March 25, 2013

Rebecca Lemov, Harvard University

The Fantasy of Total Information: A Brief History of the Microcard

Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Time: 3:30pm
Location: 337 Cohen Hall, University of Pennsylvania

A future five-foot shelf, a writer for Time magazine observed in 1944 of an emerging information-storage technology called the microcard, may be no bulkier than a pack of playing cards. From aviary communication experiments during the Franco Prussian war to the Belgian knowledge-proscenium, the Mundaneum, to FDR’s wartime archives of U.S. patrimonial documentation, the microform (of which the microcard was an outgrowth) was a burgeoning technology that formed the leading edge of hopes to contain and manage an amount of information judged to be potentially total. Originating in mid-nineteenth century microphotographs, microform technology spread episodically. By the early to mid-twentieth century, archiving the total human record became the goal a range of mid-century-modern social scientists shared and, in pursuing it, they targeted ever-more elusive elements of the human experience. Meanwhile, a visionary librarian from Connecticut, Fremont Rider, invented the particular form of the microcard, on which was stored beginning in 1956, among other things, a project archiving dreams and the elements of the subjective life.  What sort of theory of technology can make sense of the microcard? What are the politics of this failed information technology?

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