“But there is one kind of knowledge — infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.”— Muriel Rukeyser
There Is No Time Like The Present
My first book was a slim, physical thing, with intersecting railway lines on the cover, printed by some friends in East London. It was fun to publish – I got to learn about the industry, see some industrial printers at work, and generally be a part of inscribing immaterial thoughts onto the material world.
To publish a book is to join a long and storied tradition of pattern-making people who try to pull from their imagination real possibilities for other ways of being. It is to become, literally, the diviner of signs as seen through the lens of ordinary life. This is not really anything Big or Mysterious and Mystical. It is not even Spiritual. It is simply the honest and sincere remembrance of what it’s like to live:
“Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since”— Mary Oliver
I’ve spent the last few years loafing in the greener fields of the internet, wondering about alternative forms for books, inspired by two, very different thoughts which mingle in strange ways.
- J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about the difference between applicability and allegory, claiming the first to be infinitely better. Applicability opens the door to interpretation by the reader, whereas allegory lies in the “purposed domination of the author”. Basically, if you’re arrogant enough to think you can come up with an allegory that adequately expresses the age you live in, you’re better off writing pulp fiction. If a book is written and read not allegorically, but with a view to how it applies to your life, then a wonderful translation has occurred and it may open the door onto what Tolkien called “Other Time”.
- In “Gӧdel, Escher, Bach”, Douglas Hofstadter makes the point that: “Before Avery had established the connection between genes and DNA, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger predicted, on purely theoretical grounds, that genetic information would have to be stored in ‘aperiodic crystals’, in his influential book What Is Life? In fact, books themselves are aperiodic crystals contained inside neat geometrical forms.”
GEB is way too dense to summarise here, but this is a crucial point. Books encode, literally, some pattern of mind (or soul, or personality depending on your interests) which is timeless, and can be passed from “I” to “I” potentially forever. This pattern is stored, like DNA and many other dense and self-recursive encodings of meaning, in physical form: strings of letters printed sequentially and bound between a cover. However, online media offer other ways to encode the same, timeless, pattern; ways which are potentially more expansive. Ways which will take you directly to other authors, other times, other songs which sing what this one cannot.
Following Tolkien, digital books need to be applicable to the context they’re in: which is hypertextual and constantly connected. In fact, it is – if anything – overly connected. If the art of good storytelling has to do with what you leave out, then how can anyone possibly tell a story about what the internet really is and what new zones of consciousness it might allow us to explore collaboratively? There is simply too much you have to ignore.
Certainly this is true in the context of a traditional book, but what happens if we take the lessons of Hofstadter and Tolkien, and try and come up with a form which allows for more expansive story-telling? If there were a book that was also an open-source piece of software, that anyone could download and adapt free of charge, then not only would that book exist hypertextually, linking to what it cannot say, but anyone could replicate its form (easily and for free) to tell their own story about everything to which they’re connected.
If all the data stored in such repositories were to remain open source, then we could potentially train our models, our machines, and our minds in more effective ways so that we can continuously improve the worlds we inhabit and the words we use to describe them.
I couldn’t find something that exactly fit this description though. There are plenty of digital book frameworks out there, but none that think clearly enough about the form I feel is necessary for such a project. My struggle with this is described in Fugue II.
Eventually, I just adapted a piece of software I helped write for the Status documentation site, for the simple reason that it is responsive on mobile screens, and allows me to nest content in the sidebar, so that anyone can navigate around the book easily, no matter which device or perspective they look at it through.
Building an online book gives you an extra degree of freedom in terms of how you structure content, as there are – by virtue of the medium itself – many different ways to move around the text. The Blue Book is structured as one, long song with three major parts and two, accompanying (explanatory) fugues. Or is it many intersecting melodies which are sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and sometimes just plain weird? You can begin and end wherever you please, whether that’s in a specific poem, with one of the video frontispieces for each Canto, deep in the tangled bank I continue to build, or just scrolling through the YouTube playlist which forms the literal sound-trace of the book.
For extra context; “Canto” is the Italian word for “verse” and a Fugue is a “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.” Basically, it’s a complicated piece of music that winds back on itself in all these strange ways that tend to bend your emotions and expectations in both tragic and beautiful ways.
If you’re wondering about the choice of name, keep in mind that blue is the colour of devotion, and watch this video to understand the intellectual lineage I place myself in.
Another surprising influence in my work is Bitcoin. Very simply put, through using Proof of Work, Bitcoin is able to translate physical stuff (electricity) into digital value without the need for a government or bank to stand surety for that value. Which means we can build networks between peers that allow for free speech in a much more profound sense than previously possible. This all relies on being able to prove online that you did physical work, which is much harder than it sounds and was a real breakthrough when it happened in 2009.
However, if the past ten years have proved anything, it’s that just giving people the ability to speak and transact more freely does not mean that they understand how to use this new ability (money is speech, hence “put your money where your mouth is” etc.). Sometimes, in this weird future we’re living in, we don’t need better technology: we need better people.
Bitcoin showed us the beginning of what is really possible online, the real question has now become; if you could prove anything using the internet and its vast resources of knowledge, what would it be?
I chose love, because that is what most interests me. I’m not actually saying that it is possible to do anything as absurd as “prove” love, but I do think it might be beautiful to try nonetheless. And I do think that such a project might be helpful one day when we’re trying to teach machines how to love, which is likely going to be quite important to our continued survival.
I once drew a geometrical diagram for an English Masters thesis, and people looked at me like I was completely crazy. So, I won’t provide a mathematical view of The Blue Book, nor will I claim that it has any of the properties relevant to a “real” proof. What I will say is that this is my most honest and sincere expression of love as I have found and experienced it in my short time here.
It is love as it has applied to me. In my eyes, it proves love as an independent and powerful force. But only in my eyes: I do not think it is a general proof. That you must write yourself.
Hopefully, in expressing sincerely our own particular truths, we can – by some strangely applied grace – touch on the universal beneath and above our individual love: for in such moments can be found the ultimate service of life.