A new chapter in the theory of messages

One of the goals of the software coder is parsimoniousness. Because every line, even every character, of code places a demand on the computer processor, the pruning of instructions to their essence makes for faster, more efficient programs and an optimized system. The art of the coder, like that of the aphorist, is one of compression.

Twitter, it has become clear, was “never about what you’re doing for breakfast,” as Steve Gillmor writes. It was about creating “the realtime universal message bus.” It was, in other words, about building an electronic conduit, a “bus,” through which the people on the network – the human nodes – can efficiently exchange what have come to be called “status updates.” The use of engineering terms to describe social relations is both apt and necessary. The social network is a computer network, a platform for programming in which man and machine enter a symbiotic, or cybernetic, relationship.

In Twitter messages, or tweets, the use of the “@” sign is a means of denoting a specific address on the computer network at which a human operative is stored. The human operative receives the realtime message, the instruction, and is activated, usually resulting in the issuance of another message. The 140-character limit on messages is a means of imposing parsimoniousness on a lay audience who, without the limit, might revert to their natural human loquaciousness and gum up the system. The realtime human-machine network is able, as a result, to operate with a high degree of efficiency, leading to an optimal deployment of cybernetic resources.

In his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener provided the context for the social networking systems that are becoming so popular today:

… society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and … in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.

When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human or animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages …

The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information [exchange] than ever before … To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Wiener was writing a half century ago. Today, the complexity is much magnified and the need for efficient messaging all the greater. Hence man’s rapid embrace of the realtime messaging bus, not only via Twitter but via other increasingly realtime social networks such as FriendFeed (which today announced that realtime messaging “will underlie everything about FriendFeed from now on”) and Facebook (which also recently rolled out a new “realtime” design for its site).

The human benefits are real. The enforced introduction of parsimoniousness into social messaging relieves the pressure of worldly complexity and can provide the sense of well-being that often comes from radical simplification. Vanessa Grigoriadis gives eloquent voice to the benefits of our new cybernetic social system in her cover story on Facebook in the new issue of New York magazine:

On Facebook, I didn’t have to talk to anyone, really, but I didn’t feel alone, and I mean “alone” in the existential use of the word; everyone on Facebook wished me well, which I know not to be the case in the real world; and, most important, there was nothing messy or untoward or unpleasant—the technology controlled human interaction, keeping everyone at a perfect distance, not too close and not too far away, in a zone where I rarely felt weird or lame or like I had said the wrong thing, the way one often feels in the real world. This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.

It might at this point be suggested that our new transcendentalism is one in which individual human operatives, acting in physical isolation as nodes on a network, achieve the unity of an efficient cybernetic system through the optimized exchange of parsimonious messages over a universal realtime bus.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.