Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Narrative Imperative

Now that I have a smartphone, I tend to use it to look up words. Here in America I don't mind so much that Google might be tracking my searches, but it does occur to me that did they want to they could pretty easily discover exactly what I'm reading; I'm pretty sure the choice and sequence of words I'm looking up makes a sort of signature for which book I'm reading.

That sort of search is trivial for computers, and tough for a guy like me. In fact, if you were to highlight all the terms in a particular book which stand out simply for being underutilized in the corpus of all books; nevermind the state of the particular reader's mastery, you'd have a pretty good way to catalog the books. It would also be more enriched than just titles, authors, dates and keyterms. Maybe.

I'm sure this is why Google is so hard at work accomplishing that great public service of scanning in all the works from the world's key libraries, and I wouldn't complain about it. Well, except that as has been indicated by the recent business losses descended from necessary changes to the Google search algorithms, they clearly have too much power.

But imagine if the government were to take the Google utility over. There'd be all sorts of politicization to what really should be decisions motivated only by Google's self interest. If we can't count on that, then what can we count on?

An ever changing catalog of word frequencies could allow the precise placement of written works within the ever shifting sands of cultural epistemes. Works could be dated, authors and readers profiled, and lots of conjecture could be accomplished, mechanically, about where the epistemes are headed. Who's the vanguard, and what is the conservative drag coefficient.

Or we could mandate a pubic database, using reliable and repeatable cataloging principles. Of course we'll have to keep a few libraries open and a few public-servant librarians employed at something better than slave wages if such an extravagant notion is to have a ghost of a chance in the Wild World Web, where information just wants to be free!!!

When I go to the movies, I make decisions about which one to see based on some powerful calculus of the relation among my energies: my desire to escape, to be entertained, or to learn something. But since it's almost always a series of either/or decisions, there's a diminishing chance I'll ever spend my money and time to watch a C-grade movie, whatever the genre. Even if some poor schmuck of a film-maker worked his heart out on the one I'll never see.

I don't read much stuff that's written for edgy specialists either, and why would I? The effort to be expended would quickly encompass the entire professional life I didn't spend. Not to mention the time spent looking things up.

I suppose it'll be a nice day when everything operates the way that NetFlix does, and so Google or some other book purveyor can recommend to me some signature books which follow the pattern of my affinities. (The government can track me down as well, lumping me in with those folks who have nefarious motives for their concealed reading or other weapon-toting habits.)

But there are two things which make life worth living (for the purposes of this narrative). One, of course, is serendipity. The other is authors who consider it their duty to write for a general public without dumbing their writing down the way that Harvard philosophy chair has done (I won't name him since I only read the free Kindle first chapter, and I found it insulting to my intelligence, as though written algorithmically with a flow of words so smooth I hardly even had to think).

Essentially, they reveal the wisdom of their narrow discipline to the greater reading public, among other things just in case someone from a different discipline - or even no discipline like yours truly - is able to take the writing and run with it. Reframing according to the principles of Occam's Razor can be such a powerful thing, and it can never happen at the pinnacle of accomplishment inside some discipline. Not able to see the forest for the trees kind of thing.

Of course, there's also money in writing for a mass audience, and the closer you can make your language conform to the prevalent popular waves, the more there is to be made.

I am apparently not the only person who's read of Rupert Sheldrake's crossword puzzle experiment. It's one of a series of experiments designed to test for "morphic resonance" which predicts, among other things, that tricks once learned are more trivial to learn once some one being has done it.

So, if you pre-publish the New York Times crossword puzzle so that it can be solved by a random selection of puzzlers before it gets published for the general public, that puzzle (presumably randomly selected from a bunch of norm-referenced puzzles) will be demonstrably easier for the general public to solve than puzzles which have not yet been puzzled over. Even though the pre-solvers are prevented from sharing their solutions.

Pretty cool, no? But are crossword puzzles in the realm of normal tasks which require complex understanding or detailed recipes for their solution? In my example yesterday, I contrasted unself-conscious mastery to mastery which can be taught in a kind of aha quantum leap fashion: recipe instruction compared with rapid deployment frame-changing.

I suggested that the most powerful teaching might always involve frame-shifting, which is specific subcategory of principle discovery as opposed to the simple recitation of factual narrative. I also said of myself, since I'm memory challenged, that internalizing operating principles is the only trick I have. I'm lazy I guess. I look for the most direct solution which doesn't involve much higher math.

The rest of you may not be so troubled by porous memory, and so you memorize formulas for a science or a math test, say. I can't and so I must derive them each and every time, or so my life's narrative goes. But I could never do it on my own without knowing that they had been derived before and having myself rehearsed their derivation. In essence I simply reiterate a familiar process. Maybe that's just another mnemonic device, like constructing mental architecture or other techniques I've heard about.

Crossword puzzles involve, sometimes, surprising word associations, which, like jokes, once told seem quickly to become general currency. If they were already general, then the puzzle part of the crossword simply wouldn't work.

But just as with jokes, they work because they are, more or less, in the air. If one comedian doesn't coin it, someone else will. Puzzle master, first solver, Stewart/Colbert (who always joke about the same stuff some of the time). This obsession with priority is so pre-post-modern!

The guy stuck in the old frame, who just doesn't get it (me!) can never be the teacher, and some jokes just aren't ready to be told, but once the overall ground of discourse is tilled for it, there is a kind of inevitability about someone somewhere and maybe almost everyone everywhere being able to come up with the resolution, the joke, the word-association.

Pinpointing the shift toward readiness is about like locating free will or the conscious actor on the Cartesian Stage. Among the contingencies and deliberations, false starts and completions of someone else's beginnings, I still wonder why it matters. What matters is that things do originate, it hardly matters where. Unless self-aggrandizement is the goal (which, of course, it always is - that's a part of the narrative imperative).

But clearly, if there is attention to the problem, and the solution is arrived at, then the world (of discourse, in this case) has moved a smidge in a direction it might not otherwise have moved. Because there is no known conduit for transmission doesn't mean we have to fill in the blanks with ESP or psi or other words which stand in for what we either don't or can't know or both or either.

The problem of precise origination or precise location or precise causal chains is remarkably analogous to the problem (solved!!) in physics about particle/wave mass/momentum information/perception. To within a cloud of precision some things simply can't be known. That doesn't mean they aren't.

I wonder why that is such a surprise, and why there is such resistance to buying it?

Well, of course it's a cheap trick and undermines all the hard work we've done to build up complex theories to explain not just how things work. In those momentary choices which must be made, while standing in line to watch the movies, or deciding what to read or with whom to mate, we really do want guidance. But not to the point of the absence of any free will.

Right now we are all still in thrall to the meme of mechanism, of cause and effect originating somehwere, which causes (!!!) us, collectively, to go marching off the virtual cliff, which will certainly be for the good of the planet if not for the good of the species. (Or was that the other way around? Our march to the cliff is wreaking an awful lot of havoc on the planet, which might wish that we would jump already, if it were to have wishes).

A crossword puzzle is an arbitrary shift in the ground of discourse, meant only for the amusement of those of us enamored of words. A choice about which movie to watch if of no consequence whatsoever. But if the field of possible choice is reduced to that with which the powers that be feel unthreatened, we start to worry about being entertained to somnolent death.

If the rewards for origination become so extravagant that individuals can control the wealth of nations (Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, the Googles not to mention the actors [actors!!??], we start to wonder about our relative freedoms.

We are all whores to dictators if the price is right!

If, on the other hand, the cataloging of our corpuses of words in the world of discourse were never a matter for proprietary algorithms: If the fiction of the private were dissolved within the fact that there is no private discourse, and if the catalog were to remain stable according to the well-worn paths of seekers. And finally if the role of serendipity were to be embraced as fundamental, finally, to what it means to be alive, which of course it is. Then we might not be required to follow one another over that cliff which is the only possible end to our clambering after the pinnacle of origination. The spike of free will's tipping point.

Yes, to make any sense at all a narrative has to be time-sequenced. Attention gets paid in order. The bounds of shared meaning get explanded. And when the seed crystal is dropped into the supersaturated tangle of words - or when the vessel gets tapped - sense does start to crystallize without any matter of authorship origination proprietorship or wealth to drag it down. The truth is feerer than all the efforts now deployed to keep it costly. Well, apart from the Scientologist, no-one does put a price on knowledge.

How odd that this mad mad race for knowledge and understanding should fall victim to its own efforts. Because it was thought more complicated than it is. If we simply were to recognize our interdependence and the role of chance in the lot of each of us, we might yet realize the fruits of our conscious labor.

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