You Carnt Kings ARI Melbourne
Exhibition Essay by Adam BROWNE (2009)
The industrial revolution in general, and the development of steam technology in particular, changed the way humans think about work. It was redefined not only politically and economically, but also scientifically. In 19th Century physics, it was mathematically formalised, and quantified in joules by the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, for whom the Coriolis force was named -- a force that determines the gyrations of cyclones and tornadoes, but is also applicable, some suggest, to the circulation of information (as one commentator writes(1) : 'Imagine a cyclonic idea-whorl, a conceptual tempest, flashing with wit, thunderous with the cries of the mob -- an ideative storm that, as with the case of the industrial revolution, can be devastatingly violent, tearing society apart as thoroughly as if it were a low-rent Kansas trailer park.)
As the steam engine redefined work, so the computer has changed the way we understand information. In the Second World War, the warm innards of Alan Turing's early cryptanalytic machines gave birth to a new branch of science, information theory, which treats information as a fundamental factor of its equations. Inevitably, this evolved into the idea that information is itself physical, that is, as much part of the phenomenal universe as matter and energy.
This notion met resistance at first -- recalling the difficulties Isaac Newton faced when proposing that energy is physical -- but is now broadly accepted. Physical information is as essential as heat or time in the equations of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics; and indeed, without physical information, many everyday appliances could never have come into being. Even the motoring industry, often slow to adopt new technologies, has embraced information-driven systems. The engine compartments of many late-model cars are packed with CPUs and computer peripherals, in some cases entirely replacing the combustion engines that had theretofore changed little since the days of Henry Ford. One has but to open the bonnet of a Volvo ÖV12 or Kia Sorento to see physical information put to practical use, with the flywheels whirling festively in the flow of combusted erudition, the pistons pounding with the expansion and contraction of ideas, the crankshaft turning under the motive power of the same raw intelligence that has driven great minds since time immemorial. At the rear, we see that the pollutants that once threatened the planet itself have been replaced by a mild haze of exhausted wisdom, information reduced to nonsense tumbling from the tailpipes.
(This very essay is the product of one such engine, the words -- printed, the reader will note, not in ink but in sooty engine deposits -- spilling onto the page from the exhaust manifold of a Scania waste-collection vehicle.) Many information theorists believe that Carl Sagan presaged these developments when he playfully suggested in a television interview that aliens in orbit about Earth could be forgiven for thinking humans were not the drivers, but the fuel for cars. These theorists point out that the human brain, with its 100 trillion synaptic connections, approaches the theoretical limit of information-density, and so forms a vital element of an information-driven system -- considered as an informational matrix, they say, the driver is the fuel. Further, Sagan’s later essay(2) in which his putative aliens take an interest not only in cars, but also in yawning -- with especial emphasis on the infectiousness of yawns, carefully tracking them from yawner to yawnee to determine factors such as range and speed of transmission (the essay includes tables on yawn-speed plotted against several variables, and a diagram of a proposed yawn-powered engine) has been interpreted by semioticians(3) as an oblique reference to the proliferation of information-driven vehicles, though exactly how this interpretation was arrived at is, we are assured by the same philosophers, beyond the understanding of those untrained in structural rhetoric.
If this is so, it is poignant to think that Sagan never lived to see these ideas realised. In the opinion of some commentators, we have him to thank for the current pace of change, which is unprecedented in the history of technology. Recent developments seem sure to be leading to a day not far off when we will see vehicles not only powered by information, but made of it -- notional hatchbacks and imaginary sedans bearing us along dream superhighways at the speed of yawns -- traffic manifesting as whirling Coriolis car-storms crackling and gaping, transmitting from yawn-node to yawn-node with the delicious sleepy languor of a picnic on a spring day; we can envisage the roads that once devastated the natural world retreating until they are as the faint tracks of goat trails, where cars indistinguishable from perfumed breezes blow hither and yon -- and at last Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and the other members of the automotive industry will return us to a new Eden.
Adam BROWNE is a Melbourne based writer and artist
1 Tunnock, L. G. The Current Climate: An Infometeorological Exegesis (Oxford University Press 2010)
2 Sagan, C. Practical Applications of the Pandiculatory Reflex (unpublished, author's estate 1995)
3 Uexkull, A. Simbolizmo Aiškinimo ir Saganian Kosmosico (München: Urban & Schwarzenberg (2012)