Worlding Raga: 5 — World How?

A bit of fun synchronicity. A few weeks ago, I came up with a snowcloned line inspired by a famous tldr of general relativity: narratives tell archetypes how to evolve, archetypes tell narratives how to curve. 1 Right after, I found a Terry Pratchett quote that says almost the same thing, but less ponderously: “Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds.” I prefer my version though, since I like the synaptic link to physics it creates.

Narratives drive archetype evolution (“stories make minds”) through irreversible expansion of awareness of possibilities, via actual instances playing out. Here is a 2×2 of what I think is a good set of answers to the question in my subtitle, world how?

When you ask who worlds? as Ian did last time, you get at archetypes telling narratives how to curve. When you ask, world how? as I am doing this time, you get at narratives telling archetypes how to evolve. The short answer is: through irreversible actions including a very special irreversible action that I’ve plotted in the center of the 2×2: waiting.

Action Calculi

Let’s start with some rather dry math; what Bruce Sterling once called the “mathematical bones” beneath the flesh of a world.

Action primitives in general serve as a more fine-grained lens on a world than its cast of agents. In chess for example, there are only 6 distinct kinds of pieces (7 if you count the two bishops as distinct), but depending on the state of play, a given piece may have anywhere between 0 and 27 possible moves (a queen on one of the four center squares) available to it. More generally, a procedurally defined digital world can have a countably infinite number of action patterns available to its agents (recursively enumerable strings composed of action primitives like north, east, west, south).

An open and/or continuous world, of course, can get much richer. Seemingly discrete moves can be transformed in uncountably infinite ways (though we will likely be indifferent to almost all of them, creating equivalence classes of moves, such as the uncountable number of distinct but not different ways of taking 1 step forward). Entirely new moves can be invented, so long as they are consistent with the physics of the world.

Crucially, the physics does not have to be known or even comprehensible for such invention. It only needs to be accidentally discoverable via random inputs.

A good video game, though procedurally defined, closed, and digital, can create the illusion of an open, continuous world with deep reserves of “physics” mystery to be discovered by agents.

But whether real or illusory, how do you tame the fine-grained wilderness of the action potential of a world?

A useful simplification is to focus on irreversible actions. Any action can move the narrative along, but only irreversible ones evolve the world itself, by telling the archetypes how to evolve. This then creates an internal sense of historical, subjective, entropic time that can be experienced by agents within it, in terms of their own evolution.

Irreversible Evolution

Though I think irreversible actions are central, I’m not married to my particular 2×2. It’s just one convenient and hopefully insightful inventory (and I get competitive about 2x2s so I had to try and top Ian’s from last time 😀).

An irreversible world evolution occurs when an agent (possibly the worlding agent, who may be a participant subject to its laws inside the world or a god shaping it from the outside) attempts an action that hasn’t been attempted before. This could be due to the action being unimagined (a possibility that is hard to see), or merely unprecedented (a possibility that is easy to see, but nobody has tried to actualize). This is the y-axis dichotomy.

An irreversible action may discover new territory, or remap existing territory. The corresponding irreversible change may either be only in an agent’s mind (“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) or affect the world itself. The x-axis limits are labeled striated and smooth, following Deleuze-and-Guattari terminology (loosely whether your actions conform to constraints on maps or territories; see Geoff Manaugh on Nakatomi Spaces for a primer).

In summary, irreversible actions create history, at least in individual minds (surprise), and sometimes in the environment and in common knowledge too, creating two loosely synchronized parallel senses of time (subjective, objective), while expanding individual and collective knowledge states among agents: making minds, evolving archetypes.

Four Ways to Make History

Our 2×2 gives us 4 archetypal irreversible actions. These are not meant to constitute a definitive or dispositive inventory, but I hope they are at least mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (though particular actions may be composite blends of the 4 pure types).

  1. A striated+unimagined action is a true experiment.
  2. A striated+unprecedented action is a record break2
  3. A smooth+unimagined action is a leap of faith
  4. A smooth+unprecedented action is a shot in the dark

In Ian’s model, each of the 4 worlding archetypes — hacker, cartoonist, director, emissary — has an action tendency (steering by gut or narrative, steering towards/away from known territory). I suspect each can take any one of my 4 kinds of irreversible action. For example, a (computer) hacker might:

  • Try an extreme test input to see what happens (experiment)
  • Hack a system nobody has hacked before (record break)
  • Try the target’s dog’s name as a password (shot in the dark)
  • Yank all cables in the hope that it disarms the bomb (leap of faith)

Following Ian’s combinatorial model from last time, you can also think of various combinations of these pure types. If each is a binary, there are 24 = 16 types of irreversible action (including 0000: waiting).

Irreversible actions create history, by expanding the temporal log of realized possibilities out of the atemporal potentialities of the world. Sometimes, the irreversibility is only in an agent’s head, or in a reassessment of important odds (changed priors). Other times, a materially irreversible evolution occurs in the environment.

Constructionism in Worlding

Worlding, like politics, is the art and science of the possible. Understanding the possibilities of a world is a constructionist project. It involves increasing the number of known distinct stories we can tell in it, by constructing new kinds of stories, one at a time. History is a look-up table of stories we know how to enact, via remembered precedent. It is the repository of natural case law of a lawful world.

By contrast, to have a mental model (map) of the laws governing the potentialities of a world is to possess a non-constructive understanding of it. This understanding is a double-edged epistemological sword. On the one hand, it may allow us to efficiently characterize, through mechanical enumeration, certain vast combinatorially generated subsets of possible stories. On the other hand, it may create map-blindness to actions that don’t fit a particular combinatorial schematic models of action potential because they leave out some primitive action possibilities. Constitutional originalism is an example: a blindness created by a non-constructive map of the action potential of a body politic.

Even a seemingly simple world, where you think your map is exact, can hold irreversibility surprises. Tetris for example, seems like a tightly closed world, which all of us have been exploring since we were kids, with no room left for discovery. The internal “archetypes” are all the possible ways of creating shapes with 4 tiles (in my head, S and Z are cartoons, L and J are directors, T and O are hackers, I is an emissary). The actions are the two possible 90 degree rotations and 3 possible translations (plus an instant drop to avoid waiting). Surely there are no irreversible surprises to be discovered here?

Just yesterday, I discovered that I can actually sneak an L or J shaped piece in Tetris through a 1-square bottleneck by rotating it at the right time. A combination of an experiment (I already know other ways to rotate pieces into place in a way that would be impossible in a continuous space, so this was a reasonable hypothesis) and a leap of faith (that the designer had allowed for this particular trick either intentionally or by accident) that worked out.

When I discovered this move, I was like, 🤯this changes everything! My world evolved. My mind was remade. The story of my relationship with Tetris acquired a new chapter in its history.

Waiting

Waiting is not the same as predictable timing. If you know that a train arrives every hour, on the hour, that is part of the atemporal cyclicality of your world. It only becomes “waiting” if the train is late.

Waiting is a peculiar state of doing nothing in anticipation of doing something irreversible, with your mind being “made” (archetype evolving) without any new information coming in. In the case of the waiting for a delayed train, you may take the irreversible step of simply taking an Uber, creating a bit of history.

Shakespeare, interestingly, identifies acting with the moment of commitment rather than the first external movement, and has this to say about waiting:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasm or a hideous dream.
The genius and the moral instruments 
Are then in council, and the state of a man, 
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

And here is Dr. Seuss on the terrors of the “the waiting place”:

...
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...

...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

NO!
That's not for you!

Somehow you'll escape
all that waiting and staying
You'll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

Groundhog Day

The movie Groundhog Day, where the day literally repeats and resets itself in a loop, is a fascinatingly subtle exploration of waiting. It counts as waiting because Phil Connors’ mind is evolving as it waits for an irreversible external evolution: breaking out of the infinite looping day.

Completely reversible trial and error exploration of a finite set of options with amnesia past a finite window of history is not waiting. Though it may take several attempts to find the right action, the trialing time is bounded and the world doesn’t change while you explore. Your memory need only extend long enough to accommodate the trialing time bound. Phil Connors is in a special kind of hell where he has more memory than the world needs.

Though Phil’s external world is in a true infinite loop, with a state reset every morning, his mind is being irreversibly made by the waiting, because he can remember more than he needs to, to explore his world through trial and error (in fact, at one point in the movie, he has all but one of the right actions for the day figured out, and can do a “perfect” error-free run of the day — except for the one action required to break out). But he is continuing to accumulate memories. So he is waiting.

Anti-Waiting

Waiting is the negative space of history. History is still happening. The 2nd law is in effect. But only your mind is ticking down towards terminal desperation for evolution in the external world to catch up with evolution in your subjective world.

There is also something you could call anti-waiting, which is the sense of being left behind by history. History not waiting for you to participate. Time moves along in the external world, but your mind is stuck. You’re left out of all the irreversible action, as a mute, powerless spectator. Forget making history, history doesn’t even happen to you. You can only wait to die.

That’s what it means to be an NPC: non-playing or non-playable character. An archetype who anti-waits while history happens around it. Not a hacker, cartoonist, directory, or emissary. A non-player at the center of Ian’s 2×2. Here’s my mod:

My mod of Ian’s 2×2, putting the anti-waiting NPC at the center

I’ll close with a few questions on the nature of action that still intrigue me:

  1. What is the nature of a worlding “engine” like a physics engine? Are there other kinds?
  2. How do uncertainty generators (dice etc) fit into action and history?
  3. Is there a useful distinction to be made between narrative and story?
  4. How do action spaces get constricted into narrative spaces?
  5. How do we map worlding to physics (classical, relativistic, quantum)?
  6. How should we think about Kobayashi Maru type leaky-world actions?
  7. Can history still happen if no stories happen? (this I suspect is a key question that Ian’s simulations shed light on)

With apologies to physicist J. A. Wheeler, who pithily (and surprisingly accurately), explained general relativity with the line, “spacetime tells matter how to move, matter tells spacetime how to curve.” My snowclone for narrative analysis is, I’m afraid, much less pithy and accurate.

2 There is a “broken record” joke here I am not seeing 🤔.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I like the combination of world as actions with pressure to avoid non-waiting.
    Agents select actions to make use of time+energy
    Groups polish actions over time through repetition
    Crossover between personal and group sets of actions explains some of the excitement in finding a fresh vein of content/subculture – content as perspective+actions

  2. Ok irreversibility in terms of the unconstructed unknown, the expansion of memory.

    Makes me think of the classical shot noise black box investigations; unconventional action attached to clear observation expands your knowledge of the system.

    In the pure info-theoretic form, you constrain the possible state space, in the experience of a person playing about, you create new personalities to experience, give ideas of how to shortcut raw combinatorial elimination by trying new guesses at system archetypes.

    But in either case, our own constructive irreversibility competes with the system’s own drift, we can’t change the world if it’s already changing itself faster.

    Certain kinds of interaction wipe out history, in the sense of breaking continuities, and in the sense of recrossing old boundaries, returning close where they were never supposed to be again. The later can be more damaging, if events are supposed to be imbued with meaning; synchronicity that turns into synchronisation, viral hits that become reproduced formulae, bumping into people shortly after you said goodbye, the doom of hipsters etc.

    In this sense randomness, spontinaiety on the part of material conditions, represents a reversal of action, but not in the sense of the practico-inert, but in the sense of alien awe, the passivity of raw novel experience happening to itself, freezing people into phone handling witnesses, hijacked by moments of significance to only reproduce what they have experienced.

    Synchronicity would seem superficially to match up with this, as moments of significance, but that is the significance of the world cooperating with you, this is the significance of you cooperating with the world, being personed rather than worlding perhaps!

    The gambler has a particular kind of patience and attentiveness, an enjoyment of suspense that I think is diametrically opposed to the emotional framework here, the gambler waiting for a train doesn’t find himself in a position where his space of potential action is shifting, but potential consequence; the severity of his experience.

    In horror films, the gambler’s severity is the central experience, whereas in classic action movies, it competes with physical inventiveness, thanks to the ever present possibility of the stunt.

    How late will this train make me? How much will this fall hurt? Except, maybe I don’t have to fall at all..

    The fatalist prides himself on the capacity to not be surprised, even if he cannot exactly predict, having properly internalised the shocks of the world so as to cope with the next hit. The stunt in contrast is the contrived subversion of the narratives the fatalist has prepared himself for, collected temporary cheats, good stunts are locally applicable theses operating despite danger. And if those stunts become less local, then they become part of the vocabulary of action, a foundation for stringing together human concerns in previously incompatible situations, mixing lightness into danger or folding the world’s intensity into the human elements, and producing new and more complex stunts.

  3. J Chris Anderson says

    1. A wiki is a worlding space, with editors as agents. Maybe also festival space?

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