Pirouettes continued

Still thinking about the Prelinger Library article, and considering that we need some models/visualizations for the kinds of distributed collections I’m working on, or toward. I made a marginal note when this phrase tripped through the forebrain:

tesseracted Whole Earth Catalog

and now I want to follow it up with some interlinked digressions.

First, the Whole Earth Catalog and, seriatim, its various successors (CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, the WELL, Long Now Foundation…) have been essential to me for …bless us… almost 40 years, ever since I first frequented the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park. The basic model of knowledge as a sprawling and interconnected and navigable system of tools for understanding the world has been with me ever since, and some of that snuck into a summary of Goals and Methods of Teaching that I wrote at tenure time, about 12 years ago, and still find apt. And Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism is a fine entrée into the dramatis personae and associated mindspaces.

The word ‘tesseracted’ isn’t one I can remember seeing or thinking before, but it seemed to fit the model of multidimensionally interconnected broad-ranging knowledge that I was imagining as an antidote to the geocentric but shelf-bound linear array that is described as the ordering principle of the Prelinger collection. The ‘tesseracted‘ form turns out to be not uncommon.

I first encountered the Tesseract as a concept in a Robert Heinlein story (“And he built a crooked house”) reprinted in Clifton Fadiman (ed.) Fantasia Mathematica (1958). The book was used as an auxiliary text in a marvelous math class (Plane and Solid Geometry) I had as a high school sophomore, taught by Phil Coyle, who went on to grander things.

Google found a 1996 text by Michael Jensen (now Director of Web Communications at National Academies Press) which is wonderfully prescient: Here there be Tygers: Uncharted Tesseracts in the Age of Disintermediation. Some bits:

Intermediation is what we all do, every one of us in this room, in some form or another. What happens when so many institutions are put in doubt or confusion because their primary role of intermediation is challenged by direct digital access to anything we want?

…Something quite separate from the technology –though predicated upon it– something under the sun that is truly new, something unfathomably transformative, is being loosed upon us: disintermediation.

I think of societial disintermediation as the online tesseract –you remember, the “wrinkle in time” that shortens the distance between two points.

Two things are required to make possible the tesseract of disintermediation: rapid easy access to distant digital content, and easy financial exchange.

The first of the pair is here, as we all know. I can pull down a Web page located in Australia as easily and almost as fast as I can one from Duluth. Any material –whether a recording, a video clip, a multimedia presentation, a monograph, a poem, an encyclopedia– can be put online by its creators, and pulled down and displayed the viewers. In three years, it’ll be absurdly easy.

The second part isn’t quite there yet, but we’re almost there, and that’s online micropayments… To my mind, when I can easily, safely, and comfortably pay a buck, a quarter, a nickel, or a tenth of a cent online, then a day of revolution will have arrived.

I don’t say that lightly, or with too much melodrama. I’m quite serious. Micropayments will be transformative, challenging most institutions, most governments, and most economies, perhaps even more than the Internet itself.

…It was Colin Day, director at the University of Michigan Press, who first described the Internet as a “giant disintermediation machine,” and he’s right. The Internet will be–heck, is–challenging the historical intermediaries like publishers, movie studios, television stations, printing companies, libraries, specialty stores, universities, schools, salespeople, even governments. The filterers, the gatherers, the duplicators, the distributors, the finders, will all find themselves sprinting to restructure themselves in the new economy, and they won’t all make it.

Just how to build and manage tesseracted collections is up for grabs, and seems like sort of an apotheosis of conventional hyperlinkage. I flirt with ‘holographic’ and ‘fractal’ as other terms that might convey the multiple interrelationships among objects in such collections, but I’m not as clear as I should be about where the metaphors outrun the requisite lexical precision. Working on it…

4 thoughts on “Pirouettes continued

  1. Gardner

    Oook is on fire.
    We’re working on it down here too, Hugh. A bunch of us are mulling this over. Your thinking and research here are giving me much, much food for thought. I’m dreaming about network effects folded recursively (as they already are in the Open Web) into education at both the micro (learner) and macro (learning community) level, made visible, made the result and the cause of inspiration and engagement, making it obvious that the work of learning and consideration are happening–or not. “An apotheosis of conventional hyperlinkage”–what a fine phrase–I want this for libraries and for the neural net inside each learner and among them all. Not connectivism, though that idea is part of how I’m thinking … I don’t think that things to be known vanish.
    Have you read J.C.R. Licklider’s “Libraries of the Future”? I got halfway through at Richmond and need to get back to it. Some very interesting things there.

  2. Ron

    I was wondering if tesseract is an apt metaphor. We would have to generalize beyond 4-space. When we ‘browse the library’ we don’t just follow links in the network constrained by n-space, by our previously achieved ‘classifications’. Some ‘links’ take us on unanticipated orthogonal tacks. We find ourselves exploring the ‘seemingly unconnected’, and, of course, connecting it! An n+-space, because if we are successful in our ‘browse’, we don’t just make new links in the predefined network, we don’t just answer the questions we formulated when we started our ‘search’, we actually open up new semantic dimensions, n+. We potentiate questions that couldn’t even be imagined the moment before: the n+ tesseract, always evolving, always rearranging the semantic world, linking the ‘seemingly unconnected’.
    The rigidities of previous classifications are both restricting and empowering, we need them to ´push off from’–after all, orthogonal with respect to what?
    Hmm, great stuff here my friend

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