Kin Lane

The Origins Of Reducing Everything To A Transaction

I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the history of compute, studying the origins back to Lord Byron and Ada Lovelace, then fast-forwarding to the 1930s, and 1940s, reading books about Bell Labs, MIT, and the cast of characters who have helped lay the foundation for the computational construct that is taking over our online worlds, but is also rapidly driving our physical world. One character who I had learned about in several books, pushing me to dive into some of his own papers, is mathematician Claude Shannon, who most notably crafted, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in 1948. A theory which has laid the foundation for EVERYTHING we know as the Internet today.

There is one paragraph in the opening up Shannon’s landmark paper that caught my attention when I read it, and is something I keep coming back to as I’m making way through other research, and writing around how everything around us is being reduced to a transaction:

“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. The system must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design”

I feel this is the origins of how we began reducing everything to a transaction at scale. Before this you could reduce messages to a transaction over the telegraph, and reduce voice to a transaction over the phone, but what Shannon proposed, opened the flood gates and allowed ANYTHING to become a transaction, setting in motion what we known as the Internet. Like many of us engineers, I don’t think Shannon fully understand how his ideas would be applied, and because of his personality and his fame, he never had to care. I think by themselves, his ideas are revolutionary, but I think in the hands of military, then fueled by venture capitalists, and put into the hands of entrepreneurs, his ideas haven’t just been weaponized online, they are rapidly becoming destructive to the well-being of humans in the physical world.

The key line for me in Shannon’s theory is, “Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities.” This was the radical shift in how we see communication which allowed us to pivot towards a more computational reality–one that de-valued the human part of the equation. As with other leading linguists like Noam Chomsky, and with venture capitalists and technologists today, the human element of the equation is messy, problematic, and gets in the way of us boys playing with our toys. Transactions are much neater, cleaner, and able to routed, moved, bought, sold, and satisfy our rational belief system that keeps us developing reality across our beloved computational landscape.

While all of this damaging by itself, it is when libertarian ideology gets into the drivers seat of this paradigm, that we really begin to see the real damaging effects of reducing everything to a transaction emerge. You see, the radical libertarian belief is centered around the individual. Not in a human sense, meaning ALL humans are important. It is about allowing certain individuals to do whatever they want, without any obstacles (that is freedom). Giving the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of the world full power to reduce everyone to a transaction, stay insulated from the “meaning” or “certain physical or conceptual entities”–without anything getting in their way. A computational belief system bundled with a strong belief in markets and (some) individuals, reinforces our (white men) natural rights to reduce things to a transaction, without any concern that those transactions are bits of human lives, or have real world impacts on human lives. Photos of our children. Personal conversations between loved ones. Our private thoughts that used to only exist in our head. To technologists, all of this “meaning” or “certain physical or conceptual entities” is irrelevant.

I feel pretty strongly that this is the origins of reducing things to a transaction. This is why white men dominate the technology landscape. Not that we are smarter. It is because we excel at missing the meaning behind things, and thinking about ourselves instead of the other physical or conceptual entities impacted by what we do. This is a topic that has been swirling around in my head for over six months now, and this is my first exploration into fleshing (flushing) it out. Making sense of it. Getting it out of my head, and onto the table so I can better connect the dots. Beginning my process of healing from my complicity in reducing everyone to a transaction, devaluing humans, and anything that doesn’t fit into this computational reality we have crafted for ourselves. At first I didn’t blame Claude Shannon for this, but now I do. In the same way I blame myself for being clueless to how my ideas get used by bad actors, allowing them to inflict damage on real people, because I so carelessly played with fire.