Some thoughts on the field of play, where thinking happens and understanding grows:
I planned to wrap up this Field of Play article with a couple more posts in the series, including an outlook/forecast of forthcoming innovations in the field of play (media). I’ll get to that. Last night though I received an email from someone raising some really great questions about the nature of thinking, which got me thinking:
You correctly point out that we have no idea how thinking works (no one does), nor even what it is. Neither scientists nor philosophers can answer things like that. What cognition is, why it exists, and/or how it works, is a total mystery to the human mind, and may always be. It may lie well beyond our cognitive grasp, beyond the reach of our cognitive abilities. In this way (being a total mystery) cognition may be much like gravity.
As Isaac Newton well understood:
(action at a distance without contact) “is so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has… a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it” – Isaac Newton
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwkIlurJlCI-aHNqb2Zjb3FwcVE/view?usp=sharing (transcript of talk by Noam Chomsky “The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding”
Youtube video: http://youtu.be/D5in5EdjhD0
(Newton) wrote that “the notion action at a distance is inconceivable; It’s so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters, a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” (philosophical means what we call scientific)
We simply do not have whatever cognitive capacity it takes to understand what gravity is or how it works. For us it’s a total mystery, completely beyond our comprehension, and always will be. See Chomsky’s talk for discussion of this (this is true for all of us, including our best scientific minds today)
If I said to you, “I can make my dinner plate move across the table by thought alone without touching it”, you’d say I’m nuts (and you’d be right), because I can’t do that, and in any case, action at a distance without contact is beyond our belief; it cannot make sense to us. It’s beyond our ability to understand. What you must recognize though, is that gravity, the attraction of the moon and the earth to each other, and the attraction of my dinner plate to the earth, these are precisely in the same category: action at a distance without contact, and so, a total mystery, cannot make sense to us.
This has not changed since Newton’s time (not among scientists either, see the Chomsky talk). There is still no understanding of what gravity is, and there won’t be. Our brains aren’t shaped/wired to get it. We don’t have the right concepts. We have no idea even what questions to ask. For us it’s like rats trying to run prime number mazes, total mystery.
Now there is something else though. Although we cannot understand gravity, we CAN make useful observations about it. Understanding gravity, and making observations about gravity, those are two totally different things, not to be confused with each other. We can certainly make many useful observations. And if we’re Isaac Newton, then we can invent an entire new mathematics to describe gravity as well. But obviously that’s not for us. We’re simpler, and can make simple observations.
(by the way, here is a super intelligent person saying some interesting things about thinking https://youtu.be/2er6jWUGDuI )
I’m going to do something just extremely simple and basic, just make a very simple observation about thinking:
It occurs to me that — no matter what thinking is, and no matter how it works (which are total mysteries) — whenever thinking is happening, the act of thinking involves some kind of looping (ping-ponging) back and forth between the following two things (ping-ponging between red and green):
- wide expansive environmental whole things, examples:
- conceptual ideas, broad statements (“Messi is a good footballer“)
- spatial environments
- in the real world (the world itself, or my street, my house, my city…)
- in digital space (games, 3D DIGITAL MODELS, maps)
- in imaginary space (mental models)
- various kind of acts of narrowing articulate focus, examples:
- exemplar information that supports concepts
- selected data, examples, detailed idea fragments that support the broad concept (“Messi has good field vision, sees the angles. Messi finds openings and creates space. Messi finds ways to score”)
- narrowing articulations
- exemplar information that supports concepts
The observation/idea is that there is always, in thinking, a looping back and forth between the green and the red.
It’s also interesting that the order (which comes first, green or red?) is not clear. The concept of the whole can arise from observed details. You see a bunch of evidence/data (red); you formulate a conclusion or a concept (green). But the reverse is true at the same time. In fact, it seems necessary that both come first at the same time, that you go from red to green and from green to red, at the same time.
If you don’t begin with some kind of concept (“Messi is a good footballer”), then you will not even detect/sense/see/recognize the details. You won’t recognize that there’s a guy who has vision, creates space, and scores goals. You won’t be able to pull that information out of the tsunami of information in the world. And for that matter, without the concept “good footballer”, there is also no concept “football”, so there is no one playing football to begin with. So concepts first! But of course, without exemplar data (sees angles, finds openings, creates space…), the concept is empty and meaningless and will appeal to no one and will be remembered by no one, and will not even be formulated by anyone. So exemplar fragmentary data first!
So we can argue which comes first but that’s really missing the point. The main simple observation is that in any kind of thinking, thinking about anything, whenever thinking is happening, it seems to involve some kind of ping-ponging between these two things, between:
- the wide expanse of some kind of environmental whole (concept) (model), and
- the narrowing act of articulate focus (exemplar) (drawing)
This idea, occurred to me one day after years of working in architecture firms building digital 3D models and making sets of construction drawings.
The back and forth between those, it occurred to me finally after many years, is where my thinking is happening and where my understanding (of what I’m working on) grows. Thinking and understanding is not in the drawings, nor in the models alone, but instead it is in this mental process ping-ponging back and forth between both of them. If you make drawings and models for a living, I mean, if you work with them every day for years (or if you’re smarter than me, you realize it sooner), and if you allow yourself the freedom to be honest with yourself about it, the truth is that you cannot understand your drawings, not even the drawings that you yourself are drawing, unless from those drawings you are building a mental model of the whole, a mental model of environment represented in a simplified way by the drawings.
Now you might recognize this. If you work on drawings every day, you know it without doubt. This understanding leads though to a common mistake: the idea that we should abandon drawings and just deal with models only.
Well there’s a basic problem with that; it ignores the simple reality of the nature of thinking: that thinking happens and understanding grows, in the back and forth, between wide and narrow, between environmental whole (models) and the act of narrowing articulate focus (drawing).
You see the reverse is true at the same time: I cannot substantially understand my own (mental or digital) model without the act of narrowing articulate focus that is the act of drawing. We need that act of focus, because our models are always fuzzy to us. Whether it’s the real world around us, or some digital environment, we’re overwhelmed with information of all kinds. It’s too much for us to actually grasp in meaningful ways that we can make sense of and actually use. Very early on in building a digital model, the model passes a point after which it’s simply too much information, too many pieces, too much complexity, increasing doubt:
- Did I finish this area and that area, Which areas?
- Am I missing anything important? What’s missing? Where?
- There’s so much stuff here, what in the hell am I even looking at anymore?
- What am I trying to communicate about this? Or what am I supposed to understand?
- How can I draw people’s attention to things I want them to see, or that I need to see?
Drawing is the act of focus and as fundamentally important, in its context, as methods of focus/attention are in any kind of human cognitive scenario. Let’s include the most general case:
From the article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_(cognitive_process) :
Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources. 
The relationships between attention and consciousness are complex enough that they have warranted perennial philosophical exploration. Such exploration is both ancient and continually relevant, as it can have effects in fields ranging from mental health to artificial intelligence research and development.
Methods and techniques for bringing clarity, instruction, guidance, affirmation, direction, focus and attention into complex information support and help us think, understand, decide, and act.
Drawing provides us a simplified, focused and narrowed representation that let’s us first of all get a grasp, gives us (metaphorically speaking) handles to grab onto, without which the whole of a model/environment is too cumbersome and slips out of our grasp. Secondly, drawing gives us a clear method for answering some very very very basic questions, which, if left unanswered, we really just cannot formulate any kind of meaningful understanding of the wider whole of what typically are very complex environments.
For example, drawing allows us to state very clearly where, within the whole of an environment, that we’ve paid very close focused attention, and at those places where we’ve paid close attention, drawing allows us both to see and formulate, and to communicate, whatever it is that matters, for whatever reason.
So with the act of “drawing”, we’re given handles that let us grasp onto what otherwise would be too cumbersome and would slip away, and we’re given a method for clearly articulating both where we’ve looked closely, and what we find (and show) there that matters.
Repeating: it’s not one or the other. It’s not drawing or modeling. Neither one makes sense without the other. We can make no sense of things unless we have both at the same time. Or put it this way:
Any time we are making sense of things, we do have both, at the same time, in a continuous loop, ping-ponging back and forth. It’s in that back and forth where thinking is happening and understanding grows.
Why do I care about this? Well, it’s not just strange curiosity and it’s not just an obscure interest in mental processes. No. it’s my belief that this recognition, of the looping, the ping-ponging, says something about the future of media.
Drawings and models are media. And media has a future. Drawing and modeling can be fused into the same space, quite the same way that sound was infused into silent film 100 years ago. This transformed both sound and film, made both better than they were separately, and created something new in the fusion greater than the sum of the constituent parts.
This we can do again, now, fusing drawing in-situ into modeling. In fact I worked on this at my former employer, where we commercialized the idea in 2012. Here are some examples: https://tangerinefocus.com/media-innovations/
That was just a baby step however. What happens next redefines what “drawing” is first, while expressing it within models. This will make an impact. At Tangerine we’ve conceptualized the future of this and we’ll will share our work with any software company that shares an interest in this concept.
Any company that shares this interest can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
At Tangerine we’ve conceptualized the future of “drawing”. We know what it looks like, how it operates, how it can be expressed within any kind of modeled or hybridized visual spatial data environment. Tangerine can help your software company visualize and plan the implementation of the future of drawing into your software applications and media environments.
Together we can build the future of media. Who wants to do it? Let’s go!
Contact us at email@example.com
[Tangerine] Makes Insight Tangible
We’re bootstrapping new media to cognitive computing
Go to Part 7: The Field of Play (8)
Return to part 1: The Field of Play (I)