Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Structures of Thinking, Structures of Writing

Back in the 1960s Douglas Engelbart challenged the way people thought about things. In a 1962 report titled “Augmenting Human Intellect,” he proposed a switch from linear thinking –i.e., “a sequence of steps of reason, beginning with known facts, assumptions, etc., and progressing towards a conclusion”– to a system based on the rearrangement of concept-statements. He used punched index cards and thread. It sounds very rustic, I know, but he basically was talking about creating a database of knowledge that we could search thanks to algorithms, and then re-organize –sew the cards back in different groupings; networks of interrelated concepts. He tried to convince his audience that reasoning –the way we think– could change, but first, he (although Douglas was a bit strange –and maybe a tad sexist– and when writing these reports didn’t use the “I” form, but invented a weird alter-ego called Joe, who did most of the cool talking) says: “I want you to notice how hard it is for a person to realize how really unquestioning he is about the way he does things.” In other words, what our friend Joe is suggesting is this: once you reveal the invisible –automatic– linear structures that have been forcing your mind to think linearly, you are free to challenge them, and move on.

We like Joe. Joe is cool.

Today we have the Web –full of gigantic “searchable” databases. We also have computers where pretty much everything is also stored in a similar fashion. I can search my Mac’s “finder” and get any documents I need. I type in a word I know is tied to a concept I am interested and voila, I get tons of related information. I get good results because when I type down stuff –any information about a book or an article or any random idea–, I give it a tag. I give my own genius ideas the same-ish tags I give to any copied quotes or short paragraphs about a book’s relevant themes. This way, I place my thinking within others’. When I want to write something new, I rummage through these bits of information and re-arrange them to create a patchwork document I work with. A sort of essay cut-up. Each part acts like a node in a network. Then, however, I cave in to conventionalism and cover the emptiness between fragments with narrative and, through tyrannic meaningful grammar that really stresses the inevitable “I” in narrative writing, I allocate each concept in its place so my readers can access the one linear path I finally choose for them to access. I write an essay.
I’m not quite as cool as Joe. But I think we could be friends, I like to think we think alike.