What a beautiful view of a time and place that exists now only in its outward forms, bereft of the culture and society from which it was birthed. It has not vanished with time, however, and serves still as a pleasing monument and testament to human ingenuity and artistic sense.
These photos are of Place Stanislas in the city of Nancy, France. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is considered an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture which combined practical and aesthetic concerns.
How did a small city in France come to be an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture? With the help of a Polish King of course.
A Polish King (anglicized as Stanislaus I), a man crowned twice as King; actually, a man elected leader and called King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – who was elected through bribery and intimidation at the behest of a foreign power, and deposed twice, and, per agreement, who spent the last several decades of his life as the Duke of Lorraine, a province in Eastern France, the provincial capital of which was Nancy, who had a very interesting life (Oh, and his daughter married Louis XV). He commissioned this great architectural work after he settled down, far away from the politics of Poland.
We make the mistake of viewing the past in the same way we view the laws of physics, as if it were immutable and stable across all time-periods. Observations of history that incline toward conceiving of the past as a more primitive version of our current reality (as having stable nation-states, far-reaching bureaucracies, and social safety nets) dislocate the events of the past from their causes. This is a fairly well-known idea that I’ve heard called “alienation from the past.” Life has changed so much we cannot conceive of the motivations of people before the Industrial Revolution. The vagaries of European institutions in the age of intertwined royalism make the structures of diplomatic and international life dissimilar to our own; a naïve look into history will not suffice for explanation, but we have another way available to us to examine the past and the present: through statistical analysis.
Unfortunately there are other errors that bedevil this type of analysis (which avoids the first error of not realizing our own alienation from the past) including believing that all things are quantifiable and the manifold confusions often arising from the use of statistics. For instance, you may be able to say: “humanity spent 40% of its existence at war in the pre-modern period, and only 20% since the Enlightenment” (numbers completely made-up by me). This is a snapshot, not a trend. There is no reason to believe that these statistical facts would actually mean anything or tell us a story – but such stats may often be thought of as confirming a trend. Statistics and mathematical immutability deceive us because we will often make up a story if we are only provided with scattered facts, or we will look at the numbers and forget to connect them to the real world. All bonds of cause and effect are severed when we aggregate and taxonomize mass data. But before we look more deeply into this problem, lets briefly look at why it is the case that those bonds are severed by going back, by going way back.
Time was born only at the Big Bang, before that, there was no time, or in any case, it was a thing unknowable. If the Universe ends in heat death, everything ceasing to move, then time becomes meaningless as it stretches into a uniform infinity. Space and time are linked and therefore time and motion are inseparable.
“Alright Einstein, thanks for the physics lesson, so what?”
So, what happens when you create an infinite and indelible universe inside of the one which we physically inhabit? How many people foresaw that we were going to build an entire parallel universe inside computer networks? Every technological revolution is tied to time, most of them have been involved in shortening latency and friction in some way, reducing the amount of time to spread complex information via the printing press, for example. The digital world disrupts our relationship with time in a novel way, and this starts to disrupt perceptions of cause and effect. Time can now be measured in zeptoseconds, an incomprehensibly small unit of division, and in our digitized existence in its immediacy (or near immediacy) there is no practical distinction between the immediate and the near future.
There is research that suggests being online distorts our personal relationship to time. But if we look deeper than this, we can see that this time disruption, though not formal (we are still capable of discerning cause and effect) can lead to gross misperceptions of the world. In the name of objectivity, we abandon common sense. There is no statistical way to explain, for example, a Polish King becoming the premier architectural patron of France. If that sounds too silly, or too obvious, or abstract, it is easy to find a case closer to home.
The NYTimes recently ran an article about a poll which they say showed that 15% of Americans believe in QAnon. Setting aside any personal opinions about the The New York Times or QAnon, or any other political or pseudo-political affiliations, polling in this manner and extrapolating from it are terrible ways to interrogate the world. People are not discrete mathematical concepts, and neither are beliefs. What defines someone as “believing” in QAnon? Can they believe part of the theory, or perhaps agree with its general aims while not believing literally? Can we trust self-report as an accurate measure of belief which will lead to action? Most importantly, this tells us nothing about how the movement develops, how the beliefs manifest, or how it spreads from one person to another. Using statistics to create a taxonomy crams the world into simplified structures created by the statistical analysis itself. This is a fundamental problem of our world-building in cyberspace as well. The internet being full of generated simulacra creates a version of reality that our minds can enter and our bodies cannot, forcing us into the close-ended worlds of videogames and the formats of social media platforms. It is easy to click a link (as easy as it is to answer a poll question), and the ease distorts perceptions of preferences.
Another example of this phenomenon of statistical taxonomy being misleading is back-testing strategies in financial markets. Computational power and data allow for hypothetical implementation of trading strategies in previous time periods. These will always produce naïve results, as the assumptions that the data are the same – that the data is representing the same things over time – is incorrect. There was no VIX in 1929, we can only try to imagine or construct one, and therefore a volatility-strategy could not exist then as it exists now. Imagining and constructing the VIX for Great Depression may be possible and useful in some manner, but not in using it to calculate a profit and loss of a strategy.
Also, symptomatic of our strange new lives: there is the perfection available in the online world. Everything is measurable and we can smooth the rough edges, just as we can enter a video game world with mind but not body. You can gauge your popularity with your follower count, your avatar doesn’t have the slight hunch in your neck or your asymmetrical eyes, your conversation can be thought out beforehand making your wit evident and concealing your nervousness. And yet here we remain stuck in our imperfect bodies, unsure of our place in the world, unable to indulge the human obsession with taxonomy and platonic forms. There is no more mystery to be found on earth in the average life. Everything is instant, and everything is indelible. Our thoughts, experiences, and knowledge were once almost entirely our own. Our internal lives and external events were accessible to us through memory, or through an eyewitness account, or etched in writing, or attested to by a stray photograph or other recording in more recent years – and the first three of these accounts are of dubious veracity (see Catiline and Cicero). Now, vast troves of our thinking and doing are no longer subject to the entombment of “calumniating time.” Go talk to someone who was “canceled” for a foolish remark from their teenage years to see how this can have negative social impacts that were not considered before. Ask a question on Google, and someone has asked it before us (we have everyone’s experiences to learn from, and yet so often, none that relate to the question we asked). A perfect record of past events lends itself to misleading taxonomies and analyses, another example of mass data being similar to a paucity of data.
There is a non-mathematical way to engage in taxonomy which helps to allay these numerous false perceptions arising from distortions of time in cyberspace, and thereby to reconstruct the past and build the present. This can be learned from how linguists build proto-languages. They do this through what is called the “Comparative Method,” developed and used specifically for discovering pre-historical parent languages, it involves careful analysis of similar words and grammar from different languages and the known evolution of sound changes to build common ancestor-words. It is a method of careful observation and comparison, leading to such breakthroughs as the fable of The Sheep and the Horses:
“A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: ‘My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.’ The horses said: ‘Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.’ Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.”
Breakthrough? This little story may not mean much since it is here typed in English, but the fable originally was written in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) by a German linguist named August Schleicher in the 19th Century (click the link above on “fable” and they have the two stories spoken in PIE). PIE is the first language constructed from the comparative method and is the presumed progenitor of the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Indian languages, Slavic languages and more. Using the comparative method does not set out a series of facts, but rather provides evidence of relationships which must be analyzed in a human way, taking into account information that is not strictly numerical. Such analysis requires a deep interpretation that takes into account factors outside of the quantifiable realm.
If you want to understand QAnon (for instance), where it comes from and how it spreads, one can deconstruct the individual beliefs and try to explain the commonalities between its various interlocking theories and who is promoting those theories. It is a case where logic works better than statistical taxonomy, which tells someone little about the nature of reality and much about the abstracted, simplified forms we derive from it. Despite my depressing condemnations of the impacts of the internet and computation and social media, there is reason for optimism regarding how we examine the past. Computational methods open vistas of undiscovered knowledge and unbiased, creative interpretations. If we use our computational abilities and data in a constructive way, as a tool, as something that can help us rather than control us, we can be aided immeasurably.
The great contradiction at the heart of our information systems is that they are part of us, our species, while also being utterly separate from our biological functions. Our systems of language, of code, our description of the laws and powers of the universe with mathematics, our art – all are real transmissions of information through time. And they are no less real than DNA we carry and pass on in our bodies:
“Our dataome looks like a distinct, although entirely symbiotic (even endosymbiotic), phenomenon. Homo sapiens arguably only exists as a truly unique species because of our coevolution with a wealth of externalized information; starting from languages held only in neuronal structures through many generations, to our tools and abstractions on pottery and cave walls, all the way to today’s online world.”
In order to understand things: their origins, and where they might go and why they exist, there is no substitute for chronicling the progressive evolution of causation that travels out of the past, through the present, and into the future. Cyberspace generally, and statistical analysis specifically, sever these normal progressions of ideas and beliefs from their environments and their antecedents. If we want to understand a Polish King who reigns as a Duke in France, or why a social movement roars through a community like an uncontrolled fire, we might do well to think again of Schleicher’s Fable, which serves as both a narrative (a form much more likely to explain human behaviors than a statistical analysis) and an examination of a hypothetical language. The method of construction for the language is logical, but not mathematical. It is a simulacrum of the real thing but is not a perfectible abstraction. Perhaps sometimes, if we wish to make sense of reality, it is beneficial to bring the past to the present, instead of projecting ourselves backwards into the past.
 I wish I had a citation for this phrase as I’m using it here, but I can’t find anything on the internet.
 An oft-used catalyst for stories for newspapers, “creating” news where there is none, but that’s a different post – also, the NYTimes article I’m citing here has some woeful editorial problems that are nakedly biased, but that’s also a different post.
 The author of the article I linked (and the quote) calls it the “dataome” – like a biome. There are a lot of interesting implications here for what we consider to be life.
Note: the first two images in the slideshow were taken by Nicolas Cornet, the final one of the square in daylight by Berthold Werner.