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216 × 138 × 22 mm
208 pages
21 illustrations
01 Feb 2017
  • £16.95

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The Machine in the Ghost Digitality and its Consequences Robin Boast

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.

‘In this important, clear, and lucid book, Boast elucidates and explains the emergence of digital encoding, and helps the lay reader bridge the gap between what actually occurs inside our hardware and what we experience in the ubiquitous world of the interface . . . Marx wrote that a properly critical history of technology would show how little technological inventions are the work of any single individual. Boast’s book does just that: what is most striking is the manner in which digitality – perhaps the paramount technical concept of our age – was never expressly invented, but emerged from an almost natural process of production. We may not know what our writing does, as Kittler would have it, but this does not mean that we must imbue our information systems with vapoury mysticism. Digitality is, indeed, nothing but a code, and Boast’s book is a marvellously engaging critical history of that code.’ — James Draney

‘This book presents a very good history of digitalization. Boast draws on his expertise in information science and anthropology to argue that the current digital age is best understood by separating it from computation to consider the long history of “digitality," from the invention of Baudot’s digital code for telegraphy in the late 19th century to the processing of similar codes by digital computers in the 20th century and the development of today’s ubiquitous graphical interfaces. The Machine in the Ghost provides a welcome historical lineage to the celebrated convergence of telecommunications and computers in creating new media in the late 20th century. Recommended.’ — R. Kline, Cornell University

‘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?

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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.