Information as Process

I was just reading Will There be Condominiums in Data Space? by Bill Viola, first published in 1982.

The gist of the essay seems to be that there a multiple ways in which information may be structured and cross-indexed for future retrieval and use.

Viola provides a number of models and examples for information structures. I will refer to the ideas possibly conveyed by each model as a “meme,” using the term in the Richard Dawkins sense, where a discrete piece of information is the unit.

He cites an ethnomusicologist friend who studied Javanese gamelan music.
The performers could not play a piece from the middle because “the music was learned and conceived as a whole int the minds of the musicians.” They didn’t view it as work with a structure that could be dissected into parts like verse, chorus, coda, or phrase. This information model is one in which the meme is a whole indivisible piece of music. It has a beginning and end, and that is where it starts and finishes, respectively. It is impossible to enter from the middle.

Viola writes, “Poetry has always had a level that video or film cannot approach … : the existence of words on paper (how the poem looks, how the words are placed on the page, the gaps, the spacing, etc.). The whole poem is there before us, and, starting at the top of the page, we can see the end before we actually get there.”
This is a feature of all analog print and visual art rather than one of poetry. Multi-panel comics share the same traits. You are meant to read or see things in a particular order before you understand the content. With paintings, the process works the same way but it is also reversible–you usually see the whole before you see individual details. Writing is linear in that there is a planned route, whereas visual arts such as paintings, sculptures, comic illustrations, can be explored in a variety of ways. In this model, the meme has units (words) and sub-units (letters), and a prescribed order, but you can see all of it at once and start or stop from anywhere in the middle.

“Word processors allow one to write out, correct, and rearrange the whole letter before typing it.” Typing and printing isn’t the hard part for me. I may not need white out or paper in the way that I did on typewriters I still have to decide what the content is going to be, and I have to refine it repeatedly. The ideas don’t exist in an organized structure before I write and edit them.
In this model, a meme can be edited. New information can be injected into the middle. Other parts can be deleted.

Viola then formally describes other models: the branching structure, the matrix structure, and the schizo structure, and he says that “it is clear how this can enhance our current educational system, freeing students from boring and incompetent teachers so they can proceed at their own pace through information which now contains movement, dynamic action, and sound in addition to written words.”

The lesson I take from this is not that movement, sound, and dynamic action are what have been missing from education, although that can be the case too. Using multiple formats can improve education because people respond differently to different types of media. Self-directed learning is where Viola really seems to have pointed this essay. Structuring information in ways in which students can explore and follow different threads that inspire their curiosity can enable rapid learning about novel subjects.