Eye and Thou
(Dissolving Descartes)

Capstone Address
to the
IEEE Visualization ‘97 Conference
24 October 1997


"The beliefs a person holds determine what he will perceive of reality"
- T.B. Pawlicki

Introduction - The Hyperbolic Trajectory

Good afternoon. I come before you today invited - I think, rather mischievously - by the organizers of Viz ’97 to give a talk consonant with the Great Work you perform, to articulate its outer boundaries, to pronounce - despite the oxymoron - a vision.

Instead, I will invoke an alternative, paint a picture dissonant and troubling, in a hope to manufacture a mirror, so that for a brief moment we might see things as they are, that you might understand your power.

To begin, let me review what others have said about vision. The great mystic of the Romantic Era, William Blake gave us these aphorisms:

"As a man is, so he sees.
As the eye is formed, such are its powers."

"A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees."

"Both read the Bible day and night.
But thou read’st black where I read white."

And a sixteenth century English proverb warns:

"Who is so deaf and blind as he
That willfully will neither hear nor see?"

And finally, one of the truisms of our culture:

"Seeing is believing."

If these are statements are true, if our beliefs do shape our perceptions, then - as scientists or mystics, artists or engineers, we had better do our best to understand the psychology of construction, how we come to make our reality, or rather, how we come to see what we believe is real.

There is no high or royal road to this truth; it can only come from being tempest-tossed, reason thrashed about, until it wearies of the fight. Only then can we command of our eyes, and, as Blake said, when those "mind-forg’d manacles" are gone, we perceive everything as it is. Infinite.

Therefore, I ask you now to fasten your seatbelts, as I launch into a hyperbolic trajectory, and perhaps - between take-off and re-entry, we can get a glimpse of the world beyond the atmosphere of our minds, gain a view from a height, in which might re-figure our own senses.

Part the First - Music of the Spheres

In the beginning, before writing, before reason, before the intuition of the case of all cases that are similar into the abstraction of number, our spiritual life became synonymous with our capacity for visualization. The cave walls of Lascaux portray a sacred vision with mathematical precision with an arrangement of symbols - bison, oxen, spear-throwing men - that together create a valence in the caves, an electric charge of archetype carefully constructed to produce a frame for the eternal story of who we are.

Visualization provided the frame for myth, indeed, became synonymous with the language of myth. My own most ancient ancestors, who came to the British Isles thousands of years before the Celts, have been given the historic name of Tuatah de Dannan - the People of the Goddess Danu, the children of Diana. These may be the people who built the megaliths that dot the landscapes of those Isles, who designed Stonehenge and New Grange as concrete visualizations of their own understanding of the universe. The wheel of time and the spiral of growth dominated their own creations, each a model in miniature of processes beyond them expressing an essential relation, "As above, so below." These dolmen, celestial timepieces, framed the movements of the Sun, Moon and stars, echoing in stone their own vision of the cyclical permanence of the heavens, the seasons, even the cycle of life from birth to death.

When, a thousand years before Rome rose, the Celts came to these shores, they warred with the children of Diana, whom, overcome, withdrew to the regions "under the hills", eventually to become the legends of the fairies still told today. The Celts, however, incorporated the myths of the Tuatah de Dannan, into their own spiritual beliefs, a syncretism which added immensely to their own understanding of their place in the world.

First among these myths was the visualization of the perfect circle with its four directions, representing the essence of their model of the universe. East represented Earth, South represented Fire, West represented Water, and North represented Air. This, to the Celts, expressed everything known, in a deceptive simplicity that could be taught to a child or meditated upon by a Druid.

Today we find such charming superstitions quaint, of some benefit to anthropologists, but bereft of any underlying truth. Myth, we have come to believe, speaks of things as the ancients wished them to be, not as they really are. An yet, the foundations of modern visualization spring entirely from a man who crossed the ancient world gathering myths which could form the basis of mathematical truth.

Pity poor Pythagoras. This venerable ancient, wellspring of all knowledge of number, who traveled a world which encompassed Egypt, Asia, and the barbarous parts west of the Hellenic states, discovered that within number lay its own contradiction. Some numbers could not be counted, defying reason, irrationally trailing indefinitely, fixedly refusing to end. Yet these numbers could be drawn; the ratio, the Golden Mean, Phi and Pi, all could be visualized, and yet none could be counted. Visualization gave a sense of understanding to things incomprehensible to the mind; somehow, the eye had wisdom the mind could not contain.

And yet, this wisdom had a subtle influence that could not have been predicted. The eye had become a trap. Pythagoras raised the perfect form of the circle above all others, declaring that within its irrational confines lay the ultimate expression of divine perfection.

From Pythagoras to Plato, from Plato to Aristotle, from Aristotle to Ptolemy, the revealed wisdom passed down through the ages, reinforcing its own authority until it became canon, utterly unassailable.

Yet the circle did not work. First Ptolemy charted the movement of the celestial bodies as wheels within wheels, utterly arcane. When Copernicus broke the canon in describing the heliocentric universe, he revised Ptolemy, but dared not recast the movement of the planets as anything other than divine perfection; he could not even conceive of it. The Copernican system defined a new model of the universe, but one no less complicated than Ptolemy’s. The movement of bodies in space remained a maze of confusing wheels within wheels, circles within circles. More and more, Pythagoras’ music of the celestial spheres could only be described as dissonant.

Johannes Kepler, puzzling over the movement of the planets, had the great fortune of the resources of the best astronomer in the world, Tycho Brahe, who had spent decades carefully gathering the specifics of planetary motion. Kepler spent years puzzling over the dynamics of motion; Galileo had shown that Jupiter had satellites in its orbit, so the Copernican theory of heliocentrism received a powerful experiential validation. Yet, despite a wealth of observational data, Kepler could not solve the riddle of planetary motion. For five years, Kepler plotted circle after circle, looking for the precise arrangement which would reveal the perfection of the heavens, and for five years he failed to produce a system which would reveal the divine architecture of the universe.

Kepler could not face the imperfection of the heavens, after all the domain of a perfect God, but - finally - in desperation, he began to explore the conic sections, and found - to his delight and despair, that the planets traveled in ellipses, that the creator had set the planets to travel in a degenerate circle. Forced to endure the unendurable, Kepler formulated the laws of planetary motion; trapped within a heavenly profanity, this failing came to signify the degraded state of all matter, soon to be reviled by Descartes as the res extensa, that which is outside, and proposed that divine perfection could only be located within. The Cartesian grid is the visualization of a reaction to the imperfection of the physical world; lines, infinitely extended in every direction, represented a new conception of spirituality, the internal infinite, reason and perfection located within pure mind.

And this too became canon, this too became a trap.

Newton developed the Principia and the calculus around the Cartesian conception of space; even if the material world exposed its corrupt nature, space remained pure, linear, infinitely extended. It took another three hundred years of observation calculation and confusion - specifically about the orbit of Mercury - before Albert Einstein came forward with a startling theorem - that space itself, inseparable from the matter within it, curved. Reimann’s geometry described a space that contradicted Descartes’ presumed perfection. In ten equations, Einstein articulated a unified vision of space, time and gravity, but - in what he latter called the biggest mistake of his life - he refused to accept that his own equations called for a universe either indefinitely expanding or indefinitely contracting. The static nature of the heavens - a canon as old as Pythagoras - was more important to Einstein than the reality of his own hard work. So he added the "Cosmological Constant" - just as Ptolemy and Copernicus had before him - fudging the truth as he knew it to fit his conception of the universe.

The history of science, is not, as some would suggest, a history of progressive refinements; it is, rather, a history of recognition of willful ignorance. The canon always blinds, the vision is always false.

Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead called this dogged determination to invest our conceptions with some objective reality "misplaced concreteness", and it infects the scientific method at its essence. Here, then, we find the essential paradox of progress; we must make ourselves believe in absolute truths to proceed, but this belief invariably hinders further progress.

I bring this up because it plays into how visualization works, and how what we see becomes what is true. Before 1984, no one had any idea that chloroflorocarbons were anything but inert; the Earth’s ozone layer had been monitored by remote sensing instruments for years, and the appearance of the ozone hole over the Antarctic could have been seen as early as the 1970’s, but for the fact that the scientists examining the atmospheric data disbelieved their own readings at the South Pole, and threw them away as garbage data. Only when a British scientist - observing these same results from the planet’s surface - went through the data sets and removed the "adjustment" - did the presence of the hole, and its periodic nature, become clear. Once we could see the hole - its image quickly propagated throughout the world - it gained a reality - a concreteness - which engendered immediate world-wide political action.

This is perhaps the most significant example of the power of visualization; and it also tells the story of willful ignorance. We deceive ourselves - and refuse to let our extended senses argue with our view of the truth. The problem, esteemed colleagues, lies not within our methods but within ourselves, for we cast these "mind forg’d manacles", we choose to wear them, but everyone pays the price for our prejudices. It’s often said that the scientific method is conservative and methodical. We need to admit to ourselves that our science - as we choose to practice it - invariably reflects our own vision, one which we justify with elaborate theories, and - far more damning - straightforward visualizations.

Part the Second - Inside/Out

The way out is the way down; into ourselves. We need to develop some understanding of the processes at work in our own psychology - the psychology of perception - so that we can learn how what we believe shapes what we see, and how what we see reinforces what we believe. If it seems unscientific and subjective to begin the pursuit of objective reality with self-examination, then I ask you - briefly - to put aside your assumptions of what constitutes the "objective" - as I articulate a theory of perception. I preface it by saying that the model I propose is just a theory, still in its infancy, and only in a small part my own work; it comes to us from work in informational biology and cognitive psychology, cybernetics and systems theory, and its only concern is "generative epistemology" - how we come to accept something as true.

To begin, let me explain the model of perceptual cybernetics or neuro-cosmology, as I was taught it by Dr. David Warner, a cognitive neuroscientist at Syracuse University. From an informational standpoint, the entire universe can be divided into three domains. The external domain - that is, everything exterior to the self - is identified by the Greek letter Phy, representing the physical universe. The internal domain - the realm of thoughts and emotions - is identified by Psi, representing the domain of the psyche. Everything between these two - the senses and affectors which mediated between the internal world and the physical universe - is represented as Fx. The precise content of each of these "islands" of information are unimportant; what is important are the interfaces that each present to the other. Both Phi and Psi must pass through Fx, and each presents an interface only to Fx. Two examples will illustrate this point clearly.

If, for example, I were to take an infrared remote control, and shine it into the audience, it’s unlikely that anyone would know it. Though information is being transmitted from the device, you have no senses which can receive this information. This information is lost at the Phi/Fx interface.

But perhaps - to move on to our second example - I chose a form of communication which you were most likely well-equipped to receive - say the human voice. I might say, "Watashi wa chisai no midori no hito desu." This information would pass across the Phi/Fx boundary, but - unless you knew Japanese - would be lost at the Fx/Psi boundary. There’s nothing inside of you which can grab hold of the raw sound and make sense of it. The Japanese in this audience will - I hope - have no trouble understanding what I said, as they posses an innate interface to this information, a bridge across the boundary.

There are ways to overcome the problems I’ve outlined. In our first example, infrared-sensing lenses would be a good start, in our second example, an introductory Japanese course would be sufficient to decipher my admittedly poor pronunciation of, "I am a little green man." But in every case it requires that we augment some existing set of capabilities.

The aim and the art of visualization lies in the craft of creating ways to sneak information across these interfaces, to optimize information transfer, augment our own perception, so that the message sent is clearly intelligible. Everything this community has done with computers since Ivan Sutherland created SketchPad thirty-five years ago has been toward one end - bridging the natural, innate gaps in perception.

However, this activity has problems of its own. Boundaries exist in order to preserve and reify integrity, to divide this from that, to maintain difference. The maintenance of difference is perhaps the primary function of organism, the reason life is alive. In order to understand how boundaries transform under the aegis of information, we need to take a look at informational biology, in particular the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. In their book The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, they synthesize biology and information theory into a new understanding of organism as informational system.

According to Maturana and Varela, systems which exchange information - such as the ones we create - generate autopoesis - self-organizing systems through a process known as structural coupling. They say:

In describing autopoeitic unity as having a particular structure, it will become clear to us that the interactions (as long as they are recurrent) between unity and environment will consist of reciprocal perturbations. In these interactions, the structure of the environment only triggers structural changes in the autopoeitic unities (it does not specify or direct them), and vice versa for the environment. The result will be a history of mutual congruent structural changes as long as autopoeitic unity and its containing environments do not disintegrate: there will be a structural coupling.

In other words, while the precise qualities of information transfer may not be directed, the fact that there is information flow between an organism and its environment - in the context of the current discussion, between Phi and Psi - necessarily implies that a second-order unity - a meta-system - is created. It is my assertion - and the thesis of this lecture - that this autopoesis creates what we call "reality", that any presentation of information engages us in a feedback loop between information presenter and informed presentee until both form enter a stable meta-state.

In other words, what we perceive becomes, or rather, converges, on what is real, and both what is perceived and what is real undergo epistemological transformation during the process of what I would call generative epistemology.

Knowing this, how can we hope to locate "objective" knowledge? We can’t even locate a frame of reference, or identify an inside and an outside. There are boundaries between sets of information, and presence of the boundary immediately engenders a higher-order unity to which it is entirely subject.

Visualization is a feedback loop which repeatedly passes into and out of systems changing both sides simultaneously. There is no outside, there is no objective, there is no other. Information exists not in isolation but only in a field. "The difference that makes a difference," as Claude Shannon put it, only does so when it crosses over into system which can parse, and adapt, and reciprocatively transform its message.

Where is the human - the scientist or interested observer - in the context of this revelation? Our drive to improve, to tune our ability to secret messages across our biological boundaries can, if taken to an extreme condition, produce a situation where that which is presented outside is perceived inside with one-hundred percent fidelity. We already have a word for this condition; we’d call it a cyborg, that ultimate fusion of biology and mechanism which disintermediates but equally dominates.

The better we get at talking to ourselves, at bridging the boundary between the message and the receiver, the less room we leave for the ambiguity which - it must be argued - forms the most fecund part of our experience. To tell someone what something is - exactly - is to extinguish any re-visioning. The space between, the gaps in our knowledge, that is where the elliptical orbit lies, and curved space-time, and the ozone hole. Anything - any mechanism or communication - which attempts to close those gaps, equally extinguishes our capacity to innovate, to overcome, to be at once errant and wise and human.

Yet, at the same time, all of us here are engaged on a journey of discovery and creation, giving birth to new organs of perception, capable of taking us where we had not gone before, yet these organs - have no doubt - change us even as we use them.

Part the Third - You and Eye

What, then, is to be done?

In a paradoxical blurring, visualization re-figures boundaries everywhere, changing what we know to be true by redefining the boundaries between subject and object. Visualization is reality, seeing is believing.

Each visualization is a revelation, and each is a well-laid trap.

This is more than an intellectual concern for me; my life’s work - at least, for the past six and a half years - has been about expanding the franchise of visualization, so that everyone has access to it, not just as the passive receiver - whatever that means - but equally as the producer. VRML is visualization for the masses, and - make no mistake - VRML or something very much like it will come into common use as a new kind of language, sensually integral, with its own linguistics. It’s said that language defines reality, that words create the world. Can it be less true for this new tongue?

So I worry about this; having helped VRML into being, I would like to be sure that I haven’t added endlessly to man’s troubles by producing the vehicle for the perfect lie. Yet, inevitably, the world finds its own use for things, uses its makers never imagined. All I can hope to do is to warn, and create a few examples of forms that might tend away from the pathologies that plague language. I have to remain optimistic, though, as many of the people who work in VRML are aware - and sometimes a bit awestruck - by its ability to communicate.

It might be that, in the best of all possible outcomes, the proliferation of perceptualization techniques creates a multilateral epistemology, a relativism in which people change their world-views as often as they change their clothes. The recent research showing the ontological similarity between roll-playing and multiple-personality disorders tells us that the human definitions of both "self" and "truth" are far more plastic than we might have thought, that we are creative enough to believe, but sensible enough to frame it with a meta-self which believes in nothing but its responsibility - at any moment - to choose what to believe. I have a feeling that our children will execute this ontological multilaterality with greater facility than any of us might hope to display; their world is already multiple, personal, and plastic.

It’s from this position that we must work, if the science of visualization is to be advanced with any safety. For we are now poised on the edge of an enormous - unprecedented - ability to reach our fellow men. Computers capable of incredible computational and visualization capabilities are now widely available for just a few thousand dollars - if you ignore those graphic supercomputers which disguise themselves as video game consoles. Suddenly the world of mass communication which had to content itself with a single image from a complex multi-dimensional visualization will be able to enter into it, engage it in a communion which precisely defines the structural coupling which creates new realities. Freed from the strict confines of academic supercomputing, visualization now becomes the way we perceive the information age.

The situation at present feels a lot like the Internet did about five years ago; respectable, sleepy, and academic. Who could guess, with just a few simple technologies - for HTML and HTTP are basic technologies that had been around in only slightly different forms for a number of years - such a wave of utter transformation would be unleashed? It was as if a seed, planted in winter soil, had suddenly received enough spring light and sun to germinate and erupt from the surface of the Earth as a stunning flower. How else can we explain something that happened that occurred everywhere, all at once? There was no cause, no magic event; it was simply time.

Visualization sits on this same threshold, and you are the gardeners tending and watering that seed. The Web thrived in part because a community of people knew what to do with it when it emerged, knew how to harness its strength, take its basic power and transmute them to a near-infinite array of forms. That same type of community came to this conference, sits in this room, and waits for their time to come. It might be a year, it might be two, but things are moving too quickly for it to be very much further away.

From that point forward, it will all happen rather quickly. As the Web did not emerge fully formed, neither will this revolution be over in a day. Your job then will be to teach others - millions of others - this new language, fully aware of how language shapes reality. After that, the future is out of your hands, rather like midwives who have successful delivered a baby. Then you can turn back to the private world of academic pursuit, and work to extend the domain of our newest common tongue.

Before I conclude, I want to return to where I began, perhaps three thousand years ago and five thousand miles away. You see, the Celts were not a stupid people, nor a simple people. In many ways they represent a high point of the ancient world. Certainly their mythology betrays a sophistication which we are most careful to overlook, almost embarrassed that someone so removed from us - both temporally and culturally - could have anything of relevance to say to us. Yet I am draw to consider the Celts and that circle which framed their view of the universe, with its directions and its elements. We take those directions as spread out on a plane, parallel to the surface of the Earth, but - in an era long before the development of perspective projection - why would they make the same assumption? In fact, that plane, that circle could describe a space perpendicular to the plane of the Earth

With just this small flip in our visualization, a rotation of 90 degress, suddenly everything begins to make some sense: surely the northern air is above us, southerly fire in the depths below, while earth and water stretch out at either hand, mantling the planet. All of a sudden a mythical description of reality takes form as an accurate physical model - as above, so below. In order to see it, though, we have to be willing to admit that our carefully held view of the Celtic view of the universe is wrong - in fact, woefully naive. The ancients knew enough to take their visualizations at more than face value, always allowing for the third dimension.

And if we can accept this leap of logical as a possible truth, then one of the oldest myths of the Celts begin to make sense. You see, the Celts considered the Tuatah de Dannan a magickal people, who arrived in the Isles on silver ships from the North. If North isn’t North but rather - as I assert, above - heck, I don’t know; but if someone told me they’d seen silver ships coming from down from above, I’d certainly presume they meant spaceships. But then, here I am speaking from my local knowledge about things older even than our culture, at the very fringes of history. We know very little, but make assumptions of truth constantly. And it’s very hard to know the truth; perhaps all we can hope for is a good story, a guiding myth or two.

It is telling that one of the sessions at this conference was entitled, "How to Lie and Confuse with Visualization". That conscious - if sarcastic - recognition of your own powers should serve to warn you as much as it might hope to inform. You create reality, and not just for yourselves, but for countless millions who are about to learn this language of lies, lies and myths.

To forget - even for a moment - that your truths are anything more than a reflection of your beliefs will close off any chance to open the gaps, to perceive the world as it really is: Infinite.

Thank you.

Santa Monica and Phoenix

October 1997