Eglash, R. "From hip-hop to flip-flop." pp. 203-213 In Miller, P. Sound Unbound. MIT Press 2008.

From Hip-hop to Flip-flop

Ron Eglash


Contrary to Gross and Levitt’s claim that there is an undercurrent of revenge in social studies of science, this is not a revenge story I’m going to tell you.  In fact it’s really about my love for electrical engineering, and my interest in trying to understand its cultural dimensions.

When I was first introduced to the “master-slave flip-flop circuit” (figure 1) as an engineering student at UCLA, I was taken aback by this starkly social metaphor.   But I don’t think it’s necessarily racist.  A good ergonomics engineer like Lillien Gilbreth might point out that certain machines are excellent examples for how we should not arrange human relations, and a good feminist like Gayle Rubin might point out that not all S&M relationships should be pathologized.  I’m very much against simplistic, mimetic reductions of science = society. This is not about finding race as a reflection, but rather refraction, Paul Gilroy’s bifurcating wave front linking African, European and American shores.

Why is the flip-flop so important?  Because every digital circuit, from thermometers to supercomputers, is based on the binary code--on ones and zeros--and the flip-flop is how those ones and zeros are generated.  The first flip-flop (see Milman 1983 and Dummer 1983 for this history) was created by Eccles and Jordan in 1919. It was first used to implement binary code in Geiger counters in the 1930s.  The binary code actually originated in the work of Leibnitz around 1670, and historian Stephen Skinner shows that it was probably inspired by the binary divination system of geomancy (figure 2).  European geomancers included Thomas Aquinas,  Raymond Lull, Robert Fludd, and John Dee.  The system was brought to Europe through Islamic sources in twelfth century Spain, and previous to Islam it was practiced in Sub-Saharan Africa.  There is, however, an important difference between the original African system and its later European use.  The Africans (figure 3) generate the sequence by recursive application of addition mod 2 to create the other symbols, so that even though it’s an aperiodic sequence, it is, after the first four, deterministically generated.  The Europeans persistently replaced the deterministic aspects of the system with chance, mounting the sixteen figures on a wheel and spinning it; thus maintaining their own society's clean division between determinism and unpredictability.

This deterministic aspect of the African world view is precisely the point on which anthropologist Evans-Prichard, and others following him, laid claim to a distinction between African knowledge and science.  Africans were supposed to have a closed world view because they could not see that nature operated by statistical chance, that the diversity we see is entirely random, or to put it in terms of spectral density function, that the world is ruled by white noise (figure 4 center).  According to the mathematics of Evans-Prichard’s own European culture, the linkage between determinism and predictability was unbreakable.  Deterministic systems could only give repetition, a periodic noise (figure 4, top), and aperiodic, unpredictable noise could only come from systems which were random, i.e. undetermined.

By the late 1970s this mathematical characterization was found to be incorrect.  Deterministic chaos, which was inherently unpredictable, could be found in extremely simple deterministic systems.   Its spectral density function is neither the vertical line of periodic noise, nor the horizontal line of white noise, but rather 1/F noise (figure 4 bottom).  The paradigmatic example for binary coding was the Morse-Thue sequence. The construction of the Morse sequence begins by counting from zero in binary notation: 000, 001, 010, 011....  It then takes the sum of the digits in each number -- 0 + 0 + 0 = 0, 0 + 0 + 1 = 1, etc. -- and finally mod 2 of each sum.  The result is a sequence with many recursive properties[1], but also endless variety. Note that the Morse-Thue sequence is quite similar to African geomancy; both use recursive application of mod 2.  That’s because both were created through similar motivations: like these mathematicians, the African divination priest needs to create maximum symbolic diversity with a minimum algorithm. The contrast between all three categories -- periodic determinism, white noise randomness, and deterministic chaos – are foundations of African knowledge systems (Eglash 1999).

Lets take, for example, the Vodun religion of Benin, known in the New World as Voodoo. The feature of randomness in the world is well known to any Vodon priest; it is their job to distinguish random events from acts determined by spiritual forces.  Of those spiritual forces the greatest statistical contrast is between the orderliness of Dan, and the deterministic chaos of Legba.  Dan is a snake encircling the earth; he is the cyclic turn of generations, of years, of seasons, of lunar months and solar days.  Visual representations of Dan (figure 5 top) typically show a sine wave, the fundamental periodic signal.  Legba, in contrast, introduces disorder, he is god of the crossroads. Representations of Legba (figure 6 top) show the crossroads as bifurcation; the sign of indeterminacy in not only in Vodun but also in what mathematicians call “the doubling route to chaos” (figure 6 bottom).  The same distinction is created through music.  In 1993 I visited the Vodun convent of Dan in Ouidah, Benin, and videotaped ritual dancing of two young initiates.  Their movements had a striking periodic oscillation (figure 7). Description of Voodoo dances for Dan (Damballah) in the New World also provide this vivid portrayal of periodic waveforms:

The yanvalu is danced with the body leaning forward, knees bent, and with undulations which seem to spread from the shoulders all down the back. Movement is effected by sliding the feet sideways with a pause on the fourth beat. The undulations of the yanvalu are much more pronounced in the yanvalu-dosabas; to such an extent, indeed, that it is taken for an imitation of waves or a serpent (Metraux 1959 p. 190).

Movement attributed to Legba, in contrast, is typically one of disorder (cf. Metraux p. 228).

In 1712 one particular Voodoo priest in New York followed the geomantic signs predicting a successful slave insurrection; the prediction was wrong and they were defeated.  The collective forecasts by hundreds of Voodoo priests for the same in Haiti of 1790 turned out to be correct.  In the 1930s, electrical engineers found that the original flip-flop circuit of Eccles and Jordan was unstable, and so they adopted the master-slave concept (and terminology) from mechanical engineering.  During this era, ‘Master-slave’ was also used as a metaphor in biological systems: a master molecule inside the cell nucleus was said to command the cytoplasm.   African-American biologist Earnest Everett Just opposed this terminology and concept; like the priests of the Hati 1790 revolt he insisted on a collectivist model:  “We envision a dynamic self-perpetuating organization of molecular species which owes its specific properties not to the characteristic of any particular molecule, but to the functional interrelationships of these molecular species” (Manning 1983).  Just proposed that information could be represented by waveforms traveling through the cytoplasm, a concept he portrayed by analogy to music.  Music was also cited by Just as the best anthropological illustration of cultural connections between Africa and African Americans. Just grew up on James Island, South Carolina, where the black population still spoke Gullah (a mixture of English and west African languages), and had retained a wide variety of African customs and traditions (Manning 1983:15).

The flip-flop circuit in vacuum tubes suffered from thermal problems, but in 1948 Bell Labs announced the first semiconductor amplifier, called a transistor.  This presented a new problem however; there was a strange type of noise at the semiconductor contact point.  It was neither the periodic signal of deterministic components, nor the white noise of thermal randomness, but exactly halfway in-between.  It was suspected that this was somehow due to a collective, self-organizing activity of electron holes, and became known as 1/F noise due to its spectral density function (power varies as the inverse of frequency).

The problem of 1/F noise was solved by William Shockley, who invented the semiconductor junction.  Shockley’s goal was to eliminate the abnormal presence of this collective activity, because electrical signals could be reliably detected only with the statistically pure white noise background.  In the 1950s, during the era of McCarthy’s red scares, 1/F signals became know as “pink noise,” and after the civil rights era of the early 1960s, it was referred to as “colored noise.” In 1967 William Shockley gave a presentation before the National Academy of Sciences, in which he claimed that IQ differences between Black and White Americans were due to genetics.  In his racist assumption, empirical evidence for this genetic difference was lost in the statistically impure noise of collective social activity. He proposed a multimillion-dollar research project in which black and white babies would be provided with economically equal environments, thus leaving only a white noise background for detection of the genetic signal.

Tricia Rose, a professor of history at NYU, published a study of rap music under the title “Black Noise” in 1994 (pp. 22). 

Worked out on the rusting urban core... hip-hop transforms stray technological parts intended for cultural and industrial trash heaps into sources of pleasure and power.  These transformations have become a basis for digital imagination all over the world. 

The evidence cited by Rose varies from direct effects of hip-hop --  innovations by rap artists which changed practices of recording engineers for example -- to more indirect, intuitive influences; e.g. breakdancing as having foreshadowed computer morphing effects.  I agree with much of her analysis.  In the 1980s, I was surprised to find that Mathematician Rudy Rucker had used rap signifiers to identify software components in his cellular automata lab. Elsewhere (Eglash 1993, 1995; Eglash and Bleecker 2001) I’ve presented my own work showing how comparisons between the fractal dimension of time series generated by rap and reggae music can be used to show the difference between analog and digital representation.

In conclusion: the phrase “white noise” was coined by J.B. Johnson in 1928, when he applied the metaphor of the light spectrum -- white being the equal presence of all frequencies -- to the temporal spectrum of signals produced by thermal noise in electrical circuits.  Because red light is at the low frequency  end, 1/F noise was termed “pink,” and since Brownian motion gave the term “brown noise,” later the phrase became “colored.” It’s the perfect internalist story, science providing analogies for itself in a culture-free void.   It’s a story that leaves me defenseless when I feel disturbed by the off-handed, whimsical way that “master-slave” is sometimes used.

I am not in favor of banning use of the “master-slave” terminology in technology; I’d rather see people become more self-aware of its utilization. How many of us think about the underlying meaning when a mechanic says the “master cylinder” in our car’s clutch or break is faulty, or when we see our computer boot up with the phrase “master-slave bios” on the screen? Engineering professors could use it to introduce some cultural and historical discussion.  Indeed, as a practicing urban animist, someone who seeks spiritual pleasure and enlightenment in electrical artifice, I find some of the over-determined cultural descriptions from social studies of science to be just as oppressive as mainstream science’s culture-free claims.  According to L.S. Keller, obsessive computer programming is -- gasp! – masturbation. Sally Hacker, whose work I otherwise admire, saw it as the sublimation of male urges for S&M (which, unlike Gayle Rubin, she characterizes as inherently pathological and oppressive). Even worse are claims of organic superiority, such as D.R. Griffin’s contention that artificial mediation is inherently dehumanizing.  Such writers are covertly imposing their own theology of the natural.   During my field work in Africa I never met a divination priest who would hesitate to passionately engage the artificial, to express a love for the synthetic circuits of information and energy that carry our noisy signals through time and space, from one human heart to the next.


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[1]. The series was first introduced as an example of a recursively computable aperiodic string by Axel Thue (1863-1922), using the replacement rules 0 -> 01, 1 -> 10, with an initial 0. Morse discovered its application to deterministic chaos, in which it models the fractal time series produced by certain nonlinear equations. See Schroeder (1991 pp. 264-268) on these aspects of the sequence.