The Virtue of Modelessness

ArtCom Digest on The Well, December, 1992

The author would like to thank Abbe Don for her comments & support.

Down among the dancing quanta,
Everything exists at once.
Up above in Transverse City,
Every weekend lasts for months...

—Warren Zevon, Transverse City

Jay David Bolter, in a talk at the MLA two years ago [1990], spoke about Richard Lanham's duality of hypertext: the dialectic of node and link, or as he put it, "looking at" vs. "looking through." The reader experiencing the text, Bolter said, is "aware of oscillation; [and this is an] explicit measure of interaction." Ultimately, he was arguing, hypertext wants to be both at the same time. Text which can present itself as surface, and yet effortlessly yield through to other levels. Hearing this, I immediately began to suspect this hypermedia duality was the mirror and analogue of the duality of particle and wave, of energy and matter, in physics. What we are seeing in hypermedia is the appearance on the macrolevel (of 2-meter humans and similar Objects) of quantum reality.

In this essay, I'll attempt to explain this perspective, and its cultural implications. Any softheaded mystical nonsense is purely my own, and should not be attributed to Bolter. He is both more precise and far more lucid than I, and anyone interested in hypermedia should check out his hypertext, Writing Space. (It has a book that goes with it, too…)

I'll also be playing with the idea – and ideal– of modelessness. Mode-lessness, in computers, is software designed so that one can do anything, at any point in a program. For example, some word processors force you to use a special "page preview mode" in order to see the entire page. Only when you're in that 'mode' can you make certain kinds of changes. Modeless word processors allow you to move things around, arrange columns, and even draw on the page, without falling into a mode. By extension, modality also applies to the interface between humans and machines. Keyboards, for example, are a modal interface. Your interaction with the machine is limited to what can be typed. The rise of mouse-driven iconic interfaces is a move toward modelessness. The leading edge of the modeless future is embodied in the nascent technologies of pen-based computers, voice recognition systems, and virtual reality.

All Hands on the HoloDeck
Jaron Lanier, the chief evangelist of VR has said that virtual reality is "post-symbolic." His description of communication in VR:

You have this possibility of a kind of collaboration that you really can't have with symbols, where people can be simultaneously molding a shared reality.

It does indeed sound like the ultimate in modeless communication, but both Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Moulthrop have pointed out the danger of a lack of critical perspective in hypermedia. This alleged asymbolic modelessness would indeed insert us in a wonderful shared reality, but one separated from the human lifeworld by an extremely modal cutoff: nothing that happens In There has any impact on the Out Here. It is the triumph of Baudrillard's hyperreal, the dream of every image manager and spin doctor who ever wished that hungry people could be sated by pictures of Big Macs and fries. But people hunger for the Real Thing. They gotta have it.

And yet, despite this problem with modelessness as defined by the current virtual intelligentsia, there is a virtue to it as well, one which is linked to Ayn Rand's idea of the virtue of selfishness, parodied in the title of this paper. Whatever else one may say about Rand's ideas, her redemption of the notion of self-interest under the guidance of an unflinching attention to reality will serve as a useful counterpoint to the drifty nonsense that follows. If we take as given that comprehending the way-of-being of the universe is an important goal for sentient critters, then the true virtue of modelessness is in getting our foot in the doors of perception.

A Full Petri Dish of Culture

There must always be a gap between the continuous world of perception and the world of signs, a gap that can never be closed by any technology of writing.

—Jay Bolter

The ideal, the continuous world of perception that Bolter describes, is what hypertext seeks to approximate with its oscillation of node and link.In the mind, each idea, embedded in an interconnected holographic space, can serve as both the Node, and then, vanishing into itself and passing on to the Other, as the Link. In physics, we understand that all "particles" are really energy, that "energy" is in fact a "particle" with a different 'spin.' The search for the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is a search for the invariances, the symmetry which, when shattered, gives rise to the duality of fermions and bosons – things and force-bearers. Our idea of Idea is in fact such a symmetry-breaking operation, cutting out of the quantum flux of mental process this "thing," which we proceed to label an idea, and which then surprises us when it vanishes into its interconnections.

Ideas, in the mind, are active symbols in a Hofstadterian sense. Not "signals," or arbitrary strings of characters to be decoded Chinese-Room-wise, but living entities, each with its own propensities, capable of acting. Each "word" in the mind is a nexus of activity. If you will, the mind is Indeterminate Text in its richest sense. Our mind is this constant being and yielding, entiteification and recombination, the process of being created and sustained above quantum flux, interfacing back down into web-woven synthesis. But this is the ideal of Indeterminate Text; the actualization of this, in current hypertext schemes, can only be Object Oriented.

It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulations

The Hero with a Thousand Interfaces
Michael Joyce has described a taxonomy for hypertexts: those which are exploratory, and those which are constructive. An exploratory hypertext, says Joyce, is one which fundamentally recapitulates the models of interaction with previous media, like, say, books. You can poke around in an information space, perhaps making a few notes or building trails, but there is a hidden geometry to the space to which you stand in the relation of discoverer, or interpreter. Hypermedia dictionaries, pre-scripted virtual realities, parser-driven interactive fictions are the paradigms of the exploratory. These texts are object-oriented in a deep sense. Like object-oriented computer languages, they comprise a domain of demons, each awaiting its invocation. But they also, deeply, replicate the phenomenology of objects in our everyday world: they recapitulate what we know about our world. They enact our object-oriented ontology.

Well, so what? We return, for a moment, to the world of the quantum, a world where Objects can both "exist" and "not exist," where location is a probability, and where, with sufficient energy and time, improbabilities become manifest. Clearly, our presumptive world, the world of our human-size epistemology extruded into exploratory hypertexts, is not isomorphic with the quantum. However, Joyce's other category, the constructive hypertext, provides an indication of the right direction:

Constructive hypertexts...require a capability to act: to create, to change, and to recover particular encounters within the developing body of knowledge....These encounters, like those in exploratory hypertexts, are maintained as versions, i.e. trails, paths, webs, notebooks, etc.; but they are versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist. [italics mine]

The constructive hypertext is the embodiment of Heisenbergian Uncertainty. It is the Autobiography of Schrödinger's Cat. Constructive hypertexts do not proceed from discovery of hidden content, but rather by symbolic creation. A constructive hypertext (and it must be admitted, there are few examples) is necessarily elliptical, open, and metaphoric. For this reason, we are more likely to find them in the province of interactive fiction or 'narrative' than in the commercial world, for reasons that Elizabeth Eisenstein and Marshall McLuhan would explain by pointing to the linkages between literacy, social control, and capitalism...

"My god, it's full of polygons."

—An alternate Dave Bowman

If we are to look for the leading edges of virtuous modelessness, we must look beyond the pragmatic. When the protomammals internalized their media ecology, putting a symbolic representation of the world into their brain, they leaped immediately ahead of the presymbolic, associative idea-space of the reptiles. But this technology (and its technological progeny) have at their heart an implicit pragmatism, a pragmatism engendered by thenecessity of surviving in a world of sensory experience. If we are to catch glimpses of the future of 'text,' we must look for metapragmatic characteristics:

  1. It will not be visual. At least not in the same way that we currently think. As McLuhan said, "[Euclidian] visual space...has the basic character of linearity, connectedness, homogeneity, and stasis." Instead, think about virtual realities in 4-D worlds, or Reimannian geometries. Or fractals. A-And what about that Hilbert Space, huh?

    Why do VR researchers spend so many machine cycles trying to replicate the look and feel of the wasted paradigm of objects? Answer: Because they don't know what comes next. They can't. They won't take that Zen leap into the space and grok its contours. Nowhere was this clearer than in the recent Stephen King film about VR, Lawnmower Man. Leaving its other shortcomings aside for a moment, the film fails most dismally when it tries to depict a human intelligence which has projected itself into the Matrix. How does it enact this idea visually? As a giant golden robot. This is not just indicative of a failure of software (although it is that too) but rather a deep lack of understanding about the Nichts-an-sicht of the virtual.

    Why replicate personoids? Why objects? We have the opportunity to create a whole new universe, one which foregrounds our perceptual choices. And what do we do? We build, as Robert Royar has called it, "Prodigy Three-D."

  2. It will not be linguistic. As Roger Penrose maintains in his book The Emperor's New Mind, language, localized as it is in the left hemisphere areas of Broca and Wernicke, is inconsistent with whole brain knowing or symbolic cognition. He takes issue with the common assumption that without language, thought is impossible.

    I'm walking a fine line here. I am not arguing for a DisneyLand of the perceptual experience, which, as Bolter points out in Writing Space approaches the horrifying "utopia" of "computer controlled television." Rather, it will not be linguistic in the linear, typographic sense of the term. Just as the shift from spoken language to alphabetic literacy required an unimaginable leap (measured existentially by the difficulties of allegedly civilized nations like the United States to empower all its citizens to make that leap...) so too will the Matrix require a total reworking of our schemes for representing and transmitting ideas.

    Words are a funnel, a narrow twistor through which the howling multiple presence of Mind is forced, like Play-Doh through one of those shapes at the end of the Play-Doh factory I had as a child. You put this protean blob of Play-Doh in the top, squeezed down on the plunger, and extruded a shaped stream which could be sliced up into neat little stars, allowed to dry, and decorated. These are the books, the artifacts of print culture. "The living," as Jack Kerouac said, "Have a dead idea."

  3. It will be a reflection of the native constitutory action of mind. William Gibson's book Neuromancer highlights this distinction. In Neuromancer, there are two varieties of digital experience: simstim and cyberspace. Simstim (or simulated sensory stimulation) is the digital equivalent of television: neural implants in the "actor" transmit sensory experience which you "tune in" for the experience of "being there." But the cyberspace cowgirls and cowboys dismiss this as a "meat toy." The real action exists in the Matrix, or cyberspace, which is a "Consensual hallucination...a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system." Not everyone can jack into cyberspace and project their consciousness into the matrix. Like reading and writing, or tv vewing and production, there could be another broken symmetry here, if we allow certain models of hypermedia development to dominate...

"Just return through it."

—a found mantra from computing.

Evolutionarily, we are phenomenological pragmatists. Our ideation, our "minding," our language, our Texts, all reflect such habits of mind, and the technologies we externally create to instantiate these ways of minding are all rigorously subject to the contraints of the practical. We are all naive realists and tacit essentialists. "Relativity is the shattering of the highest law of motion taught us by experience," sez Ernst Cassirer. Quantum mechanics is the shattering of pretty much the rest of the truths we learned poking around in our world of Object-Oriented Childhood.

Roger Penrose argues that thought is non-algorithmic and strongly dependent on quantum effects. According to Penrose, "having" a thought is the result of virtual quantum computation, a collapse of superposed thought-functions, and which particular thought we have is a non-local solution to the presenting problem (non-local in the quantum mechanical sense). In the face of this, algorithmic representations (which are the pragmatic progeny of natural language) become sterile replications of received pattern, as unable to produce artificial intelligence as gingerbread person cookie cutters are to produce living people. What Penrose's argument implies for hypermedia design is a deep challenge on its most basic assumptions.

It seems likely, then (he said, falling into the teleological snare), that the function of consciousness is to become aware of its limitations – factors latent in the anthropotropic media which supply it – and to bootstrap itself through technological augmentation into modes of awareness/ consciousness which are enactments, on this layer or level of reality, of the fundamental indeterminacy of the universe and our brains.

Our dreams of the Matrix then, are dreams of a tikkun, a re-integration of the microlevel and macrolevel. Is it accidental to have choosen such a metaphor as the Matrix, the mother? Is the coincidence in the rise of patriarchy and phonetic alphabets mere happenstance or a smoking gun? As the ekstasis of intuition was paved over by the tarmac of pragmatic text, so went the model of self and the symmetry of gender. Object-Oriented Virtual Reality is nothing more than the latest attempt by the patriarchy to reproduce itself, ab nihilo, by uttering the Word.

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to link
If there is to be any virtue to this pursuit of modelessness, it must come from the attempt to truly use these tools in the search for ever more challenging, fruitful metaphors, rather than trivial distractions and recapitulations and enactments of stale habits of mind already decomposing before our eyes. The hope is not for better video games and teledildonics, but the possibility of throwing into relief, and making visible, the very Kantian grounds upon which our systems of thought are based.

It remains to be seen if truly Indeterminate Text can be instantiated macroscopically. Perhaps not by digital systems. They are either/or systems, and while they can model, or approximate indeterminacy, they do not, at bottom, embody it, and therefore seem essentially incapable of manifesting it. Mind, however, seems to have this capablity. Perhaps, as Penrose suggests, understanding mind will give us insights into the pathways of the probabilistic. Were we to construct quantum computers which could indeed interface directly with our brains, and set out to create a fictiverse whose laws were those of quantum mechanics, a fictiverse we could inhabit as a metapragmatic consciousness, would we be capable, in principle, of constructing indeterminate texts about our experiences?


Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon the immobility of our conceptions of them.

—Marcel Proust, Swann's Way