Musing about information and digital liquefaction

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !

Robert Herrick, Upon Julia’s Clothes

Liquefaction. A word to savour. Sensuously sliding off the surface of your tongue. Liquefaction, the process of liquefying; the process of turning something that was not a liquid into a liquid.

For the last day and a half, I was ensconced with my team at work, seeing where we’re trying to go, reviewing how we’re getting there, working out what we can do better. All made more enjoyable because we had the privilege of Doc working with us.

Jeremy and his team spent some time showing us the things we’d been able to do with Tiddlywiki, and the discussion moved on into one of my favourite subjects, the flow of information. I was stressing the importance of not building walled gardens with our applications, making sure that our applications allow customers to import or export their information simply, and in standardised ways.

Something about that conversation stuck with me, and I pondered on it later. And this is where I went:

At one time all assets were physical. When we wanted to exchange assets all we could do was barter them, albeit at some rate of exchange we could discover or determine. When the idea of money came along, everything changed, and the barter economy went away. Since money could operate as a medium of exchange, it became possible for us to convert our physical assets into something “liquid”.

I was struck by the liquid concept. When we convert physical assets into this thing we call money, then something strange happens, very similar to what happens when, for example, soil liquefaction takes place. Something hard and physical undergoes a structural change. One of the words used to describe this changed substance is cohesionless.

Now money went through a number of iterations along the road from physical to digital, growing up from being a store of value to being a medium of exchange and a unit of account. People wailed and moaned and gnashed their teeth as something physical and real became something representational and digital. One of the words used to describe what happened to money along the way is that it became commoditised. And people did not like it. It didn’t feel like it was theirs. So some held on to the gold, some kept the banknotes under their mattresses, some insisted on cheques forever and a day. But in the end everyone went digital.

Something similar is happening to information. All we can “own” is the conventional representation, the token for whatever we convert into digital form. We don’t own the digital form. It’s just an ocean of bits. You can keep track of what you put in before it became digital water, you can keep track of what you took out as digital water, but while it’s there, it’s just water.

Just water. Not my water and your water. Not text water and video water and audio water. Not black water and white water. Just water. Pure water.

Water which we can use to do many things, which we can mix in different ways, which we can mash up and recombine and repackage. Water which we can do all these things with because we have avoided polluting it.

When money became water, we kept the tokens, the conventional representations and ownership symbols, we kept them out of the water.

We have to do the same with information. With everything digital.

The tokens have to be kept out of the water.

9 thoughts on “Musing about information and digital liquefaction”

  1. JP, my guess is that you think of little of John Kenneth Galbraith as you do of Andrew Keen! Having ranted about the myths of the music business, it should not surprise you that I subscribe to the Galbraithian position that money is a myth that we accept as part of those “regular social practices.” My own (admittedly exaggerated) view of his position is: Money is WHAT YOU WANT IT TO BE in order to facilitate your interests in the exchange of goods and services. Water makes a poor metaphor for such a coarse and (not necessarily enlightened) self-interested perspective; but about the only point of agreement among social theorists is that we do what we do!

    P. S. I cannot remember if, in Herrick’s time, the term liquefaction was being used by the natural philosophers to describe the process of rotting!

  2. Actually I’m pretty relaxed about Galbraith. And I agree with the money is what you want it to be statement. Which means I agree with the poor metaphor bit as well.

    It was the liquidity bit that most intrigued me, the liquidity of information. And something more, something to do with how information changes in form and structure, how the liquefaction changes the cohesion and rigidity of the original substance.

    Something else also intrigued me. When I liquidate an asset and turn it into money, all I have is a record, a token, of what my asset is “worth”. But by then it is already part of trillions of bits.

    I will wait for more comments from others, I am sure that I can improve on the metaphor and get to some place where things are clearer. But the only way I can do it is to stick the unwieldy metaphor up as a target, so that people cut it down to size.

    Metaphors are just ways of rehearsing ideas.

  3. JP, since no one else seems to be picking up this gauntlet, let me pursue it a bit further. I like your comment; but, from where I sit, I think your “flirtation with the fluid” (couldn’t resist the alliteration) demonstrates what happens when one tries to shoehorn verb-like properties into noun-like constructs. If we think of information more in terms of the processes that arise from its usage (A LA Wittgenstein), then issues of form and structure (not to mention solidity and liquidity) become secondary, if not downright impeding. I would go so far as to declare this one of the fundamental axioms of the sociology of knowledge (although I do not know if any more eminent scholar has yet declared it as such)!

    To some extent this also reflects on your observation about records. The idea that a memory leaves some kind of tangible “trace” can be found as far back as Aristotle. By the twentieth century it had been given the more technical-sounding term, “engram.” Karl Lashley spent the better part of his career trying to find engrams and wrote a great paper towards the end of his life on his failure to do so. These days we have “wet brain” theorists like Gerald Edelman who have pretty much dispensed with looking for records and take a more verb-based approach to trying to understand brain processes; and that kind of approach is now reflecting on advancing our understanding of the nature of memory. Perhaps you should think of your wallet as nothing more than memories of your past activities!

    By the way, the scope of metaphor goes way beyond rehearsal. I believe we cannot EXPRESS our ideas WITHOUT metaphor (not to mention all the other tropes). Lots of people claim they learned this from George Lakoff; but, at least in the history of modern linguistics, the idea goes all the way back to Roman Jakobson!

  4. Or (to take it a more discursive approach), the moment you write something down it becomes a) something else entirely compared to it’s (mythical) predecessor and b) any number of ‘something elses’ the moment it’s read by anyone else. Your tokens (and what is a token but writing), the ones you want to keep out of the water, can only ever mean something to you. They mean something else entirely to someone else. What do they mean? Well, that’s the tricky bit – whatever they mean is actually a token in its own right.

    So your liquidity isn’t some original primordial soup of meaning, cut safely adrift from the metaphors of your tokens by virtual of it’s own metaphoricity (is there such a word?) – it’s part of a chain of metaphor in its own right. To refer to the last comment – there actually isn’t anything beyond metaphor and what metaphor wishes it could point to. An aside on liquidity – the idea of dissolution, of washing everything away, of erasing meaning is something that is seemingly set up in opposition to the idea of a token, of something definitively representative. So you have the token representing the unrepresentable or representation representing the wiping out of representation.

    What does that leave you with? The responsibility to follow your metaphors as far as they go or as far as you wish to negotiate an accommodation with them . In this case, the nature of your metaphor makes me think about the similarities between money and what money represents or tries to tidy out of sight. Or information once passed into the digital stream and a set of copyrights in a safe.

    Or maybe I’ve just been out in the sun with my 3yo too long today! Sorry for blathering on!

  5. This reminded me of something I have been wondering about lately (in quite a Confused kind of way). Does money need to have more information in it? The google process all seems to be about attaching more of a kind of “trail” to any transaction. Perhaps exchange should take account of more of this information? Also I wonder about sustainability and the information economy. Currently, it seems that the prices of physical things have to increase again vs the price of virtual things. Agreed information workers have to get paid, but is information the same kind of thing as energy or food? Should it be paid for in the same kind of money?

  6. Howard, you raise one of the fundamental questions of the concept of “return on investment.” Consider energy as an example. An oil company tends to invest heavily in geological expertise. This expertise is applied on a variety of scales, all the way from where to look for new reservoirs of oil to what is going on in a well that has already been drilled. The compensation for this expertise is not directly pegged to the sales revenues of the oil company. (There is, of course, the indirect connection of layoffs due to inadequate revenues and the question of whether or not an expert geologist is more or less expendable than, for example, a refinery worker.) Still, the expertise is compensated with “the same kind of money” that is exchanged when the ultimate petroleum products are sold. The oil company probably thinks this is the right way to run the business; but is this just a case of “inertia” due to a failure to consider alternatives when strategic plans are being discussed? Can YOU (without a personal stake in an oil business) think of any viable alternatives?

  7. @Stephan, Multiple alternative currency are in operation/consideration in Knowledge Worker compensation already. For instance by virtue of working for energy company X, the expert has access to premier university Y that works closely with X, which improves the chances of publishing a paper in a reputed Journal Z for the expert.

    Just musing aloud:
    The community dynamics discourse around the social media is also about pushing the Dollar/Pound currency to the background and bring out the alternative currency( that the community constituents care) to the forefront.

    In the good old days when digital computing was non-existent or expensive, Money served as (representational) object model for manipulation. Just like the highly manipulatable bits of the Information Age. It is no coincidence that Money was one of the first objects to be digitized.

    Now with falling computing costs (representational) digitization of other trivial/non-trivial objects is possible. This direct representation can offer much better Liquefaction than Money. And interestingly bypass Money as we know it!

    As Stephen points out, we need better metaphors to understand/accelerate the shifting of Money to the fringes. Lest the lack of metaphor create captain Keens for UnMoney.

    BTW, JP, I loovvee TiddlyWiki for its Live-Code-Is-The-API and Rewrite-as-you-may-Here-and-Now approach. If you accept API as plumbing, then TiddlyWiki is indeed an example of Information Liquidity on steroids with a sugar coating. It is a landmark in democratization of opensource.

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