2000 Going Parallel

SubStance 91, 56-79


I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens. -Robert  Louis  Stevenson,  Dr. Jekyll  and  Mr.  Hyde

Parallel  computers are thefuture  of computing. Period. John Koza, Stanford University

It is the great irony of life that a mindless act repeated in sequence can only lead to greater acts of absurdity, while a mindless act performed in parallel by a swarm of individuals can, under the proper conditions, lead to all that we find  interesting. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control

Dusk: a familiar sight: hundreds of starlings perched high in the trees. Startled, they lift off in a ragged, dark mass, to become a flock, a single thing moving through time, wheeling, swooping, fanning, contracting and returning on itself, “Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky” (Richard Wilbur), to land again in the trees. How? Are they a chorus led by a conductor? Is each starling programmed to fly behind a leader in formation? Is the possibility of those arabesques an ancient piece of wisdom written, perhaps, into a starling’s DNA? Has evolution selected starlings that naturally flock? Apparently, none of the above. The effect-less complex in origin and perhaps more profound in implication than any of these-is the result of each starling following the simple rule of keeping the same distance from its neighbors.

Do starlings have any inkling of how majestic and beautiful their flocking is? Is there a starling sublime? Are human collectives-social as much as biological -more like a mass of starlings than we ever imagined? Is each of us made up of a flock of lesser creatures inside our heads? Perhaps. But, in any event, the fact of their flocking, the emergence of a routine or algorithm with a complex dynamical profile from the simultaneous, identical and simple activity of individuals, carries something essential of what I want


to say here about the individual self and the collective other, and about the circuits linking the modes of simultaneity Isequentiality and the polarities of self/other within contemporary technoscientifically inflected culture.

One after Another: Many at Once

Let me start with the two modes: the serial, which consists of doing one thing after another (the whole flock forming itself and moving through time) and the parallel (each starling flying in concert with the others) doing many things at once. The first mode is exemplified in narratives, routines, rituals, algorithms; melodies and timelines; the second in scenes, episodes, harmonies, contexts, atmospheres  and images. Parallelism concerns co­ presence, co-occurrence, simultaneity whilst serialism concerns linear order, sequence, process. Counting, listing, lining up and telling are essentially serial; collaborating, displaying, getting together and assembling are parallel.

The opposition has many familiar instances: the ancient stand-off between pictures (showing) and words (telling); the use of diagrams, charts or maps against ideograms and symbols in mathematical writing; presentational versus discursive modes in Susan Langer’s articulation of the basic vocabulary of symbolic forms; the wiring of components in parallel as opposed to series in an electric circuit; the phenomenon of harmony and the production of chords”simultaneous sounding of notes … known asvertical music” distinct from “horizontal music” of melody and rhythm through time (Oxford Dictionary of Music); the distinction between cardinal numbers (pure quantities) and ordinal numbers (pure orderedness) in arithmetic; the distinction in film editing between parallel montage (two sequences intercut to produce simultaneity of action) and Eisenstein’s sequential montage whereby meaning is created through the serial juxtaposition of frames.

These binary divisions, however fundamental and self-contained they appear within their particular domains, are not absolute; each is relative to a given level or practice or context or medium. Thus, to cite an obvious example, within a parallel mode, in a painting one can employ serial effects, ranging from pictorial story-telling to the explicit use of words or one can employ more intense forms of parallelism such as a picture within the picture or the deployment of layers (of paint, content, brushstroke) superimposed upon each other; likewise within a linear mode such as a narrative or the one-dimensional space of a melody one can use parallelist presentational means such as depiction and elaboration of the scene or the introduction of harmony or one can embed further narrativization, and so on.

Nonetheless, once level of discourse, context, medium has been specified, the parallel/ serial duo inevitably points to a distinct opposition dividing a field of content or signifying practice into irreconcilable spaces.

Thus, to return to the examples listed above, consider the ancient standoff between the verbal and the pictorial; a standoff that in Western culture has deep iconophobic roots in the biblical interdiction of graven images and resulting iconoclasticisms and in Platonic distrust of images for being, as simulacra of simulacra, doubly untrustworthy. For William Mitchell it betokens a deep and ongoing battle fought on a wider terrain:

The dialectic of word and image seems to be a constant in the fabric of signs that a culture weaves around itself. What varies is the precise nature of the weave, the relation of warp to woof. The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights on a “nature” to which only it has access. (529)

On this understanding there can be no winner in such a battle, and refusing the Hegelian idea of “dialectic,” no healing of the rift between the two through some overarching unification. Rather, the struggle between word and image has to be seen as carrying the “fundamental contradictions of our culture into the heart of theoretical discourse itself.”

Langer’s discursive/presentational opposition embeds that opposition between words and pictures within a general theory of symbolic forms that explicitly foregrounds the duo of serialism and parallelism considered here. Thus the discursive form of communication, typified by language and the use of numbers, shares the character of words in having “a linear, discrete, successive order, … strung together like beads in a rosary; beyond the very limited meanings of inflections, which can indeed be incorporated in the words themselves, we cannot talk in simultaneous bunches of names” (76). Counterposed to this is the presentational mode, typified by pictures, which are precisely not discursive: “They do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so the relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision” (86). It is this capacity to handle more than one item at once, to be able to cognize an idea, say, with internal parts, one which has relations inside relations, which “cannot be ‘projected’ into discursive form,” that constitutes what is peculiar to presentational communication.

Before going on, let me note the inherent and inescapable reflexivity that surfaces in any discussion or elaboration, such as the present account, of the two modes. What gets said or shown -and the issue is already there

in that alternative – will necessarily be organized discursively or serially as a narrative, an enumeration, an itemized ordering of the material and so on, and/ or parallely as a presentation, a depiction, a showing, and so on. The result is a reciprocity of status and action between the two modes: large scale or underlying changes and reconfigurations of one mode are inseparable from such changes in the other; in any particular artifact wherein these modes operate, such as the present account of them, they do so intertwined with each other.

My interest here is the explosive growth of parallelist  and visualist thinking within contemporary, technology-based culture; a growth generally recognized to be co-occurrent with and facilitated by a massive and ongoing application of serial-based digitization. Itis the claim here that this rampant visualism and the mounting parallelist mode of thought of which it is a part are the beginning symptoms and collateral effects of a deep-lying, complex revolution-far beyond any question of “mere” technological changes-in what it means to be human.

No secret that human nature (the phrase already innocent, nostalgically distant) is melting, running off in unpredictable directions. The result: posthumanity. Implicated in ways still awaiting recognition as agents of consciousness alteration and yet to be mapped and adequately articulated is the computer, some of whose more visible effects-simulatory practices of artificial intelligence, ongoing extensions of virtual/ artificial being, and multiple creations of artificial life-are redefining “nature” as art, the artificial as an ever moving default, and the “human” as an ongoing, up-for-grabs project with no fixed boundaries and no identifiable telos. We are creating “selves” in the resulting space, inside the triangular enclosure bounded by our two-billion-year-old bodies, the culturally inflected, conscious psyches associated with them, and the never-ending dream of release from the here­ and-now situatedness of our all-too-familiar organs of sense, desire and waste through the distributed and illusorily weightless technopleasures of cyberia.

Without question, something large, unquantifiable and unknown is emerging, beginning to make itself felt across human culture on the outside of our skins and inside our heads. What is it?And-grammar aside-is it an “it,” an inevitable effect and replay of the all-powerful attractor, the singularizing It of Western monotheism, and not a “they” that is/ are emerging? Is the future really singular, determinate, and already there, whatever we do? Or does it,like a quantum plurality of many superimposed states, collapse into a singular present? Or is what we are talking about many futures, a plurality of fates, co-occurent, superposed and simultaneously present all the time?

And could one or more of these futures impinge on the present, on our now-moment? Again, grammar obstructs saying how the what-is-not-yet can visit us, can make something happen that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, produce an event in our here-and-now present. Contact with a/ the future isn’t difficult to imagine-it keeps happening in the movies-so why not for real? Perhaps such a one/many future has already visited us and caused (as it were) this paragraph to be written.

A scary, exciting literally preposterous prospect- our two-billion-year­ old multi-cellular, physical substrates being directly influenced by an It/ They from some future-which sends a new fear and desire through these very bodies. True, we can’t, fleshed out as we are, walk through doors, appear transparent, remember the future or live without ingesting all manner of vegetable and chemical stuff. In the present epoch our ghosts need to eat, defecate, love, talk, cause pleasure, feel pain, gaze at images, dance, gesture, forget what we call the past, laugh, get bored, get high, get angry, run around on two legs, seek orgasms, imagine, get drunk, make joy, pick flowers, cry at universal sadness, watch clouds come and go, watch ourselves watching ourselves, go mad and die.And not in that order. Or any order. But somehow or other-and this is my lesson here-increasingly at every moment, all at the same time.

Once, not so long ago, little more than a generation in fact, there was a clear and distinct binary, an absolute opposition of self versus non-self. An I/me consciously and securely present to myself, fully defined and ranged against an external, collective other; an autonomous first person, indivisible, privately interior, invariant nucleus of being versus a they, an amorphous shifting collectivity of third persons outside my skin. The variable for such a subject, for a self that could range indifferently and arbitrarily over the social other, was the abstract pronoun”one.” Since the Renaissance, a whole social fabric, associated legal code and apparatus of moral responsibility, a system of private ownership and individual rights and duties has been constructed to rest on such a “one.” Now in cyberia the I/me-unit is disintegrating, the one who says “I” is no longer singular, but multiple: a shifting plurality of disbursed, distributed and fragmented personae. The I bleeds outwards into the collective, and the collective introjects, insinuates and internalizes itself within the me. What was privately interior gives way to the public, the historical, the social. What was the world enters the individual soul as personal destiny. The result: disjointed and ultimately unconvincing introspection, dizzying syncretism, the fibrillation of desire as we move back and forth across the boundary of an ongoingly constructed real, and the wild promise of a future dance in the memories of the cyborged and robotized descendents of our body-selves.

Human  Computing

Cyberia’s offerings, the computer-driven, facilitated and autologically furthered cause-effects central to Western technoscience, are of course a breaking story. Evidently, the ongoing development of computer architecture and software, with all the structures of desire and intentionality folded into their functionality, and the new socio-cognitive possibilities of imagining, doing and thinking thereby created, are to be with us for some time.

In particular, two such large-scale developments within computer science in recent years have come to dominate the computational scene. Interestingly, of these two cause-effects one is serialist and the other parallelist. First, the digitizing of analogue forms and the consequent rise of object-oriented programming languages; second, the move to parallel processing and the decentralized and distributed functionality inherent in it. These changes are linked in various ways and are, I claim, fundamental components of the circuit joining contemporary technoscience to the ongoing reconfigurations in human “nature” that surround us. Though I shall touch later on the process of digitization, my chief interest here is the move to parallelism and in particular the visualism associated with it. By which I mean the shift on the part of computer engineers, scientists and roboticists from computation conceived and implemented as a serial process of one move at a time in ordered, linear sequence to computation as parallel process consisting of many moves, independent but connected, occurring simul­ taneously. I am interested in the momentous-epochal-transformation within human culture this shift in computing signifies as cause, effect and co-occurrent phenomenon.

A noteworthy fact about the introduction of computers in the period 1930-50 was how easily and naturally human computers -which is what people who calculated were called-were, as James Bailey puts it, “annihilated by their electronic counterparts.” It’s as if we had been waiting for these linear devices all along. And so, according to Bailey, we have.

Interestingly, the very title Bailey gives his account reflects the duo that interests us here. Thus, the main title, First We Reshape Our Computers, Then Our Computers Reshape Us,insists on our circular relation to technology in which we are both subject and object, cause and effect. In this it honors a parallel (or “horizontal” or “recursive” or “circular”) type of causation, in that the labels /1cause” and /1effect” are interchangeable and designate actions that are co-occurring. The phenomenon, whose basic and common form is a feedback cycle, occurs when event A produces an effect B which in turn causes a change inA, and so on; it can be seen to operate in all self-correcting (self-organizing, self-creating, autopoeitic) systems. In contrast, Baileys’s subtitle, The Broader Intellectual Impact of Parallelism, reverts, by positing a one-directional, linear model of influence or “impact,” to the traditional idea of serial causality in which what is designated as cause is always separate from and strictly precedes its effect.

We built machines, he tells us, that “inherited all the sequential ways of expressing and formulating science that had developed over twenty-five hundred years” (67), machines that perfectly matched the exigencies of one­ step-at-a time human computers; and, one can add, perfectly dovetailed with the one-thought-at-a-time picture of our interiority delivered to us through introspection and supported by neurologically-based models of consciousness. Not only did we automatically and unconsciously model “computer” on an individual human calculator/thinker, but we also had long structured science accordingly, choosing what to investigate and how to think about it, by the same token of individual performance.

True, such structuring of technoscience had a confirming pragmatic loop allowing navigation and warfare to give celestial mechanics and ballistics central billing in the mathematical agenda of the seventeenth century; but it is also true that these mathematical concerns were amenable to being treated by sequences of calculations; they were linear problematics that begat calculus; a cognitive technology that notwithstanding its focus on instantaneous change and apparatus of diagrammatics to go with it-is a linearizing mode of thought par excellence.

The sequentially structured van Neumann  machine that we call the”computer” is an ideal simulacrum, then, of a certain conception-itself highly abstracted and idealized-of an individual computing/ thinking self. Even more is this so with the idealized construct, the Turing machine, that grounds the present-day scientific/theoretical study of computation; a machine whose construction and entire mode of working is seen to be linear, sequential, one-dimensional.

The alternative is to choose parallel computation, or more exactly, parallel and distributed machine-architecture along with operating systems and programs, which allow one to calculate many things at once. A choice that Bailey conceptualizes in terms of base-level hardware: “Parallel computers are organized much more directly around what electrical circuits are good at than they are around what people are good at”(68).

A statement that is hardly decisive and needs much qualification. Certainly, it is easy to hook up components in an electrical circuit-in parallel or in series-and more difficult to organize people in this way. But this does not mean that people are not good at thinking in parallel or in series or that it is not natural for them to do so. What is misleading here is not distinguishing “people” as separate individuals who think as individuals and “people” as a collective that thinks qua collective.

The point is important. The conception of human intelligence and thought, embedded in contemporary developmental psychology, artificial intelligence and cognitive science-“cognitivism”-is individualistic: it understands thinking, primarily and more or less exclusively, as something taking place inside individual mind/brains. In order to maintain this perspective it has to assign to “context” all else relating to the cognitive scene. According to such a methodology, the context needs to be controlled as background in theoretical a.nd laboratory accounts, but plays no important and certainly no constitutive role in the thinking process. Which means that cognitivism necessarily assigns a subsidiary role to everything outside the individual’s skin, from the material means of thinking (writing and other tools) to the sociocultural relations in which individuals habitually operate. Over the last dozen or so years this understanding has come under increasing attack. Researchers who have observed how people think in practice have come up with  a very different picture, one that insists that what is marginalized into a vaguely defined and all embracing /1 context” is, on the contrary, a crucial element in how humans think. Such cognitive ethnography argues that not only is thinking always socially and culturally situated, but that it being so is how it happens.

Thus, according to one such researcher, anthropologist Ed Hutchins in Cognition in the Wild,it is vitally necessary to distinguish “between cognitive properties of the sociocultural system and the cognitive properties of a person who is manipulating the elements of that system” (362). In other words, the sociocultural relations among people in a group engaged in thinking collectively are an essential part of the cognitive abilities of those individuals. For Hutchins, as well as for other cognitive ethnographers and ethnomethodologists, mapping the relation between forms of intelligence, between individual and social cognition, is a vast and as yet dimly perceived project, since virtually all contemporary discussions of real and artificial intelligence subscribe to the systematic misperception underlying cognitivist accounts.

The relevance of all this to the present attempt to understand the connection between parallelism and thinking should be clear. Once it is recognized that all social collaboration is a form of thought and all thought socio-culturally situated, it makes coherent, usable and justifiable sense to understand parallel computing as the machinic idealization of collaborative rather than individual intelligence: the collective doing of lots of (simpler) calculations at once, instead of an individual doing of one (more complicated) computation at a time. The situation is not, as Bailey has it, that parallel computers represent a feature of electrical circuits rather than human thinking. In a way, just the opposite is true: society, history, culture are parallel processes. Like the activities of our cells, our organs, our bodies and brains, they consist of a multitude of co-occurring, simultaneous and interdependent activities. In particular, regardless of natural properties of electrical circuits, humans engage in parallel thinking all the time-whenever they collaborate (literally or virtually)-and they are by this very process continually restructured and remade as individual thinkers.

Thus, if cognitivism is misconceived and ethnography a better guide to what actually happens when people think (and I believe it is, though I’ll not justify that here), then understanding parallel computing as the inscription of the collective onto a site long assumed (implicitly and uncritically) as singular, makes the sequential/parallel opposition a fundamental crucible of cultural difference: one whose dynamics are as crucial to understanding technoscientific practice as the division of labor is to theorizing the social. The site in question-the computer-both as person and as machine, is where a form of parallelism ultimately disruptive of the very idea of an “individual person” is emerging.

John von Neumann (though apparently not Alan Turing) was aware of the important potential of parallelism and tried unsuccessfully in the 1950s to produce a workable form of parallel processing (but the problem of synchronization sunk him). Of the two major projects that used computing during WWII-simulation of nuclear chain reaction in the Los Alamos Atomic bomb project (an effort which included von Neumann) and cracking the German military’s cipher code at Bletchley in Great Britain (whose star was Turing)-the first asked for a parallel approach (simultaneity via cascading action is definitional of such reactions) and the second a serial one (codes operate via opaque strings of symbols communicated sequentially).

But however vital for computer science, and fundamental for cyberia, the serial/parallel difference, either in relation to the switch in computational mode or in terms of the massive program of digitization to be discussed below, is ultimately no more than a choice between one technology and another -an engineering distinction that appears to be of limited and provincial significance. What could it have to do with human interiority and consciousness? How could it be linked with the self, subjectivity, I/we and the It/They that come(s) from the/ a future?

Parallel/Serial as Universal Duo

To respond, and to show what might be at stake in such a question, I want to back off from computing as the prime site of instantiation of serial/ parallel, and move to other arenas. I want to give various examples of the duo in operation. What will emerge from these is how the two poles operate together, impinging on each other as a combinatorial tool everywhere from our pre-mammalian origins to present-day culture. Thus, not only is the serial/parallel opposition a widespread organizing and creative principle across various humanistic, artistic, mathematical, technoscientific, linguistic, and epistemological practices, but it is also to be found within biological systems as a hard-wired functioning binary.

In his “cognitive ethology of human culture,” by which he means the construction of a temporal framework for the development of human mentality, evolutionary biologist Merlin Donald, in Origins of the Modern Mind, puts memory and knowledge-storage as the fundamental agent of change and structure. Thus, when he characterizes the highest form of pre­ linguistic mental achievement as that of apes -“unreflective, concrete, and situational”-their lives “lived entirely in the present, as a series of concrete episodes” (149), he invokes a long-accepted binary within cognitive psychology: contrasting the episodic memory of such lives with the more archaic form of memory, the procedural, that preserves sequences of actions, schemas and algorithms for doing things.

In terms of human semiosis, episodes and procedures correspond to the opposition between pictures and words, between  the parallel co­ occurrence of the information in a scene and the sequential delivery of speech. The two forms, found in birds as well as all mammals, employ entirely different neural mechanisms, are morphologically distinct and functionally incompatible: “Whereas procedural memories generalize across situations and events, episodic memory stores specific details of situations and life events” (151). Of course, identifying the opposition here in no way claims for it a total coverage of the field of memory, and indeed, with the advent of language a third, conceptual form of memory emerged. But while this adjoined, re-organized and in much of culture dominates the more primitive substrate it found, it in no sense obliterated the episodic/procedural couple.

Mathematics: an entire subject organized around and predicated on the serial/parallel opposition. As Tobias Dantzig’s discussion of the two conceptual moves needed to handle whole numbers observes: “Correspondence and succession, the two principles which permeate all mathematics-nay, all realms of exact thought-are woven into the fabric of our number system” (Number: The Language of Science, 9). The first refers to the one-to-one correspondence whereby the elements of one collection are matched or tallied with those of another; the second refers to the process of ordering the elements into a sequence as part of counting them. Thus correspondence allows one to judge  which of two collections has more elements in the absence of any need (or ability) to count them; succession determines how many elements are in each collection.

Thus number is a serial/parallel construction. But, as Dantzig declares, the opposition is implicated throughout mathematics and beyond. Certainly, serial (succession) as against parallel (correspondence), in the form of dependence of one thing on a given other versus independence of two co­ occurrently given things, is fundamental to the construction of all post­ Renaissance mathematics.As such it is, for example, the founding abstraction of co-ordinate geometry, as well as that of an algebraic variable and the notion of a function; itinstitutes the separation of independent and dependent events and hence founds the idea of a random variable in the theory of probability. More primitively, as indicated, the parallel is the all-at-once magnitude of cardinal numbers, their determination as unordered collections or combinations against the sequential, counted-into-being ranking of ordinals or permutations.

On the relation between ordinal and cardinal, there is the anecdote of the clocks: A man heard the clock strike two times one day, just as he was falling asleep, and he counted like this: “One, one.” Then, when he realized how ridiculous that was, he said, “The clock has gone crazy: it struck one o’clock twice!” (quoted in Ifrah, 24). Or again: there is the difference, crucial in the theory of sets, between the ordered pair (a,b) and the unordered pair {a,b}of two objects, and the propriety (discussed by mathematical logicians) of Kuratowski’s formal definition of the former in terms of the latter.

Not only do “the two principles permeate  … all exact thought,” and prove to be “woven into the fabric of our number system,” but they also­ well outside the field of mathematics or of so-called exact thought-form a ubiquitous and formidable constitutive principle. Put differently, the interplay of parallel and serial principles in the manufacture and replication of concepts gives rise to an enormous idea machine, a combinatorial tool or technology   that  permits  the  signifying,  patterning,   imagining- constructing/ discovering of an unsurveyable plenitude of “objects.” Objects whose viability and creative potential lie precisely in the way they neutralize the very difference between serial and parallel that allowed them to be brought into existence.

By way of elaboration, consider three examples: the code of Western classical music, the language of traditional arithmetic, and the code of mathematical theory of infinite sets. In each case the “objects” making up the code-musical compositions, integers, infinite numbers-arise from an initial formal constraint. They are manufactured via a principle of equality or interchangeability that operates as a built-in insistence that- despite the evident opposition between them upon which music, arithmetic, set theory are founded -any parallel object be equivalent to a serial one and vice versa.

In classical music, with its enormously rich, intensely specialized mass of composition based on key harmonies, this folding of serial and parallel into each other is correspondingly complex and detailed. At bottom, however, it amounts to a vast algebra of forms: compositions that arise from the different ways musicians have formulated of re-writing and arranging sequential progressions into simultaneous chords and spilling harmonies over time to be the successive notes of arpeggios and the like.

In traditional arithmetic, the principle of ordinal/ cardinal inter­ changeability is so ingrained, and the proliferation of objects so effortless, that it’s difficult to detach the principle of parallel-serial interchangeability from the familiar idea of a “whole number.” Thus, not only is it too obvious to even remark that an ordinal is necessarily a cardinal, but the reverse is unasked: why can every collection, however named or described or defined -and independently of any method of achieving such a thing-be”counted” into a sequence? What hidden necessity guarantees the possibility-the eventuality-of totally ordering anything nameable?

In the theory of infinite sets, ordinals are defined to be sets and so automatically possess a cardinal magnitude, whilst the reverse is precisely the content of the notorious axiom of choice, the axiomatic principle needed to guarantee that all sets can be well-ordered. It’s no exaggeration to point out the possibility of this cardinal/ ordinal interchange as the constitutive armature of Cantor’s infinite arithmetic: certainly without it the entire theory of sets as developed during the twentieth century would be impossible.

One can press harder on the phenomenon of serial/ parallel interchange, and identify what might be called an horizon effect: in each case the technology of production, the means of creating the plenitude of objects, is subject to an insurmountable  limit,  an unanswered   or  even  unanswerable  question, whereby an horizon of the machine is revealed; and with this emerges the impossibility of running the machinefrom within, as before, without reference to the presence of its external features. For Western classical music composition the system of vertical-horizontal equivalences collapsed early in the twentieth century, when the key-based harmonies that controlled the chord/ arpeggio trade-off were repudiated by a movement appropriately calling itself serialist. For set theory, the horizon of the machine was revealed through the proof in 1963of the independence of the continuum hypothesis, which left unsolvable and essentially unresolvable the question of the magnitude of the continuum (as well as the independence of the axiom of choice that allowed the question of this magnitude to be posed). For the classical integers and their arithmetic, the horizon-less obvious, more contentious and needing considerable groundwork to reveal it .:arises from the challenge to the  orthodox account of infinity, and the subsequent emergence of non-infinitistic, in fact an attempt at non-Euclidean arithmetic elaborated in my Ad Infinitum the Ghost in Turing’s Machine.

In natural language, the opposition of serial/parallel is basic; an intrinsic and constitutive binary. It appears, according to the Glossary of Semiotics, as a very general linguistic distinction-as the opposition of syntagmatic (“relationships … of linear, temporal sequence”) and associative or paradigmatic (“relationships [that] do not as such occur in time [but] make up an array of possibilities”). Or again, according to Roman Jakobson, in Fundamentals of Language, it appears as a completely abstract and general feature operative at all levels of speech: “The concurrence of simultaneous entities and the concatenation of successive entities are the two ways speakers combine linguistic constituents” (73). Jakobson goes on  to  observe  that “The fundamental role which these two operations play in language was clearly recognized by Ferdinand de Saussure. Yet of the two varieties of combination – concurrence and concatenation – it was only the latter, the temporal sequence, which was recognized by the Geneva linguist” (74), a fact which, according to Jakobson, stems from Saussure’s immersion in the traditional belief  II qui exclut la possibilite  de prononcer  deux elements a la fois” (75).

Evidently, the serial/parallel duo functions at all levels of speech: phoneme as simultaneous bundle of distinctive features, syllable as succession of phonemes, the inherent parallelism of intonation/ gesture, the combined linearity and simultaneous unity of utterances, and so on.

A  final example: twentieth-century physics. There is the well known parallelist phenomenon of superposition in the standard (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum physics, where all the mutually  contradictory states of a quantum system, ghost tendencies that Heisenberg called potentia, are  taken to be simultaneously present but unrealized. This is opposed to an actual or “real” state of the system resulting from a measurement (the so­called collapse of the wave function), where such actualities are understood as occurring one after the other. What can legitimately collapse the parallel into a serial, what in other words constitutes a measurement, is a major mystery-the so-called “measurement problem”-for such a view. Interestingly, the  main rival theoretical model of quantum events, the many­worlds interpretation, eschews superposed parallel tendencies and so eliminates the measurement problem. By positing one totally determined, unghostly state at a time in each of a multitude of “simultaneously occurring” worlds, it replaces parallel unreal occurrences in one world with real occurrences in parallel  unreal worlds.

These examples, from brain morphology, Western classical music, mathematics, spoken human language, and quantum physics, and the instance of computing we started from, demonstrate the importance of the parallel/serial duo as a creative and organizing principle across many terrains. Further, as is evident from the depth at which it operates and the dynamics it gives rise to, the duo acts in some sense like a zero sum game. By which I mean not that there is a hidden equilibrating force or larger matrix of control ensuring their balance, but that by virtue of their mutual enfolding within specific cultural practices, changes-of status, scope, attributed importance, aesthetic worth, semiotic transparence-to one pole are accompanied by changes in the other. It follows from this that the shift to parallelism being charted here will be associated, as we shall see, with a countervailing, newly emergent form of serialism.

The claim we need to flesh out comes, then, to this: two co-occurrent, synergistic transformations – the ongoing move to parallel and distributed computing and the explosive growth in visualization – are reconfiguring contemporary technoscience. The effects of this emergent parallelism as it circulates through cultural space are being felt at every level, from how we read, write, and see to the ways we understand ourselves as “selves.” And in the process of its unfolding, this parallelism is giving rise to a hitherto unavailable, and yet to be adequately identified, serialism.

Emerging Parallelism

Parallel computational practices separate tasks, data, instructions and memory and distribute them-in various different ways-between separate but interconnected elements, which perform their operations simultaneously.

The idea is natural, obvious and immediate, which is to be expected if parallel computing is the inscription within the computational act of certain familiar (natural, obvious, immediate) forms of collective  cognition.  This was recognized by computer engineers some time ago. As B. Chandrasekaran observes in Natural and Social System  Metaphors for Distributed Problem Solving:

It is clear that distribution of processing or computation is an intrinsic characteristic of most natural phenomena …. Social organizations from honeybee colonies to a modem corporation, from bureaucracies to medical communities, from committees to representative democracies are living examples of distributed information processing embodying a variety of strategies of decomposition and coordination. Computation in biological brains, especially in their sensory processors such as vision systems, displays a high degree of distribution. There is substantial evidence that higher cortical functions are also computed (and controlled) in the brain in an essentially distributed mode …. (1)

Observe that, unlike many of its social and biological precursors, this inscription is fundamentally a question of software-the computation is cognized, designed and specified in parallel terms-regardless of how it is implemented. Of course, implementing it on distributed hardware is a natural choice, but not essential, and parallel procedures can be made to run-with varying degrees of difficulty and artificiality to be sure-on serial machines.

The separate, distributed computing elements can vary greatly. They

can be fully autonomous computers wired together in a network distributed within a building, across a country or in different parts of the planet. They can be simple, stripped down computers hard wired to each other to form a supercomputer like the Connection Machine. They can be specialized computational engines, limited, at their most basic, to simple finite state mechanisms or automata governed entirely by local rules. Or they can be virtual versions of these, simulated engines within the memory of a single computer.

This last, usually called Cellular Automata (CA), has proved to be an extraordinarily fecund computational, explanatory and investigative technoscientific tool. The flocking behavior of starlings we encountered at the beginning, as well as aspects of the behavior of ants or bees in a colony, or cars in traffic patterns, are all examples of situations that can be illuminatingly modeled by a CA: thus, each starling is identified with an individual cell and the requirement to keep a fixed distance from its neighbors is its local rule; and likewise for the distributed behavior of ants and bees. A quite different example of a CA comes from fluid dynamics: The Navier-Stokes equation in that subject, a major triumph of nineteenth-century partial differential calculus, summarizes the behavior of an incompressible fluid. It turns out to be simulatable by a not very complicated CA which uses a hexagonal grid, each cell of which models a single drop of fluid subject to the flow in and out of it along the six directions governed by identical local rules. (See Brosl Hasslacher, Parallel Billiards and Monster Systems.)

Parallel computational methods, which include all kinds of distributed and decentralized processes (see Mitchell Resnik, Turtles, Termites,and Traffic Jams) are increasing at almost an exponential rate in cognitive science, evolutionary theory, complexity studies and throughout technoscience from the level of abstract theorizing through heterogeneous modeling and simulation projects to base-level engineering practices.

These include the generation of artificial life forms, including their habitats and ecosystems together with the simulation of evolutionary possibilities open to them; the invention and simulated creation of compounds, alloys and molecules with specified properties and functionality; pattern recognition and learning behavior within expert systems via simulation techniques using connectionist and neural networks; and genetic algorithms that evolve, refining their ability to solve a problem through the feedback of the results of repeated trials.

On the understanding that parallel computing inscribes distributed biosocial and biological phenomena, in particular collective cognition, one would predict this explosion of use to be open-ended: what is created is work, designs, procedures and routines not previously doable or often even thinkable from the perspective of individualized cognition. On the other hand, it follows that the effects, consequences and cultural disruptions inherent in parallel thinking are not easily predictable, since collective cognition is heterogeneous, unschematized, and emergently different from individual thought in ways that, as we saw earlier from the critique of cognitivism, have scarcely begun to be articulated.

Rampant Visualism

While marking the closure of the western metaphysical tradition, deconstruction also signals the opening of the post-print culture. Deconstruction remains bound to and by the world of print that it nonetheless calls into question. What comes after deconstruction? Imagology. –Imagologies

Once, the stained glass window of the medieval cathedral was the holder and transmitter  of religious knowledge; then, at the end of the fifteenth century, this function was replaced by the printed book. Now, the image is poised to become again the chief means of storing, communicating and processing not religious but technoscientific knowledge.

We are entering the age in which the semiotic, in its pragmatic

determination, is that which can be visualized. The upsurge in the multiple use, production and processing of images, their strategic importance across a wide terrain of disciplines, and the still-growing cognitive impact of pictures, graphics, diagrams, plans, models, graphs, illustrations, tables, ideographs, charts, simulations, figures, and maps in place of linear text and sequential calculational/ descriptive procedures, is so vast as to represent a deep, widespread and irreversible transformation of the contemporary informational and communicational scene. The computer screen is the stained glass window of our time.

How has this come about? And why, after many centuries in which the alphanumeric word-and-number amalgam has enjoyed unchallenged epistemological and semiological domination of our culture, should it give way to the image?

Of course, images (however they might be scanned electronically or “read” by  sequential eye movements) are single gestalts and hence quintessentially parallel objects. In this they are in direct contrast to text­ type seriality, so that their usurping of words and numbers and consequent proliferation within an emergent parallelism is not unexpected. According to Bailey “It is no accident that the fields of scientific visualization and parallel processing have emerged in the same decade. They are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin.” His idea being that the analogy between an individual number and an individual pixel and the need to process large amounts of information, makes it inevitable that parallel processing is the “most natural and logical way to generate and manipulate those fields of data” on the computer screen (82).

In any event, visualizing numerical data via parallelism is possible via digitization. As we know, it is now possible to digitize any piece of information or item of recorded or represented sense whether in words, pictures, graphics, sounds, or executable content. This means that virtually everything and anything from a word, a gesture, the shape of a rose, an individual human’s genes, the state of the market, all of Western music, a map of the galaxy, pictures of Venus to any conceivable computer program can be recorded, transmitted and processed as some huge sequence- 1101001010000 ……101010100000100111001-of zeros and ones.

Digitization is in essence counting. It thus appears as an extreme form of sequentiality. Certainly, the immediate effect of digitization is to serialize and make discrete what was parallel and continuous: a picture, for example, is converted from a simultaneously presented gestalt to a sequence (or sequentially presented list of sequences) of 0/1bits that can be sent down a telephone line. As a consequence, the resulting digital entity can be an “object” able to be manipulated and exchanged with other such objects within (parallelist) object-oriented programming languages designed for this purpose.

But the creation of sequences via digitization is merely a vehicle, the means in the case of visualization to a parallel end. The sequence of bits represents an image for transmission and manipulation, but it doesn’t replace it. The opposite in fact: the saturation of contemporary culture with images and their multiple and accelerating employment within all forms of communication and information exchange constitutes a visualist revolution, an insistence on thinking with and through pictures that challenges the text­ bound, serial-based print protocols of Western culture. Thus, though reliant on digitization, the contemporary explosion of images is a massive and as yet unstoppable process of going parallel.

The fundamental importance of the emergent visualist paradigm, both in relation to the demands of technoscience and on a more general cultural level, is being widely recognized:

For example, Nicholas Negroponte, in being digital, observes the “educational shift away from “compulsive serialist children” and takes it as accepted and beyond doubt that “our future adult population (will be) simultaneously more mathematically able and more visually literate” (220).

For example, Tim Lenoir in Visions of Theory talks of the emergence of new scientific methodology, a visualization- and simulation-driven conception of theorizing in organic chemistry and biomedicine as a form of “computer-generated science,” in which “visualization is theory.”

For example, Michel Serres’ Les Origines de la geometrie, which discusses the various ways in which the materiality of diagrams, mechanical calculators, and the like change not just the execution but the meaning and epistemological status of calculations that use them.

For example, my own Post Calculus, on the role of graphing calculators in the demise of calculus as we know it, and Thinking Dia-Grams: Mathematics, Writing, and Virtual Reality, which links the suppression of visually based signs in “rigorously” presented mathematics to alphabeticism and a metaphysics of disembodiment.

The  unlimited  additivity  and  combinability  of  the  image,  the juxtaposibility of  any image  with any other, require and are in the process of engendering delivery systems and devices for porting parallelism into our heads-essentially  techno-innovations  for double or multiple seeing:

 * windowed environments and user interfaces that replace serial keystrokes by graphics and allow many “windows” to be open and active simultaneously.

* PIP (Picture in Picture) facility for a TY, which opens a window in the screen permitting two separate images to be displayed and controlled simultaneously.

videowalls-arrays of separately programmable screens on which several different but linked narratives can be displayed and interpreted simultaneously.

*object-oriented languages,,which counterpose the linear flow of procedural programming languages by foregrounding the manipulation of (co­ occurrently and paradigmatically) available objects.

hypermedia pages,  which depend on object-oriented languages to deploy sound, image, text and executable content in any order or combination and which are linked to other such pages in webs.

According to Merlin Donald, the development of external memory and thinking devices that has played such a role in the evolution of all kinds of cognition achieves a spectacular and radically new level in the case of humans. This is because the sheer plasticity of our brains means that our immersion in technology allows us to re-configure our neural connections all the time. Which means that all these artifacts, from windowed screens to hypertexts are rewiring the very brain/minds that imagined them. In this way we are facilitating the emergence of a larger-collectivized, distributed, pluralized-” intelligence” by allowing ourselves to become more “othered,” more parallelist, more multi, less individualized-able to see, think, enjoy, feel and do more than one thing at a time.

Paraselves and Multi-IDs

Am I beside myself or are there two or more of me/us? Can I, can “one”‘(but one can’t say “one”), have more than one identity?

“Now we are one, or two, or three”-a recent headline from the New Scientist acknowledges our widespread pluralization, and the multi­ disciplinary, multi-cultural, multi-tasking, multi-plex environment we inhabit. It could easily be the title of a piece on cognitive science’s idea that the mind is not and never was a single agent, but an assemblage of different and competing agents; or a report on neuroscience’s understanding of the mind/brain as a many-sided modular organ whose morphology indicates two or three or more independent functioning units; or a human interest piece about the recent increase in the number of people doing two things at once like using mobile phones and wrecking their cars.

In fact, it’s about Multiple Personality or Dissociative Identity Disorder. MPD/DID is a hot topic with many books, hundreds of articles, debates, etc., made ultra hot by the (widely accepted) view of it as a disorder whose origins are to be located in childhood abuse.  I’ll mention two books.

First  Person  Plural, by Stephen Braude,  acquiesces  in this origin of Multiple Personality in abuse and understands the phenomenon as the disruption of a natural unpathological, unitary self. The vocabulary of pathology and the need to justify the naturalness of a single personality leads him to theorize the necessary existence”of an underlying synthesizing subject.” Braude is an analytic philosopher with a conventional-that is to say, in the present context, enlightenment-epistemological agenda, so no surprise to his polemic against the possibility that being plural or multi is anything other than deviant departure from a prior (Kantian) subject which is the condition for the possibility of any (rational) thought.

The abuse etiology is directly challenged, however, by Ian Hacking in Re-writing the Soul, which situates the multiple personality effect within a history of memory, locating it in the “conceptual space for the idea of multiplicity” (179) constructed by French medicine in the nineteenth century, used by patients to describe their symptoms and then looped back through the doctor/patient circuit into confirmatory evidence of a disease. Though sharply argued and historically focused, Hacking’s analysis elides the issue of contemporaneity: even if, as he maintains, sufferers from the syndrome are creating and fitting their symptoms to pre-given diagnosis, we’re still left with the question: why these symptoms right now? Why the irruption of this kind of multiplicity within present-day culture?

One body with many (up to 96 so far) identities or “alters” differently related: most claiming to be solo, but some aware of their co-inhabitants, some fully worked out personae, but most persona-fragJllents and generic functions, such as The Angry One, the Innocent Child, etc. Maybe schizophrenia opens here into a generalized obverse: instead of the original unity-we were all one once-become split and fragmented, we have an originary collectivity manifesting as a barely-and not necessarily­ unitizable ensemble: Stevenson’s multifarious, incongruous denizens.

If, as Louis Sass’s Modernism and Madness has it, schizophrenics were the sensitives, the “town criers of modern consciousness … existing not just as a product of but also a reaction against the prevailing social order” (372), too easily able to internalize their rent and disordered times, then perhaps the present-day multiples are their successors: emblems of the multiplex instabilities of twenty-first-century psychic reality whose ur-myth is nearer to Osiris than Oedipus. This is not to deny that multiples aren’t strange, aberrant, frequently traumatized and needing help, but rather to suggest­ leaving aside their disputed etiology-that their aberrance might serve, at least for now, as “the best paradigm we have for postmodern consciousness” (Steven Shaviro Doom Patrols, ch 14) and, beyond that, might presage an inescapable aspect of future normalcy.

It is worth observing here that at least one account of multiple personality, a neurological-based picture that evidences clinical and hypnosis findings, sees it as part of an underlying multiplicity of brain function. Thus, for Oakley and Eames, in The Plurality of Consciousness, the syndrome is merely a divergence from a normal and ongoing mental parallelism:

It seems likely that the multiple parallel streams of conscious activity (i.e. activity we are aware of), which are implied by the multiple personality data, are no different from those which are present in normal individuals …. The difference in the multiple personality case is that these processes can be attached to different self representations, and so when re-represented are revealed as the thoughts of different individuals. When only one self representation is available to self-awareness all conscious processes, covert or otherwise, are attributed to a single “me.” (237)

On this account, then, multiples whilst undeniably aberrant, are closer to all of us than we have ever, from the perspective of a natural, unfractured singularity, imagined. If multiples deny the indivisible subject and the equation of one self with one body from within, then MUDs or Multiple User Domains effect the inequality externally. Though both uncouple the self/body unit (powerfully contested site of contemporary reality that, for example, Allucquere Stone focuses on in The War of Technology and Desire), the virtual (or cyber or net or web) communities that emerge from MUDs have no history of deviancy attached to them, and as a result pose a more complex and less easily dismissed effect of pluralization than those with multiple personae.

Wherever a collective presence is constructed, from primitive bulletin boards and conference calls to sophisticated chat rooms on the net, and so on, virtual presences arise from a separation between the physical substrate and the persona: the body parked at the terminal or jacked into a VR rig and the self, ranging solo or engaged in any manner of intimacies anywhere on the net with sundry other disembodied, masked and anonymized virtual presences. Inthese contexts, the Rastafarian usage “I-and-I” for “we” takes on a special and useful ambiguity, since the first person “I” is neither plural nor singular but an archaic misnomer for an emergent I/me/us construct.

Thus, as parallel computation writes collective cognition into a thinking machine understood for millennia as an individual, so multiples do the same for the consciousness machine and its software we call the psyche: they effect a corresponding inscription-what might be called a phenomenological collectivization-at the level of “individual” perception and experience. In this, they realize in well-defined, repeatable socio­ technologic form, a pluralized I/me.

But there is no separation here between interior and exterior: the experiential and the collective fold into each other. All thought, even the most private, individual and enclosed is social. Being socially present, mobilized and used is co-creative with the psyche-a phenomenon that seems difficult to theorize in any general way outside a techno-ecology of the mind/brain. Itis in this sense that one should interpret Merlin Donald’s contention that the key principle of the biological and social evolution of individual cognition is the symbiosis of cognitive collectivities and external memory systems, a linkage that allows new cultural formations and technologies to reconfigure the thought diagrams inside (as we still say) our heads.

The same basic claim, but in a more theoretically elaborated manner, is made by Pierre Levy who urges that “toute une societe cosmopolite pense en nous.” A thesis that surely has to be related, if only to clarify the novelty of Levy’s technological focus, with Vygotsky’s conception of thought as internalized speech and Bakhtin’s insistence  on the heteroglossia of all language. Levy also talks, in specifically computational terms, of a”collective subject …multiple, heterogeneous, distributed, cooperative/ competitive and constantly engaged in self-organization or autopoeisis.” And he too insists that we interpret intelligence in the context of an eco-technological model. Thus Levy, deploying a metaphor that is now becoming commonplace in discussions of the emergent possibilities of the Net, projects humans as neurons, on their way to forming a planetary hypercortex. An organ he sees as the brain of Gaia’s daughter whom/which he calls Anthropia.

In this ongoing upheaval, the old mono-individual, the one-thing-at-a­ time, linearly progressing unitized self, with a sequential memory and timeline history, is disappearing. Or rather, the hegemony, the undisputed authority and automatic pre-eminence, of such a singularity is giving way. Along with it goes the conception of a single truth, a single path to that truth, a single future, a single viewpoint, a single deity. Monotheism, the One True God, the mono-id, the monadic as pattern of the world, is dying. Emerging in its place is the possibility of a new plurality of truths and futures: beings with an awareness of our/their multi-directional itinerary.

We are starting – I believe-haltingly, with confusion, pain, wonder, inevitable resistance, and moments of intense pleasure, not to say joy and surprise – to become multi-beings, able to be beside ourselves in ways we’re only just beginning to recognize and feel the need to articulate.

At the same time as this parallel subject replaces the old individual, a new collective seriality, a new unitary construct, vast and as yet unnamed and unseen is being created – is emerging, as the current vocabulary has it  – at the level of the planet. This construct, an incipient global presence under no necessity to ever be conscious in any human sense; under no necessity to be understandable within the categories of God or Goddess (either Old Testament sun god, New Age earth goddess or daughter thereof) that we have hitherto imposed on our conception of extra-human sentience; and under no necessity to know or love us (insofar as it can be said to “know,” “love” and the like) as individuals, is perhaps already in the/ a future. Though this formulation is necessarily incoherent: particularly so, if such an It/They is seen from some transcendental point outside the human object-the you/ me/us subjectivity-bearing witness and giving birth to it.

No question any more that an event-global, all penetrating, encompassing, inescapable-is arriving and being bidden by us to happen. Within this event we are going parallel and becoming plural in ways and for the reasons I’ve tried to indicate in a schematic and very preliminary way. We are surely living through tumultuous, dizzying times; times spanning a seismic jump in human existence and consciousness as momentous, epoch-making and far reaching as the invention of writing or  -as some would have it  – the advent of spoken language itself. Could such a thing, being thrown here yet again, but this time outside the  comforting bounds of language’s poetry, be possible?


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