Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Computers as Palimpsests

Codex Guelferbytanus A, a palipmsest, the lower, older text in Greek is from the 6th century, the newer, upper text in Latin is from the 10th or 11th century. Image Source: Wiki.

The turnover of computer tech is so rapid right now that programming languages which were cutting edge within the last couple of decades are now ancient history.  This rate of change is possibly unprecedented in human experience.  I can recall bringing in a 1996 IBM Thinkpad to a computer repair in 2002 as a backup for my main laptop, which had a virus. The fact that the Thinkpad was still running and in good shape inspired all the tech staff to crowd around it, gasping at this rare museum piece. One of them knocked at the case and said, "Look at how sturdy that is. They sure knew how to make them back in the old days." I still have that Thinkpad, and it is the only laptop I've owned that still functions, long after it has become obsolete.

Thanks to my friend C., who told me about an interesting 1998 article at the Salon.com (here), that adds another dimension to this issue.  The article's author, Ellen Ullman, describes her wave of nostalgia when she discovered some vestiges of BASIC programming language on a wiped computer.

Many cities of Troy, built on top of one another through the centuries. Image Source: Canakkale Gallipoli Hotels.

Ullman uses an archaeological metaphor, comparing the programming of computers to the building of cities.  She immediately made me think of the layers of the ancient city of Troy, all built on top of each other:
I had not seen a PC with built-in BASIC in some 16 years, yet here it still was, vestigial trace of the interpreter, something still remembering a time when the machine could be used to interpret and execute my entries as lines in a BASIC program. The least and smallest thing the machine could do in the absence of all else, its one last imperative: No operating system! Look for BASIC! It was like happening upon some primitive survival response, a low-level bit of hard wiring, like the mysterious built-in knowledge that lets a blind little mouseling, newborn and helpless, find its way to the teat.

This discovery of the trace of BASIC was somehow thrilling -- an ancient pot shard found by mistake in the rubble of an excavation. Now I returned to the FAQs, lost myself in digging, passed another hour in a delirium of trivia. Hex loading addresses for devices. Mysteries of the BIOS old and new. Motherboards certified by the company that had written my BIOS and motherboards that were not. I learned that my motherboard was an orphan. It was made by a Taiwanese company no longer in business; its BIOS had been left to languish, supported by no one. And one moment after midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, it would reset my system clock to ... 1980? What? Why 1980 and not zero? Then I remembered: 1980 was the year of the first IBM PC. 1980 was Year One in desktop time.

The computer was suddenly revealed as palimpsest. The machine that is everywhere hailed as the very incarnation of the new had revealed itself to be not so new after all, but a series of skins, layer on layer, winding around the messy, evolving idea of the computing machine. Under Windows was DOS; under DOS, BASIC; and under them both the date of its origins recorded like a birth memory. Here was the very opposite of the authoritative, all-knowing system with its pretty screenful of icons. Here was the antidote to Microsoft's many protections. The mere impulse toward Linux had led me into an act of desktop archaeology. And down under all those piles of stuff, the secret was written: We build our computers the way we build our cities -- over time, without a plan, on top of ruins.
This ghost of BASIC programming in Ullman's computer was indeed a true palimpsest.  A palimpsest was a medieval phenomenon, which depended upon a level of technology prior to the invention of the printing press.  Books, then called codices, had to be written out by hand by scribes.  The palimpsest resulted when a scribe scraped the ink off a parchment that had aleady been used.   The fact that computing languages can overlap deep within the coding of some machines is a palimpsest inside the computer.  But Ullman's comment on nested ruins of programming languages forms a larger transparent palimpsest when held up against the classical and medieval past.  We can see through the palimpsests of the computer codes to an earlier form of information technology in the codex and its palimpsests.  The computer placed over the codex is also a palimpsest.  We realize the developmental stage from that period mirrors the much later developments now current.  Whether it's book design, urban planning, or computing, we are simultaneously digging down and building up, moving back and forth through layers of the past.

The American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) wrote a poem about World War II as apocalypse, entitled The Walls Do Not Fall, which includes a line, "indelible ink of the palimpsest" - the palimpsest is that part of the past that shines through into the present, and leaves us feverishly reading between the lines of present texts.

Published in 1946, H.D.'s poem was part of a TrilogyThe Walls Do Not Fall is a poem about living in war zone - Doolittle lived in London during the Blitz. She felt that war broke apart the continuity of culture, and fractured our sense of time and tradition, even as it forced deep contemplation.  In the midst of the wreckage that was London, she found that fragments of western culture from the recent and deep past were floating to the surface of her mind. Time was broken. One moment she could glimpse the ancient pyramids in London - the next minute, the Greek gods standing amid the ruins.

From a comment at the Legacy Project: "The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book of Trilogy was published in the midst of the 'fifty thousand incidents' of the London Blitz of WWII. H.D. did not leave London during the German bombing of the city. 'The orgy of destructions...to be witnessed and lived through in London, that outer threat and constant reminder of death,' she wrote, 'drove me inward.' As H.D.'s poetry moves inward, it uses the technique of palimpsest; H.D. layers the memories of W.W.II's shattering impact with historical, cultural, scientific and religious echoes from different time periods, in an effort to synthesize religion, art and and medicine that had become, in H.D.'s opinion, increasingly fragmented." The palimpsest line is below, page 6:

H. D. Trilogy. The 'palimpsest' line is on page 6. Source: Google Books.

Again from the Legacy Project: "Throughout Trilogy, H.D. is fascinated by the image of a charred apple tree blooming amidst a bombed London square, which symbolized regeneration and survival amidst degeneration for H.D. in her wartime world; the phoenix rising out of the ashes of bombed London." Thus this symbol of immortality, with the new made out of the wreckage of the old, also constitutes a palimpsest.

For my blogging on the London Blitz, go here.
For my blogging on the Phoenix as a symbol of immortality, go here.

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