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the machine in the ghost

2 september 2017

In The Machine in the Ghost, Robin Boast is at pains to detach the concept of digitality from that of computing. This may be a bold statement in some theoretical quarters, but it's also pretty intuitive. People speak less and less of computers, more and more of devices. You're likely reading this on a tablet or a phone, which have ample computing power but which are rarely used for computing anything much more complicated than how much to tip. I'm writing it on a laptop, which is a very powerful computer that hardly anyone calls "computer" any more. And while my laptop is presumably programmable – I actually have no idea, but I'd guess that Apple discourages anything quite so maverick as writing programs for their machines – few people program their own computers anymore. We let app developers do it for us, and we download their stuff so that we can do non-computational things with it.

Boast's Machine in the Ghost is a fascinating, associative history of the concept of digitality itself. We sometimes associate the digital with anything electronic that works via inputs and outputs: it's the go-to default word for a range of devices that we used to call "computers," "e-" this and that, "tech," or "cyber," but it can be a lazy one. Boast insists on the provenance of the digital, defined as information transmitted by encoding into fixed-length bits and rendered flexibly to suit a user's desires.

Boast points out that, for most of the 20th century, hardly anything we did was digital, including a raft of highly sophisticated mechanical and electronic technologies. The radio, and the telephone, and the movies that we know were analogue devices, using varying lengths, intensities, and spacings of signals to transmit information. Television was analogue till very recently. Photography too, and halftone printing of photographs: even wirephotos, a key innovation from the 1930s, were transmitted the same way that telephone calls were, by varying the current along a line. Most computers, till 50 or 60 years ago, were analogue machines, able to do extraordinarily complex calculations very quickly, but depending on constant tinkering with their finely-calibrated input mechanisms.

However, just as mammals were around for the entire Age of Dinosaurs, unobtrusively biding their time till they could take over, digital technologies co-existed with analogue throughout. Boast explores the early ascendancy of digital encoding in the telegraph industry. Telegraph machines, stock tickers, and telexes are now as extinct as ancestral mammals, but they had their niche a hundred years ago, and that niche was digital. Early electric telegraphy was analogue – Morse code depends on varying lengths of impulse – but also glitchy, and dependent on highly-skilled labor. In the 1870s, Émile Baudot invented a new telegraph code that still underlies the way characters are stored and transmitted by our devices today.

Baudot's innovation was to make the code for every character five binary bits in length: press (or not) some combination of five keys, and for every combination, a different letter is encoded. (Press just the first, and you get A; press 'em all, you get P, and so forth.) When a New Zealander named Donald Murray developed a typewriter keyboard that could encode a typed letter as its Baudot equivalent (and its decoding counterpart at the other end), operators no longer had to know any code at all: they could submit plain text.

From those two innovations, the whole field of the digital emerged, as traced by Boast in the course of this book. Digital communications were dependable, accessible, and – most crucial – general-purpose. One of the implications that Boast stresses is that digital machines can take on a range of functions that used to belong to single-purpose devices: your phone is a camera, an address book, a compass. Digital content, based on code unreadable by humans, is continually recreated and redisplayed across a huge range of devices. There is still no absolute single universal standard for digital encoding, as I'd find if I tried to copy-and-paste from some random text directly into a webpage like this one. But there's near enough. That near-enough universal standard, based on Baudot's code, molded by governments, international committees, and corporate convergence, is the basis for a remarkably powerful and interconnected digital environment. This environment makes the internet age both a descendant of, and a parallel to, the electric telegraph.

Boast, Robin. The Machine in the Ghost: Digitality and its consequences. London: Reaktion, 2017.