Of the computer pioneers who drove the mid-20th-century information technology revolution—an elite men’s club of scholar-engineers who also helped crack Nazi codes and pinpoint missile trajectories—Shannon may have been the most brilliant of them all. His achievements were at the level of an Einstein or a Feynman, but Shannon has not achieved commensurate fame. It’s possible his playful tinkering caused some to write him off as unserious. But it’s also possible that his greatest work seemed unapproachable to most.
Shannon’s seminal work was profoundly abstract. As the “father of information theory,” he took the bold step of divorcing information from meaning, conceiving of messages as just collections of bits, devoid of an explicit connection to the world. In many ways his work is not only counterintuitive, but dismal and remote.
‘I have nothing to doe but work and read my Eyes out,’ complained Anne Vernon in 1734, writing from her country residence in Oxfordshire to a friend in London. She and her circle of correspondents (who included Mary Delany, the artist and bluestocking) swapped rhyming jokes, ‘a Dictionary of hard words’, and notes on what they were currently reading. Their letters are suggestive of the boredom suffered by women of a certain class, constrained by social respectability and suffering the restlessness of busy but unfulfilled minds.
But that’s not their interest for Abigail Williams in this fascinating study of habits of reading in the Georgian period. Her quest is rather to discover how they read, in which room of the house, who with, out loud or alone and silently, as entertainment or education. A professor of English literature at Oxford University, she has turned her attention away from the content of books to focus on the ways in which that content is received and appreciated.
In the 1990s, my feminist friends and I had a fervent anti-sexual assault movement, including Take Back the Night marches down frat row and a list of guys to stay away from, furtively scribbled in a bathroom stall. We talked about sexual assault as an affront of the patriarchy, and universities did not like it. At Brown, originator of the bathroom list trend, an administrator smeared the authors as “Magic Marker terrorists” and threatened them with expulsion if caught.
As much as you may read about the angry cries of “social justice warriors” in current news, today’s students discuss sexual assault in a completely new way. Their primary concern is sexual ethics. Debates about what is consensual and what is not, what type of sex is fair and what is immoral, are essential to life at Wesleyan, I learned during visits to the campus a few semesters ago. “There’s a difference between illegal and unethical,” Chloe, a neuroscience major, told me, firmly. “Life is not about doing whatever you can do. It’s about not doing what is traumatic to another person.”