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Weakmindedness Part Three


Intelligence has never been in fashion. It has been news for a century that individual intelligence is becoming obsolete and the future belongs to procedures, teams, and institutions. This is a future that is always just about to arrive. The lesson is not that intelligence has always appeared to be on the verge of becoming obsolete (although it has); the lesson is that something in society hates intelligence and wants it to be obsolete – needs to believe that it is becoming obsolete.

Obviously in a commercial society we are always worth more for what we can own (or for being owned) than for what we can do. And it is true, regarding the advantages of teamwork over intelligence, that all the inputs into the economy from outside it involve teams and companies. An industrial army keeps the wells flowing, the mines yielding, the fields fruiting. Naturally the institutions that handle these inputs expect to deal with teams and institutions – an affinity that propagates throughout society.

Society, remember, is not a human invention, but a pattern in nature, a pattern we share with bees and ants and mole rats. It has its own logic, its own dynamics, and its own tendency – a tendency which is always toward the intelligence-free ground state of the hive or colony. For society as such intelligence is an irritant, something to be encapsulated and expelled, like a splinter in the thumb, or cicatrized in place, like a piece of shrapnel.

The greater the intelligence, the more likely it is to destroy its own advantage. Be born with exceptional strength and the best thing you can do with it is to use it yourself. Be born with exceptional intelligence and the best thing you can do with it is to turn it on itself – to figure out how the exceptional part of your intelligence works so you can teach it to others. We all think a little like Einstein now, because we have the maxims he wrought out, the examples he related.

Of course human beings are not ants or bees or mole rats and society cannot turn them into drones. People scheme. This is natural: intelligence atrophies when unused. It is as uncomfortable to be flabby in mind as in body. Nor would society want us to be; the software of society needs human speech to run on. Society does not want or need human beings to speak well, but it does need them to speak well enough.

To perfect this balance, we have the job, which stands in relation to the mind as exercise does to the body: it keeps you from becoming flabby, without fitting you for any particular use. Not that jobs are inherently useless; only that, given a minimal denomination of employment (say 9–5), real work is always padded with makework to fill it out fungibly.

Society’s capacity to encapsulate intelligence is limitless but slow to respond. A sudden jump in the efficiency of all workers opens a gap, leaves intelligence idle – this has been called a cognitive surplus. In the last two decades we have seen one open up; remarkable things emerged from it – the web, the blogosphere, Wikipedia (more later) – and I think we have begun to see it close, soaked up into streaming video and social networking.

The central role which magazines have resumed in online intellectual life is a sign of intellectual decay. Witness the return of the article, the lowest form of writing, opening with an anecdote and closing with a cop-out. Watch the hopeless imitators of the intellectual thugs of undead ideologies playing intellectual. Could this be all that it comes to? All our work, all our hope? The same sad cycle of toothless posturing vs. splenetic emission, only this time on screens instead of paper, and with Star Wars references? Well, we had our chance; now we will see what came of it.


I began by comparing strength and intelligence and should justify it. This is difficult because silly ideas pass about both. Witlings think smart people quote cube roots the same way weaklings think strong people are musclebound. Smart people do not obsess over mental math, knowledge of trivia, and the size of their IQs; strong people do not obsess over diet, dead lifts, and the size of their biceps.

The parallel stereotypes are collateral results of the same error: if an ability is not economically rewarding, people pretend it does not exist. To account for records of its existence, some such stereotype will be foisted as its modern descendant.

Strength has not ceased to exist; it is even still useful. All the marvelous mechanical contrivances of modern life are lubricated with human sweat. Strength is necessary, but not advantageous. Everywhere, for free, strength is making civilized life possible; but there is nothing strength can do for free that cannot be done without strength for money. The best that strength can do is keep you from failing; you cannot distinguish yourself with it in any but recreational uses. No one earns a profit or a promotion for being strong.

Likewise by intelligence becoming obsolete I do not mean its disappearance, but its insignificance. The intellectual machinery that makes life faster and more brilliant will always need lubrication; but that work will be invisible, underground, and unrewarded. And being taken for granted, it will cease to be believed in.

Of course it is difficult to prove strength in physical teamwork; when working with someone weaker than yourself, you must moderate your own strength to avoid hurting the other person. Say confuse for hurt and the same applies to intellectual teamwork. If teamwork is expected, if the idea of intelligence is undermined with untestable reductive explanations (“Anyone could do that if they spent ten years learning it” – will you take ten years to find out?) – then intelligence will no longer be thought of, let alone believed in.

For now, intellectual work is still valorized. The gospel of productivity offers to make it accessible to everyone, by debunking its romance, by making it as tractable as “cranking widgets.” Somehow intellectual work reduced to cranking widgets comes across more like intellectual work and less like cranking widgets. But this is to be expected.

Twentieth century industry enjoyed the prestige of muscularity, virility, and futurity for decades while it chained generations of children, abused generations of women, and poisoned, wore out, and discarded generations of men. Likewise intellectual work may be expected to enjoy the prestige of thoughtfulness long after thinking has been lost from it.


I cannot get away with referencing the idea of cognitive surplus without engaging it. Or more directly: “What about Wikipedia?”

Do consider Wikipedia. But first, forget what you have read about Wikipedia: it is all lies. No one who opines about it understands it. It is almost certain that if you have not participated in it, you not only do not understand it, but are deluded about it.

I should disclose my participation in Wikipedia. I have written two obscure articles and heavily rewritten another. Beside that, my contributions have been limited to weeding vandalism, polishing grammar and expression (the bad to the acceptable; improving the adequate to the excellent would be rude), and filling in gaping omissions – though I do less and less of any of these, partly because there is less and less need, partly because I rarely look up things I already know. I do have the Wikimedia franchise.

I love Wikipedia, esteem it as the best service of the net, and consider it, in the long run, the most important and consequential cultural development of the twenty-first century – much more so than, say, social networking or Google. (Though I acknowledge that the Google-Wikipedia relationship is symbiotic.)

Wikipedia is not collaborative. Collaboration, of course, happens on Wikipedia. I mentioned an article I revised, an article about a place: a few days after the revision a native of the country concerned corrected my misspellings, substituted the native alphabet for my transcriptions, and added details only someone who had been there could know. Wikipedia relies on collaboration; but it is not inherently collaborative. It is often almost perfectly competitive, where free time is money. From the history tab of a hypothetical controversial article click over to the discussion and you will encounter the most bitter discussions the Internet has seen outside of Usenet – worse, sometimes, because Wikipedians, since their contact with each other is largely limited to their controversies, have no contiguous way to make nice or make up. There is a jungle three tabs behind the white sans-serif façades of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is not spontaneous. The typical Wikipedia article is not a lovely crystal of accretive collaboration. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of copy stitched together from a dozen donors, a literary teratoma. Wikipedia as a whole is a ravenous black hole that sucks up endless amounts of copy: the out-of-copyright public domain; the direct to public domain; and the unpublishable. Wikipedia is not just the last encyclopedia; it is the Eschaton of all encyclopedias, the strange attractor drawing them on to the end of their history. Wikipedia is the hundred-hearted shambling biomass to which every encyclopedia ever printed unwittingly willed its organs. Whole articles from Chamber’s Cyclopæedia – the very first encyclopedia – turn up inside it completely undigested. As soon as it was born it ate its parent, the Nupedia, and went about seeking whom it might devour. Its greatest conquest was the celebrated 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica – the last great summary deposition of proud imperial European civilization before it passed final judgment on itself. (As the article “Artillery” states: “Massed guns with modern shrapnel would, if allowed to play freely upon the attack, infallibly stop, and probably annihilate, the troops making it.”)

If you had heard of Wikipedia but not seen it you might surmise that the kind of people who would edit it would have a technical and contemporary bias, and that trivia would predominate: there exists a band that no one has ever heard; there exists a town in Scotland where nothing has ever happened. And you would be right. But the massive scholarship of the 1911 encyclopedia perfectly counterbalances that bias. The credibility of the Wikipedia as a universal reference was invisibly secured by this massive treasure, excavated as surely and strangely as Schliemann excavated the gold of Troy. Whole articles from the 1911 edition live in Wikipedia, and even where the revision of obsolete information and prejudiced opinion has replaced most of the article, whole paragraphs and sentences remain intact. If while reading an article in Wikipedia you feel at a sudden chill in the air, shiver with a thrill of dry irony or scholarly detachment, feel a thin rope of syntax winding itself around your brain – the ghosts of 1911 are speaking.

(The Britannica itself dispensed with this material during its reinvention in 1974.)

The second source is material that is directly released into the public domain: press releases, government documents, think tank reports. A business has two vital functions: to do something and to let people know what it is doing. The latter provides great opportunities to Wikipedia, which is always looking for new things people might want to know about. Wikipedia has a magpie eye; press releases are very shiny.

(Wikipedia also picks up shiny stuff where it shouldn’t – it’s always distasteful to click through a reference link and find that the text of the reference, a private website, evidently not in the public domain, has simply been copied – but then again Wikipedia saves some valuable information this way that would otherwise be lost to link rot.)

Beside the brook of business runs the massive river of text thrown off by the military-industrial-governmental complex, large amounts of which (in the US) are explicitly in the public domain, other parts of which are too evidently of public interest to be neglected. Wikipedia soaks up this stuff like a Nevada golf course.

The third source is sophisticated yet unpublishable material. If you have ever been dismayed at the thought of how much intellectual energy goes into a school report, written to be read once by someone who learns nothing from it, know that Wikipedia is there to catch all these efforts. (Or was, before it began to inform them.) I suspect that the preponderance of original articles on Wikipedia were actually executed as assignments or requirements of teachers or employers. Wikipedia strains the plankton from the sea of busywork like the baleen of a whale.

What is Wikipedia? Wikipedia is a sublimely efficient method of avoiding redundant effort. Wikipedia is write once, remember forever. Wikipedia is make do and mend. Wikipedia is reuse and recycle.

Weakmindedness Part Two


To make his ideas more tractable Engelbart tells a story of two characters: “You,” addressed in the second person, and “Joe,” who is experienced with augmentation and is giving You a demonstration.

First Joe shows off his workstation. His desk has two monitors, both mounted at slight angles to the desk – “more like the surface of a drafting table than the near-vertical picture displays you had somehow imagined.” He types into a split keyboard, each half flanking a monitor, poising him over his screens as he works.

The ergonomics are impeccable. Consider how tradition forces us into a crick-necked and hunched-shouldered position whenever we sit at keyboard – how it literally constrains us. Judge how much more of the way you work is so ruled.

To introduce the capabilities of the system Joe edits a page of prose. Lo – every keystroke appears instantly onscreen! When he reaches the end of the line, carriage return is automatic! He can delete words and sentences, transpose them, move them around, make them disappear – “able to [e]ffect immediately any of the changes that a proofreader might want to designate with his special marks, only here the proofreader is always looking at clean text as if it had been instantaneously retyped.” He can call up definitions, synonyms and antonyms “with a few quick flicks on the keypad.” He can define abbreviations for any word or string of words he employs, whenever he wants, and call them up with substrings or keychords.

In short the capabilities of Joe’s editor are somewhat above those of a word processor and somewhat below those of a programmer’s editor.

Here we find one of the problems with Engelbart’s vision. It is hard to augment procedures. If the act of typing a word is just the procedure of hitting a certain sequence of letters, then in the near term, it actually costs energy and time to change to typing the first few letters of a word and letting the editor expand it. It requires you to think of the word as an entity, not a procedure. For most of us, this is difficult.

Consider the abacus. The frictionless operations of mental arithmetic should be easier than the prestidigitation the abacus requires. And the most practiced algorists are indeed faster than the fastest abacists. (Sometimes, as in the famous anecdote of Feynman and the abacist, the algorist’s superior knowledge of mathematics will simplify the problem to triviality.) But of course it is easier to learn the abacus than to learn mathematics, and for a fixed amount of practice the average abacist will be much faster than the average algorist.

There are abacus virtuosos who can calculate faster than the abacus can be fingered, who calculate moving their fingers on an empty table, but who cannot calculate at all without moving their fingers – slaves to a skeuomorph.

Skeuomorph is a term from architectural criticism. It names, usually to disapprove, a building’s needless imitation of the traces of old-fashioned construction methods and materials it does not itself employ. But skeuomorphs are not always bad – classical architecture, in its system of pillars, pilasters, and entablatures, is a representation in stone of the engineering of wooden buildings.

The experience of using a computer is run through with skeuomorphs – the typewriter in the keyboard, the desktop in the screen, the folders on the hard drive, the documents they contain. Through a cultural process they dictate – even to those with little experience of the analog originals – how computers are to be used. In the beginning they let us in; in the end they hold us back.

The dominance of portable devices moves us toward the pole of the abacus – easy for competence, limited for mastery. As they break down walls, they close doors. As they are more and more physical and spatial, they are less and less symbolic.


Now we come to the last part of Joe’s demonstration, and leave the familiar behind. The talk from here on is of arguments, statements, dependencies, and conceptual structures. Joe explains that he uses his workstation to produce arguments from statements, arranged sequentially but not serially. Quote:

This makes you recall dimly the generalizations you had heard previously about process structuring limiting symbol structuring, symbol structuring limiting concept structuring, and concept structuring limiting mental structuring. You nod cautiously, in hopes that he will proceed in some way that will tie this kind of talk to something from which you can get the “feel” of what it is all about.

He warns you not to expect anything impressive. What he has to show you is the sum of great many little changes. It starts with links: not just links between one document and others, but links within the document – links that break down sentences like grammatical diagrams, links that pin every statement to its antecedents and consequences.

[T]he simple capabilities of being able to establish links between different substructures, and of directing the computer subsequently to display a set of linked substructures with any relative positioning we might designate among the different substructures.

Note that this does not just mean creating links – it means creating bidirectional linkages, linkages that have kinds, linkages that can be viewed as structures as well as followed.

Here is a skeuomorph: the index or cross-reference in the hyperlink. The hyperlink are we know it is hyper only in the most trivial sense. You cannot even link a particular part of one document to a particular part of another document unless the target is specially prepared with anchors to hold the other end of the link. Except inside of a search engine (and the failed experiment of trackbacks), a link contributes no metadata to its target. The web has no provisions for back-and-forth or one-to-many links, let alone, say, uniquely identified content or transclusions.

These are not particularly exotic or difficult ideas; to understand how they might have worked – what the net might have been – look at Nelson’s Xanadu.

The problems of the web – the problems smug commentators vaunt as unpredictable consequences of runaway innovation – these problems were not only thought of, but provided for, before the web existed. The reason we have these problems anyway is the haphazard and commercially-driven way the web came to be. The ways in which the web destroys value – its unsuitability for micropayment, for example – and the profit potentials the web affords – like search – are consequences of its non-architecture. If the web had been designed at all, music, news, writing would be booming in proportion with their pervasiveness. Instead we have Google; instead we have a maze where the only going concern is ads on maps.

Of course the net – the Internet – and the web – the World Wide Web – are different things. The net is the underlying technology, the pipes; the web is one way of using that technology. Email, for example, is part of the net, but not part of web; the same is true of BitTorrent or VoIP. At one level the answer to the question “Is Google making us stupid?” is “No, the web is making us stupid – wiring our brains into the web is just Google’s business model.”

Certainly it is easy to defend the web against this kind of heckling. “Nothing succeeds like success.” The guy in the back of the audience muttering how the guys on stage are doing it wrong is always and rightfully the object of pity. What are we, guitarists? And there is no returning to the whiteboard; the web is, and it is what it is.

But we should remember that it could have been different – if only because, someday, we will have more choices. What has happened was not necessary; what has been predicted is not inevitable.


The way Joe describes the effect of augmented symbol structuring is worth quoting in full:

I found, when I learned to work with the structures and manipulation processes such as we have outlined, that I got rather impatient if I had to go back to dealing with the serial-statement structuring in books and journals, or other ordinary means of communicating with other workers. It is rather like having to project three-dimensional images onto two-dimensional frames and to work with them there instead of in their natural form.

This is, of course, again recalls the question, this time in its intended meaning: “Is Google making us stupid?” It is not a problem I have, but people do seem to suffer from it, so I can name the tragedy – we have just enough capacity for symbol structuring on the web to break down some people’s tolerance for linear argument, but not enough to give them multidimensional ways of constructing arguments. The web is a perfectly bad compromise: it breaks down old patterns without enabling new ones.

Joe moves on from symbol structuring to process structuring. Here the methods resemble those used for symbol structuring – these are links and notes – but they are interpreted differently. A symbol structure yields an argument; a process structure answers the question – “What next?”

And this, of course, recalls the various methods of productivity. Productivity, however, is the abacist approach. Adherents of productivity methods manipulate physical objects or digital metaphors for physical objects – inboxes and to-do lists – and reduce them to next steps. Ultimately this is all any process structure can disclose – “What do I do now?” – and for most tasks something like this is adequate.

If there is a hole in your roof that leaks, the fact of the leak will remind you to fix the hole. The process is self-structuring: you will fix it or get wet. To a lesser extent, the same is true of the letter on your desk. But the email in your inbox – if you expect to answer it, you must find some way to maintain its urgency. But why should this be? Why can’t you instruct the computer to be obtrusive? Why can’t digital tasks structure themselves?

They can; but they don’t, because there is no metaphor for it. The abacist email program has an inbox; following the metaphor, to get something out of the inbox, you must do something with it. More algorist email programs, like Mutt or Gnus, invert the problem – once you have read a message, unless you explicitly retain it, it disappears. This approach is vastly more efficient, but it has no straightforward paperwork metaphor, so it is reserved for the geeks.

Or again: why can’t you develop processes in the abstract? Bloggers are forever writing up their own workflows. Why can’t your computer analyze your workflow, guide you through it, help you refine it? Why can’t it benchmark your activities and let you know which ones absorb the most time for the least return? Why is there no standard notation for workflows? Of course programmers have something like this in their editors and IDEs; but probably you do not.

Augmenting Human Intellect is worth reading but I am done with it. If I have been successful I have disenchanted you with the net – disenchanted literally; broken the spell it casts over minds that should know better. If I have been successful you understand that the net as you know it was not inevitable; that its future is not fixed; that its role is not a given; that is usefulness for any particular purpose is subject to judgment and discretion.

Weakmindedness Part One


Is intelligence obsolete?

The question is: will the digital technologies of intellectual augmentation make exceptional intelligence obsolete, in the same way that the mechanical technologies of physical augmentation made exceptional strength obsolete? Not, “is the net is making us stupid?” but “does the net make it as impossible to be stupid, as the grid makes it impossible to be powerless?”

The saying goes that any article that asks a question does so in order to answer “no.” If they were sure, they wouldn’t ask. This is not one of those articles. My answer to the question “is intelligence obsolete?” is yes – though with reservations about the concept of obsolescence.

I say intellectual augmentation to reference Douglas Engelbart’s 1962 Augmenting Human Intellect. I will use this book as the scaffold for the first part of my argument. Anyone who has investigated the origins of the net will know Vannevar Bush’s 1945 As We May Think, a prefiguration of the Internet in light-table and microfilm. Augmenting Intellect is explicitly an attempt to show how Bush’s vision could be made workable in electronic form. It is not a marginal document; six years after it was published the author, head of the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford, gave what is now known as the “Mother of All Demos,” where he débuted, among other things, hypertext, email, and the mouse.

Some of the possibilities that Augmenting Human Intellect proposes have been fulfilled; some have been overtaken; some have failed; and some remain untried. The interesting ones are the untried.

The relevant part of Augmenting Human Intellect begins with Engelbart’s description of the system he used to write the book – edge-notched cards, coded with the book or person from whom the content was derived.

(I say “content” because, as anyone who has attempted to maintain a system of notes organizing small, disparate pieces of information will realize, it is impossible to strictly distinguish thoughts and facts – the very act of selecting a fact for inclusion implies a thought about it.)

Engelbart calls these thought-facts kernels. He would arrange his cards into single-subject stacks, or notedecks. In the book he summarizes the frustrations of creating a memo using these cards – the lack of a mechanism for making associations (links, that is, but in both directions); the tedium of copying the links out; the confusion of keeping track of what linked to what.

He considers a mechanical system for leaving trails between cards and for copying them, but objects:

It is plain that even if the equipment (artifacts) appeared on the market tomorrow, a good deal of empirical research would be needed to develop a methodology that would capitalize upon the artifact process capabilities. New concepts need to be conceived and tested relative to the way the “thought kernels” could be knitted together into working structures, and relative to the conceptual presentations which become available and the symbol-manipulation processes which provide these presentations.

He proceeds to further object that by the time some such mechanical system could be perfected, electronics would be better suited to the job. And we’re off.


Pause, first, to consider Engelbart’s concept of the thought kernel. Engelbart is explicit that the kernel itself represents a “structure of symbols.” Yet, for purposes of inclusion in a larger symbolic structure, the kernel must be treated as smooth and integral. Every symbolic structure is made of smooth kernels – but all kernels are composite. This tension can be dealt with in more than one way.

Ascending levels in the sophistication of search are independent of the internal structure of a kernel. Even the most sophisticated searches now possible, and those not yet possible, are still a matter of folders and contents. And putting a kernel into one or many folders is not the same as parsing it.

Parsing is an impediment to search, not an aid. Certainly it is good when we search for Edward Teach and are directed to a “Blackbeard” chapter in a book about pirates. For our purpose the book as a whole is a kernel; and the chapter is too – we may print it out, or find the book and photocopy it, or collect it screenshot by screenshot. But how far can we break it down? It may be true that half the chapter is not about Blackbeard at all – this paragraph tells us about the town where he was born, this paragraph tells us about his ship, this paragraph tells us about his competitors – and it may be true that of the paragraphs about him half the sentences are not about him – here is a thought on the nature of brutality, here is a thought about why bearded men are menacing. If you isolate only the sentences that are about Blackbeard specifically, the result is gibberish. You wanted something about Blackbeard? Well, this chapter as a whole is about Blackbeard – but no part of it is actually about him.

This is why PIM (“personal information management”) is hard: there need not exist any necessary connection between a kernel’s internal structure and the folders where it is classified. The relationship is unpredictable. This unpredictability makes PIM hard – hard not as in difficult, but hard as in insoluble, in a way that is revealing of some human limitation. Classification is contingent, irreducibly.

Accordingly PIM is always tendentious, always fallible, and not always comprehensible outside of a specific context, or to any other but a specific person. And the most useful abstract classifications are not the best, but the most conventional – like the Dewey Decimal system, whose only advantage is that it exists.


Now I return to Engelbart and his “quick summary of relevant computer technology.” It would be tempting to pass over this section of Augmenting Human Intellect as pointless. We know computers; we know what they can do. The introductions necessary in 1962 are needless for us. And true, some of it is funny.

For presenting computer-stored information to the human, techniques have been developed by which a cathode-ray-tube (of which the television picture tube is a familiar example) can be made to present symbols on their screens of quite good brightness, clarity, and with considerable freedom as to the form of the symbol.

But we should look anyway, because Augmenting Human Intellect predates a great schism in the design and use of computers. Two sects emerged from that schism. The technologies that Engelbart thought would make augmentation practical largely ended up in the possession of one side of this schism – the losing side.

Engelbart thinks of computers as symbol-manipulating engines. This strikes one in the face when he talks about simulation:

[T]hey discovered that the symbol structures and the process structures required for such simulation became exceedingly complex, and the burden of organizing these was a terrific impediment to their simulation research. They devised a structuring technique for their symbols that is basically simple but from which stem results that are very elegant. Their basic symbol structure is what they call a “list,” a string of substructures that are linked serially in exactly the manner proposed by Bush for the associative trails in his Memex – i.e., each substructure contains the necessary information for locating the next substructure on the list. Here, though, each substructure could also be a list of substructures, and each of these could also, etc. Their standard manner for organizing the data which the computer was to operate upon is thus what they term “list structuring.”

This is in reference to IPL-V. A few paragraphs later he writes, with spectacular understatement, “Other languages and techniques for the manipulation of list structures have been described by McCarthy” – followed by eight other names. But McCarthy’s is the name to notice; and his language, LISP (LISt Processing) would become the standard tool for this kind of work.

There is a famous essay about the schism, by Richard Gabriel, source of the maxim “Worse is Better.” It contrasts two styles of programming: the “MIT style” – the style of the MIT AI Lab, with the “New Jersey style” – the Bell Labs style. Software as we know it – based around the C programming language and the Unix family of operating systems, derives from the New Jersey style. Gabriel’s essay actually characterizes the New Jersey style as a virus.

But how does this difference in style relate to the concept of “symbolic structures”? Lisp is focused on the manipulation of symbolic structures; and Lisp is the language best suited for this because Lisp code is in fact itself a symbolic structure. C-like languages are instructions to a compiler or interpreter. The instructions are discrete and serial. The symbolic structure remains implicit.

(Note that the difference is one of tendency, not of possibility. It is an axiom that any program can be written in any programming language that has the property of being Turing-complete – as all these languages are.)

Why C-like languages won may be suggested by a point of jargon. In Lisp-like languages anything besides manipulating symbolic structures – say, writing a file to disk or rendering it to the screen – is called a side effect. What are side effects to Lisp programmers are the business of C programmers. So instead of symbols and trails we deal with files and windows and websites, and have to hold the structures they are supposed to fit into in our own heads.

Coincidentally, in construction the quick and dirty style of framing a house is called “New Jersey framing.” The standard way is to frame a wall is as a unit – a grid of studs nailed through their ends at right angles – then stand it up and nail it into place. Jersey framing instead maneuvers each stud into its final position before toenailing it in place – that is, hammering nails in at an angle. The standard style is more secure, but involves delay and forethought; New Jersey framing is less secure, but makes constant progress. New Jersey programming has essentially the same advantages and drawbacks.


Analogies between intelligence and physical strength are easy to make and often useful. I have used them before and I expect to use them again. But the correspondence is not exact. If to say “genius” is to mean anything, it must do more than name qualities of intelligence that are superior to ignorance in the same way that athleticism is superior to clumsiness. There are such qualities, such matters of degree; but they are not genius.

To use the word genius significantly, I would posit that strength is stable, but intelligence is metastable. These are terms from physics; they have statistical analogs but the terms from physics are more easily illustrated.

Imagine a marble rattling inside a bowl with tall sides. Rest the bowl on flat ground; shake it. Sometimes the marble climbs one side; sometimes another; but always it come to rest on the bottom – and when it falls out, it falls no lower than the bottom. In this bowl the marble’s condition is stable. (Chart the marble’s movements, and you have a bell curve.)

But intelligence is metastable. Imagine the same bowl; but this time, instead of resting it on the ground, put it at the summit of a hill. Mostly the marbles rattle inside this bowl as they did in the other; but sometimes a marble overtops the side, and shoots off down the hill on a trajectory we rattling marbles cannot imagine.

I believe in genius – not in geniuses. All of us spend most of our time rattling around in the bowl. But when the right person thinks about the right subject at the right time, a mind can take a trajectory that briefly places it, not just above all others, but above the sum of all others. In a work of genius, however briefly, a brainpower is concentrated that exceeds the combined brainpower of the rest of the human race. (Or, if not the sum, at least the sum of what language could coordinate to be applied along those lines.) Not a bit-for-bit balance of computations – only an unpredictable and incomparable excession.

A work of genius is recognizable because it arrives, even when it is simple in itself, as a characteristic expression of an unknown order of things – the way that the first artifact discovered from a lost civilization stands, the way the first signal from an alien civilization might stand – standing apart from all you know, not because it is overtly different, but because it implies in its negative space, in its outlines and hollows, a system of beliefs and concerns altogether contained in itself, a strangeness that is not a shock but a rich and intricate surprise.

Maybe this is why I feel such desperate pity for lost books. Sometimes when a book is lost, all that is lost is one more thing in the world; but sometimes when a book is lost, something like a world, something like cities and peoples, falls silent.