We seem to live in an age where the algorithm serves as an extension of our desire. This picaresque ramble contemplates what it means to follow a rule, what the boundaries of a rule are meant to contain, and the morality of rewriting and overwriting a rule. In his book on the algorithm, David Berlinski provides a definition:
In the logician’s voice
an algorithm is
a finite procedure,
written in a fixed symbolic vocabulary,
governed by precise instructions,
moving in discrete steps, 1, 2, 3, …,
Whose execution requires no insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, or perspicuity,
and that sooner or later comes to an end,
Within the conceptual machine of the algorithm, we envision the creation of software agents that will encapsulate and encode our desires. These secret agents will be unleashed upon the virtual and augmented world to locate the conditions and process the data that match a predetermined map of our dreams and passions.
But let’s hit the back button on this train of thought. The interface for this exploration appeared the other night at an art opening. Paul Madonna was introducing his new work at Electric Works. On a table in the entry way to the exhibition were a number of books. In addition to Paul’s new book, there was a book by David Byrne called Arboretum. This book contained a number of drawings that I immediately wanted to willfully misinterpret. Byrne’s drawings are mind maps that show connections/relations between things— they represent a kind of systemic history in some cases, or the dynamics/economics of a system in others. They have a strong relationship to Diderot’s organizational ideas for his encyclopedia.
David Byrne, History of Mark-making
There was something about the visual character of Byrne’s drawings that reminded me of the music notation and compositional titles of the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. When music notation is at its most strict, it tells us precisely how a piece can be replicated. The player piano uses piano rolls to produce near identical performances. In the fake book, we might just get the chord changes and the melody— the arrangement is up to us. Braxton takes this kind of abstraction to another level in some of his notation that borders on encoding synesthesia— where color and shape are meant to guide the performers.
Braxton’s Composition #76
Somehow by combining the notation of Braxton and the tree drawings of Byrne, I imagine conjuring up a notation system for an exploration through conversation, a kind of performance script. While, as Umberto Eco notes, the list can be a flexible tool, engendering both anarchic and organizational impulses— I find myself drawn to these maps of notation. When I engage in conversations about strategic direction, I always imagine them taking place within a terrain with specific dynamics.
By Berlinski’s definition, these musical instruction sets aren’t algorithms. Their execution requires insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, and perspicuity. The performer has to make decisions, exercise options, contribute variable inputs that will result in a variety of outputs. In that sense, they function more like a game.
In business, there’s an attempt to codify process to the extent that all of its aspects are substitutable. Even as parts of the machine are replaced, it’s output remains constant and consistent. This is the industrial commodity as ideal. Variances are a sign of poor management.
The script for a theatrical performance is another kind of instruction set. Notational experiments in this realm are also highly instructive. A few years back I attended a performance of the Wooster Group’s Poor Theater. The text of the performance was largely other performances, and the group’s performance itself described as a simulacra. For instance a performance piece, where the movements are the performers’ response to, and modeling of, a cowboy film projected to the side of the stage.
Elizabeth LeCompte by Leibowitz
Elizabeth LeCompte experiments with both what counts as a performance text, and what counts as a vital interpretation. She even refuses to be limited to a single text (instruction set), with the Wooster Group’s La Didone she weaves together a performance based on Cavalli’s opera combined with Mario Brava’s 1965 science fiction film Planet of the Vampires.
Brava’s Planet of the Vampires
Wooster Group’s Didone
The mashup, the remix, the blending of instruction sets to produce something entirely new is what the process of creation has always already been. The boundary between recipes loses importance if the meal is well presented and delicious— a new recipe is created.
These two relationships to rule sets define much of human experience. The one approaches the regularity of the machine, while the other can careen off into what seems to be unbounded chaos. One set must be followed to the letter (a machine is the optimal performer), the other leaves openings for a two-way interaction. But the act of writing back into the interface is fraught with danger. It stands on the border of transgression, or transumption. When we don’t follow a rule set, but instead apply a new rule set from different context, we can be perceived as willfully misreading, incompetence or breaking local laws. Edward Said, in his reading of Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading, describes the Oedipal resonances:
Thus Bloom writes: “To live, the poet must mis-interpret [his literary] father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father.” Consequently a poet is not a man speaking to other men, but “a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.” The great poetic ambition, which only the strongest poets achieve, is to appear self-begotten not only free of the father but, as Bloom demonstrates beautifully in the case of Milton (who is Bloom’s own strong poet par excellence), the father’s father. This final “transumptive” act of poetic majesty Bloom calls metalepsis: “Milton does what Bacon hoped to do; Milton and Galileo become ancients, and Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Tasso, Spenser become belated moderns.”
The fixed symbolic vocabulary of the algorithm is one of the points where misreading wants to overwrite fixity. Meanwhile back on the Network, there’s a sense in which Phil Windley’s concept of a purpose-centric web dares to ignore the local laws and advocates simply rewriting/overwriting the fixed symbolic vocabulary to serve another purpose. There’s a sense in which we can view this as another instance of text, interpretation and performance. The revolutionary idea of the Action Card is that my rule set trumps yours.
To return to the moment that started this train of thought, let’s look at Byrne’s Arboreum drawings as a performance text. It seems as though the fixed symbolic vocabulary becomes slippery when it moves from linear typography to a map or model. The symbolic moves from symbol to symbol. The adjectives finite, discrete, governed, fixed, and precise all seem to lose purchase. And yet if we look at the Wooster Group’s rigorous performances, we could apply all of those adjectives along a different dimension.
These two relationships to the text stand across from each other as mirror images. As the algorithm blends with desire and takes flight into the real time flow of the Network, our sense of logic may sometimes take on the guise of the logic of sense, and it will have to learn to keep its cool as it makes the occasional trip through the looking glass.