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A Circular (Cybernetic) Field Trip

Published onJun 22, 2024
A Circular (Cybernetic) Field Trip

On Tuesday, I attended the Design and Tech Addiction colloquy, before sneaking out on a field trip (with all apologies to the speakers that day).

You see, I had something waiting for me at the Library of Congress:

For those unfamiliar, Ted Nelson is a bit of an odd figure, and this is a bit of an odd book — originally self-published, the Library of Congress happened to have the version from 1987 with an introduction by Stewart Brand. Steven Levy called this book “the epic of the computer revolution, the bible of the hacker dream. [Nelson] was stubborn enough to publish it when no one else seemed to think it was a good idea.” Various copies exist online, of course, but I wanted to hold my hands on the real thing. Or at least, the second, mass published, version of the real thing.

And if I'm being totally honest, I just wanted to enjoy the Main Reading Room beyond the limits of the 4 minute tour they give to tourists (who also must wait in a long line, as I so naively did on Friday.)

And my attentional resources were fried. I needed something that was not cybernetics for a moment.

At least, that was the intention. I thought I was getting a break from all of this talk of cybernetics. But like the circles Ben Sweeting discussed in his opening talk, what goes around, comes around:

Nelson’s book also contains a nice homage to Gordon Pask:

But the section of the book that really struck me was this:

This idea would be new to me — and fits in nicely with the ideas discussed at this week's conference around attention and tech addiction — except Peter Jones mentioned it in the Q&A session of my talk, Cybernetics and the Hyperactive Hive Mind: Designing a New Technics of Work.

Ah well, maybe I thought, maybe I can escape cybernetics and all of this circularity at the Smithsonian?

Nope, I guess not:

This is the round peg and square hole used in the Apollo 13 and made famous by the eponymous movie.

In another session — I forget which (or maybe it was over drinks) — we had discussed why we humans like to square things that are round. I had joked that sometimes you need to get back to earth and to do that you need to affix something square to something round. The irony of my half-baked joke was that I got it backward — had both ends been round, this would not have been a problem.

Circles win the day yet again.

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