Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Michael North's "Novelty: A History of the New"

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of several books.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Novelty: A History of the New, and reported the following:
Novelty: A History of the New is an historical study of the ways in which people have modeled a quality that is both fundamental and elusive. Common sense and basic philosophy both indicate that even the most astonishing novelty must have come from something and in that sense cannot be absolutely new. In practice, it is easy to debunk the claims of any innovation by showing that it has been preceded or anticipated, and this might lead to a strict judgment that there is never anything new. Science and philosophy are sometimes just this strict, but novelty in common parlance has never meant the eruption from a void of something utterly unprecedented. Some of our most basic models of novelty, such as revolution or renaissance, are cyclical and rely partly on nature and partly on a Christian pattern of return to a better state. Some others, particularly evolution, are based on a pattern of recombination, in which preexisting elements become new when put in a new relation to one another.

Information theory, which is the subject of discussion on page 99, is one of these models. Information theory began as a modest attempt to establish a method for determining the most efficient way of sending signals through a medium, given the inevitable corruption of some sort of interference. From these beginnings, it expanded its influence so that it became the common way of understanding genetic transmission, and it now has such widespread prestige that it is considered by some scientists and philosophers the best way of understanding the universe itself. Thus it is fair to say that the mathematical model behind information theory, which measures the extent to which a set of symbols can generate new combinations, is the dominant model of novelty at the present time.

Unfortunately, it seems that measuring the new and defining it are two different things. According to the argument on page 99, the terms used to define the quality that information theory measures, terms like uncertainty or choice, are fatefully ambiguous in that they describe a mathematical quantity in quasi-psychological terms. The subjective condition of a human receiver is ascribed to the purely objective capacity of the system to generate new combinations. Thus it remains unclear whether the novelty defined by information theory is a basic feature of things in themselves or merely an effect of our limited condition as human beings.
Learn more about Novelty: A History of the New at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue