Sunday, January 16, 2005

Text Drives Graphics

Python + VRML
An important point to emphasize with a new generation of computer-savvy student, wowed by eye candy, is that even if the graphics are glitzy, the source code behind them is still text-based. In other words, the programmer's world still looks more like free verse poetry than Saturday morning cartoons.

One way to show this is to start with a VRML graphic, such as the 5-frequency icosasphere in the right window above, let students interact with it, using interface controls (Cortona's in this shot), then switch to the left window, where a scrolled session demonstrates a corresponding text-based API. What bridges left and right is a lot of scripting language, in this case Python. These scripts take user parameters and generate the underlying .wrl file (world file), which the VRML browser then processes and displays.

Likewise, even where the effective use of such scripts is to valve electrons on a motherboard, in order to make state changes to a hard drive, the engineers who designed this mutiple layering of hardware and software used a lot of human-readable text in the process. We're still firmly anchored to what we most need: comprehensible readings (even if highly technical sometimes).

The moral of the story is, contrary to outward appearances, the culture is not moving away from reading, i.e. the process of eye-balling text to extract meaning. The right brain is getting more of a workout, what with all the visual cortex stimulation, but so is the left. So the old balance between left and right is still recognizable.

Fuller's goal in writing Synergetics was to make a more geometrically sophisticated right brain process accessible to strong readers in the humanities. Per Applewhite, Fuller was even contemplating a free verse format. The idea here was that artists and designers of our future artifacts would need to have a strong background in the humanities and the sciences. In developing a more mathematically informed poetics that would excite the liberal arts reader, while at the same time driving a set of precise geometric visualizations, Fuller hoped to bridge what C.P. Snow considered a chasm between the two cultures.

Most scientists and mathematicians who've taken a look at Synergetics, thinking it might be a work in their discipline somehow, have come away frustrated because it doesn't yield the kind of strictly literal "bottom line" interpretation favored by fundamentalists.

Readers in the humanities, however, although more tolerant by training of multi-dimensional readings, typically disconnect early-on, because this really doesn't look like anything they're used to in American literature. Too crazy-making. They'd rather take the easy path and try to write Fuller off as a naïve technophile who couldn't really master the language. But his strong track record in terms of real world physical artifacts made that difficult. Plus he'd held the Charles Eliot Norton chair at Harvard for awhile (see Critical Path, Chronology of Prominent World Events: 1962), and coined the term Spaceship Earth. Not so forgettable, huh guys?

As a liberal arts student at Princeton with a strong background in Wittgenstein's philo, I wasn't so hooked on the need for a literal meaning, plus I was willing to let Fuller develop his own meanings operationally, i.e. through use. Erhard's est Training also helped provide focus in that the Centers Network was clearly taking Bucky very seriously, thereby reinforcing the idea that American philosophy ultimately wasn't going to bleep over a powerful contribution to American literature, regardless of what the rank and file in academia might be about. Plus I noticed another sector of American society that was taking Fuller very seriously: the CIA. My CIA Report on the Centers Network (1985?) was an attempt to better unify these two threads (I think Stanford has a copy -- can't find mine right now).

All of which brings me to American history: if you haven't been paying attention to either the literature, or the philosophy, then how much about it do you really know? Something to think about (especially if you consider yourself an American): some Russians know it better than you do.