November 10, 2004

The Numerist Fallacy

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:09 am

I’ve started to get quite annoyed by something I’m thinking of as the “numerist fallacy.” It seems to come up mostly in discussions with humanists and artists who are interested in software but haven’t been involved in much software development.

Its most ridiculous form is the idea that, because digital information is stored as ones and zeros, computers somehow inherently introduce binarism (black and white thinking) into situations where they are used. Luckily, this is somewhat rare. More common is the idea that somehow, if one wants to consider something like the structure of a digital archive deeply — in order to enable more informed critique — one should get down to the numerical nature of the archive and understand how the numbers are being manipulated.

While there might be some interesting work to be done about the assembly code of the device drivers called by the software written for digital archives, I think it will be an even smaller category than the interesting work done about paper and ink manufacturing technologies and their relationship to print archives. From the point of view of empowering critique, it would make no difference if the information were stored as chemical sequences, with each element having five different states (rather than, as we have it now, in magnetic or optical media, with each element having two different states).

If one were seeking to identify the place where a digital archive is structured technologically — the site where power plays out in a manner that leaves textual traces and can be critiqued — wouldn’t one find a better candidate in the neighborhood of software design, engineering, and coding? That’s where decisions are implemented, where power is made operational. Shouldn’t people concentrate on getting deep into understanding programming languages and development practices, if they want to go deep?

Anyway, I’m almost annoyed enough to start writing an essay about this. But surely someone has already written a rant of this sort, and I just haven’t run across it. Can someone out there offer me an appropriate pointer, or even a pointer to something that addresses a portion of this?