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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. The study of reality is called ontology; the study of what we know about reality is called epistemology.

It may seem silly to use such big and unnecessary words, but reflecting clearly on the difference between what is, and what we know about it is the foundation of this essay. One of the most powerful linguistic frameworks we have for making this distinction technically is something called 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 (about reality and what actually happened/happens/will happen next) and inference (our knowledge about reality and how it constantly changes). Even if you’re not a statistician and couldn’t care less about the probable, knowing that there is a difference between reality and our knowledge of it allows us to clear up some seeming paradoxes.

For instance, Einstein famously rejected much of quantum mechanics because of something he called “spooky action at a distance” or what is now called “entanglement”. Basically, if we put two subatomic particles in the same state, then separate them and measure one such that it’s probability wave function 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 Albert.

However, it is not information which travels faster than light, but our logical inference. Imagine you have a bag with 2 balls in it. There is 1 white ball and 1 red ball. If I pick a ball out and don’t tell you what it is, that doesn’t change your knowledge of what colour ball will appear next. But, if I pick another ball out and tell you it is white, then you can also make an accurate inference about what colour the first ball was (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 affect 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

In terms of our knowledge about reality: 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, description is exactly how ideas interface with reality: an idea that is never shared cannot be measured in an ontologically meaningful way. The world’s in our head must be reproducible by others through interpretation if they are to matter.

Here is the great trick: 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 All 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 reality while offering you at least six unique, and yet intertwined, ways of interpreting it. Rather than concluding myself, I will let other voices summate.

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

"A suitable language not louder than my thoughts". Brun was way ahead of her time, or perhaps just entirely outside it.

“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