Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hyperspace

A month into my blogging career, I have to say that one of my favorite things about keeping this kind of journal is hyperlinking. I don't just mean the regular sort of blogroll links that connect blog to blog, but I love having the ability to connect thoughts so easily from one post to another. My psychiatrist wife has always thought I had a touch of A.D.D., but I like to think of it as a mind that is constantly hyperlinking. Of course, on some level, making connections from one idea to another is the way intelligence works. My hero, Douglas Hofstadter, is a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and much of his research has focused on analogy-making as a sort of higher level sign of intelligent life. It should be no surprise that he likes to address AI questions by using all sorts of analogies and illustrations from the worlds of math, music, language, art, etc. What interests me the most about that is the idea that creativity is also so often about making connections, something I happened to touch lightly on in a recent post.

The farther out I get from school, the more I seem to find myself interested in all sorts of different creative pursuits - in addition to musical performance, this has included writing music, writing poetry, translating libretti, making movies, blogging, etc. I don't make any great claims when it comes to creative abilities, but I'm always struck by how often the crucial creative moment comes when the mind makes an unexpected or previously unnoticed connection between two somethings. It's kind of like an accident you've been designed to make. I once would've assumed I needed much more specific training to try some of these things out (and more training wouldn't hurt), but I've been surprised to discover that finding successful connections is often more intuitive than I would have expected. It's not much different than finding that perfect analogy.

When I was translating Gounod's The Doctor in Spite of Himself, the moments when just the perfect rhyme would appear always felt like little miracles in which I suddenly married the right word or phrase with the right moment. In the case of translation, as Hofstadter beautifully illustrates, there's a sense in which one is always looking for the perfect analogy - how to express in English what Gounod's librettist expressed in French, for example. But whether it's writing a symphony or choosing colors for a quilt pattern, I think the heart of the creative process is generally the same. One's accumulated knowledge is used to help inspire the most interesting connections. It stands to reason that the creative mind is conditioned to be looking for connections, whether that's the task at hand or not, and I like to flatter myself that this is a reason I don't always focus well.

I don't mean at all to belittle the notion of more serious kinds of A.D.D., but one of the ways in which I have always experienced attention deficit has been with reading fiction. Attention-distraction is probably a better way of putting it, but when I'm reading a long narrative (especially novels), I find it hard not to keep thinking about things I've already read when my enjoyment would be better served by focusing on what I'm reading. I'm always worried that I've missed something, some important connection. That doesn't mean that people who read fluently aren't thinking about what they're read - it makes no sense to think of 'reading' a long work if there's not a running thread of thought - but I struggle more than I should with keeping my topmost focus in the right place.

This can also manifest itself when watching movies, which is probably a reason that I tend to prefer watching movies I already know. There's naturally less concern about 'missing something.' On a fairly trivial level, it used to drive me crazy to be watching a movie or TV show in which a familiar face showed up that I couldn't place; I might spend days trying to figure out where I'd seen that actor before. I used to dream about something like the Internet that would allow me simply to look up actors and see where else I might have seen them. Now that I know the answer to such questions is just a few clicks away, I find it easier not to get distracted by such things. So, this brings me back to my love for links and hyperlinks. They can actually put my hyper-mind at ease.

Even before the Internet came around, I had fallen in love with Apple's old Hypercard software which had it's own built-in programming language. I think it's also notable that I've always preferred in-text parenthetical citations to those bottom-dwelling footnotes. There's a sense in which a hyperlink functions like a really amazing and more transparent parenthetical reference. The reader is invited to dig deeper into an idea, find a definition, or follow a citation as part of the natural flow of the prose. At their best, hyperlinks can let a reader make some of the same sorts of connections that the writer has made.

Yes, there's also something to be said for a good writer taking the reader on that journey through skillfully constructed prose that connects all the right dots without requiring links; we certainly have a general bias towards the idea that a gifted writer should lead us and not just provide a bunch of data that can be connected in various ways. As with just about everything, the ideal probably lies somewhere in the middle. Again I return to Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot and it's patchwork structure. There's great delight in reading the chapters sequentially and I believe the author put a lot of good effort into connecting some very diffuse content. Still, many of the chapters also function pretty well on their own and the structure has a freedom about it that invites subsequent browsing. There's no question that I find this kind of reading more naturally pleasurable than reading fiction.

To summarize, let's just say that I waited more than half of my life for the Internet, and I'm so glad it's here - it fits my way of thinking to a T. Perhaps a better-ordered mind could keep a journal and also keep track of all the internal connections from entry to entry, but I much prefer this. That may mean I'm lazy or it may mean that I'm naturally creative. Or both. For me, it's great fun to be able to make those connections more explicit - and, yes, to send readers off to other interesting hyper-spaces. I've been saying for awhile that it can only be a matter of time before most textbooks are delivered online (or ondisc) exclusively because of the power of hyperlinks. For music textbooks particularly, with all the multimedia content, an online synthesis makes so much more sense than a big fat textbook accompanied by a big fat anthology of scores accompanied by a set of 12 CDs, etc. And, the resulting 'package' would look a lot more like how I think.

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