Mythic consciousness, the syncopation way

Brain Rules is a fascinating and vastly entertaining precis of what neuroscience has so far revealed about the unique characteristics of this organ of organs, the brain,

the fleshy fatty bit that definitively marks our species. In this book, John Medina identifies three primary human brain capacities, in ascending order of distinctiveness:

  1. a database of stored information
  2. the ability to improvise off that database–i.e., to use stored information in novel combinations depending on circumstances
  3. the ability to use symbols to reason and communicate

Medina draws a conceptual line between numbers 2 and 3 above, and asserts that “a growing ability to think symbolically about our world” distinguishes our brains from all the other primates’. Indeed, building on the work of Judy DeLoache, Medina presses the point even farther:

Our brain can behold a symbolic object as real all by itself and yet, simultaneously, also representing something else. Maybe somethings else. DeLoache calls it Dual Representational Theory. Stated formally, it describes our ability to attribute characteristics and meanings to things that don’t actually possess them. Stated informally, we can make things up that aren’t there. We are human because we fantasize.

And then comes the climax:

There is an unbroken intellectual line between symbolic reasoning and the ability to create culture. And no other creature is capable of doing it.

(For more stimulation, see DeLoache’s 2004 literature review essay “Becoming Symbol-Minded,” published in Trends in Cognitive Science and available, oh bless the Web, as a pdf download here.)

And what does this have to do with Ted Nelson? And what does this have to do with Marshall McLuhan?

It’s no surprise that Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines (New Freedoms through Computer Screens–A Minority Report) is everywhere imbued with the spirit of McLuhan. Both men are striving to understand and knit together a creative brokenness leading to a larger, more complex and complexly satisfying, representation of the staggering scale of meaningful interconnectedness in human experience. I suppose they both consider this goal as a good in and of itself. In this quest, they are Romantic, of course, which I mean as high praise (in this case especially). They want what that late Romantic Walter Pater wanted: to see the world clearly and to see it whole. An even later Romantic (to speak fancifully) named Albert Einstein put it this way: “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude….”

It seems to me that Nelson’s notion of “fantics,” built on his early intuitions about hypertext (intuitions that later led to the much-maligned “Xanadu” project), are in large part his effort to imagine and encourage less elementary forms that our reason, linked with affect (to distinguish for a moment what cannot be divided), might use to apprehend those “manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty.” Nelson writes:

I derive “fantics” from the Greek words ‘phaninein’ (show) and its derivative “phantastein” (present to the eye or mind). You will of course recognize its cousins fantastic, fantasy, phantom…. And a fantast is a dreamer. The word “fantics” would thus include the showing of anything (and thus writing and theater)…. The term is also intended to cover the tactics of conveying ideas and impressions, especially with showmanship and presentational techniques, organizing constructs, and fundamental structures underlying presentational systems. Thus Engelbart’s data hierarchy, SKETCHPAD’s Constraints, and PLATO’s fantic spaces are fantic constructions that need to be understood if we are to understand these systems and their potential usages…. Designing screen systems that focus the user’s thoughts on his work, with helpful visualizations and no distractions, is the great task of fantic design….

And in a burst of his characteristically endearing, inspiring  frantic-fantic thinking, Nelson shouts *THINKERTOYS*  and writes,

Our greatest problems involve thinking and the visualization of complexity. By “Thinkertoy” I mean, first of all, a system to help people think. (“Toy” means it should be easy and fun to use.) This is the same general idea for which Engelbart, for instance, uses the term “augmentation of intellect.” But a Thinkertoy is something quite specific. I define it as a computer display system that helps you envision complex alternatives. The process of envisioning complex alternatives is by no means the only important form of human thought; but it is essential to making decisions, designing, planning, writing, weighing alternate theories, considering alternate forms of legislation, doing scholarly research, and so on. It is also complicated enough that, in  solving it, we may solve simpler problems as well. We will stress here some of the uses of these systems for handling text, partly because I think these are rather interesting, and partly because the complexity and subtlety of this problem has got to be better understood: the written word is nothing less than the tracks left by the mind, and so we are really talking about screen systems for handling ideas, in all their complexity…. If a system for thinking doesn’t make thinking simpler–allowing you to see farther and more deeply–it is useless, to use only the polite term.

Whew.

So Thinkertoys within a fantic environment (or built within, or made of, such an environment) should allow us to see further and more deeply by generating more useful representations of complex alternatives, thus allowing us to think and communicate more complexly. I understand there’s a feedback loop here, perhaps even some circular reasoning, but bear with me for a little longer.

For now here comes McLuhan. Earlier in his book, Nelson lobs this hefty thought-grenade into the fantic thinkertoys he’s making:

3 Big and Small Approaches

What few people realize is that big pictures can be conveyed in more powerful ways than they know. The reason they don’t know it is that they see the content in the media, and not how the content is being gotten across to them–that in fact they have been given very big pictures indeed, but don’t know it. (I take this point to be the Nickel-Iron Core of McLuhanism.)

Cue McLuhan’s “serious artist” who can perceive changes in the proportional inputs of our various senses as they are extended through the media we create. Yet perhaps the Core of McLuhanism lies even deeper. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan writes,

For myth is the mode of simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects. In an age of fragmented, lineal awareness, such as produced and was in turn greatly exaggerated by Gutenberg technology, mythological vision remains quite opaque. The Romantic poets fell far short of Blake’s mythical or simultaneous vision. They were faithful to Newton’s single vision and perfected the picturesque outer landscape as a means of isolating single states of the inner life.

But of course to isolate a single state of the inner life is to get even that single state wrong, as if one could have a flock of bird.

Thankfully the grotesque, expressing itself within the medium of time as syncopation, gives McLuhan hope. Following James Joyce and John Ruskin, McLuhan defines the grotesque

as a mode of broken or syncopated manipulation that permits inclusive  or simultaneous perception of a total and diversified field.  Such indeed is symbolism by definition–a collocation, a parataxis of components representing insight by carefully established ratios, but without a point of view or lineal connection or sequential order…. [Joyce] breaks open the closed system of newspaper somnambulism. Symbolism is a kind of witty jazz, a consummation of Ruskin’s aspirations for the grotesque that would have shocked him a good deal. But it proved to be the only way out of  “single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

McLuhan notes that a “Gothic taste,” which might fairly characterize Ruskin, Joyce, McLuhan, and Nelson, at least, is a “pre-Raphael or pre-Gutenberg quest for a unified mode of perception.” He also notes that such a taste typically strikes “serious people” as “trite and ridiculous,” much the way video games, cosplay, Larping, Lolcats, even the Internet itself strike many adults today. Much the way rock-and-roll struck the adults who raised the baby boomers.

But perhaps, just perhaps, a teenage symphony to God, or a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens, or images of spacetime as a loaf of bread, or blogging, or Twitter, for example, trite and ridiculous as they may seem to certain kinds of serious people, at least at first, can serve as syncopated springboards into complex, mythic consciousness or some approximation thereof. I think that’s the ambition that links Nelson to McLuhan, and the ambition that “deeply intertwingles” poets, physicists, biologists, urban planners, dancers, geoscientists, anthropologists, ethicists, and students of all ages and levels of expertise.

That’s my grotesque story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Thinker

Doug Engelbart, 2003

I’ve always been haunted by the title Howard Rheingold used for his chapter on Doug Engelbart in his epochal Tools for Thought. Doug was still active in 1985, when the first edition of Rheingold’s book was published. He was traveling and speaking and working with undiminished vigor to share his vision of the augmentation of human intellect. He spoke to corporations. He spoke to academics. He spoke to groups of those who’d joined him in pioneering the digital age in which the rise of networked, interactive computing had permanently altered our culture. Yet even in the videos from the 1980’s and 1990’s, there’s a deep loneliness visible in Doug’s eyes. He was not alone in his disappointment with the commodified computer culture that sprang up in those decades. Visionaries like Alan Kay also voiced their deep dissatisfaction.  Yet something about Doug’s eyes seems different to me. Lonelier, and looking at a greater distance. Is it the distance between his original vision and what we’ve accomplished–or not–so far? Is it the distance between now and a future he wants to help build?

I’m sure Doug continued to take pleasure in his work. He must have been especially joyful when his daughter Christina joined him and helped to bring the Doug Engelbart Institute (initially called the “Bootstrap Institute”) into being. And as the years went by, his extraordinary work became more widely recognized, both within and without the computer community. In 1997, he won the Turing Award, the signal honor bestowed by the Association for Computing Machinery. He was cited “For an inspiring vision of the future of interactive computing and the invention of key technologies to help realize this vision.” In 2000, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, “the highest honor for technological achievement bestowed by the President of the United States on America’s leading innovators.” He received rapturous welcomes not only from his contemporaries but from the younger men and women who, often through books like Tools For Thought as well as the many writings on Doug’s website, had come to realize the enormous, revolutionary power of Doug’s vision and innovation.

You can hear that welcome in two IT Conversations podcasts: “Large-Scale Collective IQ” from “Accelerating Change 2004,” and his impromptu contributions to the panel discussion led by John Markoff on the publication of Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said. You can hear a similarly rapturous ovation from the audience at the 2008 celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Mother of All Demos.

I was the post-production audio engineer for the IT Conversations podcasts. I spent many hours getting the levels just right, editing out the pauses and throat-clearings, trying to craft an experience for the listener that would convey the full impact of Doug’s extraordinary vision. It was a vision I had first encountered only a few months before, a vision that literally changed my life.  All the while, though, in my headphones and in the waveforms before me on the computer screen Doug had helped to bring into being, I could sense that loneliness, perhaps born of what seemed to be Doug’s continuing amazement that the implications of scale and ubiquity in the computer age he saw so clearly would be so difficult and elusive for so many others to see. This was not arrogance on Doug’s part. It was humility. I truly believe Doug thinks that his own understanding is not so exalted or unapproachable that it cannot be shared. On the contrary, I think he believes his “conceptual framework” can be readily grasped and acted upon. At the same time, the years demonstrate that Doug was rare, perhaps even unique in his ability to imagine and build both the platform for augmentation and the processes that could be used for bootstrapping ourselves into ever-evolving, ever-ascending levels of augmentation.

Indeed, how he could have seen this vision in the 1950s and worked for years on its full articulation, with the 1962 framework as its crowning glory, is not so easily grasped.

I’ve written about Doug and his conceptual framework several times in this space, and I’ve not yet begun to scratch the surface. Reading through “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” once again in preparation for last week’s New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar at Virginia Tech (a session I led rather badly, I’m afraid—very frustrating for me, as I’m sure it was for the seminar), I was once again astonished at the breadth and depth of Doug’s vision. From oscilloscopes to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis of linguistic representation is a long reach indeed, but Doug was onto something that far outstripped even J.C.R. Licklider’s vision of man-machine symbiosis. I found myself wanting to offer a commentary, an analysis, something that would help me explore and share its complexities more fully. I hope in the months ahead to do this. I begin here by sharing my recording of the last two sections of Doug’s masterwork, “Summary” and “Conclusions.”

At the end of it all, though, I still sense that loneliness, as if something nearly incommunicable had presented itself to Doug with the intensity and urgency of a revelation. The long distance his thought traversed is difficult to take in. The automated symbol manipulation he envisioned has entered our culture, not exactly in the manner Doug had imagined, but I believe at least some of the outlines of his vision have been realized in the work of people like Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. These folks lead and think at scale. I wonder if Doug would have been less lonely had he done his greatest work at the turn of the century, rather than when he did. And yet it may also be that loneliness was somehow his destiny, and that only a risky, enormously singular vision such as his, emerging at a time of great unrest and even greater social ambition, could have intervened so brilliantly in the course of human affairs. Perhaps such a time will come again, and another lonely long distance thinker will appear. I must hope so.

Once again I find it almost impossible to convey the poignant depth of my gratitude, Doug. Once again I can only say, “thank you.” I’ll keep working on that assignment you gave me back in 2006, one you’ve given to all of us with whom you’ve shared your time and vision: “now, go change the world.”

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My Norbert Wiener story

It started with Tom Haymes, an excellent partner-in-crime who’s got the Houston Community College system abuzz with the New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar. I don’t always agree with Tom, but I always listen carefully–and then I usually agree. (That’s for you, Tom.) As I was revving up for this fall’s NMFS, I was talking and e-talking with Tom about the course and the syllabus, and he said to me “whatever you do, please put Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ back in the syllabus.” I’d taken Lick out, you see, to spend more time with Engelbart. I am in awe of Lick, but Doug’s vision changed my life, tip to toe, and I’ve been trying to convey that complex change to anyone who will listen, ever since.

But I thought about what Tom had said, and I realized he was right–but I still had the feeling that Lick was not at the next paradigm quite fast enough after Vannevar Bush. Lick’s essay, famous and important as it undeniably is, was not quite different enough from Bush’s, and it didn’t make my head explode the way Doug’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” did (and does). Without it, though, we were missing a step. With it, I was impatient for the fireworks. So I wondered, since Lick’s essay was relatively brief, whether there was an essay I could put into dialogue with it. I realized I was really pushing it to ask my colleagues to read more. (Heck, it’s pushing it to ask them to blog, and attend a seminar regularly, and get their feet wet in Delicious–my, that sounds poetic–and of course put up with me–but I digress.) But I wanted to try. So I read around in the cabinet of wonders called The New Media Reader, and I remembered having read a great deal about this Norbert Wiener person, and I thought I’d give his “Man, Machines, and the World About” a try.

Several months later I emerged from a Norbert Wiener binge.

It’s difficult, always difficult, to understand why something resonates, why it comes into one’s life at a particular time and in a particular way. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. (I always wanted to major in readiness.) So I suppose I was ready, and Norbert Wiener appeared.

I read several essays by Wiener this summer, besides “Men, Machines,” and his book “Invention: The Care And Feeding Of Ideas.” I felt invited to. What is that sense of invitation, when one feels a writer is eager for company, a stroll, an answering mind? It’s certainly the invitation I want my students to sense from me–and extend to each other. The way is steep and hard. We have to carry things we can’t pick up, truth be told, and we have to carry them anyway. A colleague, a companion can make all the difference.

Wiener’s approach in Invention was to champion the human spirit, to warn us that in the age to come we must use automation to enliven and cherish that spirit more fully, for everyone. The other option was clear: eliminate the human spirit in favor of productivity and efficiency, a process that Dickens spent a career limning and opposing, and one that sneaks into liberatory cultures too, so stealthy is its appeal, so insidious its spurious invitations. Learning management systems, anyone? I heard a presentation at a conference last weekend in Buffalo in which a teacher, as smiling and confident as a pastor greeting parishioners at the church door, shared with a group his mastery of “teacher presence” in his online course. His mastery? Yes. He had discovered one could re-use canned messages of concern and care and use the LMS to time their appearance in the students’ course spaces. That way, students would feel his “teacher presence” and be reassured that he was in fact paying attention to them. This was a labor-saving device, he explained, that he’d invented as a result of a growing and unmanageable set of courses he was responsible for teaching.

I understand about reusing course resources. That’s obviously not what’s happening here. The LMS functionality labeled “copy course” had turned malignant in this case, or so it seemed to me. To use Wiener’s metaphor, I smelled incense burning at the altar of the machine.

Ann and Jill have movingly recounted their fathers’ experience with the “copy commodity” ethos of the industrial age. We often–perhaps most often–see computers before us as the latest and most dangerous of these “copy commodity” affordances. Yet the writers in our anthology had other ideas, and for me they demonstrate that these machine can be media, even meta-media, extensions of ourselves that become, like culture itself, a means of augmenting and sharing our common humanity. But the way to that land is steep and difficult. Can the education we offer our children strengthen them for that journey? Can we strengthen ourselves for it? A companion, a colleague, can make all the difference.

Something about Wiener’s expansive mind, shared in a spirit of collegiality and invitation, makes me want to know him. Observations like this one, from Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas make me think I do, at least a little:

It is not the exception but the rule for new tools to be undervalued or at least misvalued…. [We need] what we may call the inverse process of invention…. It is just as truly a work of invention or discovery to find out what we are able to accomplish by the use of these new tools as it is to search for the tools which will make possible a specific new device or method.

Wiener goes on to tell the story of the electric motor as an example of a misvalued new tool. Victorian factories had run off of large steam or oil engines located on the factory floor. The machines, then, were powered by a labyrinthine and very dangerous series of belts and pulleys running every which way across and around the factory. Grease and oil flew everywhere. Workers were maimed and killed by snapping belts, by pulleys they didn’t see in time. Did the electric motor solve these issues? Not at first. They were greaseless, yes, but the factories simply substituted large electric motors for the large oil or steam engines. The belts and pulleys remained, deadly as ever–until one day someone figured out that motors could be made small and embedded in the machines. Ah. Goodbye belts and pulleys.

Somehow Wiener conveyed both the sadness at the enduring blindness of the designers and the optimism born of the fact that things did eventually change. Things did improve. A new idea did emerge. Can these computers we hold help us to help new ideas emerge more quickly? Those ideas always get here too late for some folks. Can we shorten that latency period? It seems as if we should. It seems as if we must.

I got so torqued up on Wiener this summer that I read a biography, Dark Hero of the Information Age. This passage stopped me in my tracks:

Back at MIT, word of Wiener’s death flashed down the infinite corridor and over to the plywood palace of the RLE [Research Laboratory of Electronics]. Work came to a halt as people gathered to share the news and their memories, and the institute’s flags were lowered to half staff in honor of the fallen institute professor who had roamed its halls for forty-five years.

That night, a select gropu met at Joyce Chen’s for one last session of Wiener’s supper club. Someone tore a sheet of filler paper out of a binder and scratched out a few words. Twenty-one people–including Wiener’s first graduate student Y. W. Lee, the founder of MIT’s Servomechanism Laboratory Gordon Brown, physicist Jerrold Zacharias who had been the Rad Lab’s liaison to Bell Labs’ fire control team during the war, the first director of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory Albert Hill, the founder of the RLE’s Communications Biophysics Lab Walter Rosenblith, the information theorist Robert Fano, Jerome Wiesner who had recently returned to MIT from Washington, MIT’s President Julius Stratton, Warren McCulloch, and Joyce Chen–signed their names to the simple statement of fact they would send on to [Wiener’s wife] Margaret:

We loved him.

Postscript on Vannevar Bush

Video feedback, Hofstadter's visualization of consciousness as an infinitely extensible symbol set.

 

Last week’s New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar at Virginia Tech focused on “As We May Think,” and the discussion was lively, both in the room and on the seminarians’ blogs. I would summarize the main concerns thus (and I invite my fellow seminarians to comment and elaborate as they choose, either here or by linking here from their own blogs):

What’s here other than one idea about associative links? We did our best to explore that question, and though I’m not sure we convinced our interlocutor, I’m confident we got to at least some of the catalytic moments in the essay. Even an older idea, catalytically expressed, takes on new life–as Vannevar Bush himself implicitly recognizes throughout the essay.

To what extent, and in what ways, does the essay represent a particular historical moment, one that constrains the author himself? This is of course an extremely complex question. Even the timing of the essay, near the end of WWII but not quite at the moment of the public unveiling of the atomic bomb (as Diane cogently demonstrates), can point in multiple directions, backward and forward, influenced by external circumstances and especially whatever the space-time continuum was in Dr. Bush’s brain as he wrote what he wrote. I continue to believe that part of the essay’s beauty and influence reside in a meta-layer that covers the entire essay. In this meta-layer, Bush himself understands himself as historically situated, just as the Pharaohs were, and wonders if there’s a way to reach outside those boundaries to suggest a higher understanding of not only what might be, but what should be. Jerome Bruner cites Roman Jakobsen’s idea of “the metalinguistic gift, the capacity to ‘turn around’ on our language to examine and transcend its limits,” a gift that “is within everybody’s reach” (The Culture of Education, 19).  I find that gift being used many times in As We May Think, including very powerfully in the title. And even if the public didn’t know to associate Vannevar Bush’s words with the atomic bomb at the time of the essay’s initial publication, it seems clear that even Bush’s general remarks were in the context of what science was able to unleash–a context that had been amply displayed even without the deadly climax of the A-Bomb.

What ideas/visions in “As We May Think” are of enduring relevance? For me, of course, the answer is “almost everything,” with the exception of Bush’s sexist understandings of vocation and social roles. These are typical kinds of sexism for the period, and I wish Bush had thought to think about them as well. That said, I was astonished by the enduring relevance of this essay when I first read it, and I continue to be astonished, particularly in the way in which a formally-trained scientist, public intellectual, professor, and politician (if only of the appointed variety) was bold enough to think about cognition not as something orderly and taxonomically comprehensible, but as a set of associative trails that should be not only acknowledged but amplified. Section 6 of the essay (which unfortunately we did not have time to get to) is particularly lovely for me, as it focuses on “the artificiality of systems of indexing” without once suggesting, as some other thinkers have done, that for best results we need to force the mind into the mold of those systems. (The spelling reformers of the Royal Society come to mind, as well as most curricular designs–but I digress.) Instead, Bush proclaims,

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Here the brain’s introspection of its own processes, bolstered by the exciting new frontiers of brain science (the ultimate metalinguistic gift?), resonates with the writer’s awe, the reader’s awe, and the long record of the human race, one in which a storehouse of memory, the ability to create both enduring and ad-hoc associational trails, and the capacity for rich symbolic representation (culminating in what Douglas Hofstadter calls “an infinitely extensible symbol set” with symbols for that very set), continues to try to write, draw, speak, play, engineer, titrate, etc. etc. etc. itself into being, and more fruitful being at that. What a thrill to be able to do that, to be able to share the experience of doing that, to try to build better, more complex, more intricate and interesting and playful and insightful ways of doing that! Cave paintings to fMRIs: what a species … and where must we, should we, will we end?

Which comes to the next bit, and for me one of the more challenging moments in the essay:

Man cannot fully hope to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it.

Sounds awfully straightforward, yes? But it’s not. Learning from our own growing knowledge about learning is a very interesting kind of feedback (sometimes disastrously so–witness Hamlet). It’s also a complexly adaptive system that may not lead to homeostasis (I hope it doesn’t–there, I said it) but instead may result in interesting, sometimes useful, sometimes beneficial, sometimes destructive emergent properties. But of course that’s the rub (apologies to the PoD). One of our primary means of learning is metacognition, yet the metacognition doesn’t by itself offer a ready path to progress. Now that we are learning from how we are learning, what are we learning, exactly? How to improve the instantiations of what we already call “learning”? Or how to augment human intellect in a way that may be the next stage in our (cultural) evolution?

Many thinkers, Brian Arthur and Kevin Kelly among them, believe that our peculiar evolutionary gift is always to move beyond our native endowment. In other words, it’s part of our native endowment to be able to, and hardly to resist, going beyond our native endowment. Bush’s implicit claim, emerging in the section 8 (a portion of which I have read below), is that thinking-together by means of sharing associate trails will lead to greater chances for favorable outcomes. What has “enabled [humanity] to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons … may yet allow [humanity] truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience.” Now, Bush concludes, is “a singularly unfortunate stage at which … to lose hope as to the outcome.” (I’ve taken the liberty to make his language sex-inclusive, a liberty I believe he would freely give me were he to be alive today.)

Wisdom. Hope. Contested and contestable terms, to be sure. But not dispensable–so the conversation does and must continue, and may not be quite as irresolvable as we may think.

Now for the lagniappe. My colleague and friend Tim O’Donnell (Professor of Communication at the University of Mary Washington) wrote his dissertation on Vannevar Bush and the rhetoric of science, so I asked him a few questions on behalf of the seminar:

1. Is it fair to call Bush a techno-utopian? Did he change his mind about the wisdom and hope he looked for in “As We May Think”?

In 1967, Bush gave a talk which played on the title of “As We May Think” called “It is Earlier Than We Think.”  He wrote: “To strive for a better life for those who will follow us is a worthy objective in itself.  But that life must be more than just a life of peace and sanity.  It must be a life in which, indeed, many may reason, and ponder, with far more insight than is ours, by methods we can not now envisage.  Even were the chances for this small, it would be a crime to deny our successors the opportunity.  And, to me at least, the chance does not seem small.  This sort of philosophy can have no meaning for those pessimists who insist we are mere products of chance, tossed about by inexorable forces which can never be altered, doomed to be just automatons in a cruel universe.  It can have meaning to those who rely on religion for their guidance, for it has not conflict with their aspirations.  And it can furnish a worth-while motivation for those who have left the formal religions, and who are otherwise without a goal in life.  It is a humble attitude, consistent with our present abysmal ignorance.  The course of man has proceeded thus far only a little way.  He has not yet developed his full power of thought.  To carry the torch for those who are to follow is not a sordid role.  It is rather a privilege to render smooth the road for those who will think more deeply than we.  It is earlier than we think.” [Science is Not Enough, pp. 184-5]

[The] big difference between Bush of ’45 and Bush of ’67 [was that the] nuclear arms race tempered his techno-utopianism in later years.

 2. What’s one of your favorite parts of this essay?

From “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias…” to “…”science may implement the ways in which man produces stores and consults the record of the race” SHOULD BE READ ALOUD.  It’s made for oral interpretation. [Tim is a debate coach, a rhetorician, and a public-speaking specialist. I have endeavored to meet his imperative, below!]

 

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NMFS_F11: A New Hope

As the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” comes to Virginia (home of the best autumns I know), the New Media Faculty-Staff Networked Development seminar coheres once more. This time the Network Information Center (or the Greenwich Observatory, choose your metaphor) is at Virginia Tech, my new professional home. The seminar here had a great first meeting last Wednesday. As we went around the horn and introduced ourselves, I was struck yet again by the depth and variety of the colleagues who make up a university. We are certainly a “city of intellect,” as Clark Kerr calls the university, but richer–a city of intellectuals whose pursuits range from our respective scholarly disciplines to artisanal breads, improvisatory theater, and Jimi Hendrix blacklight posters. The shift from “intellect” to “intellectuals” is key, I think, to understanding the personhood that unites us, and to revealing the numbing, often overwhelming professional routines that prevent the “meeting soul” from becoming the “met friend.” And last Wednesday, in the company of quirky, curious, spirited intellectuals, I began once again this journey toward the “resonance frequency” within the writings we will read together. My largest goal was articulated beautifully last fall by Paige Panter, whose passionate articulations were so crucial to the success of that extraordinary seminar at Baylor: “Contract the fervor of Nelson and learn the vision of Kay.” Much of our time as intellectuals within the academy is devoted to critical analysis, as is meet and right. Yet there’s also this elusive idea of the resonance frequency, of a set of beautiful ideas that make something like the music of the spheres, a shared lucid dream. I hope for that too: a lift from the weariness of detecting defects, an ascent at least into the possibility of ascent, the daring to hope so.

Our seminar’s motherblog is up and running. This fall’s other networked sites are also springing to life, their networks lighting up like framed windows in a city at twilight: Benedictine University (two campuses), the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Queensland (Australia), Houston Community College (two campuses), Baylor University, the University of Central Florida. The seminar syllabus is here,  the networked seminar directory here.

In that seminar directory you’ll find a uniquely interesting network node, one that’ s new this fall: the Second Life NMFS group, facilitated by Robin Heyden and Liz Dorland. Robin and Liz have quickly assembled an astonishing set of resources. I’m learning as fast as I can from their design, from the tenor and content of their communications, from the imagination and skill they’ve brought to the very difficult task of organizing an international group of participants within a virtual world that has its own significant learning curve to master before one even gets to the hard part of reading, discussing, and faithfully blogging the experience. Yet the marvelously recursive/immersive experience of listening for that resonance frequency within a constructed world of reified metaphor and metaphorical representation (and self-performance, self-revelation) is breathtaking in its implications. So is the makeup of their group: scholars and educators and writers from  Denmark, Florida, Georgia, Belgium, Texas, Missouri, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Indiana, California … others I couldn’t quite pinpoint. The poetry of this node (I don’t know what else to call it) speaks beautifully in this screenshot from their first meeting, on the NMC Campus in Second Life.

I look at that picture and I think of another stirring moment, a moment from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

We tell the story of our journey and we tell it together, anchored in the fluidity of self and personhood, and buoyed by the stories that come before us and inform our making. Gilgamesh. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. Rob and Jill and Rebecca and Teggin and Diane and Yanna and Tim and Justin and Shelli and Ann and Brian and Jesus and Lazlo and Jennifer and Tyler and Gardner at Virginia Tech. Our arms, wide.

EDIT: My thanks to Alice for alerting me to my mistaken interpretation of the Tamarian expression “when the walls fell.”