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  • Distributed Communications
  • David S. Roh (bio)

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, published in 1966, chronicles Oedipa Maas's attempt to extricate herself from a figurative tower of enclosure. That same summer, Charles Whitman, a former serviceman and engineer like Thomas Pynchon, climbed the University of Texas's clock tower, shot and killed fourteen people, injured thirty-one others, and died by police gunfire. The two events, only months apart, draw attention to the paradoxical design of towers, whether literal or systemic. On one hand, standing at the precipice of a vertical structure creates a disparity of power in granting those on top strategic advantage over opponents on lower ground as well as a panoptic view affording a wealth of knowledge. On the other hand, those same advantages become a liability when one realizes that one is forever trapped by those below. The power differential inevitably leads to conflict with each side jostling for a middle ground made impossible by the architecture of their shared environment. A tower is both prison and throne.

At about the same time, government researchers, impelled by "an inspiration and a need," were in the process of extricating existing communications systems from similarly hierarchical structures, which had vulnerability and efficiency issues (Abbate 43). The inspiration was to reorient computer science and technology to serve the needs of users, rather than forcing users to conform to the machine. The need was to pool the resources of disparate machines to form a cohesive aggregate capable of [End Page 312] handling larger processes to improve efficiency and scale. As early as 1959, a young Rand Corporation engineer named Paul Baran developed a non-hierarchical communications system designed for speed and efficiency, something he called "distributed communications" (Abbate 18). His research would later be studied and incorporated by others to lead to one of the foundational elements of the modern Internet, "packet switching," in which data is broken into small pieces and bundled together in packets, which are then transmitted independently through multiple pathways to be reassembled, recoded, and compiled in the end machine. In short, instead of a single, centralized distribution center, a flattened network of many smaller nodes would act as a multitude of rivulets through which data could travel. This research project was, of course, the U.S. Department of Defense funded ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), precursor to the Internet, which would promulgate an impressive rate of cultural exchange and development.

Distributed communications had interesting consequences. First, non-discriminatory data transmission precludes prioritization. Packet switching makes no distinction between scientific data from research institutions or Jpeg image files of bovine landscapes. Second, community-driven material and corporate content compete on equal ground. Online, there are major broadcasters of data backed by large media conglomerates, but they represent only a small fraction of the material available. The vast majority of content, instead, is built, maintained, and recycled by individual users. In contrast, television, radio, and film are heavily regulated media run by a few corporate interests in a broadcast model to a passive audience. The Internet, by contrast, is based on a many-to-many model, which, combined with a lack of true hierarchy, discriminatory data filters, and quasi-anonymity, creates an unwieldy forum for control; there are fewer authoritative restrictions to check growth and development along ideological lines. Distributed communications makes this possible.

Pynchon would likewise launch his own distributed communications structure similarly impelled, in his case, by an inspiration to reorient the text to conform to the reader and a need to build an aggregate community of readers affording a more expansive range of information. That is, he strove to create a text that would operate as a set of non-discriminatory protocols that, by handing the work of narrative over to a multiplicity of user-readers, minimized centralization and the erection of grand narratives. To [End Page 313] do so, Pynchon disassembles the centralized structure of traditional narrative and gestures towards a non-hierarchical, self-organizing distributed communications system enabling a more humanistic text. The Crying of Lot 49 comprises a wealth of networked distributed readings creating a mass of information unparalleled by conventional linear readings.

The novel accomplishes a...


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pp. 312-338
Launched on MUSE
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