Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power


Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power

Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three, there is a jump. In the case of quantity, there is no such jump; and because jump is missing in the world of quantity, it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate…. In other words, number is of the world of pattern, gestalt, and digital computation; quantity is of the world of analogic and probabilistic computation.

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

As I said in my previous post, while I initially found much to be lacking in David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016), it was worth reading, particularly for what I consider to be this book’s most profound passage, found amid a discussion concerning new digital/analog challenges at Camp Walden:

“Let say a kid is getting bullied in a cabin by another camper,” he [Sol Birenbaum] said, using a recent example. “If she writes an e-mail home on her phone, her mother reacts immediately, advising action to her daughter, and contacting me to remedy the problem. The mother retains authority. But with a six-day delay from the time the daughter sends her letter to the mother’s response, the camper has to deal with the problem of the bully. Eventually, the camper realizes that ‘Hey, maybe I should talk with’” and you suddenly achieve that transfer of authority from parent to counselor that is crucial for Walden’s social cohesion. Birenbaum believes the elevated anxiety he’s observed in this generation of campers is directly related to the constant hovering of their parents, who use digital technology to keep tabs on their children around the clock. They cannot surrender their authority. Many of the phones that Birenbaum has seized from campers over the past few summers were sent on the insistence of parents, who wanted to remain in touch. [2]

With regard to how those transfers transcend geography, let me note that I just finished Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and some of what Sax’s example shows seems to be what Anderson was getting at when he showed how maps are an essential part of the way modern communities and nations imagine, reimagine, (or distort) themselves as well as their neighbors.[3]

Digital mapping (through GPS, Google Maps, satellite imagery, etc.) might very well offer examples of transfers of authority that lead to social cohesion. For example, the famous nighttime photos of North Korea apparently show that the Hermit Kingdom is geographically quite cohesive in its lack of electricity.

These questions surrounding transfers of authority via technology are a part of our liquid modernity. As Kevin Kelly writes in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016): “In order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs…. Liquidity offers new powers.”[4]

But as Bateson reminds us—Lord Acton’s dictum was a little off—for power alone doesn’t corrupt; it’s the myth of power that leads to corruption.[5]



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 49.

[2] Sax, The Revenge of Analog, (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2016) 234–35.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (New York, NY: Verso, Revised Edition 2006) 170–78.

[4] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 65, 74.

[5] Bateson, Mind and Nature 223.

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