Finding the Prize in the Serial (String)
I was getting used to you
You went and changed your tune
Now you’ve got me so confused
I can’t tell the salt from the wound . . .
Warren Zevon, “Poisonous Lookalike”
Oddly enough, what really works for me about Douglas Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect is precisely the places where his underlying metaphoric system breaks down. For example, he describes the writing process simultaneously as an evolution and as “disorderly” — the former is correct, the latter invalidated by his own argument which is that there is in fact an associative structure. Moreover, Engelbart claims that the “price” of converting complex knowledge to symbols consists of “the time and energy involved in manipulating artifacts to manipulate symbols,” rather than identifying the real “price”: the radical impoverishment of the object thus reduced to data points.
Why is this what works about his piece? Well, because like the French feminists who call for “feminine writing” without being able to identify what such a writing might be, he is using the existing language to describe something yet to emerge. The mind map, for example, does not simply translate its objects but transforms them because it is a reading into a new form. Not a mode of writing, but a reading.
This is what Engelbart is really getting at when he says the return to ordinary discourse would be “like trying to project n-dimensional forms (the concept structures, which we have seen can be related with many many nonintersecting links) onto a one-dimensional form (the serial string of symbols).” But this is what we already do when we read: we project n-dimensional forms, ie interpretations, onto serial symbols. Sometimes those forms are auditory and visual images, sometimes syntactical connections (themes), sometimes they are memory-traces (identifications), etc., but in combination they help us convert radically impoverished notations (text) into representations of speech and then into simulations of concepts and actions. A mind-map is a picture (a re-impoverishment) of a reading process, but it is less impoverished than text in dimensional terms, while being more impoverished in complexity and total content. A single text can yield a number of different maps, potentially up to infinity given the number of variations and readers, each of whom will choose different data points and different paths.
What Engelbart describes, then, is a potentially crowd-sourced heuristic device, with each reading encoded representing a new creation which in turn can be read: a true self-consuming artifact?