Bits are things, too


Atoms vs. Bits: It may well be the foundational dichotomy of our time. The liberation mythology in which cyberspace has been enwrapped and, some would say, enshrouded from its very start is a metaphorical extension of Atoms vs. Bits: the former symbolizing a condition of constraint and bondage, the latter symbolizing a condition of release and freedom. You can sense the metaphor budding in Stewart Brand’s great, prophetic 1972 Rolling Stone article “Spacewar“:

At present some 20 major computer centers are linked on the two-year-old ARPA Net. … How Net usage will evolve is uncertain. There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with reluctances about equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.

One popular new feature on the Net is [the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's] Associated Press service. From anywhere on the Net you can log in and get the news that’s coming live over the wire or ask for all the items on a particular subject that have come in during the last 24 hours. … Project that to household terminals, and so much for newspapers (in present form). Since huge quantities of information can be computer-digitalized and transmitted, music researchers could, for example, swap records over the Net with “essentially perfect fidelity.” So much for record stores (in present form). …

When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over. We are all Computer Bums, all more empowered as individuals and as co-operators.

By 1996, when John Perry Barlow writes his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” the metaphor is in full and fragrant bloom:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. … Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. … We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace.

Goodbye to the atomic prison of Flesh. Hello to the pure freedom of bit-based Mind. The emphatically Cartesian metaphor then proceeds, with a remarkable protean backflip, to reconstitute itself not as a metaphor but as a genuine economic and political distinction. A veritable truth! Physical goods and physical media, and the people and companies that create them, become the decaying Flesh of an outdated and fundamentally repressive order: an order built on the “artificial” constraints and scarcities imposed by atomic forms. Digital goods and digital media, and the people and companies that create them, become the vibrant Mind of the new and fundamentally liberating order: an order built on the “natural” freedom and abundance allowed by immaterial assemblages of bits. Here is not only a new medium. Here is a new economics. Here is a new politics. On one side, the revolutionary innocents of Silicon Valley — the Googles — who serve as conduits of Mind. On the other side, the counterrevolutionary gatekeepers of old media, who seek to keep Mind enclosed in Flesh in order to protect their profits. Spacewar! Atoms vs. Bits! Flesh vs. Mind! Control vs. Liberation! Old Media vs. New Media! Short Head vs. Long Tail! Etc.!

And it’s all a fabrication. Or, more generously, it’s all still a metaphor.

“If bits are not made of atoms, what could they possibly be made of?” So asks UCLA’s Jean-François Blanchette. It is very much a rhetorical question. Atoms vs. Bits is a false dichotomy. When bits enter the world, they take material form: always have, always will. Bits “are necessarily both logical and material entities,” Blanchette writes, in his paper “A Material History of Bits,” and “computing systems are suffused through and through with the constraints of their materiality.” All the seemingly bodiless content that flows through the net is inscribed on physical media and distributed through physical media just as the text of printed books is inscribed on physical media and distributed through physical media. Entranced by “the illusion … of immaterial behavior” in the “digital environment,” writes Matthew Kirschenbaum in his book Mechanisms, we have allowed ourselves to be blinded to the fundamental materialism of the bit, as manifested in local and cloud storage systems and all the other mechanisms of computing and networking:

Storage: the word itself is dull and flat sounding, like footfalls on linoleum. It has a vague industrial aura—tape farms under the fluorescents, not the flash memory sticks that are the skate keys of the Wi-Fi street. Yet storage has never been more important than it is now in shaping the everyday experience of computing, interactivity, and new media. … Like the vertical filing cabinets of a previous era, contemporary information storage devices have distinct affordances that contribute to their implementation and reception.

None of this is to deny the fact that what we have termed, not altogether accurately, “physical” and “digital” goods have different, even radically different, economic characteristics. What it does deny is that one method of physical inscription is necessarily more liberating, necessarily more pure or humane or natural, than another method of physical inscription. A cloud data center run by a Google or an Amazon or an Apple is in the business of the material inscription and the material distribution of goods every bit as much as is a printing press or a record pressing plant. Recognizing the fact of digital materiality helps strip away some of the political fantasies inspired by digitization, as Blanchette makes clear:

[A] focus on materiality highlights that computation is a mechanical process based on the limited resources of processing power, storage, and connectivity. Indeed, the computing professions devote much of their activity to the management of these limitations. In mediating access to the physical resources of computation, infrastructure software must also manage the competing demands users place on them. A material analysis foregrounds how systems design must necessarily engage in the oldest political problem in the world: the allocation of scarce resources among competing stakeholders. While the shift to cloud computing, the defining infrastructural work of our time, is typically framed either in the language of technical rationality or that of the information age’s infinite frontier, materiality provides for an analysis of infrastructure building in terms of the politics of resource allocation. Indeed, a focus on materiality suggests a profound disconnect between such political work and the self-portrayal of computing science as primarily concerned with the design of efficient abstractions …

Once we see that the shift to the digital economy entails a shift not from Flesh to Mind but from Flesh to Flesh, from one set of essential substrates to another, as Mike Bulajewski suggests, we can begin to see more clearly the true economic and political implications of the shift, which have as much to do with the centralization of power and control and profit as with their decentralization. If the businesses of Google and Amazon and Apple represent not the liberation of material goods into immaterial forms but simply the replacement of one type of printing press with another type of printing press, of one type of record pressing plant with another type of record pressing plant, then those companies lose their privileged positions as the avatars of a new media revolution. The new boss, like the old boss, traffics in atoms.

Photo of Google data center by Google.


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14 Responses to Bits are things, too

  1. Dan Miller

    He charges a lot less for them, though.

  2. Nick

    Have you fully accounted for the cost of your Internet service, cellular data plan, and gadgetry?

  3. N

    I enjoyed your observation about Cartesian prejudices being carried over into economics and politics. However, Claude Shannon knew exactly what he was doing when he defined “bit” as a unit of information, and if Blanchette wants to hold forth about incarnated bits then he should coin a new word instead of muddling the old one.

  4. bits are always related to agreed conventions or in other words signs.
    The symbolic world predates “cyberspace” by quite a bit …
    The “intellectual” current thinking is in full regression.
    (and boring)

  5. Pseudo-Philo

    This-worldly Descartes, yes. Even other-worldly Plato and his ‘real world’ of Forms, also yes. This Bit-world is just what western man was always sure would come.

    But, isn’t this full-blown Gnosticism not seen since the 2nd century? I think the bit-heads gnow that there dark-light god is in the Net and he is coming on a cloud to meet them soon.

  6. Nick

    N: I think you’re about 20 years too late in arguing to maintain a semantic distinction between the logical bit and its incarnation. (And even logical bits are inscribed, somehow, in our mind/body, no?) If you would like to argue against Blanchette’s contention that bits “are necessarily both logical and material entities,” I would be very interested in hearing the argument. Nick

  7. Daniel Cole

    Precisely. Bits always exist in some physical instantiation, and this is what’s “muddled” by constantly talking about them in the abstract. Unless, of course, one is a genuine dualist…

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    This post is a good example of the problem that ideas are expressed in a certain idiom, which then generally limits those ideas those steeped in that idiom. When one has the philosophical “humanities” idiom of the above, it’s going to come across as terribly foggy and unclear to those who use a scientific “technical” idiom.
    (we already know that the former considers the latter uncultured, mechanistic, all in all generally not for proper gentlemen versed in the social graces which are the essence of discourse, and hence fit for mere tradesmen at best 1/2 :-))

    Boiled down, “Bits are abstractions, but computation is physical. Physical means businesses. BIG businesses. Like Google’s data centers. Transport costs are low, but NON-zero, and that adds up. There’s enormous corporate fights over whose bits are going to be sent first and how quickly (“Net Neutrality”). Plus laws regulate bits, that’s copyright.”

    That’s the core part, in a few sentences. But it’s extremely grating (from my perspective, and others per above) to have it framed with e.g. “If bits are not made of atoms, what could they possibly be made of?”. It’s very off-putting. The important consequences get tied to what *comes across* as wholesale ignorance or pundit arrogance.

  9. Nick

    Blanchette is, I think, a computer scientist.

  10. Seth Finkelstein

    Yes, I actually checked his CV before posting. I phrased it as the idiom. A phrase such as “computing systems are suffused through and through with the constraints of their materiality” is intended for a certain audience, as opposed to e.g. “computation is physical”. And the more florid style and expressive conventions tends to irritate ears attuned to different manner of phrasing, in part because it’s associated much more with using bombast to hide poor thinking (even if a specific instance isn’t doing that).

  11. Nick

    I don’t really hear the bombast. You might want to give the actual paper a read. I think you’ll like it.

  12. The point isn’t about bits or things, the point is that mickey mouse can be represented using bits or on celluloid, nothing more.
    And then machines and algorithms.
    The clearest symbol regarding current stupidity is the rape of the “virtual” adjective since the mid nineties or something like that.

  13. N

    As I understand it, “bit” was first used in a paper titled A Mathematical Theory of Communication. There are obviously different atoms at either end of a communication channel. Yet you can transmit something – “information” – from one side to the other. The bit is a unit of information: its independence from a particular physical representation was the whole point. Not only is this an elegant idea, it turned out to be an incredibly useful way of thinking about the world.
    Sure, the term has been applied more sloppily since Shannon. But making a big deal about how bits should be thought of as physical objects is aggressively sloppy. The world being what it is, you should be able to say plenty about “the true economic and political implications of the shift” without denying math.

  14. Erik

    I agree fully with Seth and N.