Piling Up Sheets / the face in the soup bowl

by Jens Alfke ⟿ August 23, 1995

I decided I would only work on this page after ten PM, when I think differently. When I’m tired but alert, and everyone around me is asleep, and it’s dark and quiet.

The cognitive scientist and AI researcher David Gelernter has a model of consciousness that has focus as its parameter: varying focus produces mental states from rigorous logical thought (when focus is at its highest) all the way down to dreaming (when focus is at its lowest.) In high focus states the mind seizes precisely on individual concepts and ideas. In low focus states, multiple ideas, concepts and memories overlay each other such that they can’t be distinguished; they’re superimposed and common features line up, connections between disparate thoughts. In this mode the mind jumps from one memory to another, linked by a chain of connections formed by lining up fragmentary images of those memories. Like a dream.

The book I hold most dear is John Crowley’s novel Engine Summer. In it, there is a society called the Truthful Speakers who have a sort of Utopia. They have an understanding of personality and of interpersonal relationships that allows them to untangle mental problems and conflicts with the same degree of rigor and confidence with which we tackle technical problems. This understanding and the techniques through which it is implemented are never made clear (the book would be far less interesting if Crowley had attempted to do that.) But in one scene a healer maps another character’s personality as a series of diagrams overlaid over each other on what is in effect an overhead projector. Every transparent sheet contains a knotted diagram that represents an aspect of personality, fairly complex in itself. As more sheets are laid on top of each other the complexity increases, the patterns interact, and of course everything gets dimmer and blurrier.

I like that image. And sometimes (after ten PM) I feel that I have a lot of these shiny overhead transparencies, tacked up carefully on the walls. (Or else they’re in little map drawers only an inch high, dark wood drawers with black iron knobs tesselating the walls. I used to dream about rooms like that. The front house we own that we rent out has a group of these drawers in one room, but not a whole wall full. They were full of blueprints of houses when we first opened them up.) At times I’m haunted by shapes on these transparencies that reappear from one to the other, or fragments of collage on different sheets that seem to have been torn from the same source. What happens when I pile up the sheets to overlay the matching pieces? The more you pile up the dimmer the whole thing becomes. Only a fool would believe that everything can be fitted together, that when all the sheets are turned the right way a Pattern will emerge the way the picture of Peter Rabbit emerged at the bottom of the soup bowl when I was little.

There’s a character in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive who believes that cyberspace (the Net, the sum total of everyone’s data and whatever else lives out there) has a Shape, some sort of higher-dimensional transcendent pattern, and lives his life in an obsessive attempt to hack together software that will display that Shape to him. Needless to say he comes to a bad end.