Notes on the Form of Synthesis or a Language of Patterns

Finding myself in the (virtual) company of like-minded people, I thought that I should try to write down some of the ideas and motivations for my Mercator system -- something that has been born and reborn (though definitely not born-again) several times over the last ten years. Ideally we should be together, I should be speaking, and you should be interrupting and arguing -- steering the barque that is the substance of what I want to say in changing directions until it finally reaches port, who knows when or where, but most definitely in the right place.

For I realise that this is, in the end, about serendipity (and in just that fashion as I write this I am drinking tea that comes from the island once known as Serendip). I suspect that the circle of people reading this arose more by accident that design, or, if you have our more structured view of the world, by some design which we have yet to fathom. And I also suspect that that is what we are all looking for from the tool, system, method, whatever, that we want to have at our disposal. Let me interject here, as I might if we were speaking; that this is the first occasion for a very long time that I've written more than two or three words with a pen on paper. My typing is simply not good enough to capture the words as I think them. Nor do I think that this is a form of luddism. I do believe that there is a deep feeling for paper engrained in the human psyche which glowing pixels will never quite replace -- though to talk with some of my students you might not be so convinced!

We are not, I believe, looking for tools to record our thoughts or to provide them with structure. What we seek is something that leads us to the unforeseen collisions, the copulations that lead to new thoughts, new connections and yet more new meetings.

However what we do not want is a tedious and ultimately trivial connections that the data miners find for us; we would prefer to find our nuggets on the surface rather than to have to dig in darkness for them. (Which is not to say that data mining is useless, to instantly contradict what I just implied, but the mechanical extraction can be done later when we have moved on)

And to contradict myself even more, I think that to find the point where the veins meet and the ore has been rendered into pure metal must be a wonderful experience -- in the Coniston Copper Mines the most famous of these finds was called the California Bunch, why I do not know.

The trouble is that we do not know how to induce the serendipitous event. Try walking through a library deliberately waiting for an interesting book to appear. It won't. But head off looking for that specific reference and interesting others will rain down on you. So, to be fair, we know how it happens, but we also know that we cannot force it. (Do we need serendipitiagra?) Perhaps then it is some zen, still place where it can be made to work, but most of us don't have the circumstances that let us "sit quietly, doing nothing". Gertrude Stein said that being a genius was very hard work because you had to spend so much time doing nothing at all. Ms Stein, whatever her own current reputation, had a very good eye for recognising genius.

How then do we at least provide a fertile environment in which connections and patterns have the chance to form? The computer mediated communications that many of us have been using for a long time and which are now mainstream have to be a starting point. The web has a high serendipity factor. Indeed probably too high as the sound of wild geese being chased can often be heard! It is, of course, its structure, however ramshackle, that gives it to this quality. And perhaps its restrictive simplicity also is a major factor. When someone has struggled to show how they view some material and its connections, they have shown something of them. When we look at the presentation we relate to how we might carry out the same task and the contrast may reveal more than the information itself. It is an alchemical process.

This is why being able to look at "Jerry's brain" or "Ed's brain" is good and useful. You go there looking for something, but because it is unfamiliar you look at the surroundings more. It would be interesting to know if people who've been looking at "Jerry's brain" for a while now find it less useful, at least in terms of unexpected connections -- obviously if they are regular visitors it is for a reason, but they probably have established routes to favourite places and don't wander on to other paths as often as they did at first. Tourists usually have seen more of the places of interest in our town than most of the permanent inhabitants. By publishing thought maps we encourage tourists who in turn show us what is and what isn't interesting. Of course to do this we need to observe the progress round the information and it is here "the brain" model breaks down -- you explore a copy of Jerry's brain and you leave no tracks. But you also want to leave your mark to show that you (Kilroy) have also been here, and that therefore something no matter how small will have rubbed off and be with you forever. A Talmudic approach is needed -- the layers of commentary, and commentary on that commentary, have to be recorded and be viewable, as does the original text. Technology lets us filter and combine these views in ways unimaginable in paper based system. Encourage argument, discussion, interpretation. Of course, some of the material will just be graffiti, but who can say what future value this will have -- our largest record of Nordic runes consists of graffiti made by soldiers in a tomb.