Request for Comments

Preface: I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get this post published. I won’t bore you with my ruminations and remorse … instead, on with the show.

I still do analog. Case in point: A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime, a monograph by John Naughton, distributed on inked wood-pulp, and purchased by me in person at a used bookstore in Philadelphia off South Street about a month ago.

It’s a fine book. Naughton has a tremendous storytelling flair, but his greatest genius is for identifying and communicating the human depths and excellences that might be overlooked by a less gold-hearted storyteller. There are many, many nuggets here that invite careful rereading and contemplation, far too many for one blog post. I suspect I’ll eventually write about several.

For now, though, I want to share the story Naughton tells of Steve Crocker, one of the original members of ARPANET’s “Network Working Group.” This is the group Vint Cerf worked with as he helped to bring TCP/IP into being. I knew something of Cerf’s story. I recognized the names of Jeff Rulifson and Bill Duvall from SRI (part of Doug Engelbart’s group). I dimly recalled reading something about Steve Crocker. But what I didn’t know was the pivotal role Crocker played in building the platform for collective intelligence within the early ARPANET itself. He did this with a very special kind of protocol, the kind more closely linked with diplomacy than with networked computers “shaking hands.”

He did it by inventing a new genre of professional writing: the Request for Comments (RFC).

As Naughton tells the story, the young graduate students who were at the center of the Network Working Group found themselves with the future of the Internet in their hands. The big corporate brains knew about the machines that made up the network, but they didn’t know much about the network itself–it was too new, and it was an emergent phenomenon, not a thing they had built. The grad students in the NWG felt they were at great risk of offending the honchos, of overstepping their bounds as “vulnerable, insecure apprentices,” to use Naughton’s words. Crocker was especially worried they “would offend whomever the official protocol designers were….” But the work had to go forward. So Crocker invented the “Request for Comments,” what he called “humble words for our notes” that would document the discussions that would build the network.

Here’s how Crocker himself put it in this excerpt from RFC-3, “Documentation Conventions”:

Documentation of the NWG’s effort is through notes such as this. Notes may be produced at any site by anybody and included in this series…. [Content] may be any thought, suggestion, etc. related to the HOST software or other aspect of the network. Notes are encouraged to be timely rather than polished. Philosophical positions without examples or other specifics, specific suggestions or implementation techniques without introductory or background explication, and explicit questions without any attempted answers are all acceptable. The minimum length for a NWG note is one sentence.

These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative, and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas. Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition.

You can see the similarity to blogging right away. At least two primary Network Working Groups are involved: that of all the other people in the world (let’s call that civilization), and that of the network that constitutes one’s own cognition and the resulting “strange loop,” to use Douglas Hofstadter’s language. We are all of us in this macrocosm and this microcosm. Most of us will have multiple networks within these mirroring extremes, but the same principles will of course apply there as well. What is the ethos of the Network Working Group we call civilization? And for those of us engaged in the specific cognitive interventions we call education, what is the ethos of the Network Working Group we help out students to build and grow within themselves as learners? We discussed Ivan Illich in the Virginia Tech New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar today, and I was forcibly reminded that the NWG within sets the boundaries (and hopes) we have with which to craft our NWG without. School conditions what we expect in and from civilization.

I hope it’s also clear that these RFC-3 documentation conventions  specify a praxis of intellectual discourse–indeed, I’d even say scholarly communication–that is sadly absent from most academic work today.

Would such communciation be rigorous? Academic? Worthy of tenure and promotion? What did these RFCs accomplish, and how do they figure in the human record?  Naughton observes that this “Request for Comments” idea–and the title itself, now with many numerals following–has persisted as “the way the Internet discusses technical issues.” Naughton goes on to write that “it wasn’t just the title that endured … but the intelligent, friendly, co-operative, consensual attitude implied by it. With his modest, placatory style, Steve Crocker set the tone for the way the Net developed.” Naughton then quotes Katie Hafner’s and Matthew Lyon’s judgment that “the language of the RFC … was warm and welcoming. The idea was to promote cooperation, not ego.”

Naughton concludes,

The RFC archives contain an extraordinary record of thought in action, a riveting chronicle of the application of high intelligence to hard problems….

Why would we not want to produce such a record within the academy and share it with the public? Or are we content with the ordinary, forgotten, and non-riveting so long as the business model holds up?

Or have we been schooled so thoroughly that the very ambition makes no sense?

More Naughton:

The fundamental ethos of the Net was laid down in the deliberations of the Network Working Group. It was an ethos which assumed that nothing was secret, that problems existed to be solved collaboratively, that solutions emerged iteratively, and that everything which was produced should be in the public domain.

I think of the many faculty and department meetings I have been to. Some of them I have myself convened. The ethos of those Network Working Groups has varied considerably. I am disappointed to say that none of them has lived up to the fundamental ethos Naughton identifies above. I yearn for documentation conventions that will produce an extraordinary record of thought in action, with the production shared by all who work within a community of learning. And I wonder if I’m capable of Crocker’s humility or wisdom, and answerable to his invitation. I want to be.

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.


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.