Viewing Time

There is a wonderful paper from 1988 called “Decoding the Mysteries” which is all about the difference between reality and our knowledge about reality. In jargon, the first has to do with ontology; the second with epistemology.

We can draw a distinction by virtue of the language we use when switching between the two modes, so we can reflect clearly the difference between what is, and what we know about it. It turns out that one of the most powerful linguistic frameworks we have for doing this is Bayes’ Theorem, which has to do with calculating probabilities.

Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics

Using Bayes’ Theorem, we can describe quantitatively the difference between prediction (which has to do with reality and what actually happened/happens/will happen next) and inference (which has to do with our knowledge about reality and how it constantly changes). Adopting this perspective allows us to clear up paradoxes like what Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance” (among many others).

Basically, if we put two subatomic particles in the same state, then separate them and measure one such that it’s probability wave functions collapses; then the same must happen instantaneously to the other particle, no matter the distance which separates them. This means that the information about our measurement must somehow travel faster than light, which violates cosmic law as we know it, and therefore upset Einstein. 

However, it is not information which travels faster than light, but our logical inference. Imagine you have a bag with N balls in it. There are M white balls and (N – M) red balls. If I pick a ball out and don’t tell you what it is, that doesn’t change your knowledge of what colour is most likely to appear next. But, if I pick another ball out and tell you it is white, then you can also make more accurate inferences about what colour the first ball was (in the extreme case of N = 2, you know it was red). ‘Measuring’ the colour of the second ball changes your knowledge about what colour the first ball might have been, but it does not magically effect its colour when I actually picked it out. It is time-independent ideas we are concerned with when calculating probabilities.

All The Time And No Time At All

Another, more literary, way of saying this is that ideas – our knowledge about reality – exist independently of time and space, and therefore can be applied across it at the same ‘instant’ without violating any laws precisely because they do not exist within spacetime in any meaningful way.

I think that’s enormously cool. It explains why books are magical time-travel machines, just as it hints at the mechanism behind singularities (scientific and those of social consciousness). 

However, the big problem is still to be faced. In order to share any idea, we have to describe it in some kind of language. And our languages are always-already bound to time (see Arrival). It is this condition of linguistic description which forces ideas to withstand the “test of the real” in order to gain any lasting significance.

If we return to the ontological level, though, we can see that any “test of the real” as we perceive it must itself be uncertain and incomplete (thanks, Heisenberg and Gödel). This may seem confusing, but is ultimately the scientific grounds for creativity. It is the little wiggle room between what is and how you relate to it which defines who you are and what you mean.

Models and Metaphors

Back in the epistemological world: once there is conscious awareness of a pattern anywhere, that awareness is ‘everywhere’. Ideas are not bound by time and space; only their descriptions are. However, descriptions are exactly how ideas interface with reality, and the degree to which we act on/out an idea is defined by the degree to which it affirms or negates our individual views; a definition we construct and measure with language, and against the context in which we live. 

For emphasis: thought is a pattern that has the potential to ‘describe’ the patterns which constitute thought, though there are ontological and linguistic limits to the impact description can have on reality. However, that strangely loopy sentence, while seeming to describe a limit on thought, simultaneously performs the fact that these limits can be played with through the languages you employ to construct your model!

The play is always centred on making your epistemology as general and extensible as possible. Ironically, you can only achieve this by paying precise, ontological attention to the primitives which make it all up. Primitives designed to express probability make Bayes’ Theorem a more suitable linguistic tool for understanding Quantum Mechanics than English or German. Moreover, using a particular framework appropriate to probabilistic reality as the primary tool for constructing our mental model results in a clearer description of the critical concepts at the more general level of English or German, too. Magic!

It’s About The View

Another way of thinking about this is that you want to choose your primitives for communication in such a way that they not only describe as succinctly and accurately as possible the kind of reality you’re interested in measuring, but also so that they can find meaningful application in as many different interpretations, or ‘views’, of the results as can be constructed. 

This was one of the core ideas behind Doug Engelbart’s work on NLS, and The Mother of All Demos. By constructing as many views (epistemologies) of the same data (ontology) as we need, and by building into the interface the ability for anyone to make or alter any view they please, we can build “cyclical augmentation systems for collaboration” at scales never before seen. We can equip people to navigate the stored knowledge of our entire species in new ways, which is directly equivalent to describing consciousness more broadly. This, to me, has always been the real promise of computing.

Which brings us, finally, to The Blue Book. While many of the ideas from Engelbart (and Alan Kay, and Vannevar Bush, and Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee) still haven’t been applied, there are ways to think about using the internet itself as the User System Engelbart described in NLS; and using links between different sites (or views) as linguistic primitives for describing the ‘reality’ of a hyperconnected, modern life experience.

The Blue Book exists as a website; a YouTube playlist; a Spotify list for when you’re on the go; a GitHub repository with source code and all the public commits and data that go along with it; a GoodReads list you can not only see reference material on, but also purchase it from; AND as the social conversations that have sprung up, or that are woven into it through its many other links. Admittedly, this is a very poor approximation of what the research at Xerox PARC (and elsewhere) was aimed at, but it is an approximation nonetheless, using only open source tools that are available today.

It represents one, core idea while offering you at least six unique, and yet intertwined, ways of looking at it. What is that core idea, you ask… Well, read-and-listen-to the book and let me know; I am also curious.

Neti, Neti

“Where its power fails to serve my desires, it would be a mistake to blame such failure on the weakness of language. Rather I should blame the weakness of my relation to language. If I fail to notice that I think and speak, under the influence of language, in patterns and constructs accumulated and preserved in the junkyards of long since vanished paradigms, then this shows my lack of consciousness with regard to just that power with which language can quickly make me spokesman for ideologies, in which everybody is almost always “right” at the “wrong” time.

The dilemma is that neither insight nor good intention, not even syntactic and grammatical care, will protect me from becoming an ideologist as long as I am unable or unwilling to create the suitable language which speaks as I think and not louder than my thoughts.” — Marianne Brun

“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.” — Herman Hesse

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