The Machine in the Ghost

                                                

‘The Machine in the Ghost’, the title of both Robin Boast’s talk and his book, (U. of Chicago Press, Reaktion Books, London, 2017), needs some explaining. The ‘ghost in the machine’ was a phrase used by Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) in his critique of Réné Descartes whose disconnect between mind and body the British philosopher refuted. Arthur Koestler used the expression as the title of his 1967 book about philosophical psychology. Reversing the word order, Boast wished to call attention to the oft-ignored fundamentals that make the digital world that we all, willing or not, live in. His subtitle was ‘Digitality and its consequences’.

 

Boast began at the very beginning, noting that he was only a few steps ahead of his Berkeley Circle audience. But it was soon clear that his were very big steps. He proceeded to show us the point of departure, the key distinction that made the digital age possible, in a word the difference between analog and digital technology. The former leaves a kernel of information or signal in its original form. The latter takes the same signal and turns it into binary numbers. The binary system used in computers and electronics is simple enough considering what can be built with it. The state of anything is represented by 1 or 0, on or off, high or low. These binary numbers are stored and can be called up at in a shape that approximates the original signal. The immense complications, just short of infinity, come afterward.

 

Boast then took us on a historical excursion. In fascinating illustrations, we viewed the devices that had marked the supremacy of the analog world and the hints they offered of the digital world to come. We were reminded that nothing comes from nothing and that history is inescapable. The underlying technology of the digital age was developed in the nineteenth century. Charles Babbage, born in 1771, is credited with having originated the concept of a digital programmable computer. While this mechanical computer led to more complex electronic designs, all the essential ideas of modern computers are to be found in Babbage's so-called analytical engine.

 

It was post-WWII that the digital changeover gained speed. Computer systems began to do mathematical calculations previously done manually. The introduction of transistors, silicon as a semi-conductor and single-chip microprocessors opened the way for the microcomputer revolution of the 1970s. Home computers and video game consoles appeared. The switch from analog record-keeping increased as business completed its move to digital. At the turn of the century cell phones, constantly improved, were everywhere together with textual messaging. In the next decade tablet computers and smartphones surpassed personal computers as a means to tie into the Internet

 

Will this breakneck trajectory continue? Will there, in other words, be a post-digital age? At present, it seems unlikely that the pace of development could decelerate and the digitality that has engulfed us morph into something else, another age. Or was it our fate to go forward forever on our deceptively simple but incredibly fertile binary way? Boast refused to play the prophet. For the moment he was satisfied to help Berkeleyites limp out of pre-digital times.

 

Robin Boast’s e-science interests have a remarkable scope. They touch the sociology of scientific knowledge, museum studies and, intriguingly, the “the ethnographic gaze of indigenous partners”. The Berkeley Circle hopes he will pay us another enlightening visit.

 

Peter Byrne

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