Sunday, January 21, 2007

Too complex for humans

Bob Stein has described some of the digital media he’s working on as “too complex for humans” (personal communication, 19 Jan 07). This wonderful expression beautifully captures the essence of what I’m struggling to understand in the hard intangibles project.

Bob speculated that two of the pioneering experiments being done by his Institute for the Future of the Book may fall in this category: GAM3R 7H30RY, a networked book by McKenzie Wark, and Operation Iraqi Quagmire, an annotated version of the Iraq Study Group Report. These “high dimensional” artifacts may become so complex that they are beyond our ability to grasp.

One can certainly think of each content type in these linked conversations as a dimension (e.g. base text, comments, commenters, time), and we clearly can’t think intuitively about spaces with more than three spatial dimensions. I suspect that there’s even more going on than high dimensionality, though: hyper-linking creates texts with topologies that are qualitatively different from most of the books we’ve known to date.

Topology refers to the interconnectedness of structures, regardless of their exact shape and size. It’s the difference between a cup and a glass: the one has handle you can hook your finger through, and the other doesn’t. In topological terms, any glass can be transformed into any other by squishing and stretching, but it can’t be turned into a cup without tearing. Topologically, a glass is equivalent to a plate, or a knife, or a paper clip. As for cups, there’s the old joke, “What is a topologist? Someone who cannot distinguish between a doughnut and a coffee cup.” (Renteln and Dundes 2005, cited in MathWorld.)

A traditional linear text is like a glass or a plate: one can condense it without losing its narrative essence. While some cases like Reader’s Digest or Cliff Notes are straightforward, others are anything but trivial. For example, Tribonian’s 5th Century achievement of boiling down a vast and contradictory corpus of centuries of Roman law into a usable legal code stood for centuries after his death, and was a pillar of the Byzantine Empire. (For a wonderful survey of the socio-political context, cf. Lars Brownworth’s first lecture (MP3) on the Emperor Justinian in his series 12 Byzantine Rulers.)

Sometimes the précis of a large body of law is presented as a commentary, as in the acclaimed work of 11th Century Jewish scholar Rashi. While much of his work was interpretation, and could be seen as a hyperlinked commentary, his explication of the Talmud and Tanach made it understandable to lay people and is used to this day.

Tribonian’s work condensed a large text into a shorter one. Rashi provided links from canonical texts to his explanations, which could be used in place of the original. Topologically both scholars were doing similar things. Condensing a text is just squeezing down its substance. If one imagines links from a text to a commentary as a nodule growing from a plane, then replacing source text with a comment is squishing the nodule into the plane without changing the topology.

Hyper-linked conversations, for example where a text comments on an earlier comment to the text itself, are different in kind. A series of links that eventually loops back to its starting point is like the handle on a cup; it cannot be removed without tearing the structure of the resulting text. A loop-back topology in texts is closely tied to change over time. An evolving text that takes references to earlier versions of itself into account leads to loops. A notable characteristic of digital texts is that they can change rapidly. For example, a wikipedia entry may change minute by minute, but one has to consult the “history” tab to see it. Bob Stein has observed that many people are disturbed by the lack of a fixed reference in digital texts. He’s wondering whether we may just have to give up a notion of permanence in these media (personal communication, 18 Jan 07).

While large volatile loop-back texts may be too complex for humans, one shouldn’t ignore the consequences of scale, even in topologically simple texts where each comment builds sequentially on earlier ones. James Elkins discusses “monstrous artworks”: works that have attracted so much attention that they have effectively outgrown the discipline of art history (Why are our Pictures Puzzles, 1999). Their literature can no longer be mastered by a single scholar, or judiciously discussed in a single volume, or taught in a year-long seminar. Examples include The Brancacci Chapel, the Mona Lisa, and Velasquez’s Las Meniñas). Bob Stein has wondered what the 50 page Communist Manifesto would look like today if it were published as a website with comments, and about how one might represent the gigantic hyper-text of the Manifesto plus all the commentaries that link to it, and among themselves.

The loop-back topology I’m describing is not new. It’s inherent in any conversation, and traditional linear texts contain complex forward and back and backward references that can make them difficult to grasp. What may be new, though, is the scale of the artifact (there is no limit on the number of pages in a digital text), explicitness of the links (which make a false promise of intelligibility), and the instability of reference when a digital text is constantly and invisibly updated.

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