The Gradient
The Gradient: Perspectives on AI
Thomas Mullaney: A Global History of the Information Age

Thomas Mullaney: A Global History of the Information Age

On understanding the nature of your own (scholarly) pursuits, semiotic sovereignty, and writing the histories of the Chinese typewriter and computer.

Episode 125

False universalism freaks me out. It doesn’t freak me out as a first principle because of epistemic violence; it freaks me out because it works.

I spoke with Professor Thomas Mullaney about:

  • Telling stories about your work and balancing what feels meaningful with practical realities

  • Destabilizing our understandings of the technologies we feel familiar with, and the work of researching the history of the Chinese typewriter

  • The personal nature of research

The Chinese Typewriter and The Chinese Computer are two of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. And they’re not just good and interesting, but important to read, for the history they tell and the ideas and arguments they present—I can’t recommend them and Professor Mullaney’s other work enough.

Tom is Professor of History and Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, by courtesy. He is also the Kluge Chair in Technology and Society at the Library of Congress, and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author or lead editor of 8 books, including The Chinese Computer, The Chinese Typewriter (winner of the Fairbank prize), Your Computer is on Fire, and Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China.

I spend a lot of time on this podcast—if you like my work, you can support me on Patreon :)

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  • (00:00) Intro

  • (01:00) “In Their Own Words” interview: on telling stories about your work

  • (07:42) Clashing narratives and authenticity/inauthenticity in pursuing your work

  • (15:48) Why Professor Mullaney pursued studying the Chinese typewriter

    • (18:20) Worldmaking, transforming the physical world to fit our descriptive models

  • (30:07) Internal and illegible continuities/coherence in work

    • (31:45) The role of a “self”

  • (43:06) The 2008 Beijing Olympics and false (alphabetical) universalism, projectivism

  • (1:04:23) “Kicking the ladder” and the personal nature of research

  • (1:18:07) The “Technolinguistic Chinese Exclusion Act” — the situatedness of historians in their work

  • (1:33:00) Is the Chinese typewriter project finished? / on the resolution of problems

  • (1:43:35) Outro


The Gradient
The Gradient: Perspectives on AI
Deeply researched, technical interviews with experts thinking about AI and technology. Hosted, recorded, researched, and produced by Daniel Bashir.