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:
- a database of stored information
- the ability to improvise off that database–i.e., to use stored information in novel combinations depending on circumstances
- 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.