Tom Erickson
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This is one of a series of essays written for a seminar in Genre Theory in the spring of 1998. This essay plays off a chapter by Bruno Latour called "Drawing Things Together " in Representation in Scientific Practice (eds. Lynch & Woolgar), and explores some of his concepts, in particular the notion of the immutabile mobile.

The Rising Digital Tide

    La Pérouse travels through the Pacific for Louis XVI with the explicit mission of bringing back a better map. One day, landing on what he calls Sakhalin, he meets with Chinese and tries to learn from them whether Sakhalin is an island or a peninsula. To his great surprise the Chinese understand geography quite well. An older man stands up and draws a map of his island on the sand with the scale and the details needed by La Pérouse. Another, who is younger, sees that the rising tide will soon erase the map and picks up one of La Pérouse's notebooks to draw the map again with a pencil.
    --Bruno Latour, "Drawing Things Together," p 24, in Representation in Scientific Practice (eds. Lynch & Woolgar)

Latour uses this story in his quest to deflate grandiose dichotomies such as the difference between the savage and the civilized mind. In this story the difference lies not in the knowledge of geography nor the sophisticated ability to recast 'the world' into a two dimensional representation, but rather in the nature of the two maps. The drawn map is an immutable mobile. It is a fixed inscription that can be brought back to the French Court where it can serve as an instrument of power. The drawn map stands in contrast to the map inscribed in the sand, whose ephemerality is a testimony to its non-participation in the local circuits of power.

I found Latour's subsequent analysis engaging and provocative, but I would like to pause here, and examine the ground upon which we now stand. I suggest that the tide -- a very high tide -- is coming in, and that the question of whether we stand upon the sand of an island or peninsula may soon take on increasing importance.

The tide of which I speak is, of course, the digitalization of inscriptions. Inscriptions in digital media are curious things. On the one hand (if you will permit me a small dichotomy!), the immutable mobiles will become far more mobile: the costs of copying, transmitting, and storing digital inscriptions are all approaching zero, as is the transmission time. This is mobility indeed! On the other hand, the notion of immutability becomes rather troubling. What I want to argue is that while our digital inscriptions are not so doomed to ephemerality as the map in the sand, as they move from paper (which is now, more and more, being used only as an interface) to digital media, they are losing an important assurance of stability.

In the tangible world, the physics of media -- the staining of inks, the crushing of paper fibers by a hard nib -- conspire to support immutability. Tangible media are changed by their inscribing, and changed again by their reinscribing. Tangible media can be duplicated, but never quite precisely. Not so with digital media. Create a digital document. Create a copy of it. Create a copy of that. Which is the original? All three copies are identical. True, the documents may have different names, but it is only the illusion created by systems designers that makes you believe that one is the original. And the system designers that I know would find it rather odd that you would want to privilege one identical set of ones and zeros over another. If the notion of the original is now a bit hard to pin down, what happens when one of the identical documents changes?

Suppose I change one document one way, the second another way, and leave the third as it was? - well, we may now at least say that the third document is an unadulterated version of the original, if not the original itself. But who besides the adulterer is to know which is which? Ah, you will be thinking of time stamps, but there you go again, trusting system designers to do the right thing. And even so, my copies might very well be on different computers, and the clocks of most computers are no more accurate then their users' watches, even if they are on the same time zone. As a practical matter, as documents drift around the world at the speed of light, being downloaded and copied and uploaded by multitudes of people, it's going to be awfully difficult to keep track of the original, if you should be old fashioned enough to still believe in such a thing.

Note also that there are pressures for the content of inscriptions to change. For example, sometime in 1996 I wrote a short paper which I uploaded to my web page. The paper included some transcripts of an on-line discussion which were annotated with the discussants' initials. As is my custom, I changed the names and initials to hide the true identities of the participants -- but I forgot to change one instance. Some time later, someone else pointed out the error, and without reflecting on the larger issues here, I corrected the error and uploaded a new version. Inconsequential? Perhaps. Though it is easy enough to imagine that someone writing a paper on the failure of well-intentioned researchers to fully protect their sources might have pointed (either through standard intertextual mechanisms or a dynamic link) to my paper as an example, an example which has now shifted beneath their feet. Of course, when the stakes are higher -- a physicist has made an embarrassing theoretical error, or a humanist has misattributed a quotation -- surely the sheer force of the sanctity of the written record will preserve immutability. Won't it? Even if this optimistic view is true, a certain degree of assurance has been lost. As the tide laps towards the map in the sand, we may be forgiven for feeling a bit of trepidation, in spite of repeated assurances that it will survive the waves.

Forgive me. Intoxicated by Latour's delightful word play, I have floundered into waters deeper than I can plumb in a few pages. Let me return to the shallows, if not entirely to the beach, and bring another example to bear on the distinction between the tangible and the digital (oops, yet another dichotomy!).

Those who have had cause to travel recently are likely to be aware of a number of airlines' attempts to promote the use of digital "E-Tickets." While E-Tickets are not going entirely unused, the long lines at the paper ticket counters and the non-existent lines at the E-Ticket stations suggest that E-Tickets have not achieved the dominance that their superior mobility might lead one to expect. A recent article in the New York Times offers a suggestive example:

The Internet marketing expert, Don Peppers, who lives and breaths electronic commerce and travels nearly full time, says that E-tickets are too ethereal for his taste. "I'm worried that I'm going to forget I have E-tickets and just keep buying new ones, and that I won't get a refund," Mr. Peppers said. "And I'm afraid that I won't be able to prove that I have a ticket when I want to change my plans."
--New York Times, Monday, May 11, 1998, p. D8

This is similar to my own experience: I too avoid E-tickets, in part because I fear getting the number wrong. The tangibility is crucial. A tangible ticket lays there on the ticket counter, and, as an astonishingly intricate inscription that reflects the processes (from institutional to mechanical) that produced it, it serves as a warrant to hold the agent and the airline accountable. If something goes wrong, we all peer at the ticket. In a pinch, I can swap a United ticket for a Delta ticket. In high security situation the tangible ticket gets me through security. In contrast, an E-ticket is nothing more than a glorified confirmation number. What happens if my digits don't match their digits? Suppose I, or my travel agent, or a computer operator, or the ticket agent, have transposed two digits? The machine will say: "Not a valid E-ticket sequence. Please try again." United won't accept my Delta E-ticket, even if the number is correct. The security guard will say 'That number's not on my list,' and will stare suspiciously at me.

The difficulty is quite deep. If the corner has been torn off my paper ticket, it's not a problem; but if an errant cosmic ray has flipped a single bit from a one to zero, it is a different matter. Not only is my E-Ticket no longer valid, but it is not even necessarily recognizable as an E-Ticket. It is simply a string of numbers that anyone could have made up. It is as if, when a corner is torn off my paper ticket, it reverts into a twig. This is mutability indeed.

We are moving from a world of immutable mobiles to one of hyper-mutable hyper-mobiles. All those words on the screen are just one end of a Latourian cascade of inscriptions: the words are just hexadecimal codes, the hexadecimal codes are just ones and zeros, the ones and zeros are just electric charges suspended in a Silicon chip, and the Silicon chip, the ground in which our digital inscriptions are ultimately inscribed, is just very, very pure sand.

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Tom Erickson

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