[NetBehaviour] network roots and the origins of modernity

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Thu Sep 1 03:44:37 CEST 2022

I recently noticed an article about how spiders use their web for cognitive tasks, hypothetically, in what is called "extended cognition."  The truth of this hypothesis depends somewhat on how you define cognition, or intelligence, or consciousness, and how you define tools or distinguish them from the mind.

True or false, depending on your definitions, what I like most is the image and metaphor of a spider's web being part of its intelligence.  Is not water part of that of a fish, and the sky that of a bird?

The spider's image jells for me with Fritjof Capra's definition of holistic intelligence in which even the planet itself has a kind of intelligence, or trees do, sharing information and processing it in coherent organic patterns sans brain.  He also defines meaning as "experience of a context," similarly to Bateson but adding the importance of experience in contrast to structure.

Networks go far beyond computers and electronics and predate them almost infinitely.  One newer network technology, the blockchain undergirding DAO's and NFT's, has a very interesting precursor in Leonardo's drawing of a landscape and waterfall.  Clearly and unusually dated 5 August 1473, conspicuously and prominently using written conventions standard for the then-21-year-old Leonardo's father and grandfather in their notarial profession, it is sometimes considered the first European depiction of an actual landscape.  In like spirit, Leonardo wrote later that he distrusted the new technology of the printing press because an author's words could be changed by the printer and their meaning lost over time.  Pen and ink on paper in an unalterable original was thus for Leonardo a guarantor of accurate authenticity for both visual and verbal information.  That up to 10,000 such pages by him have survived, perhaps only a third of the total he produced, shows how essential he believed the format to be and how successfully he used it.

Leonardo also compared a person's acquired knowledge in the sciences and arts to a garment on multiple occasions in his writings.  This garment could be monstrous and deceptive, stolen, corrupting, or false, but it could also be balanced and true to both nature and human interactions.  He wrote of those authorities who he feared would condemn his work: "you dress yourselves not in your own work, but the works of others, and will not allow me my own?"  This and similar writings he left confirm both his metaphor of knowledge-work as garment and his awareness of the hazards to authentic and accurate preservation.

As modernity grapples yet again with its ingrained tendency to destroy its own most prized achievements and indeed its very habitat -- planetary nature -- we must look back to the roots of modernity if we hope to adapt and learn.  This is why we benefit, with or without probative documentary evidence, from seeing Leonardo's most famous portrait and perhaps the most famous and most networked painting ever as a portrait of what he called "the common mother of all the sciences and arts," Esperienza, which means experience and experiment, method and consciousness both, inhabiting and weaving the garment of the products of art and science as it emerges from history and nature via the bridge of all disciplines.  It is this personification to which he made recourse in self-defense from those authorities who would condemn him, writing "Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy — on experience, the mistress [maestra] of their Masters."

The portrait's finger-touch also points us to the garment, demonstrating the incomplete but fundamental power of human agency to write and draw the networks of our built environment.

The values and concepts implicit in this earliest of examples of a modern ethic may still be those to best inform DAO's as healing, sustaining, and unifying rather than disconnectedly profit-making endeavors, and may also guide us to integrate human and technological systems without monstrosity.






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