We live in a digital age, within a digital economy, continuously engaged with digital media. Digital encoding lies at the heart of our contemporary mobile-obsessed, information-heavy, media-saturated world, but it is usually regarded – if it is thought of at all – as something inaccessible, virtual or ephemeral, hidden deep within the workings of our computers, tablets and smartphones. It is surprising that, despite the profusion of books on the history of computers and computing, little has been written about what makes them possible. So what exactly is ‘the digital’? Where did it come from? What do we actually know about it? Robin Boast tackles these fundamental questions in The Machine in the Ghost – and uncovers some very surprising answers.
The book navigates the history of digitality, from the earliest use of digital encoding in a French telegraph invented in 1874, to the first electronic computers; the earliest uses within graphics and information systems in the 1950s; our interactions with computers through punch cards and programming languages; and the rise of digital media in the 1970s. Via these various, sometimes unanticipated historical routes, Boast reveals the foundations of digitality, our contemporary digital media, as something very real – the digital Machine in the virtual Ghost.
‘All that you wanted to know about the digital, and forgot to ask the telegraph operator. Robin Boast’s smoothly flowing book offers a historically contextualised argument about our contemporary culture of computation that actually reveals it to be at least as much about encoding, tabulating and other techniques that connect the digital to a history of transmission. The Machine in the Ghost transports us to the 19th century and back via a whole lot of punched cards, coding and cybernetics – and much more. Boast is able to write with such flair that the book speaks to both academics and the general audience who want to understand the cultural history of our contemporary culture.’ – Professor Jussi Parikka, Winchester School of Art, author of A Geology of Media and What is Media Archaeology?
Robin Boast is Professor of Cultural Information Science at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He has published widely in the field of information and the culture of the digital.