Monday, August 5, 2013
Infinite Monkeys: The Philosophy of Template Generation
In the construction of Infinite Monkeys, I was concerned primarily with Western Ontology and its tendency toward modes of compression that function via abstraction. For instance, ontological systems in Western metaphysics have a tendency to want to admit as few values as possible. Things such as properties, attributes, objects, actions are linguistic umbrellas that operate much in the same manner a set would. Sets of actions for instance would be verbal in accent, eating, thinking, doing, making, sleeping, dreaming, all come under the aegis of the verb. In so translating, however, information is lost, and so this tendency has its most practical expression in terms of lossy compression, a mode of compression where information is lost but the overall size, shape, and in general the quality of the image remains more or less intact. It is precisely quality here which is sacrificed in the grand scheme of things. The image becomes blurrier, but still passable and understandable within the visual acuity of human perception. Western metaphysics presents us with an extreme form of lossy compression. By abstracting an object into one of its qualities (for instance sleeping becomes an action) we are losing everything that defines the individual act. This may be useful categorically, but sleeping can also transmute itself into a thing (a noun) for instance (sleep). Infinite Monkeys draws this to a literal extreme via the use of its dictionary editor. Though poems can be translated into their grammatical equivalents, the words themselves can express their polymorphous nature in any of the categorical sets inherited through grammar. Verbs can become nouns, nouns can become verbs, adjectives can become adverbs and verbs and nouns can also become adjectives. It is largely because of (and not in spite of) this polymorphic quality that human language is so powerful. So when you are talking about a verb, a noun, or an adjective, you must do so in the context of a single sentence, and not (per se) in the abstract. For instance, the term abstract here is a noun in the preceding sentence. However, I can use it as a verb in another sentence. So to say “abstract” is a noun void of context, is to say nothing at all about the term. Not only are we losing information, but we're misleading ourselves into believing that the term can have only one expression grammatically. Another key part of this Infinite Monkey's philosophical underpinnings is the idea that this is basically a mechanical process which does not require the agency of a human being. Any poem can be translated into a grammatical template and then be repopulated via a supplement. The dictionary allows words to be tagged which in turn allows for restrictions in searches by association. Users can also create a phonetic code which allows words to be associated by sound. The scripts function as a markup language. Grammatical translations can be bracketed off and restricted by association or phonetic component within the brackets. The principle part in play with such an algorithm involves translation as a kind of mapping. When a translation occurs between language there is not necessarily a one to one correspondence between one language and another, but a choice must be made which collapses all of the possibilities into one “best” possibility. In Infinite Monkeys and as I am arguing here, the modalities which govern Western ontology, there are far more possibilities than you would have in a natural translation between two human language. Ontology works in this manner for a reason, and it is reason that has been the bane of set theorists since Russel himself devised the theory. The question involves the scope of inclusivity and its expansion (abstractly) as an “upward” movement. If we imagine a set of all teaspoons we have a category which includes everything which is described by the term teaspoon. Such a set would predict another, the set of all things which are not teaspoons. This got Russel thinking. The set of all things which are not teaspoons is itself not a teaspoon. Thus it is includes itself in the set, which allows us to surmise another dichotomy of sets: those which include themselves as members, and those which do not. When you ask yourself if the “set of all sets which do not include themselves as members” includes itself you are left with a vicious circle. If the set includes itself as a member, it violates the terms upon which set membership is allowed. If it does not include itself as a member, then logically, it should be allowed within its set. This problem so perplexed Russell that he had to invent an entirely new axiom to explain it away, as well as a new ontological formality. The idea was that in order for categorical reason to be mathematically formalized it could not move “upward” or via abstraction. The prohibition itself was termed as an anti-abstraction axiom. Types on the other hand allowed you to move horizontally, but vertically. Sets of sets led to paradox, and paradox and logic are mutually exclusive. But still, Western ontology wants to be able to make these abstractions which function as a form of generalization, which is permitted in mathematics to deal with objects which have more than the basic three spatial dimensions. Though they may be impossible to visualize, the basic premises that operate for a three dimensional object can be abstracted to a four dimensional one, allowing one to handle the object mathematically if not visually. Key to understanding this concept is a question of mapping. When you have a map of the world you are dealing with a similar phenomena. It is a three dimensional object which has been forced to fit on a two dimensional plane. A paradox emerges. At opposite extremes you have continuity, a loop which maps the one end back around to the other. It is indeed the alpha and the omega, side by side, and yet they could not be further apart. Another key point to be made here is that the number of terms that map onto something as general as the “set of all things that are not teaspoons” is immense, and this is similar to the Western ontological impulse toward abstraction and the modality of Infinite Monkey's template generator. The abstraction, functioning by reduction and compression has the latent ability to become generative. Though reduction in critical theory and philosophy may be unavoidable this is not an altogether pleasant revelation, and has led to cultural catastrophes such as the partitioning off of non-whites and barbarians alike. Where set theory overlaps with identity theory it becomes pernicious and degrading. It is precisely the question of hierarchy and the vertical privileging of this over that thing that pervaded Derrida's critique on Western metaphysics, where all paired opposites are set at the detriment and elevation of the other. This fundamental question of opposition is itself subject to a kind of archaic dualism which fragments all things into two parts. Things and actions can be set in opposition to one another. The function as contraries, in contradistinction, co-defined and co-dependent. But other distinctions can be made. Action and inaction for instance, where the contradistinction is formed out of the negation of one thing for another, as in the case of our set of all things which are not teaspoons. In summation you are set (ontologically speaking) with a system of attributes, abstracted in the same shape as an original differentiated and individual. The ontology is merely a degraded copy of the original but in all fairness, may allow you to get a better sense of the shape when certain information is considered negligible. We must be careful here, however. Our language allows for infinite mutability among terms and our attempts to categorize it fail outside of the context of a specific sentence. The need to generate composite terms (like gerund, for a verbal noun) runs anathema to Western ontology's core impulse, which is why the Derridean critique is so relevant and revolutionary. It is also caught up in this very question of translation, where choices are made by translators who are privileging this over that term. Indeed there are an entire set of possibilities which could be equally possible. So Infinite Monkeys was basically a means by which a poem could be abstracted and then reproduced, and this was fundamentally understood as a kind of satire on Western metaphysics. As humanity advances in the realm of computer science these philosophical concepts become strategies (for instance) to save space on a web server. Lossy compression works by substituting specific colors for a pixel value into a range of values which is basically averaged. So four pixels in a square, with four distinct color values can be swapped out for a single color which is the average of all four. Another key aspect to Infinite Monkeys was the choice of name. Swift's satire forms the basis of a provable mathematical axiom that given an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of monkeys randomly smashing keys, the works of Shakespeare would be inevitably reproduced. It is no accident that this theorem is associated with brute force, a technique of traversing a password file by trying every possible permutation and translating it by algorithm into its encoded variation. Such a technique may not be elegant, but given a powerful enough processor and enough time, success in decoding the entire passwd file would be inevitable.