We are here — drawing a map of our collaborative thought space

In december 2012, I participated in the Lorentz Workshop Innovation at the Verge: Computational Models of Physical/Virtual Space Interaction. On the last day of the workshop, the organizers asked me to write a kind of summary of my personal experiences and insights at the workshop. In an attempt to create a virtual continuation of the workshop (which didn’t really take off and remained too much behind closed curtains, in my opinion), I wrote the following blog post, meant as the first in a series by all participants:

We are here — drawing a map of our collaborative thought space

It is only logical that a scientific workshop about the interactions between physical and virtual space (and the effects of these interactions on innovation) should continue in the virtual realms of the internet. But how do we bring the work that we completed during the workshop week (the things we learned during the talks, the cross fertilizations of our distinct disciplines, the connections between ideas and paradigms that we used in our discussions) into the virtual world? Will this ‘uploading’ transform our work? Will it tighten or weaken the links we constructed?

When you enter uncharted territory, you create a map. Not only for historical reference (to list the places where you went), but also for future use (to create an overview of where you can go again or where others can go). A map shows the paths that can be taken, and where they lead (in other words: why you should or shouldn’t take a certain path), and a good map lists points of interest that you pass while traversing a path, or maybe even some points that are worth a detour. A lot of us made personal maps of the ideas discussed during the Lorentz Workshop (using the nice Lorentz Center notebooks for example), and I’m sure we all listed some great PoI’s on these personal maps. Let me share mine:

I was amazed by the theories of space syntax and the beautiful and meaningful images that can be generated by applying space syntax to cities and buildings, and I then pondered the question, why the notion of syntax (a notion from Linguistics) works so well on ‘space’ (something that we intuitively consider physical). If both ‘language’ and ‘space’ are structured, and if they are in some way similar, they are similar because they both are structures in the human mind, they are both maps of something else (who knows: something ‘real’?). During one of the discussions, the definition of ‘the virtual’ as ‘one more level of indirection’ was mentioned. We could also call this ‘representation’; something (virtual) acts as a representation of something else (real?). I think this is a great definition of ‘the virtual’. It is like how the color differences on a map represent altitude changes in the terrain. The color is virtual altitude. Thanks to ICT technologies, we’ve become great map builders. Digital maps are less static (we can update them, show selections, connect them to other maps, etc.). Maps can also become immersive: instead of moving our fingers over a paper map, we can now (in holographic, 3d and virtual reality projections) move maps around people, which gives them the experience of being in the map.

Does this make digital worlds less real than physical worlds? Relatively: yes, if we consider the digital world to be a map of the physical world (one more layer of indirection). Absolutely: no, because a world can be virtual and real at the same time: the physical world we perceive is just as much our (personal) virtual perception as it is the real world in which we live every day. ‘Space’ is how we humans structure our options (affordances, possible actions) in the world, and because we don’t structure these options randomly, but in a certain way, there is a syntax to space, a syntax that becomes apparent in a visual way in our maps.

Arthur Schopenhauer, about whom I wrote my master thesis in Philosophy has this great quote about the creative genius. It illustrates beautifully how ‘virtual’ each of the worlds that we perceive actually is:

“[…] the wise man lives in another world from the fool, and the genius sees another world from the blockhead. That the works of the man of genius immeasurably surpass those of all others arises simply from the fact that the world which he sees, and from which he takes his utterances, is so much clearer, as it were more profoundly worked out, than that in the minds of others, which certainly contains the same objects, but is to the world of the man of genius as the Chinese picture without shading and perspective is to the finished oil-painting.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, Vol 2, translation by Haldane and Kemp, p249, Boston, Ticknor and Company, 1887.

As long as we keep our personal maps or paintings to ourselves, they are more like treasure maps, with intellectual treasures marked only for ourselves to find. If we want to be innovative, creating treasure maps is not enough; we also need to share our treasures with each other, and this is exactly how creative genius can lead to innovation. On the last day of the workshop, we discussed what the output of the workshop should be, and we decided that we would create a ‘random walk’ through the topics discussed during the workshop. And since the grounds we covered during the workshop week are so diverse, we should create this map together, with all participants taking their turn in the lead of the discovery group.

What does all this mean in practice? We’ll create a ‘map of our collaborative thought space’ in the form of a joint blog (hosted on the online Lorentz Workshop 2012 portal www.camera-vu.nl/lorentz/).

It works like this: a participant writes a blog post of 500-1000 words, in which he or she gives a personal reflection on the workshop (optionally responding to issues raised in previous blog posts) and adds one new ‘Point of Interest’ to the discussion. Next, he or she notifies everyone else that a new blog post is published, and indicates to whom he or she passes the map next. This is how we’ll create a map of the space we explored during the Lorentz Workshop.

This text was published before on http://www.camera-vu.nl/lorentz/blog/view/98/we-are-here-drawing-a-map-of-our-collaborative-thought-space (behind a password unfortunately).