The Knowledge Ecology
The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.
Alan Kay, 2003
Is the music in the piano? Is the thinking in the pencil?
Well, yes, but no, but yes? It reminds me of that Gregory Bateson line: "Do thermostats lie? Yes-no-yes-no-yes-no. You see, the cybernetic equivalent of logic is oscillation.”
Is the thinking in the pencil? The cybernetic resolution to this paradox is to shift our focus away from static objects—pencil, piano, person—and toward the flow of information between those objects. The pencil and the person make up a feedback loop. The piano and the person make up a feedback loop. Together they make up an extended-self system that can do things which neither could have done alone.
So where does the music live? In the piano? In me? Nowhere, specifically. It emerges from the feedback between the piano and me.
The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, clothing an extension of the skin, electric circuitry an extension of the central nervous system.
Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage”
The cybernetic perspective is a Copernican shift. What does this mean? Copernicus resolved the paradox of planetary orbits by decentering earth. Just another rock tumbling around a star. Why should we think we are the center of the universe?
Where does the music live? The cybernetic perspective resolves this paradox by decentering the object. Why should I think my mind ends at the boundary of my skull? Why should I think my body ends at the boundary of my skin?
Familiar tools are represented by the brain as an extension of the body. When we pick up a hammer, our brain says “this is my hand now”, and not “this is a tool”, or “this is an object” (Knights, Mansfield, Tonin, et al, 2021).
The computer is only the arc of a larger circuit which always includes people and an environment.
Kenric Allado-McDowell wrote a book in collaboration with GPT-3. Describing the experience:
A second subconscious. An extended-self system.
The wheel is an extension of the foot, clothing an extension of the skin. The web is an extension of the spider, the termite mound an extension of the termite, the host an extension of the virus.
It is intuitive to think that the organism ends at the boundary of the skin, but does this really make sense? No mound? No termite. No host? No virus. Each is only the arc of a larger circuit. That circuit could be seen as the organism’s extended phenotype (Dawkins, 1982).
Like the cybernetic shift from object to message, the concept of the extended phenotype is a Copernican shift. It resolves a paradox by decentering the organism. For Dawkins, who developed the idea, it is not the organism that is unit of selection, it is the selfish gene. The rest (including me) is a just a vehicle, and the boundaries of that vehicle are incidental. One self-system can freely bleed into another.
Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass (Elhacham, Ben-Uri, Grozovski, et al, 2020). Recently, the mass has been doubling every 20 years.
The extended human phenotype.
Once, the Earthling peered across a vast ocean of sand and asked, "Why - across the clustered cosmos - are mollusk civilizations most common?"
Eta smiled in patience. "You speak mistakenly, but your mistake is cousin to truth. It's correct that when geonauts dredge fossils from the ribbon of endless earths, the shells of whelk-folk are so numerous as to appear prosaic. But their prevalence isn't owed to their dominance, only the calcium of their shells, which decomposes less quickly than the gelatin of their peers, and the silt of their watery hearths, which gathers in soft eddies and shrouds their remains like a bed cloak. Do well and abide this truth, Earthling: the present is but one vista to the past.
Eta and the Earthling, Canto I, Caves of Qud
So, here we are, burying ourselves in the discarded shells of our extended phenotype. We produce them through our ecology. We are also the products of our ecology. But not trapped! We are the gardeners of our own ecologies, too. We can construct different ecologies to generate different outcomes.
[Stafford] Beer thought that ecosystems are smarter than we are—not in their representational cognitive abilities, but in their performative ability to solve problems that exceed our cognitive ones.
Andrew Pickering, “The Cybernetic Brain”
We can construct new knowledge ecologies for ourselves, too. We can generate more diversely creative results, not by becoming smarter, but by constructing diversely creative ecologies of tools with the performative ability to solve problems that exceed our cognitive ones.
My podcast interview with Tasshin. We chat about thinking with notes, the past and future evolution of the web, generative tools that provoke creativity, and of course, Subconscious.
Creative AI: On the Democratisation and Escalation of Creativity. To quote Brian Eno, “the great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgement”.
Superhistory, not Superintelligence. AI as time, not cognition.
Media for Thinking the Unthinkable. Your media defines the range of the thinkable.
The concept of the extended phenotype provides a way to circumvent Landauer’s bound. Basically, biological viruses cheat the limits of computation by outsourcing computation to us.
I'm building a new tool for thought. I have a general sense of the direction I’m traveling, but I will be as surprised as you are at what I discover along the way. I'm posting these little emails as trail markers, every week or so. I share updates, ideas, design patterns, and snippets of books and papers.