Yuri Tarnopolsky

12. On Engines and Games

 postmodernism. Jonathan Swift. Herman Hesse. Laputa. combinatorial culture. commie. Windows 98.

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           Essay 12. On Engines and Games

As a child I read Jonathan Swift's Gulliver’s Travels (1726) several times but used to skip most of the voyage to Laputa.

From an excellent essay by Russell McNeil I learned that I was not the only one initially disappointed by that particular part of Gulliver’s Travels. Surprisingly, Swift's images of Laputa had multiple roots in contemporaneous knowledge.

We need to notice too that the work here is not purely fanciful, even though on first reading it may not seem so. Swift draws nearly all of his satirical material from the genuine articles. Most of the ideas he presents are based on real experiments reported in the literature of his day—and particularly on reports published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society during the last third of the 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th up to and including material published in 1726—the year Swift composed Part III.  ( Russell McNeil )

One Laputian invention  employed in the Academy of Lagado, the random sentence fragment generator, in modern literature often referred to as Literary Engine, seems to be based more on the future than on the material available in Swift's time.

This marvelously clever computing device is eerily prophetic of a time - our time perhaps—when society would place more value on "instrumental  reason" than the more natural forces of reason at our disposal.
                                                                                                   Russell McNeil

The Laputians put mathematics and music above anything else. Swift is generous of detail. In Laputa the garments of women

"...were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars; interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe."

The dinner matched the dress:

" In the first course, there was a shoulder of mutton cut into
an equilateral  triangle, a piece of beef into a rhomboids, and a pudding into a cycloid.  The second course was two ducks trussed up in the form of fiddles; sausages and puddings resembling flutes and hautboys, and a breast of veal in the shape of a harp."

It looks like the Laputians invented cubism:

"If they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms, or by words of art drawn from music, needless here to repeat."

Swift's visionary description of the Literary Engine is worth a full quotation:

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room.  The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others.  They were all linked together by slender wires.  These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order.

The professor then desired me "to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work."  The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed.  He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes.  This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labor; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me "that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech."

Later in my youth, I tried a couple of times to read The Glass Bead Game (1943) by Herman Hesse, but backed off after the first chapters. Having recently read it in English, I still find Gulliver's Travels, including Laputa, captivating and the Game laborious. This time I dimly see a link between the two unordinary novels separated by almost 120 years.

In Hesse’s imaginary province of Castalia, the Glass Beads Game was more performance spectacle than competition (the German Spiel means both game and play). It originated from a blend of music and mathematics, the same two elements that were the essence of Laputian culture.

The Game was performed as composing a  sequence of "symbols of universal language," elsewhere called hieroglyphs, probably, descendants of Swift's rhomboids and fiddles.

Today some results of the fusion of mathematics and music can be actually heard on the amazing site The Sound of Mathematics,  where one can listen to the music of p, combinatorics, in particular, permutations, and other vocalizations of mathematics.

Hesse is never explicit on the rules of the Game but he leaves numerous hints and refers to the Game as "literary productions, little dramas, almost pure monologues."

 “Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature.”

“...the Glass Bead player plays like the organist on the organ. And this organ  has attained an almost unimaginable perfection: its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically, this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.“

 “On the other hand, within this fixed structure, or to abide by our image, within the complicated mechanism of this giant organ, a whole universe of possibilities and combinations is available to the individual player.”

The elitist Castalian Game was a sacred intellectual tradition of the land, designed to fuse science, arts, and religion, but without any utilitarian purpose. On the contrary, the Laputian Engine was intended to produce science and art.

The Game player composed a phrase of  carefully chosen symbols according to strict rules and starting with a given theme.


The generator of the Academy of Lagado produced sequences of symbols drawn at random. The meaningful fragments were selected from the jumble. Meaning was, probably, checked against the rules of grammar. The Castalians applied the rules at each move of the game.


With all the differences, however, there are curious parallels.

 Both projects:

1. Operate with building blocks, arranging them into sequences.

2. Connect a block with the next one by rules and not at random.

3. Use all available knowledge as the blocks.

It seems interesting to find the roots of this Laputian invention in antiquity (Hesse indicates some historical background for his Game) and trace it up to the principles of artificial intelligence developed in the twentieth century. The first samples of computer-synthesized text were based on the statistics of side by side occurrences of letters and words, calculated from samples of natural text.

Some letters and words are more probable to follow one another than others. For example, when the starting word is chosen, the next word is selected according to the probability of its occurrence after the first, etc. Thus, at the level of letters, a  is more probable to follow m than q. At the level of words, am seems much more probable after I , than here, while here is probable after am. All this seems pure nonsense, but if the real world injects a topic and some key words, a meaningful text can be generated. Swift's remark about "the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech" sounds absolutely reasonable and modern.

Neither Swift nor Hesse were interested in the scientific aspect of the problem. They reflected on contemporary culture. This is what I am interested in. Modern culture, however, is already as unthinkable without computer as it is without automobile. The advent of computer meant a combinatorial machine of the Laputian type that could make the Castalian Game and the Laputian research possible and accessible to an average person, as if he or she were given 40,000 pupils to do the chores.

The result of introducing computers to the task of writing was catastrophic: creative writing became easy because word processor could save enormous amount of time on combining and recombining words, editing and printing. The cultural space expanded on a combinatorial scale. Any new combination, however radical and shocking, like a beach sandcastle of wet sand, could dry and collapse overnight, having lost its novelty. But all the culture of combinations required was a lot of sand and some water. The computers made a bit more real the Laputian dream that "the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labor, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study." This could be done by compiling a new combination of slightly refurbished old pieces. No denial, my Essays use the super-Castalian combinatorial ability of the word processing, Web, and hypertext, and the high school students use the same ability for their essays.

Notably, both the Engine and the Game required a lot of labor. Forty pupils were employed in the Literary Engine and an entire Order with elaborate hierarchy and school system ran the Glass Beads Game. The reason for such concentration of manpower was that both activities were combinatorial in nature.

Combinatorics is a realm of dauntingly big numbers. We can arrange even a relatively small number of elements in an enormous number of combinations. If we have ten objects, for example, cardboard squares with numbers from 1 to 10, they can be lined up (permuted) in 10!= 10*9*8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1 =  3,628,800 different ways, which is the number of permutations of ten elements.

The exclamation mark is a mathematical function called factorial. Twenty is the humble number of our fingers and toes, but 20!=221,173,580,276,812,800. The exclamation mark seems very appropriate. This is why a combinatorial game, if unaided, takes a lot of time. For example, to list all the permutations of ten symbols, spending one second for each, would take about 17 hours. For 20 symbols the time grows up to over 100 million years. These numbers give an idea of what the computers have accomplished in human history: they manage large numbers in the same sense as first ancient ships managed large distance and load.

The ships and railways, toiling over distance in Euclidean space, explored and shrunk the globe.

The ships and railways launched the modern civilization of Things.

The computers shrunk numbers. They toiled over the mind space—the space populated by combinations and aggregates of building blocks that had existence only as states of matter, but not as any material objects, not even small beads. Computer and brain consist of many elements capable of being in at least two different states, and the number of all combinations of those states, constituting the state of the overall system,  is beyond imagination.

The computers launched the postmodern civilization of combinations.

The term postmodern is among most amorphous and disputed. I see it as a contemporary Western intellectual anti-intellectual movement (in addition to scores of non-intellectual ones), but to criticize any intellectual trend, even if it is anti-intellectual, is like criticizing pig for its short legs or cactus for its needles: animal or plant, they all are natural and beyond blame.

All we can do is to choose between ideas for our practical purpose as we may choose between a horse and a camel for transportation. This attitude toward ideas, by the way, is typically postmodern and it can be labeled as "anything goes" or "salad bar."   Postmodernism is simply here, it is not just a set of ideas but part of culture, including material culture, and we have to reckon with its heyday while it lasts. The topic, however, is so vast, that I cannot engage in it any deeper than this.

All I want to do here is to draw a line from Swift to Hesse to the postmodern mindset. This turns out easy to do in a weird way. The principles of random text generation that took its origin from the Literary Engine were in fact used to generate postmodern texts, grammatically correct but meaningless.  Examples of the essays produced by this post-Laputian Literary Engine can be found on the Web.

Postmodern texts are easy targets to ridicule. One can open, for example, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, The Viking Press, New York, 1977. I am still not sure it was not a hoax. Anyway,  it represents a phenomenon of  the entire culture, not just of an academic playground.

As we are inclined to travel to rare and exotic sites on the globe, we are attracted to the rare and exotic combinations of sensations, impressions, functions, ideas, and even Things. Postmodern culture is a very thin layer of the total Western culture, but it is the noisiest. Its function is to attract attention.  In essence, it is combinatorial: it takes known elements and combines them in a different way. The book by Deleuze and Guattari, for example, combined ideas of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud with some original—and rather appealing to me—ideas of authors about economics and culture in terms of flows. As examples, not metaphors, they list all possible human bodily fluids.

As another example, anatomy and realistic sculpture have always been linked: the artists needed some knowledge of anatomy to make realistic presentation of human bodies. A new combination uses anatomy as supplier of building material for sculpture. Chemically treated and artistically dissected human bodies are exhibited as art objects.

The postmodern culture displays around stardom and fringe with nothing in between for a simple reason:  what lies between is so vast that any reasonable choice is impossible and the traveler is lost. The extremes—the summits and the rifts—are spectacular but the woods and prairies of the planes are mind-numbing. This is why the commerce competes for a limited space on the shoulders of movie stars and basketball players and pays huge money just for a link of a merchandise to the star name.  This is why the publisher is concerned about a powerful endorsement by a star more than about the content, the author looks for a yet unheard combination of human deviances, and the movie producer looks for the script with the largest possible global catastrophe or with Siamese twins as main characters.

It is the enormous productivity of the combinatorial culture—"untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts," as Herman Hesse noted— that leaves a tiny space to manageable and rational choice among accidental and emotional one. Nobody has any time for this.

I believe in a strong commercial component of  postmodernism. Although the theoretical sources go back as far as to Karl Marx, the origin of postmodern philosophy is usually dated by the period after WW2.  It was a time of a big change, after the collapse of many human beliefs and hopes, ideologically comparable with the collapse of the Roman Empire. It coincided with the big change in economy (see Essay 7) and the advent of the combinatorial culture. Only science and technology seemed a firm ground.

Computers did not create postmodernism but they became a vehicle of exploration and expansion of the vast mental space of sciences, technology, and, finally, humanities.

If you want your voice to be heard in the pandemonium, you need a shock wave of the  woofer and a shrill of the whistle, and postmodernism became ideology of self-advertising. In the perpetual universal dance, every position and every dancer is equally justified, but the loudest stomp overpowers the rest of 221,173,580,276,812,800 permutations of human fingers and toes.

What Herman Hesse himself heard in 1943, in the shielded from the war Switzerland, I believe, was the sound of  many hooves beating the tracks of the future. The two points—the Engine and the Game—define a straight line that not only passes through our time but also goes much farther into the future.

Freedom is the freedom to combine, isn't it?

Our contemporary culture has been vilified so much—but enjoyed even more—that I have no dirt to add. Being more on the side of enjoyment and finding no joy in criticism, I would rather engage in self-criticism, evoking what one of the Hesse's characters said about the Glass Beads Game: "sheer irresponsible playing around with the alphabet into which we have broken down the languages of the different arts and sciences. It’s nothing but associations and toying with analogies." I am terrified to see how technology dictates me what to think and how to express my thoughts, but it is only because I was born in different times. Honestly, I don't believe those times were in any sense better.

I have something on my mind, a picture of the world,  and combinatorics is an important part of it. Artistic culture has always been combinatorial in nature, as we can see, after Vladimir Propp, even in the mythology and folk tales. This aspect of culture was explored by a predecessor of the aggressive postmodernism:  structuralism , a direction of thought so important, influential, and so much defiled and trampled by its own children (the grandchildren will probably make peace), that postmodernism is sometimes called post-structuralism. But structuralism, as well as the distinction between the new and the different,  is subject for separate essays. The peculiarity of postmodernity is that the rules of combination are extremely relaxed and the criterion of selection is nothing but sales. If over half a century ago Niels Bohr believed that any deep truth is as true as its opposite (see Essay 8), today his thesis is transformed into: any truth is as true as its opposite.

It is the combinatorial explosion of the modern composite (artistic, scientific, technological, political, material, religious, and tribal) culture that I regard as the core of the current fascinating period of history labeled as postmodern  and strongly influenced by large-scale peace, cheap oil, computers, and the Roman power of America? The label came from Paris.

According to James Morley , who saw the beginnings of material postmodernism in architecture,

The result of this was an ironic brick-a-brack or collage approach to construction that combines several traditional styles into one structure. As  collage, meaning is found in combinations of already created patterns.

Following this, the modern romantic image of the lone creative artist was abandoned for the playful technician (perhaps computer hacker) who could retrieve and  recombine creations from the pastdata alone becomes necessary. This synthetic  approach has been taken up, in a politically radical way, by the visual, musical, and  literary arts where collage is used to startle viewers into reflection upon the meaning of  reproduction. (  James Morley )

The evolution of the Windows software from a practical tool to the frivolous, flirtatious, and fickle Windows 98 and from it to the hustling pushy Windows XP is yet another illustration of the postmodern spirit of total commercialization in the infinite combinatorial universe where a human cannot find the right way and must be guided by a commie (meaning a combination of  communism, commerce, and combinatorics). First, we give you enormous choice, next we will lead you to the right one, opening yet another little duct for a flow of money milk, remarkably consistent with the imagery of Deleuze and Guattary.

Something really dramatic happened after WW2  (see Essay 4). Luckily, I have witnessed it but I don't quite understand what it was. At my age, I understand everything about myself. This knowledge is useless because I cannot change anything. Neither can I change anything in the course of history.  Neither do I want to. But the process of understanding, even the bitter self-understanding, is the highest delight known to me. Well, love and sex are also understanding, delightfully useless.

The best things in the world are useless. I am greatly tempted to send my affectionate kiss to any combinatorial play of mind.



A great, unique, and somewhat one-sided look on postmodern culture:

Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Ten years after, the picture is more pastel and less neon. The fad fades.


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