SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Papers

Name:Jean-François Blanchette

Institutional Affiliation:Dept. of Information Studies, UCLA


Paper Type:Traditional

Paper Title:A Material History of Bits

Paper Abstract:In both the popular press and scholarly research, the trope of digital information as “immaterial” is invoked with remarkable persistence. In this characterization, the digital derives its power from its nature as a mere collection of 0s and 1s wholly independent from the particular media from which it can be accessed — hard drive, network wires, optical disk, etc. — and the particular signal carrier which encode bits — variations of magnetic field, voltages, or pulses of light. Because of this immateriality, bits are immune from the economics and logistics of analog media, and from the corruption and decay that necessarily results from the handling of material carriers of information, resulting in a worldwide shift “from atom to bits” as argued by Negroponte.

Is there any sense then in talking about a material history of bits? In this paper, I argue that bits cannot escape the material constraints of the physical devices that manipulate, store, and exchange them. Building on earlier work by N. Katherine Hayles, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Johanna Drucker on the materiality of computing, I propose to analyze computing as a physical process fundamentally constrained by the relative availability of three material resources—processing, storage, and connectivity—, where bits ground out into the material world of wires and media. I then articulate the relationship between computation as physical process and as symbolic manipulation, that is, the abstraction of physical signals into symbols fit for processing, storage, communication, and perception. I argue this process is primarily driven by what Phil Agre has described as “the dialectics of abstraction and implementation,” a space of design trade-offs between the freedom provided by abstractions, and the efficiency of possible implementations. Even as the material basis of computing mutates, these abstractions endure, embedded within the layered software infrastructure.

In this paper, I illustrate these processes by retracing the history of these trade-offs, as it relates to the storage resource, from punched cards, to the Unix file system, to cloud computing. The goal is to eventually provide a complete historical account of computing grounded on the evolution of its material foundations.