‘Getting your atoms about’ – On cells, bits & atoms

I keep on being told that ‘matter’ is a very abstract concept that does not really figure in people’s everyday lives. ‘Matter’ is stuff that things are made out of, that scientists engage with. People (as opposed to scientists?) do not perceive themselves as ‘matter’ or their environment as ‘matter’. Last week, I found two examples where people do get to perceive themselves as ‘matter’.

The first example I found in a book that I am currently ‘looking after’ for a friend who is away (thus introducing me to the novel concept of ‘book sitting’). In this book is a chapter by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern which features an intriguing paragraph called ‘People and their cells’. The scenario is a hospital room where people get a glimpse at cells of a developing embryo – their future baby. Strathern asks ‘what are the people with on that screen?’ I like how Strathern then illustrates the image of this room: the people in their clothes and ‘neat haircuts’ next to a ‘zoom’ into their bodily insides. It feels as if the people have become an unpacked ‘Russian doll’ as

‘… people there no doubt think that this (the cells) are what they are made up of and that this is how things really are. Of course they would say that such a view is only one perspective. They are also made up of many other things, all the way from the wrist, to which a watch is attached, to the molecules that make up their cells. Cells, in any case, form tissues, and tissue forms internal organs, and the organs are hung on a frame of bones that is covered by skin, and before you know it, there are Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So.’

There are many interesting things in this image, such as, Strathern later notes, that although people, cells, atoms are all one ‘thing’, they are seen as distinct spaces and are dealt with in different spaces, even when the ‘occupy the same visual space’.

Another interesting image I found in Nicholas Negroponte’s book ‘Being Digital’ (if you thought ‘matter’ was abstract, would you think of ‘digitality’ of a more abstract concept, because it is ‘immaterial’ or a less abstract concept, because we use computers, digital radio or television everyday? ). I came across this book in a local charity shop where it was marked ’50 p’. What attracted me to it was not (only) its seductively low price, but how it was introduced by its author. Not often do you come across a book that explains to you that ‘world trade has traditionally consisted of exchanging atoms’.

Throughout the book, Negroponte displays the curious worldview of dividing the world into ‘bits and atoms’. This may have to do with his philosophy that in order to understand digitality and its consequences, it helps to make this comparison. Currently, he writes, most information is still ‘delivered to us in the form of atoms: newspapers, magazines and books’ or, in other words, ‘when ink is squeezed onto dead trees’. These atoms have to be transported in often cumbersome ways (‘driving my atoms into town’), get held up at customs and, in the case of rental videos/dvds even get ‘forgotten under a couch’ and thus cause financial loss. On the other hand, ‘bits’ don’t respect national boundaries (and customs), ‘never go out of print’ or take up any sort of space in the traditional sense (maybe being replaced by his fictional ‘Mathland’?). While this may be an overly optimistic vision of digitality, other comparisons of matter and ‘bits’ serve well to explain the latter, as well as out perception of the former.

‘If you could look at a smoothly polished metal surface at a subatomic scale, you would see mostly holes. It appears smooth and solid because the discrete pieces are so small. Likewise digital output. But the world, as we experience it, is a very analog place. From a macroscopic point of view, it is not digital at all, but continuous. Nothing goes suddenly on of off, turns from black to white, or changes from one state to another without going through a transition. This may not be true at microscopic level, where things that we interact with (electrons in a wire of photons in our eye) are discrete. But there are so may of them that we approximate them as continuous.’

Whether it is this comparison of bits and atoms, of pixels as the ‘molecular level of graphics’, the ‘clipping’ of bits and atoms, the ‘mating calls’ of modems, or bandwidth as plumbing (or ski lifts), we have to re-evaluate whether atoms are really so ‘strange’ to us, or suddenly the more familiar entity compared with ‘information’. After all, ‘bits’ travel through matter such as ‘sand’ (fiber optics connections are in Negroponte’s world ‘just sand’), ‘air’, or ‘metal’ and make this information manifest for our range of perception, be it as print-outs, computer screens or even toast (if you happen to have Negroponte’s invention of the internet connected toaster which burns your favourite bit of news onto your slice giving additional meaning to his statement that ‘bits themselves are not edible’). But is this distinction between ‘atoms’ and ‘bits’ and the casting as matter as the carrier of information really this easy? Thinking back to Marilyn Strathern’s example of the embryo (the fascinating ‘self-assembly’ of matter into babies) and an article from 1998 by Nigel Clark called ‘Materializing Informatics’, it probably is not. But what then would be suitable images of the relationship between ‘bits’ and ‘atoms’? As if, you might say, we didn’t have enough of a hard time to imagine, what ‘matter’ or ‘bits’ are by themselves!


2 thoughts on “‘Getting your atoms about’ – On cells, bits & atoms

  1. Depends on how you mean that. Cells are made up of different molecules, which in return are made of atoms. Or do you mean what atoms ‘do’ that affects cells or how atoms that are not part of cells interact with cells?

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