A Tangled Bank


In On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin writes his famous “endless forms” passage:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling in the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms,so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth and Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by Reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of like, and from uses and disuse; a Ration of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several forms, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple beginning endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being evolved.

I love the grace on sweep of his imagination, his obsessive desire to accumulate, classify, theorize, and create. And Darwin agonized and delayed the publication of his Theory of Natural Selection owing to his understanding exactly how radical it was — not only in his scientific circles, but to the guardians of public morality, and his own wife, his deepening, certain uncertainty about the nature of life and its creation. His theory called for, depended on, a huge paradigm shift. He also feared the consequences of his discovery and was publicly vilified and canonized as much as any figure in his century. I though many times of Darwin and evolution reading the previous pieces and again in the Engelbart. The importance of accumulation and selection. of discovering and uncovering structure, of dealing with the random in the apparently chaotic and vastly diversified and abundant natural world.

In many ways, Engelbart’s description of augmentation evokes Darwin’s description of natural selection and descent with modification. For both, the capacity of the researcher to discover sub-structures and structures depended on how his “clerk” could assemble and analyze vast quantities of data. Darwin was his own clerk, collecting and classifying prodigious quantities of specimens — finches, beetles, barnacles, and earthworms,sea turtles and many many more. Imagine what he would do with digital imagination.

———- This was my first thinking, after i woke up my digital imagination. I plan to continue with this after our conversation, but I want to make another point here ———–

John Cage’s “Chance” suggests both evolution and augmentation. Artists look for ways the terms of metaphor collide with each other, creating not only sensory imagery but ideas in tension, sometimes startling, like Donne’s “metaphysical conceits.” They find new perceptions, or old ones revisited through shifts in lenses. What is interesting about chance is that things come together unpredictably but within some kind of framework that is also subject to change, according to material conditions, external environment and cataclysm. Cage created processes by which new combinations of sound could occur beyond any linear or serial sense of occurrence or arrangement by simple logic. Take for instance the piece he did on The Gary Moore Showcalled “Waterwalk.” (check out several of his pieces on Youtube). Things ring, crash, drip, and broadcast static as he moves among them. and it’s in the surprise and the moment of discovery in the properties of the objects rather than a preconceived score that this music stretches the imagination. It’s the 3 dimensionality, the liveness. When I make performances I am interested on what happens when I layer a verbal text over a gestural movement phrase that is created with entirely unrelated texts. What can emerge is a very beautiful trail of associations that comes alive. I am interested in finding out how the process of augmentation suits the concept in the work. I think Engelbart says this in a very different context

I’ll stop here and run to campus for another intriguing discussion.



1 thought on “A Tangled Bank

  1. Comment to myself and to the group

    I reacted to Ted Nelson in very similar ways expressed by Shelli Fowler and
    Jill. I am amazed at how the (yes Shelli) zine-like essay not only envisions so many future developments and dreams, but how much it profoundly evokes that time period and the pedagogical ideas that gained currency in that period. From Paolo Friere,Ted Nelson, Augusto Boal, and now in critical and feminist pedagogies as well as my own theatre work, I live in these concepts. I think education should be pleasurable and free and free of boredom and consequential in people’s lives. I think education should open the imagination, should change oppression, should, yes, augment our intelligence. I am astounded to read these ideas in realtion to computers and the digital world.

    More of this later. NOTES TO SELF:
    Think about Nelson’s excited language.
    Talk about co-creating syllabi with students so it is an emerging, living document of the process of a class rather than the intended outcomes of the TEACHER.
    Remember that Jerry Farber article? First class, University of Utah, 1968 — I am wearing a Nehru style mini-skirt, my very long hair is in leather-wrapped braids, and I am barefoot. The students are very conservative and tell me to get off the desk before the teacher comes in. I say “I am the teacher.” analyze

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