Last week in our New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar, Nathan Hall (University Libraries) and Janine Hiller (College of Business) teamed up to take us through the Alan Kay / Adele Goldberg essay “Personal Dynamic Media.” Janine and Nathan took an inspired approach to their task. Nathan’s a digital librarian, and he brought his training and interest in information science to bear on Kay and Goldberg’s ideas. Janine’s work is in business law, so intellectual property would have been a logical follow-on for discussion. But wily Nathan segued into wily Janine’s swerve in a direction that in retrospect makes perfect sense but at the time came with the force of a deep and pleasant surprise: the information science of metaphor.
As I look back on the session, I have to admire the very canny way in which the info science/metaphor combination acted out the very nature of metaphor itself: the comparison of two unlike objects. Having made the comparison, of course, one begins to see very interesting disjunctions and conjunctions. The mind begins to buzz. Wholly novel ideas emerge, such as the metamedium of the computer being like a pizza. Seriously.
Janine shared with us a lovely TED video on metaphor …
… and challenged us in small groups to come up with our own metaphors for computing as a metamedium (think of them as seminarian family-isms). We very quickly got to pizza in our group, courtesy of the talented Joycelyn Wilson. (Amy Nelson riffs on that metaphor in her own blog post.) Another group found itself circling back, recursively but sans recursing (dagnabbit), to the powerful and complex metaphor of the “dream machine.” (Go ahead and revive that metaphor by thinking about it again. And again. Stranger than one might suppose, eh?) (Oh, and to get another link in, I believe it was 21st-century studies lamplighter Bob Siegle who led us there.) In our closing moments, we began thinking about metaphor as a metaphor for computing, and computing as a metaphor for metaphor. I do believe Alan and Adele would have enjoyed the conversation.
At the end, Nathan sketched out a continuum between the procedural and the conceptual/metaphorical that he had found in “Personal Dynamic Media.” At one end was the filing cabinet (cf. Memex, cf. info science). At the other end was the flute (a metaphor that Janine beautifully led us to unpack in our discussion). And then, a few minutes after the seminar was over and I was walking to the car, a connection appeared for me.
There is indeed an apparent dichotomy between filing cabinets and flutes, between quotidian documents and art, between the minutiae of our task-filled lives and the glorious expressive possibilities of musical performance, especially with an instrument like the flute (I am a mediocre but enthusiastic flautist) that one plays in such intimate connection with one’s body and breath. It’s simple, direct, a column of air that resonates within the instrument as well as within the hollow, air-filled spaces within one’s own face and chest.
What could be more pedestrian, ugly, and (depending on the tasks) repellent than a filing cabinet? What could be more liberating and beautiful than a well-played flute?
How is a raven like a writing-desk? Alice asks in Alice In Wonderland. The question is never answered. (Brian Lamb once answered it–”Poe wrote on both”–but alas his ingenuity came many decades too late for poor Alice.)
How is a flute like a filing-cabinet? The question makes even less sense. At least, at first.
But considered within the world of Alan Kay’s aphorism that “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas,” I find myself inspired to think that one may indeed make a flute of a filing-cabinet, awakening and ennobling the detritus of our dreary records and messy operational details with the quicksilver music and responsiveness of a well-played flute.
What if we could bring that vision into our lives? Our learning? Our schools? What if our filing cabinets were less like the warehouse in which the Ark of the Covenant is boxed and lost, and more like thought-vectors in concept space sounding something like the music of the spheres?
It may not be as hard as we may think–unless we actually prefer meaninglessness and stasis to delight and melody.