Inundation of Data and Evolving Roles  (4/4)

Inundation of Data and Evolving Roles (4/4)

(Part 4 of a four-part series adapted from a lecture that I gave at Pratt GAUD, kindly invited by Carla Leitao for her seminar “Architecture and Information Space”)


Now, I would argue that getting lost in the city or even in a building is somehow much different from the malaise of getting lost in numbers and figures and words and data in all forms. For example, even when you know what you’re looking for online, the Google vortex has a propensity to suck you in and spit you back out miles away from your target. Sometimes it’s productive and you find ten other things that you didn’t know would be useful, other times it’s just a gigantic waste, but you never know until you go in. This mode of appropriating digital space is a radical departure from prior modes of knowledge production. I get the sense that it wouldn’t be too far off to imagine suiting up and saying, “Okay, I’m going in – see you on the other side,” but all the while, unsure if you would ever come out. Someone needs to write that story.
Well, in some ways it has already been written. What I’m talking about here is the inundation of data, that perhaps is so overwhelming we are drowning in it.  In this case, it is important to consider not only the space of the archive, but the inhabitant (be it man as Librarian, Reader, or Archivist) and the selection mechanism.

The librarian and the Library together embody a Turing machine, running an unimaginable program whose output can only be interpreted by an external observer. This fits precisely with Borges’s intuition that the world is its own representation (and too, goes back to Asimov’s Multivac).


In “The Garden of Forking Paths” – what Borges suggests is that a text can branch out instead of narrowing down, following the structure of a maze where readers might get lost, or alternatively they may read the text in multiple ways. Ts’ui Pen’s novel in the story aims to describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously (evoking the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat). From each such outcome a virtually infinite number of possibilities proliferates. These forking paths may converge again.

Isn’t this process similar to what we do when we research? It’s how I put this lecture together. I was the selection mechanism. I even did some of the research in a library – the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public library, although I didn’t borrow any of the books in their archive. But in the future, with data’s complexity increasing at a higher rate than humans can keep up with (and Moore’s Law), maybe I won’t be able to be the selection mechanism anymore. I won’t mention the Singularity, but I’ll mention the Singularity.

Does this call for new modes of ordering?

Well, Foucault turns to fiction to explore knowledge production and the structures of knowledge in space. In “Funes el Memorioso”, Borges describes a man who, after falling from a horse, is unable to forget anything, and as such is inundated by the most minute details of every moment of his life. Quickly he loses patience and finds that traditional ways of ordering knowledge just do not work anymore. He rejects language as too general and attempts to create a new language that closes the gaps between knowable objects. The existential crisis of excess, of data overload, calls for a shift in the architecture of the ordering system to compensate for the inundation of information. Not only does the typology of the library need to evolve, but the role of the reader, archivist, and librarian must necessarily evolve as well.

Funes remembers so fully that he cannot create gaps between his memories; the landscape of his mind becomes incredibly dense, and this forces him to reject other systems of ordering as too general. As such is the problem with the archive. Too dense and it ceases to have ostensible legibility / readability to the average person. I would argue that the interstitial space between objects of knowledge actually forms the structure of the archive. The globalization affected by the Internet is a new source of dynamism. It reorders and compresses time and space, facilitating action at a distance, deeply bound with the intensification of globalization. As I was saying with the Google vortex, the Internet, our global village as coined by Marshall McLuhan, our global archive, compresses distances in both space and time into simultaneity.

I can conceive of at least four potential solutions or scenarios that may be combined in the near to far future:

a) the reader has to either become more focused, precise, and skilled in means of selection, or has to become more memorious like Funes (be it through external hard-drives of the mind);
b) the archivist needs to have productive amnesia, to narrow the data from which the reader is to select;
c) the librarian/ordinologist needs to establish new structures of order to facilitate the dissemination of information, or
d) a tertiary character may need to be introduced to synthesize and translate data that seems incomprehensible to us. – guess what, we already have these – not only human experts but computers which translate 0s and 1s; signals, electromagnetic impulses.

This runs the risk of apophenia, seeing everything as information, but still, data is indecipherable without a selection mechanism.

In terms of the librarian, we can look at A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. Now, this was written before Rainbows End, so keep that in consideration. The intricacies of the plot are complex, and I’ll only just summarize certain parts. In the far future many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. The story begins with the discovery of an ancient archive. The archaeologists who found it moved themselves and their families in order to study it further, with hopes of obtaining the knowledge and changing their lives.

In short, the archaeologists awaken a sentient being within the archive that attempts to keep the humans in the dark about its existence.  Chaos ensues. The heroine is Ravna Bergsndot, who is really a librarian/archivist. No shortage of responsibility is placed on her either – in the end the librarian saves the world. Her story flips the classic conception of dull, reserved matronly librarian figure into an action-hero: “Looking back, Ravna Bergsndot saw it was inevitable that she become a librarian. Sister Lynne turned to more practical things. But Ravna still wanted adventure. […] And there was a way to see into everything that humans in the Beyond could possibly understand: Ravna became a librarian.” p. 56

Later Vinge writes, “There are thousands of archives in the Beyond — tens of thousands if you count the ones that have fallen into disrepair or dropped off the Net. Along with unending trivia, they contain important secrets and important lies. There are traps and snares.” Sometimes it was malicious, viruses that would jam a local net so thoroughly that a civilization must restart from scratch.” p. 84

“…after a few days Ravna realized this was not just a favor. She was the best person for this job. She knew humans, and she knew archive management. […] It was up to Ravna to decide what library materials to move to the ship, to balance the ease of local availability against the greater resources that would be accessible over the ultrawave from Relay.” p. 184

“In any case, it was rarely boring. For [Ravna] it was managing the ship’s library, coaxing out of it the plans that would help Mr. Steel and Jefri. OOB’s library was nothing compared to the Archive at Relay, or even the university libraries at Sjandra Kei, but without proper search automation it could be just as unknowable. And as their voyage proceeded, that automation need more and more special care.” p. 301

What we can draw from this is that librarians are important. Superhero important. But also, another set of characters is brought to the forefront – the archaeologists – who assume that the archive they are searching is harmless, benevolent even. But I would argue that it’s less of a warning to us about archaeology in its present state, to stay away from malevolent sentient archives, the viruses and snares that may destroy a civilization. The problem of the day (or near to far future) is not only this existential anguish in searching for meaning in an impossible infinite liminal space, but also the anxieties involved with existential risk and archiving knowledge – what do we save? Or should we leave it to the archaeologists of the future to decode our fossilized data landscapes? Maybe our archives should come with a warning.

What we don’t do often enough as architects is confront our own end.

If Ravna is the advanced librarian/archivist who expertly narrows the library’s selection; Siri Keeton, the narrator of Blindsight by Peter Watts, is the new tertiary character – the Synthesist. The book is a little corny at times, but it’s really fun. As a child, Siri Keeton, had half his brain removed to cure seizures. Since then, Siri views all human behavior as the result of observable and reproducible algorithms. It is apophenia at its finest, coupled with a severe lack of empathy. The rise of machine intelligence and the increasing specialisation of knowledge workers has formalised the profession of ‘synthesists’, who grasp knowledge from the higher realms and translate it. Siri repeatedly defines this, his own career, as a “topological transformation,” a rotation of concepts, but he also makes clear that he is grappling the edges of things he doesn’t understand, and professes no guarantee that his work doesn’t also destroy information. Siri’s narration is littered with his concerns that he is contaminating the tale by becoming involved. And we’re back to the paradox of the labyrinth. The archive of Blindsight is a heterotopic liminal space. Heterotopias require a system of opening and closing that isolates them from other spaces while retaining their penetrability. They do not exist independently of our existence or our ways of knowing. Even as far removed as Siri is, as objective as he tries to be, he is still partially inside the system. And for Foucault, “there is no outside.” ((talking about the carceral network and the inescapability of power)).

Siri expresses his unease: “I compiled and collated, massaged data I would never understand. I watched the systems around me as best I could, factored each tic and trait into the mix. One part of my mind produced synopses and syntheses while another watched, incredulous and uncomprehending. Neither part could trace where those insights had come from. It was difficult, though. Sarasti wouldn’t let me back outside the system. Every observation was contaminated by my own confounding presence in the mix. I did my best. I made no suggestions that might affect critical decisions. In the field I did what I was told to, and no more.” p. 158

Imagination comes back to the forefront, and is crucial for Siri to do his job as Synthesist. He says: “Imagine you are a synthesist. You deal in the behavior of systems at their surfaces, infer the machinery beneath from its reflections above. That is the secret of your success: you understand the system by understanding the boundaries that contain it.” p. 233

And the last words of the novel by Siri: “I have that telemetry. I can break it down into any number of shapes, continuous or discrete. I can transform the topology, rotate it and compress it and serve it up in dialects that any ally might be able to use. Perhaps Sarasti was right, perhaps some of it is vital. I don’t know what any of it means.” p. 299

And like Budai in Metropole, knowledge is attained without comprehension, without understanding. Perhaps for Siri, a library of imagination would be more productive. And for Borges, Foucault, Tschumi, and countless others, it would provide an escape the paradox of the infinite labyrinth. So too this heterochronic archive reconstitutes existing knowledge, and – through the possibility of imagination – knowledge yet to be formed, presents a view of its structural foundation that might not otherwise be visible.