Thursday, June 03, 2004
Emergent Internet Operating System
Subject: Emergent Internet Operating System
Clay Shirky: "We never got too far discussing the idea of an emergent Internet Operating System, but there are kinds of thoughts you can have with that frame of reference you can't have in a reductionist framework of assuming that operating systems are merely what runs individual machines. (You could also think of this as an "internet platform", following Winer's "The internet is a platform without a platform vendor" idea.)
Someone said, roughly, "applications don't run across groups of computers, they run on individual computers, while communicating with one another using protocols." Now this is perfectly true, but at a cost of obscuring some important effects. The phrases "Neurons do the chemical work of the brain within their individual cell walls, and communicate with one another using ions" or "Ants do the work of the colony, while communicating with one another using pheromones" are also true in exactly the same way, but whatever the neurons are doing, they are not thinking, and whatever life cycle the ants have, it is not the life cycle of a colony.
The world is rife with membrane+communication channel systems, including games (bridge players communicating with cards) to markets (businesses have all sorts of membranes, from confidentiality agreements to NAT, but use much narrower channels -- vendor contracts, firewalls, NASDAQ -- to interface with the outside world) and so on.
If you want to think systemically, about the mind as opposed to neurons, say, or about the behavior of colonies as opposed to the behavior of ants, you have to take both the membrane-enclosed entities (the classic operating system) and the communication channels (the protocols) as a whole. At that point, some of the behaviors of the system look like the behavior of the individual elements (thoughts, like stimuli, come and go; colonies, like ants, are born, age, and die), but only if you are willing to accept a certain amount of metaphorical translation."
On the Trail of the Memex by Dennis G. Jerz
"Hypertext as mediated by the Web browser has not proved to embody the qualities of the ideal post-structural text longed for by literary theorists such as George Landow; neither has the World Wide Web fulfilled the document-association function of the memex, the hypothetical research tool Vannevar Bush described in his 1945 essay, As We May Think. Bush's memex was not merely a form of photo-mechanical hypertext, but also a means for the full-scale transfer of complex collaborative thought processes, as encoded by individual researchers via their own personal document association schemas. While weblogs, the most influential textual genre truly native to the World Wide Web, do facilitate the exchange of information across the Internet, that information must be carefully filtered in order to be useful. Google's February 2003 purchase of the popular weblogging platform Blogger signals a shift towards content production that may create a conflict of interest; nevertheless, Google's proven ability to mine the data encoded in annotated trails of linked documents may create the synergy necessary to fulfill Vannevar Bush's vision."
Memex construction nearing completion? - McGee's Musings
Jim McGee: "What Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, weblogs, and now Google are all demonstrating is that the boundaries between organizations and disciplines are arbitrary. It's the connections and the trails that matter. It's just taken a lot longer to build it than we would have liked. With a bit of luck we'll find out that we've managed to build it in time."
O'Reilly Network: The Emergent Internet Operating System - 19 August 2001
"In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
Netvironments : GooBlogger Condensate
"It wasn't that we intended to build a search engine. We built a ranking system to deal with annotations. We wanted to annotate the web -- build a system so that after you'd viewed a page you could click and see what smart comments other people had about it. But how do you decide who gets to annotate Yahoo? We needed to figure out how to choose which annotations people should look at, which meant that we needed to figure out which other sites contained comments we should classify as authoritative. Hence PageRank.
Only later did we realize that PageRank was much more useful for search than for annotation..."
Don Park's Daily Habit - 23 February 2003
"Bloggers are ants. Blogspace is a massive ant colony. Like ants, bloggers roam the Web in search of information (food) and lay articles and links (pheromone trails) for other bloggers (ants) to follow."
OpenP2P.com: Swarm Intelligence: An Interview with Eric Bonabeau
EB: Human beings suffer from a "centralized mindset"; they would like to assign the coordination of activities to a central command. But the way social insects form highways and other amazing structures such as bridges, chains, nests (by the way, African fungus-growing termites have invented air conditioning) and can perform complex tasks (nest building, defense, cleaning, brood care, foraging, etc) is very different: they self-organize through direct and indirect interactions.
In social insects, errors and randomness are not "bugs"; rather, they contribute very strongly to their success by enabling them to discover and explore in addition to exploiting. Self-organization feeds itself upon errors to provide the colony with flexibility (the colony can adapt to a changing environment) and robustness (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks).
With self-organization, the behavior of the group is often unpredictable, emerging from the collective interactions of all of the individuals. The simple rules by which individuals interact can generate complex group behavior. Indeed, the emergence of such collective behavior out of simple rules is one the great lessons of swarm intelligence."
O'Reilly Network: Inventing the Future - 9 April 2002 [via cityofsound]
"[...] While entrepreneurs mired in the previous generation of computing built massive server farms to host downloadable music archives, Shawn Fanning, a young student who'd grown up in the age of the Internet, asked himself, "Why do I need to have all the songs in one place? My friends already have them. All I need is a way for them to point to each other." When everyone is connected, all that needs to be centralized is the knowledge of who has what."
Tech Talk: Constructing the Memex: Emergic.org [April-May-June 2003]
In a vast-active-lucid-intelligent-systematic-essay Rajesh Jain explores the question: "Do we wait for Google to construct the Memex? Or, can we – lots of us – build it in an emergent fashion?"
Salon.com Technology: Steven Johnson on the Blogbrain - 10 May 2002
"The true revolution promised by the rise of bloggerdom is not about journalism. It's about information management. The bloggers have the potential to do something far more original than offer up packaged opinions on the news of the day; they can actually help organize the Web in ways tailored to your minute-by-minute needs. Often dismissed as self-obsessed "vanity sites," the bloggers actually have an important collective role to play on the Web. But they're not challengers to the throne of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They're challengers to the throne of Google."
Steven Johnson: Google's Memory Upgrade - Slate Magazine - 6 March 2003
"Bush imagined the Memex as a machine of connected documents that from one angle looks a great deal like the modern, Web-enabled computer. But in one crucial respect, Bush's vision differed from today's Web: He placed great importance on the trails created as the user moved through information space, assuming that a record of those trails would be of great use in amplifying the signal of human memory. In many ways, our networked computers have wildly exceeded Bush's vision, but our trail-recording tools are still woefully undernourished."
The Unconscious is Structured Like a City: Freud, Lacan, and the Project of the Human Sciences - by Peter Caws
"It is beginning to look, given the evidence from deep ocean vents, as if the old cybernetic claim -- that combinatorial possibilities in energy-rich environments lead necessarily to the emergence of ordered structures -- was right. If these structures include transcription mechanisms they may be self-reproducing, and there you are: life.
Where it goes from there will involve some variant on a basic natural-selection scenario -- proliferation, competition, elimination -- and on what Buckminster Fuller used to call the "critical path," the series of chances that mean the difference between survival and extinction as much for organisms as for ideas."
Peter Caws speaking at the first public symposium on ALH 84001
[As cited by Michael Ray Taylor in Dark Life: Martian Nanobacteria, Rock-Eating Cave Bugs, and Other Extreme Organisms of Inner Earth and Outer Space (Bloomsbury, 2000, page 132)]
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Scribner, September 2001)
Steven Johnson: "Histories of intellectual development - the origin and spread of new ideas - usually come in two types of packages: either the "great man" theory, where a single genius has a eureka moment in the lab or the library and the world is immediately transformed; or the "paradigm shift" theory, where the occupants of the halls of science awake to find an entirely new floor has been built on top of them, and within a few years, everyone is working out of the new offices. Both theories are inadequate: the great-man story ignores the distributed, communal effort that goes into any important intellectual advance, and the paradigm-shift model has a hard time explaining how the new floor actually gets built. I suspect Mitch Resnick's slime mold simulation may be a better metaphor for the way idea revolutions come about: think of those slime mold cells as investigators in the field; think of those trails as a kind of institutional memory. With only a few minds exploring a given problem, the cells remain disconnected, meandering across the screen as isolated units, each pursuing its own desultory course. With pheromone trails that evaporate quickly, the cells leave no trace of their progress - like an essay published in a journal that sits unread on a library shelf for years. But plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer, more durable trail - by publishing their ideas in best-selling books, or founding research centers to explore those ideas - and before long the system arrives at a phase transition: isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals."
Wladawksy-Berger Unplugged: 'The Net will transform everything' - 15 May 2002
Wladawksy-Berger: "Grid computing is extending the Internet to be able to become a computing platform. Let me explain. The Internet is a great network with TCP/IP supporting all kinds of network accesses. It's a great communications mechanism with e-mail and instant messaging, and of course with the Worldwide Web, it's a fantastic repository of content.
We now want to take it to the next level in which applications can be distributed all over the Internet, and they can access all the resources that they need, and of course are allowed to access with the proper security even though they are distributed over the Internet. To have such distributed applications you need a set of protocols that everybody can use. That's what the grid community has been building, and that is what the grid computing is about."
Neo-Confucian Critique of Western Values
Don Baker writes: "The universe Thomas Aquinas conceived in Latin consisted of autonomous islands of being, enriched by attributes of appearance and function affixed to those separate substances. In contrast, a network of interrelated events constituted the Neo-Confucian cosmos. As in the modern process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), an object in Neo-Confucianism was interpreted as a focus for activity rather than as a nodule of being. Neo-Confucians identified an entity by those patterns which determined that entity's relationships with other entities. In other words, a Neo-Confucian entity was defined by how it fit into and interacted with its environment. In contrast, Thomistic philosophers formulated definitions based on those static characteristics which distinguished entities from the other entities around them. Thomistics preferred to define an entity by separating it from its environment. This Thomistic conception of substance as independent existence was almost incomprehensible to eighteenth-century Koreans who saw the entire universe as one vast interrelated organism."
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge by Jean-François Lyotard (1979)
"A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at "nodal points" of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be. Or better: one is always located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass. No one, not even the least privileged among us, is ever entirely powerless over the messages ..."
Mitch Kapor's Weblog: Korea and the Political Promise of the Net - 19 April 2004
"In December 2002, the Uri party used the Net to go around Korea's traditional political structures and elect Roh Moo-hyun President. Korea's national politics have traditionally been regionally based. However, using the Net, the Uri put together a new political coalition based not on geography, but age, bringing together those under 30. Paradoxically, the Uri also used the Net to involve citizens at local face to face meetings.
The Net was used to begin to break the overwhelming political influence of Korea's giant corporate conglomerates, the chaebols, who funded (both legally and illegitimately) much of Korea's politics. The Uri use the Net to help fund their campaign with tens of thousands of small contributions.
Just as importantly, the Net allowed the Uri to go around Korea's established status quo political media. One Net news organization, Ohmynews, is helping redefine journalism. Founded only four years ago, the online news service can gets as many as 20 million hits a day in a country of 40 million. While Ohmynews has 40 full time employees, it uses over 23,000 "citizen reporters," and editorial policy is voted on by their readership."
Alan Dix: The Ecology of Information
"For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday." Ludwig Wittgenstein
Smooth Spaces and Rough-Edged Places: The Hidden History of Place
Ed Casey: "The difference between space and place is one of the best-kept secrets in philosophy. Above all in modern philosophy, where the very distinction came to be questioned and then discredited: one way of understanding modernity, as I shall suggest later on, is by its very neglect of this distinction. The ancient world, however, knew otherwise -- knew better. Indeed, the pre-modern and the post-modern join forces in a common recognition of the importance of place as something essentially other than space, something one cannot afford to ignore in its very difference from space.
It is my view that, contra Koyré, the advent of the infinity of space was to begin with (and perhaps most enduringly) the creation of the late Neoplatonic period of Hellenistic philosophy. The idea of such infinity was available ever since Philoponus espoused a truly "cosmical extension." In this light, later and more celebrated thinkers such as Giordano Bruno and Nicolas of Cusa only pursued the idea to its bitter end -- for instance, in the extreme notion that there is not just infinite space but an infinite number of worlds in such space. This latter was an idea for which Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600, suggesting that the seventeenth century opened with the effort to suppress infinite space. Leading thinkers of this century continued to dispute such space, especially insofar as it entailed the void, concerning which Locke and Newton were supportive, and Descartes and Leibniz virulently opposed: their very variance on this issue exhibiting the uncertain destiny of infinite space during the century.
If space and place are both utterly relational, a sheer order of co-existing points, then they will not retain any of the inherent properties ascribed to place by ancient and early modern philosophers: properties of encompassing, holding, sustaining, gathering, situating ("situation" in Leibniz does not situate at all; it merely positions in a nexus of relations). So as not to incriminate Leibniz unduly, let me simply say that he brought to its logical term the full implications of the stranglehold of simple location in which so many of his immediate predecessors were also ensnared. As Whitehead himself points out, the direct result of simple location in philosophy as in physics is the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. For our purposes, this means a loss of the concrete particularity of place as well as the abstract absoluteness of infinite space -- and the dissolution of both in the emptiness of sites."
French Theory and Criticism: 1968 and After
"Serres argues that communication is determined by chance and is not, strictly speaking, a reversible process. Meaning is determined by the unpredictable interruption of non-meaning, parasitic intrusions that ultimately become nodal points for new signifying systems." Herman Rapaport
Catastrophe, Chaos, Complexity, Theory
"Must we choose between Wilden's scientific modernism and Deleuze and Guattari's poetic postmodernism? We think not. Depending upon the task at hand, one might like to make use of either of these tools, or perhaps even both of them at the same time, leaving the contradictions in place and not attempting any sort of 'synthesis' that would 'reconcile' them and drain each of its particularity. We see complexity theory, then, as being both modern and postmodern, and would like to see this contradictory position not only maintained, but pushed to its limits, where it might slide over into a chaotic regime and give rise to forms not yet imagined."
Richard Day & Guy Letts
American Scientist Online - Putting Genes in Perspective
David W. Pfennig: "An unfortunate outgrowth of the modern revolution in genetics is the widespread belief that the genes of an individual organism determine its appearance, physiology and behavior. The genome does not, of course, completely determine how an organism is constructed: The environment is an essential partner. Nowhere is this point more clearly illustrated than by the principle of developmental plasticity -- the tendency for genetically identical organisms to differ in response to various environmental stimuli, or for individuals to vary over time as the result of changing conditions in their surroundings. For example, in many reptile species, incubation temperature determines gender. Likewise, certain insects develop wings only if they live in crowded conditions (and hence are likely to run out of adequate food). Indeed, environmentally mediated developmental flexibility is so ubiquitous that it can be regarded as a universal property of living things."
Rethinking Genetic Determinism by Paul H. Silverman
With only 30,000 genes, what is it that makes humans human?
"[...] Mary Jane West-Eberhard explored the potential of combinatorial evolution in a recent, stunningly comprehensive book, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. She summarizes how a combination of exon-shuffling and protein-domain rearrangements can result in the evolution and selection of new patterns without the need for de novo components such as mutations. And she notes that Keese and Gibbs have postulated that a mere 7,000 exons can account for all known proteins."
Mae-Wan Ho: Thinking again of life's miracle
"The organic whole is an ideal democracy of distributed control. It does not work in terms of a hierarchy of controller versus the controlled, but by intercommunication."
The emergence of form by replication - Velarde, Nekorkin, Kazantsev, and Ross
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA - Vol. 94, pp. 5024-5027, May 1997
[Abstract] "It is shown with a simple mathematical model that if a system exhibits a given form (a spatial structure) and is put in contact with another system of the same type but in a state of spatial disorder, then under certain conditions their mutual interaction as they evolve in time allows replication of form in the disordered system with a controllable degree of faithfulness."
"I did avoid the Internet, but only until the advent of the Web turned it into such a magnificent opportunity to waste time that I could no longer resist. Today I probably spend as much time there as I do anywhere, although the really peculiar thing about me, demographically, is that I probably watch less than twelve hours of television in a given year, and have watched that little since age fifteen. (An individual who watches no television is still a scarcer beast than one who doesn't have an email address.) I have no idea how that happened. It wasn't a decision." William Gibson
Macroscopic and Microscopic Processes of Evolution of Evolutionary Processes
"The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." William Gibson
GooOS, the Google Operating System : kottke.org : 6 April 2004
"[Google] have this huge map of the Web and are aware of how people move around in the virtual space it represents. They have the perfect place to store this map (one of the world's largest computers that's all but incapable of crashing). And they are clever at reading this map. Google knows what people write about, what they search for, what they shop for, they know who wants to advertise and how effective those advertisements are, and they're about to know how we communicate with friends and loved ones. What can they do with all that? Just about anything that collection of Ph.Ds can dream up.
Tim O'Reilly has talked about various bits from the Web morphing into "the emergent Internet operating system"; the small pieces loosely joining, if you will. Google seems to be heading there already, all by themselves. By building and then joining a bunch of the small pieces by themselves, Google can take full advantage of the economies of scale and avoid the difficulties of interop.
[...] Who needs Windows when anyone can have free unlimited access to the world's fastest computer running the smartest operating system? Mobile devices don't need big, bloated OSes...they'll be perfect platforms for accessing the GooOS."
Topix.net Weblog: The Secret Source of Google's Power
"Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It's running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It's looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application.
While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming.
This computer is running the world's top search engine, a social networking service, a shopping price comparison engine, a new email service, and a local search/yellow pages engine. What will they do next with the world's biggest computer and most advanced operating system?"
Richard Hackathorn: The Link is the Thing - Part 1
"In many physical and social systems, the important characteristic is that it is composed of a loosely coupled network of interacting autonomous elements. It is not a homogeneous mass. The whole system behaves quite differently than that of the individual elements."
Tim O'Reilly - The Software Paradigm Shift
"I really believe we are moving to a very, very different computing paradigm where applications actually live on the network. I mean, where exactly does Google live? It lives obviously on Google's bank of servers, but it also lives in a PC-based application. So we're really starting to see what Dave Stutz famously called "software above the level of a single device" and "software above the level of a single operating system." You have people throwing around words like "pervasive computing" and the like."
Emergic.org: Gmail and the Internet OS [17 April 2004]
Rajesh Jain says: Tim O'Reilly puts Google's Gmail in a wider context:
"Gmail is fascinating to me as a watershed event in the evolution of the internet. In a brilliant Copernican stroke, gmail turns everything on its head, rejecting the personal computer as the center of the computing universe, instead recognizing that applications revolve around the network as the planets revolve around the Sun. But Google and gmail go even further, making the network itself disappear into the universal virtual computer, the internet as operating system.
[...] Until I heard about gmail, I was convinced that the future "internet operating system" would have the same characteristics as Linux and the Internet. That is, it would be a network-oriented operating system, consisting of what David Weinberger calls "small pieces loosely joined" (or more recently and more cogently, a "world of ends"). I saw this as an alternative to operating systems that work on the "one ring to rule them all principle" -- a monolithic architecture where the application space is inextricably linked with the operating system control layers. But gmail, in some sense, shows us that once storage and bandwidth become cheap enough, a more tightly coupled, centralized architecture is a real alternative, even on the internet. (I have to confess that was one of the wake up calls to me in Rich Skrenta's piece, linked to above.)
But in the end, I believe that the world we're building is too complex for tight coupling to be the dominant paradigm. It will be a long time, if ever, before any one company is in control of enough programs and enough devices and enough data to start dictating to consumers and competitors what innovations will be allowed. We're entering a period of renewed competition and innovation in the computer industy, a period that will utterly transform the technology world we know today.
I love Dave Stutz's phrase, "software above the level of a single device." We're used to thinking of software as something that runs on the machine in front of us, its complex dance hidden by the blank metal and plastic of the hardware that houses it. But now, computers are everywhere, and each dance has many partners, a whirling exchange of data that will be made visible when and where we want it. It's not the machine or even the software that matters, it's the information and services that travel over the hardware and software "wires." Gmail's introduction of large amounts of free online storage for application data is an important next step in freeing us from the shackles of the desktop.
This isn't to say that there aren't important issues raised by the internet paradigm shift. The big question to me isn't privacy, or control over software APIs, it's who will own the data. What's critical is that gmail makes a commitment to data migration capabilities, so the service isn't a one way door to the future. I want to be able to switch to alternate providers if the competition makes a better offer. The critical enabler is going to be the ability to extract my data and connections so that I can work with them on multiple devices, for example, syncing my laptop or phone with my gmail account rather than having to work only in a tethered fashion. I understand why gmail doesn't offer this feature now, but it's going to be essential in the long term."
John Battelle's Searchblog: The Database of Intentions [via Google Blogoscoped]
"The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data (ie MSN, Google, and Yahoo). This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind - a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion."
John Battelle (co-founder of Wired and author of upcoming book "The Search: Business and Culture in the Age of Google" (Penguin/Putnam/Portfolio 2004)
John Battelle's Searchblog: The Web As Platform
"The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work." Ludwig Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations
Henri Bergson: Creative Evolution: Chapter 2: The Divergent Directions of the Evolution of Life -- Torpor, Intelligence, Instinct
"The instrument constructed intelligently ... reacts on the nature of the being that constructs it; for in calling on him to exercise a new function, it confers on him, so to speak, a richer organization, being an artificial organ by which the natural organism is extended. For every need that it satisfies, it creates a new need; and so, instead of closing, like instinct, the round of action within which the animal tends to move automatically, it lays open to activity an unlimited field into which it is driven further and further, and made more and more free."
Jim Bassett's Weblog - Tuesday 12 March 2002
"[...] What exactly do you do on the internet? Just why is it so great? I mean for someone who doesn't already think so. It's a hard question to answer.
Here's my first try:
It's not so much that I want the net in order to accomplish some particular activity. Instead, having net access is a way of being. A way of doing things in the real world. And it boils down to this: I used to put off learning. I'd come to some problem and think, "you know, I really should figure this out some day." But I usually wouldn't do it. And once I put off learning something, I usually have to wait for it to come back up as a problem before I think to figure it out again. But with net access the answer is always just a google away. And I really do it. All my "I wonder...." moments are now swiftly met by a "hold on...." click, click, google, click, "...right, here it is."
And the benefit is not so much in finding all this information. It's more in my changing expectations. I expect to be able to find the answer to almost anything, right away, by myself. This is tremendously empowering. Just knowing that I have access to almost all knowledge changes everything about me. It makes me better. More curious. More independent.
But I still have no answer to my friend's question. I don't so much "do" stuff on the net (well, not counting my programming time.) I do things in the real world, and the net is there to back me up. The net is there to let me be my own expert. Even at things I don't know much about. I can't wait until I'm wirelessly connected all the time. My guess is that as this happens the question of "what do you do on the internet?" will make less and less sense. Like asking "what do you do in your long term memory?" Well, nothing, but you use it all the time. And you certainly couldn't get along without it."
Cognitive Complexity vs. Connectivity: efficiency analyses of hypertext networks
"Hypertext networks are in many ways highly similar to human long term memory, structurally as well as functionally. Both hypertext networks and human long term memory store information by coding its meaning in a distributed network of relations between semantic sub-components. Both are used and browsed for retrieval in similar ways. The results from psychological research concerning the relationship between the complexity of stored items and the speed with which they are recovered from human long term memory, might aid in understanding why certain hypertext networks perform better than others."
IMA Annual Program: Probability and Statistics in Complex Systems: Genomics, Networks, and Financial Engineering, September 2003 - June 2004
Metaphoric Shift: From causal chain to relational net
"This shift, from "chain" to "net" as working metaphor is, it seems, part of the general shift of figure going on in Western thought and science. Vico in the Scienza Nuova is already rejecting, as a basis for his thinking about history, not merely the familiar "blind concourse of atoms" but also, in his own phrase, the "deaf chain of causes and effects," his metaphor pointing up a lack of necessary organic qualities in such figures. In 1803 the phrase, "the kindling net," is used in Erasmus Darwin's poem, The Temple of Nature, to express the spread of organic life over the globe. Carlyle, in his essay "On History," 1830, says, "Alas for our 'chains,' or chainlets, of 'causes and effects,' which we so assiduously track through certain handbreadths of years and square miles, when the whole is a broad, deep Immensity, and each atom is 'chained' and complected with all!" Once again it is Dr. Needham, in Vol. II [reviewed here] of Science and Civilisation in China (see particularly Section 13, pp. 280 ff.) who draws attention to what is happening in the figurative thinking of Western science, and the contribution that can be made by the characteristic thought-patterns of Chinese science: "A number of modern students ... have named the kind of thinking with which we have here to do, 'coordinative thinking' or 'associative thinking.' This intuitive-associative system has its own causality and its own logic. It is not either superstition or primitive superstition [sic] but a characteristic thought-form of its own.... In coordinative thinking, conceptions are not subsumed under one another, but placed side by side in a pattern, and things influence one another not by acts of mechanical causation but by a kind of 'inductance' ... The key-word in Chinese thought is Order, and above all Pattern (and if I may whisper it for the first time, Organism) ... Things ... were thus parts in existential dependence upon the whole world-organism. And they reacted upon one another not so much by mechanical impulsion or causation as by a kind of mysterious resonance" (Pp. 280-81. Italics in the original). After connecting this type of thinking, in differing ways, with Blake, Lévy-Bruhl, and Whitehead whom he considers the supreme example of it in the West so far, and after introducing the great metaphor of the dance for this moving pattern of relations, Dr. Needham sums up in one sentence: "In such a system causality is reticular and hierarchically fluctuating, not particulate and singly catenarian." Out of which corruscation of Latinity let us extricate our metaphors, for reticulum is a net and catena a chain. That the net, now become a key figure, is to be thought of in terms of organic and not mechanical structure is brought out a little later: "The characteristic Chinese concept of causality in the world of Nature was something like that which the comparative physiologist has to form when he studies the nerve-net of coelenterates, or what has been called the 'endocrine orchestra' of mammals. In these phenomena it is not very easy to find out which element is taking the lead at any given time. The image of an orchestra evokes that of a 'conductor' but we still have no idea what the 'conductor' of the synergistic operations of the endocrine glands in the higher vertebrates may be. Moreover, it is now becoming probable that the higher nervous centres of mammals and man himself constitute a kind of reticular continuum or 'nerve-net' much more flexible in nature than the traditional conceptions of telephone wires and exchanges visualised. At one time one gland or nerve-centre may take the highest place in a hierarchy of causes and effects, at another time another, hence the phrase 'hierarchically fluctuating'. All this is quite a different mode of thought from the simple 'particulate' or 'billiard-ball' view of causality" (p. 289)."
Elizabeth Sewell - The Human Metaphor (University of Notre Dame Press, 1964, pages 121-122)
Wired 3.06: A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain
"And you were successful, Mr. Laney?" Yamazaki asked. "You found the ... nodal points?"
posted by Andrew 6/03/2004 05:21:00 PM