Engelbart Nugget #thoughtvectors

N ugget Time! “Augmenting Human Intellect” (hereafter AHI) is a large hot mess of tendentious text, and it has subsections, even. But you mustn’t be daunted by size or density. I suppose if you were, you wouldn’t be reading my blog anyway. Engelbart’s mind definitely functions a little differently than yours (I assume) and mine (most […]

Nugget Time! “Augmenting Human Intellect” (hereafter AHI) is a large hot mess of tendentious text, and it has subsections, even. But you mustn’t be daunted by size or density. I suppose if you were, you wouldn’t be reading my blog anyway. Engelbart’s mind definitely functions a little differently than yours (I assume) and mine (most definitely). You can either choose to give up and wait for a post like this one to explain away all the difficulty, or accept the challenge and dive into complexity. To wit:

“Conceptually speaking, however, an argument is not a serial affair. It is sequential, I grant you, because some statements have to follow others, but this doesn’t imply that its nature is necessarily serial. We usually string Statement B after Statement A, with Statements C, D, E, F, and so on following in that order–this is a serial structuring of our symbols. Perhaps each statement logically followed from all those which preceded it on the serial list, and if so, then the conceptual structuring would also be serial in nature, and it would be nicely matched for us by the symbol structuring.

“But a more typical case might find A to be an independent statement, B dependent upon A, C and D independent, E depending upon D and B, E dependent upon C, and F dependent upon A, D, and E. See, sequential but not serial? A conceptual network but not a conceptual chain. The old paper and pencil methods of manipulating symbols just weren’t very adaptable to making and using symbol structures to match the ways we make and use conceptual structures. With the new symbol-manipulating methods here, we have terrific flexibility for matching the two, and boy, it really pays off in the way you can tie into your work.

This makes you recall dimly the generalizations you had heard previously about process structuring limiting symbol structuring, symbol structuring limiting concept structuring, and concept structuring limiting mental structuring. You nod cautiously, in hopes that he will proceed in some way that will tie this kind of talk to something from which you can get the “feel” of what it is all about. As it turns out, that is just what he intends to do.

Moore’s law was coined in 1965, three years after AHI, so Engelbart is presaging the perhaps inevitable advantage that hardware has over software: the technology to do new things shall exist always before the human mind’s capacity to figure out how to exploit those things. So, “process structures” are bigger and more advanced than “symbolic structures” which are more useful than “conceptual structures,” which is about the limit of normal human experiential thinking. In the second google hangout, Gardner and I mentioned Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, which is a book I love and which I used recently to help me make an argument about Yeats at the fin de siècle. In it, Kermode makes a distinction between two different types of representational time: chronos and kairos. (the Kermode part ends at 46:21).

Chronos is regular chronology, where each new moment is concatenated onto the last, one damn thing after another. In literature sometimes those chronological instants add up to a plot, an adventure, a dénouement, and then some sort of cathartic conclusion; in life, you proceed from birth to death, and interesting things in between may or may not happen to you, depending on one or another’s perspective. Kairos, however, is special time, whether interstitial, between two other larger assemblages of time such that you are looking at both simultaneously, or during some sort of carnivalesque irruption of the norm, as happens when people reach paradise spaces like the forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, or El Dorado in Voltaire’s Candide, or just during special times of year: Twelfth Night occurs during the twelve days of Christmas, when all things are possible. Kairos is space-time as experienced by the gods in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: their immortality doesn’t just give them access to all chronological events (a sort of horizontal axis of eventuality and contingency), but a paradigmatically vertical perspective that takes all events, past, present, and future, into account. Hera can bear a grudge against Zeus because of all of his infidelities, the ones already accomplished and the ones yet to come: he is always already unfaithful. In some versions of the story, the winds keeping the Mycenaean fleet from launching for Troy are only appeased by Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia; but they are also caused in the first place by the appalling fact that he would have been willing to sacrifice his daughter in the first place.

I bring this up because it’s extremely hard to think along that vertical paradigm, to try and make kairos map onto normal existence, much less to make it do useful things for us. At best, in the literary examples I’m aware of, authors approach kairos tentatively, giving their readers a tantalizing glimpse of infinity (we call this the sublime). But in another sense, all of literature, and any representation of the real world, is composed of kairos: out of this belief springs MLA style’s insistence on the eternal “now” of textual speakers speaking forever in present tense. I work with this conceptual framework often, because my research has lately focused on poetic sequences – poetic forms that require you to make each fragment of the sequence into an instant that, when realized within the totality of the sequence, creates a narrative chronology simultaneously as it defies narrative sequentiality: as Engelbart says above, we have to read the text sequentially, but we are free to reconstruct it serially. One piece follows another, but it is in conversation with all the others to follow (they were always already meant to be read on the double axis of chronos and kairos).

Because the representation of the real exists beside the real, and is both similar and dissimilar to what the human mind experiences, it’s possible for the representation to simulate the real, however uncannily, and offer cogent critiques of current social or cultural practices by its mere existence as a more desirable alternative to the one damn thing after another we have to endure. At any rate, representation arefree to construct their worlds independently of the constraints of human experience.

So, too, the computer program is a representation of reality, a simulation of work done by human beings, on behalf of human beings, but without any of humanity’s hang-ups about understanding serial construction. It’s really hard to conceive of a universe composed of ten dimemsions, but linear matrices can do it competently without needing human mental capacity to improve before thwy yield results. Computers don’t care if programs call for independently repetitive command structures, or perform simultaneous functions that are necessarily aware of each other’s results: they’re mechanical honey badgers, they just do it.

Engelbart Nugget #thoughtvectors

This is their awesome advantage over us; we are bounded more by our conceptual limitations than by hardware’s ability to do what we tell it to do: we ate limited not by our dreams, so much as our ability to articulate our dreams to computers. Because the human mind is always lagging behind computer programs, we may think we have to teach ourselves how to think serially before we can realize their full potential. But this isnt really the case: we are free to remain ourselves while still empowering computational thinking machines to represent the ten-dimensional universe that we apparently live in. In the same way that theoretical physicists can anticipate particles that satisfy certain symmetries long before they are located and measured, computers don’t get hung up on the impossibility of the square root of negative one, recursion, or the uncanny valley. They just do it.

Engelbart was ahead of his time, and it would be an interesting thought experiment to try to read AHI serially, to enact its subject matter as if it were its form.

Engelbart Nugget #thoughtvectors

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