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The Participant Observer » Blog Archive » Liz Losh: a very proper and discreet girl
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Liz Losh: a very proper and discreet girl

Photo of Liz Losh at her desk, Harvard 1985Scantily clad, yes, but incredibly well-lettered. In the years since I took this photo, the young woman pictured here in front of her Xerox 820 has become a brilliant scholar of digital rhetoric. Back then she was the only person I knew with a letter-quality printer. Today she is the only person I know who manages to confront the outrages of our time on a daily basis with scholarly rigor, wry humor, and a detached equanimity worthy of an L.A. Punk, or a Unitarian.

I’ve chosen to open my people posts with Liz Losh, not because of her pioneering scholarship and blog, not even because she plugged this blog a couple days ago on Sivacracy.net, but because of her service to humanity as a close reader.

In my nightmares of information overload, I often wonder, “Is there a close reader in this lifeboat?” Cuz if not, RTFM is just a slogan.

The title of this post is a reference to a bizarre line towards the end of Warren Weaver’s Recent Contributions to The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) [PDF], that Liz once pointed out to me. In arguing for a statistical view of information (i.e. one that “has nothing to do with meaning”), Weaver writes:

“An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram. She pays no attention to the meaning, whether it be sad, or joyous, or embarrassing. But she must be prepared to deal with all that come to her desk. (27)

Photo of Liz Losh 2003I remember this striking me a a rather odd analogy, but I hadn’t stopped to think about it. Liz had, noting that these discreet girls pop up all over the early literature of information theory, including the classic “As We May Think” in which: “A girl strokes its [the stenotype] keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze.”

Shades of Milton’s daughters here, the female as faithful but uncomprehending conduit of information. What this fantasy of communication always seems to miss is that, however proper and discreet on the job, the girls talk among themselves after hours. When they do, the attention they have been paying becomes quite evident and is surely not without significance for communication in general.

At right, Liz Losh in 2003, dressed for protest.

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