(The Sensuous and the Visible)
Keynote for Radical Connectionism & the Visualization of Network Programs
Saturday 16 January 1999
Pepperdine University, Malibu, California
Concerning the Reproducibility of the Real
Our eyes are the most amazing things, little bits of the nervous system loosed from behind the thick case of skull bone and turned outward to face the world. There is little question that, in overall flexibility, the human visual system stands unparalleled among the planet’s species. Blake wrote, “As the a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers.” Man precedes the eye, or did, until Marshall McLuhan turned this tidy little formula back onto itself. As the eye sees, McLuhan believed, so the man is. The reflexive nature of this philosophical theorem leads immediately to the conception of human as an informational system, sending messages both forward and back, positive and negative feedback working in concert with biological imperative to produce a coherent, autopoetic unity.
The damnable thing about self-organizing systems is that they remain fundamentally opaque, the betê noire of analysis. Synthetic thinking has, in the modern era, become identified more with the arts than the sciences. Hence, Great Advances in human knowledge often seem more like impact events, striking the structures of epistemology, rattling the ivory towers rising above its flanks. Physics proceeds funeral by funeral – or so it is said. The apprehension of wholes – a particular conceit of human vision – has been excluded from the rational processes of mind, until the mind finds itself boxed in by its own cognitive solipsism.
That we may come to know the real, we have learned to reproduce it – from our understanding – using the syntactic constructions of thought to craft a visual language, known today as simulation.
Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it in the end.
When I was a wee lad, I dutifully sat in my earliest science classes and listened to the teacher lecture about life, about the characteristics that defined the living organism. In the early 1970’s, the study of viruses had begun to yield to microphotography and X-ray crystallography, and scientists learned that the virus literally hijacks the constructive powers of the cell to its own ends, not entirely alive – as they understood life – yet undeniably vital. That recognition, easily among the most significant of this century, lead, over the next twenty-five years, to an catastrophic broadening of the definition of life.
We now know that the very earth beneath our feet constitutes the most significant organism on earth – in terms of raw biomass – a fertile strata of bacteria, swapping genes like sailors on a Saturday night shore leave, until the genetic identity of species becomes so polluted it abrogates all boundary and conflates into a single, planetary entity. If that sounds like bad science fiction from the 50’s, it gets even worse; from this realization, we can begin to deduce the scope of life on the planets that surround us.
We went to the moon and found it sterile; we had suspected as much, that the vacuum and cold and lack of water made it impossible for life to gain a foothold. The Apollo missions answered a question first seriously posed by Giordano Bruno as he meditated on the heliocentric vision of Copernicus, and made the Earth seem all that more precious. The visualization of the Earth, as seen from the capsule of the Apollo 8 mission, became the principle visual archetype for the twentieth century.
All of this, of course, happened when I was a wee lad, and all of it confirmed the self-evident truth that life existed on Earth alone, another Ptolemaic myth disguising naked religiosity as scientific truth, ripe to be overthrown by another Copernicus. A myth which fell away quickly in the wake of another impact event.
Perhaps fifteen thousand years ago, the Antarctic received a gift from the heavens, a meteorite mailed from Mars, itself the victim of another impact from another eon. When examined – after we had been forced by our own investigations of the deep ocean to broaden the possibilities for life – NASA scientists found the fingerprint of a bacterial presence within the rock. It remains, even now, a tenuous possibility, argued against and for, but all this heated debate represents exobiology proceeding, funeral by funeral. The game is up, and where we looked out into a fundamentally lifeless expanse of stars just a decade ago, increasingly we see every evidence of life, almost everywhere we cast our gaze.
What has changed, epistemologically, to bring us to this point? Only this: we have come to see the truth, to visualize a possibility in which life is an eventuality of the cosmic process. We have words to use to bring the matter to hand, an answer to the inchoate question of Bruno.
Concerning the Informational Biology Underlying a Linguistic Ontology
Words create the world; that which can be named, can be mastered; that which can not be pronounced can not be made manifest. Human history, in this sense, becomes the continuous growth and refinement of a lexicon, which immediately conflates with the real. Language is the first human medium of radical connection, bringing us all together, mind to mind, in a sonic telepathy. That radical connection produced a catastrophic shift away from the animal and into culture, the emergent form of the social mind. Truth, I would argue, is an emergent property of language, because truth is and always has been a product of the culture which announces it.
This puts us in a closed loop, because language shapes the possibilities of perception, of what we are capable of seeing; but the universe is a surprising place, and impact events occur periodically. When the novel event appears, unmistakably, in our midst, we engage in a self-reinforcing series of communications with the event, and, eventually incorporate it into our ontology, our epistemology, and our culture, but each transforms under the influence of that novel event. In an exchange of information – a radically connectionist event – culture finds itself transformed by a viral release of memes, brought about by a cross-species fertilization of ideas, an eruption of linguistic norms which splices the DNA of culture willy-nilly, and punctuates the stagnant equilibrium with a wealth of new forms.
We only know what we can see; we only see what we can articulate; we articulate only that which we have entered into communion with. Radical connection is the foundation of the real. The connections which bind us to the universe at large are the same connections which define our own existence.
Concerning Evolutionary Structures of Mind
We suspect, in these recent times, that conscious thought emerges from the well-connected mind, that the connections themselves can produce a gestalt awareness of being. We suspect, in fact, that these connections constitute the reality of consciousness; that in substrates biological or lithic sufficient connection confers awareness. We have no positive proof for this assertion, no absolute indication that the near-trillion neuronal connections in the human brain produces something greater than the sum of its constituent parts, but we can read the fossil record and learn – unambiguously – that an increase in connectivity has been a constant feature of the evolutionary process.
It has been argued, by some evolutionary biologists, that the thrust of development possesses no teleological will, no entelechy, that cellular structures and processes have remained relatively consistent for most of span of life on Earth. Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, after spending a lifetime meditating on the evidence, concluded that the vital force of evolution worked in two apposite directions; organisms grew in physical magnitude, and, after sufficient mass had been accumulated, organisms turned their growth inward, and focused on their own internal complexity, ramifying the connections between cells into tissues, tissues into organs, and so on. Beyond this, he charted a second-order effect, a complexification into self-consciousness, an energetic “turning inward” which ramified into the nervous system, connected to all organs, bringing them into a tight informational communion.
All that follows – leading up to the acquisition of language in our species – can be cast as an inevitable process of increasing connection and increasing complexity, producing increasingly greater self-consciousness. With the advent of language, complexity hops the gap from the biological to the memetic, riding on the carrier waves of the vocal cords, and, freed from the need to carefully build structures to suit its purposes, uses culture as its agent in an ever-expanding and ever-accelerating drive to connect.
Thus, from first principles, have we arrived at a perfect description of the current Age.
Concerning the Connectionist Entelechy of the World Wide Web
McLuhan observed that the telegraph represented an exteriorization of the human nervous system, coming eventually to span the entire Earth in a net of consciousness. The telegraph, a truly binary instrument, had only the fidelity to send a few bits per second, but in the hundred and fifty-five years that followed, we’ve come to learn the full dimension of the answer to Morse’s question “What hath God wrought?” Once again connectivity has leapt a gap, translated itself from the kingdom of matter to the realm of light, and now, unconstrained by distance, reaches its full flower, for – unless we master the magic of the unmitigated connection of quantum inseparability – it can go no further. The entire transformation began and ended in the middle of the last century; the only significant changes have been in fidelity and breadth of possibility. That is, until three decades ago.
Writer Robert Cringely recently noted that the Apollo lunar landing and the advent of ARPANET occurred within sixty days of each other, an appositional pairing of extension and internal ramification which could easily have been conceived of by Teilhard. Both reflect ultimate statements of culture, in its ability to do and its ability to be connected. The silicon wafers invented for the space program became the substrate of that network, and so Apollo came to provide a body for the Internet, a literal space of connection, a weave of atoms and bits so versatile and capable that another cascade of catastrophic cultural changes began. When the body politic rubbed up against the very foreign body of cyberspace, everything changed.
The history of the Internet can be seen a continuous set of connectionist catastrophes, a self-reinforcing process which, since its inception, has proceeded at an exponential rate, with no obvious signs of ever slowing down. These catastrophes have impossibly extended the scope of the Internet, but – as if Teilhard’s hand was at work once again – the greatest catastrophe of the Internet was an autopoeic production of interiority. The connections turned upon themselves, and organized themselves into an organic unity, known to us as the World Wide Web.
The World Wide Web continues to represent the most shocking and unexpected event of the century, surpassing the miracles of the atom, the cell and the stars because it acts as the catalytic vehicle of radical connectionism. Born from connection, the Web seeks only to connect; linkage is its primary archetype, its essential form. But this linkage is explicit, linguistic and cultural; the messenger has become the message. And, rather than an arbitrary linkage of all to all – which seems to characterize Alzheimer’s – the Web reflects no connectionist organization so closely as it does the human brain.
The concept of a Web server – in a social milieu, which must be considered part and parcel to the existence of the Web – obeys the logic of neurological connectionism. Repeated reinforcement of pathways from client to server to client is required for continued viability, and unreinforced connections quickly find themselves consumed, cannibalized in the effort to put more bandwidth precisely where it belongs, in those connections most continuously active. Hence the Web is both tireless and transient, relentless and forgetful. It is in the process of becoming; it is vital. Perhaps it is alive.
The radical connectionism of the World Wide Web, so much like a functioning neurological structure, necessarily implies that it will begin to reflect the conscious processes which have engendered it. A few million neurons, with perhaps a half a billion separate nodules of media, begin to reflect the structure and function of a biological consciousness.
I was asked, a few months ago, to answer a hypothetical question: If I had infinite computing resources at my disposal, what would I use them for? I didn’t need to ponder very long before I came up with my answer: I would contemplate the Web – all of it – visualized, from the first tiny glimmer at CERN in 1989 to the planet-spanning Leviathan of the present day, see the connections come into being, see them fade, but mostly, watch them grown and expand their own extent, ever reaching outward to cover more of what we are and what we know. I tell you honestly: I lust for this, because from the seeing will come the words to describe something we can not currently pronounce.
I think from this you might understand why, five years ago, I found myself driven to create a portal into cyberspace, to take the unmanifest and give it form. This is an illness I share with Bobby Newmark, the “Count Zero” of William Gibson’s epic trilogy, who sought to contemplate the Shape of Cyberspace. In the image – though it be a complete simulation, artificium maximus – there is Wisdom, the transfiguration of infinite connection, and, thus, infinite possibility. The lexicon complete.
From all that I can gather, from all that has happened, I can not imagine that such a novel event is very far away; today it hovers on the fringes of possibility, still little more than a mad grasping for a Grail that none of us are Fools enough to see. Radical connection across all boundaries of being.
Novelty approaches – like the great Cretaceous meteorite, falling down the gravity well toward a catastrophic impact.
6 Cimi – 12 Eb (10 – 16 January 1999)