Data

  1. Joseph Priestley’s timelines
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois’s infographics
  3. Project Cybersyn
  4. All-State Automated System (OGAS)
  5. Information theory and structural anthropology

Joseph Priestley’s timelines

The most influential timelines published in the eighteenth century were the Chart of Biography (1765) and the New Chart of History (1769) created by the scientist and theologian, Joseph Priestley (1733–1804). Priestley's charts were immediately praised and widely copied.

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Priestley's charts were both elegant and massive. More than three-feet wide and two-feet tall, the Chart of Biography was large enough to accurately register the lives and deaths of two thousand famous men on a scale of three thousand years in "universal time"; the Chart of History, the fates of seventy-eight principal kingdoms during the same period. The two charts were available as posters to be framed or as scrolls wound up on rollers. Designed for the curiosity and pleasure of a general reader, they were also meant to serve the scholar. In fact, Priestley believed that the two aims were well served by the same approach. If history were rendered in natural proportion, Priestley argued, chronological absurdities would quickly come to light. Faced with the chart, any child could recognize the error of the "tasteless chronologer" who by subtle calculations had managed to separate Dido and Aeneas by more than three hundred years.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s infographics

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois — sociologist, historian, activist, Pan-Africanist, and prolific author — had also, it turns out, a mighty fine eye for graphic design. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois studied at Fisk University, Humboldt University in Berlin, and Harvard (where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate), and in 1897 he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Two years later he published his first major academic work The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a detailed and comprehensive sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on his earlier field work. The following year, along with collaborators Thomas J. Calloway and Daniel Murray, Du Bois travelled to Europe, firstly to the First Pan-African Conference held in London, and then to the Paris Exposition to present a groundbreaking exhibition on the state of African-American life — “The Exhibit of American Negroes” — which, according to Du Bois, attempted to show “(a) The history of the American Negro. (b) His present condition. (c) His education. (d) His literature.”

Project Cybersyn

Project Cybersyn was a bold technological project tied to a bold political project. It emerged in the context of Chile’s peaceful road to socialism: Salvador Allende had won the Chilean presidency in 1970 with a promise to build a fundamentally different society. His political program would make Chile a democratic socialist state, with respect for the country’s constitution and individual freedoms.

Giving the state control of Chile’s most important industries constituted a central plank of Allende’s platform, but created management difficulties. The government had limited experience in this area. Yet by the end of 1971, it had taken control of more than one hundred and fifty enterprises, among them twelve of the twenty largest companies in Chile.

The problem of how to manage these newly socialized enterprises led a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores to contact a British cybernetician named Stafford Beer and ask for advice. Flores worked for the government agency charged with the nationalization effort; Beer was an international business consultant known for his work in the area of management cybernetics, which he defined as the “cybernetics of effective organization.”

Together, they formed a team of Chilean and British engineers and developed a plan for a new technological system that would improve the government’s ability to coordinate the state-run economy.

The system would provide daily access to factory production data and a set of computer-based tools that the government could use to predict future economic behavior. It also included a futuristic operations room that would facilitate government decision-making through conversation and better comprehension of data. Beer envisioned ways to both increase worker participation in the economy and preserve the autonomy of factory managers, even with expanding state influence.

All-State Automated System (OGAS)

This much is clear: the Soviet Union never had the Internet as it is known today. Rather, in the early 1960s, Soviet cyberneticists designed the most prominent of the network projects examined here — the All-State Automated System (OGAS) — with the mission of saving the entire command economy by a computer network. Their elaborate technocratic ambition was to network, store, transmit, optimize, and manage the information flows that constituted the command economy, under the guidance of the Politburo and in collaboration with everyday enterprise workers, managers, and planners nationwide.

The historic failure of that network was neither natural nor inevitable. Its story is one of the lifework and struggles of often genius cybernetic scientists and administrators and the institutional settings that were tasked with this enormous project. The question deserves a sympathetic and rigorous examination of the Soviet side of the story. Why did Soviet networks like the OGAS not take root? What obstacles did network entrepreneurs face? Given unprecedented Soviet investments and successes in mathematics, science, and some technology (such as nuclear power and rocketry), why did the Soviet Union not successfully develop computer networks that were capable of benefiting a range of civilian, economic, political, social, and other human wants and needs? How might we begin to rethink our current network world in light of the Soviet experience?

Information theory and structural anthropology

In his 1962 masterpiece of structural analysis, The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss set about overturning the centuries-old belief that European scientific and technical reasoning, by dint of its rational and well-ordered procedures, was superior to “primitive thought.” Lévi-Strauss did not appeal for paternalistic tolerance towards subaltern cultures, however, nor did he tout the situated or local character of native knowledge. Instead, he celebrated the great genius of the savage mind to have long ago recognized and understood what Western scientists working in the field of information theory had only recently discovered: the world is organized into a discrete series of signals and messages that invite our recognition and interpretation. In treating animals, plants, and other aspects of the natural world as a system of obscure signs, the savage mind had discovered “principles of interpretation whose heuristic value and accordance with reality have been revealed to us [Westerners] only recently through very recent inventions: telecommunications, computers, and electron microscopes.” Lévi-Strauss explained that after centuries of division between civilized and savage man, the tools of the former had at last verified the intuitions of the latter. “The entire process of human knowledge,” he declared, “thus assumes the character of a closed system.”

Any information theorist who stumbled upon Lévi-Strauss’s assertions would have likely responded with astonishment. At the time, information theory was a subfield of communication engineering dedicated to the study of how improved encryption codes enabled more efficient and error-resistant data transmission. Associations with digital computing and cybernetics brought wider renown and interest in information theory, but, apart from a few emerging applications in satellite communications, it was an area of mostly hypothetical inquiry for a small and specialized community of engineers. How is it that the father of French structuralism came to celebrate the instruments and techniques of digital media as agents of a grand reconciliation between Western and primitive cultures?