Black Holes, White Earth

It was Walt Whitman who said,

“If you would understand me, go to the heights of water-shore The nearest gnat is an explanation and a drop or motion of waves a key.

I am large. I contain multitudes.”

We are learning that our observable and non-observable universes contain multitudes, alternate possibilities that could have occurred, and might yet become visible and known. White earth is one such scenario, encompassing all of the weather patterns that might have been although as yet unknown in the history of the planet. Another is a concept called sum-over histories, the idea that there is not just a single history for the universe. Rather there is a collection of every possible history for the multiverse, and all these histories are equally real.

This discourse brings us back to the eminent German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who asked, among other things, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Since we are unable in Western traditional thought to conceive of nothing, we have to invent something – an Other, life after death, an immortal soul, a God figure, Heaven and Hell. Nothing, for Western philosophies, is an entity antithetic to our sense of being. We have inherited a dualistic world view.

Followers of Zen would say that this duality is false. There is oneness, or enlightenment, unconflicted, unopposed, all encompassing.

In fact there is another line of thinking that asks not about somethings, or onenesses, but rather about manynesses. Let's go back first to a bit of digital history and the work at Xerox PARC. The scientists there constructed a “forget-me-not” information system which would work for them and also for other unknown digital environments. It was not developed for pre-determined projects. They also created a second information system with so-called “tailorable buttons” which aimed to solve specific tasks using object-oriented concepts.

If we return to Heidegger, we read, “We exist as a 'thrown project': thrown out of a past that we can never get behind, we project ourselves into a future we can never get beyond.” Those of you who read Bumping Into God last month heard it as, “We can go to the cusp of tomorrow, but never beyond. We can pore over the ashes of yesterday but stumble against the edges of prehistory. We create illusory maps of how the world works, but there are places on the map of being that we fear to visit.“

But rebels know, as artists know, that a straight line is a coward, even if we add backward and forward to it. That linear thinking is being upended right now, as you read this, as this essay evolves. I call it data-in-depth. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, calls it open linked data, http as applied not only to a single location which can then be linked to another address, but applied to every bit of data available – http for people, events, projects, etc. Berners-Lee sees data as multidimensional interconnected relationships.

Some of this thinking is attributed to Bjorn Anderson, who in 1988 spoke of EIS, or Evolutionary Information Systems, which did not attempt to serve any specific requirements. “The value of it”, he said, “if any, is in the experience it creates in the mind of the listener.” By implication, no single solution is either called for or acceptable. Further, perhaps there are also no underlying patterns or realities to search for.

From this line of thought came Berners-Lee's creation of The Next Web composed of millions of bits of raw data, available to all. As he says in his TED lecture, ”don't hug your data”. All data need to be unlocked and shared, linked and interconnected. Each individual must add her or his own contribution to the human knowledge base. Together they form a multidimensional compendium of all known information. Think for example of Wikipedia, built by thousands of contributors, described as “one of the central knowledge sources of mankind.” Using the raw data from Wikipedia, software engineers have built DBpedia: imagine if you will almost three million bits of data linking to thirty different languages, six hundred thousand images, three million external web sites, four hundred thousand Wikipedia categories, and on and on.

Back in 1988, Bjorn-Anderson concluded, “we should explore other fields such as art to inspire us to use different, experimental evaluation approaches.” But we know that, don't we. As artists “we envision a community where leaves choose to be square...We accept that the community of truth is mapped with disequilibrium." The new Evolutionary Information Systems are simply exploring Information Black Holes. For centuries artists have been there and returned with visions of what could be. And now that 'could be' is starting to happen, where will we venture next?

c. Corinne Whitaker 2009