It’s easy to lump together Vannevar Bush & Douglas Engelbart because they’re both, shall we say, on the geeky side imagining how to plug this into that and physically manage transfers and copies and recordings and the like. And they were writing essays at about the same time. But that agglomeration misses the point of the difference between them, and between both of them and the most interesting innovators around right now.
I could fall back on the last post and say that on a continuum that matters, Bush has a much lower ratio of digital to analog thinking than Engelbart shows us (almost entirely, the memex is a thing that a human being uses to do certain practical tasks more efficiently, a thoroughly analog storyline, whereas Engelbart borders upon delirium as he loses himself into the network of associations that explodes outward from his first simple notchings of notecards).
Or I could rely on mushy terms like system or network to explain the difference—except that both words are in themselves acritical, failing to distinguish clearly for all readers, though definitely so for some readers—all because of two limiters from conventional western thought. That is, conventional thought is comfortable with both “system” and “network” as long as it can define them in its own way.
So here is an effort to distill something useful from long teaching of postmodern thought, new art in several mediums, and digital literary culture: what are the two easiest (or is that laziest?) ways to miss the point at which one might think “like a native” of the digital rather than as an analog interloper taking a quick look around and inadvertently reconstructing the familiar rather than really seeing what’s emergent.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (there’s no one there, and no curtain, and no not-curtain, and…)
You can think of network as lines connecting existing nodes. Which is not really a network at all, but more like a bunch of classically conceived entities communicating, more or less. It’s so common-sensical it’s almost hard to see why I’d bother talking about it. But, classically, we have thought of things as if they were separate, even autonomous, maybe even transcendental entities with a definable essence with just enough ineffability remaining to make them each seem unique. So, in other words, you have nodes that pre-exist the so-called network that links them, like Bush’s human being who sits down at his [sic] Memex. If, on the other hand, you’d crossed the great paradigm divide (by tapping into Dadaism rather than surrealism or, worse, canonical modernism, or by following the Oulipo, or by following postmodern art, or post-structural theory, or actually reading Nietzsche or Heraclitus or anyone of a number of insurgent thinkers, or…), you might conceive of nodes as epiphenomenal effects of interconnections. That is, “nodes” are effects of connections, nanosecond by nanosecond products of the sum total of relations intersecting at any given point. If rates of change are slow enough, we mentally construct an entity out of a series the way we take rapidly flashed stills as a smooth moving picture, as we used to call film.
For ontologists on the far side of that great paradigm divide, “humans” are wetware whose flash memory operating systems are continuously updated by experiences within culture, “within” because there’s no “without.” And since those lines of interconnection are themselves in continuous flux, pulsing and expiring, rerouting and transforming, none of the stabilities inherent in the conventionally conceived network pertain. Be careful: you may be changed by a randomly accessed input—which is not a new phenomenon (books change people), but just accelerated in terms of the number and diversity of exposures to which we now have access.
So no doubt it gets worse, right?
Ok, so a truly digital network is not a library reading room in which you can walk in from the outside and sit down at a table to discover another object that changes you. You are, instead, always already connected and undergoing digital reconfigurations of body and consciousness. “You” can’t step in the same river twice (Heraclitus) because that so-called “you” that sticks that foot in the “second” time is not entirely the same.
But all this talk about “you” signals the second way to miss the point: if you try to begin with (whatever kind of) “you” and then add to it a network, you’re still using a logic of independent (autonomous? transcendental?) boxes to limit the scope of what you’re talking about, the way we are classically scissoring out of the world one shape to talk about as if it were a meaningful “it” once we did so: it’s meaning is more like a function of the systems of concepts and symbols and processes valorized by our little moment in cultural history. Or, to get concrete about it, the story isn’t about a man [sic] sitting down at Bush’s memex, it’s about a human-memex aggregate (system) working within larger aggregates—networks of networks, systems of systems.
The more we are aware of how these systems cycle through each other, the less provincial we are in thinking about a human who augments itself by outsourcing some memory or some correlation functions. When Engelbart is talking about “associative linking” and “a complex symbol structure that would grow as the work progressed,” he’s walking across the paradigm divide from Bush’s world to the one in which you cannot understand where this is going unless you no longer see singular units (human, memex, data card) but a field of interrelations in which linkages and minds and societies are all being produced as the work progresses bit by bit. It’s dazzling, yes, because it’s so vast and complicated, each little (not)thing a function of all the other (not)things; it’s also discomfiting, because of what happens to that old oddly comforting notion of the human as an entity with an inner nature that is its own unique and enduring identity: it’s gone, poof. In its place is whatever we are being as we surf the network and play the system and jiggle around the possibilities of rewiring and reconfiguring.
The more we do such things, the less we resemble human beings who functioned in a different network of networks (which, perhaps, we nostalgically reify as we want it to be rather than as it now appears to “us” as we look back upon eras in which all this seems to us easier to finesse “back then”). But, really, consciousness changes.
We see noteworthy differences between generations now that lead us to wonder if videogames are destroying our children. Analog logic, analog ontology: if you sense the issue at all, then, yes, those children are already (partly) destroyed—or reconfigured, though videogames are only one set of forms within which that’s taking place. Read Engelbart: “process structuring limiting symbol structuring, symbol structuring limiting concept structuring, and concept structuring limiting mental structuring…” It’s a 1962 usage to say “limiting”—something like configuring is more like it. But he’s recognizing that to enter intimately into the technologically amplified digital world of interrelations is to see that structuring—understanding that word as a cumulation of all interrelations pulsing away at a given moment—effects the changing nature of everything amidst those interrelations in a moment to moment way.
Which is why I like the work of “programmatological” literary figure John Cayley more than I like the work of those who do familiar things (writing analog things in analog logic) on a computer and call it “new.” Or Talan Memmott, whose “Lexia into Perplexia” is all about the network effecting interdependent reconfiguring of the network and its nodes-of-the-moment (or, as he calls them the “cell….f”). They give us the rare gift of work from the other side of the great paradigm shift at a historical moment when we, like the digital pioneers we’re reading just now, are an awkward and perhaps ungainly mix of residual conventional culture and emergent “digital” ontology.