In this short piece for Logic(s), Zainab Aliyu shares part of her artistic research. In only a few paragraphs she is able to craft a connection between Yoruba traditional divination and computation through an exploration of the concept of memory.
By taking us through her family history, Aliyu shows us the striking similarities between a Nigerian divination chain and core rope memory from early computing. The one a “woven chain made of eight similar objects that have two distinctive sides” and the other “ferrite rings and copper wire to control the flow of electricity” holding 8 bits and capable of storing 256 different values – just as the divination chain.
Through discussing this similarity and their respective histories, Aliyu invites us to consider how our notions of memory, time and information are shaped by the cultural as well as technical context.
Cultural value systems are encoded into the objects that we build. Western ideals are in today’s technology.
Though both instruments are a way to store memory and are physically eerily similar, their different conceptions of memory and their histories teaches us about colonial history as well as the coloniality connected to computing.
Along the way Aliyu touches upon a wealth of information. For example, she introduces us to Hilda G. Carpenter, the Black woman who wove these first physical memory cores but is rarely remembered (more about her here), and to the work of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, exploring the role of computing and software as a metaphor.
See: From the Sasha into the Zamani: Death as a Moment of Radical Continuity at Logic(s).
Image from the original article: Left: Opele divination chain, image courtesy of Zainab Aliyu. Right: Core rope memory test sample from the Apollo program, Nova13, CC BY-SA 3.0