly, as flexibly, as possible.



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P.S. re preserving our species memory

Having jotted the below item on Twitter and the Library of Congress, I belatedly rediscovered the following. Too easy to forget these things. From the wise and foresighted Steve Martin, 2008:

I have learned that people are uploading their lives into cyberspace and am convinced that one day all human knowledge and memory will exist on a suitable hard drive, which, for preservation, will be flung out of the solar system to orbit a galaxy far, far away.
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The Twitterverse Goes to the Library

[also at the NYR Blog]

“What food for speculation each person affords, as he writes his hurried epistle, dictated either by fear, or greed, or more powerful love!”

—Andrew Wynter (1854)



For a brief time in the 1850s the telegraph companies of England and the United States thought that they could (and should) preserve every message that passed through their wires. Millions of telegrams—in fireproof safes. Imagine the possibilities for history!

“Fancy some future Macaulay rummaging among such a store, and painting therefrom the salient features of the social and commercial life of England in the nineteenth century,”  wrote Andrew Wynter in 1854. (Wynter was what we would now call a popular-science writer; in his day job he practiced medicine, specializing in “lunatics.”) “What might not be gathered some day in the twenty-first century from a record of the correspondence of an entire people?”

Remind you of anything?

A room in the Library of Congress, 1897

The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth.

As of last month the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where.

The library has attached itself to the firehose. A stream of information flows from 500 million registered twitterers (counting duplicates, dead people, parodies,
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Ada’s Birthday

Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, was born 197 years ago, 10 December 1815, so it’s safe to say that many bicentennial preparations are already getting under way. What an unusual sort of celebrity she has become, after nearly two centuries of total obscurity. Let us remember: she was forgotten.

Today she is the Google Doodle:


For basic introduction, BrainPOP has a nice little movie. A tweeter has just alerted me to an “indie-rock steampunk musical.”

And to mark the day, here’s one letter of hers, from my book. She was a young woman, newly married, and she went to see a model of the new “electric telegraph” in London,

& the only other person was a middle-aged gentleman who chose to behave as if I were the show [she wrote to her mother] which of course I thought was the most impudent and unpardonable.—I am sure he took me for a very young (& I suppose he thought rather handsome) governess. . . . He stopped as long as I did, & then followed me out.— I took care to look as aristocratic & as like a Countess as possible. . . . I must try & add a little age to my appearance. . . . I would go & see something everyday & I am sure London would never be exhausted.

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Autocorrect, Unexpurgated

Even misspelled, a certain word may not appear in The New York Times. So for those who cannot live without @scarthomas, the full version of my Autocorrect piece is here.

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Harald Bluetooth? Really?

I wrote this—Inescapably Connected—eleven years ago. There was no such thing as “iPhone.” Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were barely coming into view. The “Network” was rising all around. We sipped information through straws that were about to become wormholes.

Some of it has come true.

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Meta Enough for You?

For the Annals of Recursion.

1. In The Information (pages 408–409, for those who wish to follow along) I mention a poet named Thomas Freeman, who lived from approximately 1590 to 1630. I say he is “utterly forgotten” and add that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

I would never have heard of Thomas Freeman myself, if Anthony Lane hadn’t happened to discover him in the course of reviewing Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healy’s English Poetry Full-Text Database for The New Yorker. That was seventeen years ago, in 1995. (I couldn’t read Lane’s hilarious piece on line when I was working on the book, but you can now, here:  “Byte Verse.”)

Lane was making the point that the opportunity to read 165,000 poems by 1,250 poets spanning thirteen centuries on four compact discs priced at $51,000 might be considered a mixed blessing. He quoted this couplet by the aforementioned Freeman:

Whoop, whoop, me thinkes I heare my Reader cry,
Here is rime doggrell: I confesse it I.

2. From time to time, since the book was published, I’ve had the opportunity to speak about it or read bits of it to live audiences. For example, I did this on Tuesday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I’ve had to mention, though, that “utterly forgotten” no longer applies: Freeman now has a Wikipedia entry, thanks to Lane—and thanks also (if you’re so inclined) to Sir Charles. The entry was created by a Wikipedia user called Tom Reedy on September 17, 2010.

As he was listening to my talk, my host at Berkman, Jonathan Zittrain, was apparently multitasking, because as soon as I finished he offered an update on the Wikipedia situation. The Thomas Freeman entry now refers back to The Information. Professor Zittrain read this aloud:

This incident was described by James Gleick as an example of how unprepared people were for the WWW to bring all of human literature to the tips of their fingers.

He continued (and by now people were laughing):
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