2010 Workshop: Edwards Keynote Abstract

Friction: Rethinking Speed, Power, and Possibility in the History of Information Infrastructures

Tropes involving computers' "speed" and "power" have dominated discourses about computing from the earliest days of electronic machines. Metaphors of friction may provide a different lens, one that focuses attention on the materiality of information processing. Machines transform energy into work; friction reduces the amount of work they can do with a given input. Information systems transform data (among other things) into information and knowledge. Computational friction opposes this transformation; it expresses the resistance that must always be overcome, the sociotechnical struggle with numbers that always precedes reward.

Like computation, data always have a material aspect: data are things. They are not just numbers but also numerals, with dimensionality, weight, and texture. Data friction references the costs in time, energy, and attention required simply to collect, check, store, move, receive, and access data — whether it be from one place on Earth to another, from one machine (or computer) to another, or from one medium (such as punch cards) to another (such as magnetic tape).

Finally, an increasingly salient form of friction today is metadata friction. Just as with data themselves, creating, handling, and managing metadata always exacts a cost in time, energy, and attention. In most fields, this frictional cost is experienced as an additional burden on top of primary work. For example, countless discussions reference the nearly insuperable difficulty of getting research scientists to record even the most basic metadata — let alone the meticulously detailed descriptions needed for long-term, multidisciplinary data sharing.

Exhibit A in this talk will be the histories of weather forecasting and climatology, where the collection, processing, and storage of data from the whole planet have been explicit goals since the early 19th century.