Partitioning idea spaces into containers

Some scattered thoughts on idea flows.

The global idea space is partitioned in various ways. One example would be peoples speaking different languages. English speakers all understand each other, Japanese speakers all understand each other, but there are relatively few people who speak Japanese and English very well. We can understand this situation in an abstract way as two large containers with a narrow passage connecting them.

Similar partitionings occur whenever there are groups of people that communicate a lot among themselves and less with people in other groups. For instance, there would be a partitioning between people who use the internet frequently and people who use it rarely (to some extent similar to a partitioning between young and old people). This partitioning is in fact orthogonal to the language partitioning, i.e. there is an English internet, a Japanese internet, an English non-internet, etc.

The partitioning of the space into containers has effects on the establishment of authorities and the growth of specialised entities inside the containers. The establishment of authorities is in some ways a Darwinist selection process. There can only be one highest authority on philosophy, on history, on art, on mathematics etc. that speaks one given language or acts inside a given container. Or for a more banal example: pop charts and TV programs. (Even though, inside the Anglosphere, each country may still have their own pop chart, they influence each other hugely.) If there are two contenders for the position of highest authority on art in a container, either they have to be isolated from each other somehow, or they must interact and resolve their conflict, either by subordination of one to the other, or by a refinement of their roles so that these do not conflict. As for the specialised entities, the larger the container is, the more space there is for highly niched ideas. This is in fact the “long tailidea. The Internet is one of the biggest containers to date, and businesses such as Amazon have (or at least had) as their business model to sell not large numbers of a few popular items, but small numbers of a great many niched items. Such long tails can be nurtured by large containers. (In fact this is a consequence of the subordination/refinement when authority contenders have a conflict.)

We may also augment this picture with a directional graph of the flows between containers. For instance, ideas probably flow into Japan from the Anglosphere more rapidly than they flow in the reverse direction. Ideas flow into Sweden from the Anglosphere and from Japan but flow back out of Sweden relatively rarely. Once an idea has flowed into a space like Sweden or Japan from a larger space like the Anglosphere, though, the smaller space can act like a kind of pressure cooker or reactor that may develop, refine, or process the imported idea and possibly send a more interesting product back. A kind of refraction occurs.

In the early history of the internet, some people warned that the great danger of it is that everybody might eventually think the same thoughts, and that we would lose the diversity of ideas. This has turned out to be an unrealised fear, I think, at least as long as we still have different languages. But are languages not enough? Do we need to do more to create artificial partitionings? What is the optimal degree of partitioning, and can we concretely map the flows and containers with some degree of precision?

Multiplayer protein folding game

You read it here first – Monomorphic predicted this development in February. In a recent Nature article, researchers describe a multiplayer online graphical protein folding game, in which players collaborate against the computer to fold a protein correctly quickly. (Also: NYTimes article.) It turned out that the human players were successful compared to the computers, and the comparison teaches us much about the problem solving heuristics that humans use. Which will be the next computational task to be turned into an online game?

Rasmus Fleischer’s postdigital manifesto

In his highly timely and readable 2009 book “The Postdigital Manifesto”, Swedish writer and historian Rasmus Fleischer discusses the effects of the digital on our relation to music and sets out his vision for how we can make music listening more meaningful. Fleischer is a prolific blogger (almost exclusively in Swedish) at Copyriot, and is probably best known for co-founding the Swedish think tank Piratbyran. As a side project, I am currently in the process of translating this book into English. It will be released in some form when it is done. The original work was released without copyright, so it is quite likely that some kind of PDF will simply be made available for download.

One of the central ideas of the manifesto is that our relation to music is dependent on physical presence and responsibility. Physical presence as opposed to the illusion that distances and places are made irrelevant by the internet and digital communications. Responsibility as opposed to the idea of mindlessly shuffling through a very large or infinite archive of recorded music. One of the ways in which music conveys something is when I choose music to play to somebody else, and I take responsibility for the effects of the music on that person or on a group of people.

Fleischer constructs the idea of a “postdigital situation” and holds it up as a model for how music is to be valued, critiqued, understood, and, essentially, how it is to take place, or come to matter. The postdigital situation is constrained by a physical space where music is being performed and listened to, where responsibility relations exist and evolve, and where bodies are set in motion. The digital world, the internet without boundaries, can be a means of gathering people in such a space and informing it, but it does not replace it. The “postdigital” goes beyond the naive idea of the digital, which ignores places and crowds.

Olle Olsson at SICS has also discussed this book in English. More to come!