My mentor at UCLA, Professor Susanna Hecht, was passionate about travelogues and literature from the age of discovery and enlightenment, and gave us the opportunity for a lot of self-directed study, particularly of utopian literature and the works of explorers -- the writings of everyone from Campanella ("City of the Sun" ) and Bacon ("A New Atlantis") to Defoe ("Robinson Crusoe", which I also recently read in Arabic in a recently re-published bi-lingual book from Madboulis, proving it still has international appeal) and Alexander von Humboldt, and her own personal favorite, Euclides da Cunha, whose 19th century prose about the lost edens of Amazonia she has recently translated in her latest book.
Such literary voyages into the minds and spaces occupied by great ideas of social and landscape tranformation in an age of wonder have an impact on the student, and ci could not remain unaffected. So forgive me if it colors my writing style!
What is more, in this new age of discovery and enlightenment, opened up by the world wide web, the dense writitng style of our forebears, who were true explorers, not armchair explorers,mind you, and wrote centuries before the advent o the tehcnologies that now make us all "windows explorers", is incredibly useful, and should make a comeback.
It is useful for us "windows explorers" because of the historically recent evolution of the AI hypo-organisms called "web-bots" or "search-bots" who spend their time indefatigably hunting and gathering in hyperspace. They are the true "windows explorers". The web bots slavishly devoted to their "Googling" search engine using masters, are connection freaks. In their digital DNA is a program that compels them to make associations and relentlessly look for patterns of recognition in the vast sea of information that would overload the human mind. The web-bots in Google are the virtual Zabaleen of the internet, scouring through the garbage and flotsam and jetsam of hundreds of millions of loquacious human beings and mining that mountain for useful combinations of materials.
So in my mind the web bots in the serach engines of today are in some ways the equivalents of the humble servants of the great explorers of yesteryear. They are the natives of cyberspace, helping the 21st century's neuromantic equivalents of Alexander von Humboldt and Bonpland. They are the servants you never read about, those hardy souls who led the way through caves and mountain passes and river fords, who carried and preserved all the specimens of plants and animals and human bones on tortuous jungle paths, who identified species new to European minds and translated encounters with "savages" into friendly cross-cultural conversations.
Given their programmed desire to help us make our discoveries, I try now to write deliberately for THEM. I try to write in a style that might alienate many readers grown up in an era of short "sound-bites" and watered-down, sensationalized headlines, yes. But I am doing it with a purpose.
I learned the style from a great journalist, my father, John Culhane, who, after years of winning prizes as a hard-copy writer for the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine and Reader's Digest, among so many other publications, became fascinated by the power of hypertext before there was an internet to put it in. My Dad wrote increasingly in a style that felt like "James Joyce's "stream of consciousness" meets the annotated bibliography". It all seemed to start when he gave a keynote speech to my high school rotary club called "Only Connect" with the message that we were all participants in "The Great Conversation" and all we had to do was connect the dots that people were leaving behind in their writings and discussions. In this way, he told us, humanity advances.
John Culhane was ahead of his time for many years until the world-wide web and hypertext suddenly became a user-friendly phenomenon. Now, as he writes his memoirs and puts them on the web, you see how you can unpack his densely imbricated thought streams and mine them for gems of insight to fit your own discoveries (singing "Hi Ho, Hi Ho" on your way back from the mine!)
Having come of age in the time of hypertext and web bots, I am deliberately writing in a more or less 18th - 19th century style (hybridized with the newly evolved style of John Culhane), a style packed with information which was necessary perhaps in an earlier age when printing was so expensive and labor-intensive, being hand-set type; the more you could pack in a small space the better.
I am, you see, deliberately writing for the search engines, not for the "everyman" or the "everyreader" , because my target audience are the windows explorers (and those "firefoxes" who are roaming the forests of information hunting down their word-prey) who are interested in helping construction a new "eu-topia". I am trying to find the time to hyperlink everything I write together so that a user's random walk through Google might serendipitously lead to a discovery useful FOR THEM, or at least a chance to lend their piece to the evolving puzzle of enlightenment in an age threatened by climate change, toxicity, radioactivity and disease.
This inchoate (and, I admit, sometimes "incoherent" :)) writing style is all about keywords and hyperlinks, and increasing the statistical likelihood that like-minds will stumble upon useful information contained here-in (I am also encouraged by re-reading the works of Buckminster Fuller, who, in a pre-hypertext age, also packed information into his works, using unusual concatenations and word play to trigger associations in the minds of readers sympathetic to his desire to engineer and better world through design revolutions. Only connect!)
The right key words might put a google searching world-changer in touch with a concept buried somewhere in my experiences that could lead to their next "Aha!" or "Eureka" moment. Since I don't believe that my own little inventions and innovations will be able to solve problems fast enough or well enough to get us through the nightmare of Global Warming and Social Upheaval on our collective horizon, I am making a bid for the power of collective intelligence to solve our global problems, and trying hard to play my tiny part. Perhaps something I say or write or do has a message for you. I don't know!
I do know, however, from following the work of my robotocist friends Nicolaus Correll, Jim Pugh and Chris Cianci at the EPFL in Switzerland, that Swarm Theory and investigations into the behavior of insects (which my Harvard professor E.O. Wilson got me excited about when I took his sociobiology class back in 1980!) are demonstrating the power of the "random walk" to produce efficient outcomes when coupled with the right search engine logic and the proper networks for interconnectivity.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And today, to finish my meandering story, was a kind of proof of the concept: A man from Guernsey, England who had spent time in Africa named Marcel Lenormand stumbled upon a post I wrote about our problems trying to build a solar tracker in Egypt and offered his help to find a solution. He then left a very encouraging comment on our latest post about our discoveries concerning do-it-yourself solar collectors using open plastic barrels and float valves. Clicking on his name in Google brought up a comment he had left for another organization, concerning his discovery of a revolutionary urban bio-gas solution created by the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in India.
(Useful construction details found here).
What Marcel could never have known is that Solar CITIES has been in deep conversation with the Zabaleen garbage community in the ghettos of Cairo, searching for ways to turn the city's organic waste into biogas, and assessing the potential for an urban bio-gas revolution. We had been looking at rural solutions and attending conferences on biogas, but nobody had come up with a system appropriate for the densely crowded urban situation. And yet, thanks to a random walk following Marcel's comment threads on the web, we found the very solution we are looking for!
And that is how collective intelligence and random walks can affect development, if we all, like responsible ants, leave the right trail of where we have been and the ground we have covered. In this way, we fulfill Abraham Lincoln's message: "If we could first know where we have been, and wither we are tending, we would better know what to do, and how to go about it."