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Ryland Wharton — Soft Information Systems: A Manual

The World From Above

Since we do not know everything, practically every experience, fact, or object contains something unknown.1 Is it possible to devise an information storage and retrieval system that will conveniently retrieve pertinent records in response to all possible questions?2 The answer is useful only when it leads to a new human understanding.3 This information is hard to handle; it is widespread, diffuse, unorganized.4 There we are going to make discoveries.5

Stacks of papers on a desk: drawings, equations, blueprints, the plans of a building. What will it be?6 It will of course be the structure described in the stack of papers.7 Any record we might choose to examine has an infinite number of real or potential attributes, any one of which could serve by its existence or absence to answer a possible question.8 Out of a playful movement of elements whose interrelations are not immediately apparent, patterns arise which an observant and critical intellect can only evaluate afterwards.9 This is because it is possible to arrange the symbols of the message in positions relative to one another such that even the arrangement carries information, when we employ logic and our existing knowledge of what may possibly occur in another system.10 Our first move can be to explore the territory we have confined ourselves to; it is far bigger than we think.11 It is not necessarily true, however, that it is quicker to follow the system: in thumbing through…, as in wandering in the woods, luck and perseverance further.12 Hunting for one thing, finding another.13 Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense.14 You want to understand what’s around you.15



Man has increased both his population and his body of knowledge at a dizzying rate just within the span of a single generation. Now he faces the critical need for more people to learn more things than ever before. Inevitably, he is turning to machines to help him meet the crisis.16 (Figure 1) At the same time that the problems increase in quantity, complexity, and difficulty, they also change faster than before.17 Everything is changing; …everything is in motion.18

Figure 1 Inevitably, he is turning to machines to help him meet the crisis.

What is this information, and how is it measured?19 We are using “information” here in its general sense as facts, data, unorganized knowledge, or intelligence. It may be verbal, graphic, or symbolic.20 We must now explore the structure of this field.21 This…leads us to an informal way of classifying information into “hard” and “soft” categories as well as “necessary” and “dispensable.” The classifications are suggested as urgent warning against treating all information the same way.

“Hard” information is verifiable, unambiguous, permanent, documentable, numerical, checked by several sources, or it has some combination of these attributes. It has maximum reliability when properly transmitted. All information can suffer in transmittal, even photographs of text material, but we are referring to the basic nature of information itself.22 “Soft” information may be equally or more important, but it is generally nebulous, qualitative, verbal, transient, not necessarily verifiable, or it has some combination of these characteristics.23 “Soft” information cannot generally be “proven,” so it is tempting psychologically to stretch it, even if slightly.24 “Soft” information ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, from flying saucers to infallible business ideas, and frequently one cannot be easily distinguished from the other.25

Ideally the individual would like to have both access to large numbers of potentially useful records and the ability to retrieve rapidly and accurately the particular records that pertain to each of his specific needs as it arises.26 The technical difficulties of grasping all the information needed for the construction of such a form are out of hand—and well beyond the fingers of a single individual.27 He must judge, case by case, which items he needs, which he accepts and which he rejects, and where he can obtain more.28 The notion of the amount of information attaches itself very naturally to the classical notion in statistical mechanics: that of entropy. Just as the amount of information in a system is a measure of its degree of organization, so the entropy of a system is a measure of its degree of disorganization.29 Culture builds up entropy instead of tearing it down.30 There is a well-known tendency of libraries to become clogged by their own volume; of the sciences to develop such a degree of specialization that the expert is often illiterate outside his own minute specialty.31


Sensitive Chaos (Notes on the Synthesis of Form)

The prime condition of man’s survival, so far, has been this combined capacity to draw upon his own, and others’ past experience to deal with the present, and to project this experience into provision for future contingencies—to anticipate and plan his future!32 One of man’s unique characteristics is his ability to communicate his thoughts and experience to his fellows. He communicates not only by means of transient sounds and gestures, as various animals do to some extent, but also by means of durable packets of information in such forms as handwriting, printing, drawings, photographs, sound recordings, and instrument traces. These durable packets of information…can be collectively described as records.33 Analysis is the central ingredient that determines whether existing records should be transferred or transmitted. In analyzing a record one compares it to something—another record, a list of significant features to be examined or information already assimilated in one’s mind. Subsequent action is determined by the finding of a match or mismatch between the record and the thing with which it is compared.34 Synthesis is combinatorial.35 This “fitting” process goes on in the mind, as with a jig-saw puzzle, searching for and testing piece after piece.36 Man is a problem-solving animal.37 The tools, whether words or stone axes, with which [man] gained direct survival advantage over other creatures, and through which he investigated his environment, evolved gradually in relation to this cumulative ordering of trial and error experience.38 The act of discovery has a disruptive and a constructive aspect. It must disrupt rigid patterns of mental organization to achieve the new synthesis.39 Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.40

Figure 2 The elements of the earth are arranged in a certain order; it is the same order as that in which the spirit descends into matter and can clothe itself in a body.

The elements of the earth are arranged in a certain order; it is the same order as that in which the spirit descends into matter and can clothe itself in a body. (Figure 2) Out of the world of the celestial laws of the eternal mathematical ordering of the stars, which makes itself manifest in the audible harmony of numbers in the world of sound, the spirit descends into the silence of water, there to be revealed in the ordering of number and substance in organic form.41 The elements are our fundamental inventory of the components with which the universe is constructed. They are not things but patterns, and are complimentary to one another like the gears of a watch—the gears of the universe.42 They are comprehensive systems rather than local, and function most efficiently when organized in their largest universal patterns or networks.43 (Figure 3) [One] requires a background grid through which to see his universe.44 Close inspection will reveal surprising patterns, of past and present relevancy.45

Figure 3 They are comprehensive systems rather than local, and function most efficiently when organised in their largest universal patterns or networks.

The new synthesis in the mind of the thinker may emerge suddenly, triggered by a single “link”; or gradually, by an accumulation of linkages.46 Experience tells us that we can never fully predict the outcome of a new assembly of parts. We cannot know the characteristics of the pieces well enough in advance to prophesy all the results when they react with each other.47 Thus incongruity—the confrontation of incompatible matrices—will be experienced as ridiculous, pathetic, or intellectually challenging, according to whether aggression, identification, or the well-balanced blend of scientific curiosity prevails in the spectator’s mind.48 The urge to connect, to aggregate matrices of experience into more comprehensive ones; the fumbling for hypotheses about the way things are held together, the tentative formulation of rules of the game—in all these fertile activities we see the participatory tendencies at work: intimations of the fundamental unity of all things.49 If information is to be used effectively, it must be translated into the learner’s way of attempting to solve a problem.50 The information is then turned into a new form available for the further stages of performance.51 Out of the creative anarchy emerges the new synthesis.52


American Cinematographer

The eye is often described as like a camera, but it is the quite uncamera-like features of perception which are most interesting. How is information from the eyes coded into neural terms, into the language of the brain? We may take an analogy from written language: the letters and words on this page have certain meanings, to those who know the language.53 It can be said that the combinatorial or productive property of language is an invitation to take experience apart and put it together in new ways.54 Our minds are forever trying to detect meaningful relationships: between the things we see or between the sounds we hear. These relationships may be evident or they may be obscure. We may even see them where none exist. But a relationship of some sort we shall eventually discover. Whenever we see a succession of pictures, we unconsciously try to establish a connection between them.55 When one thought arises, another thought follows.56 We no longer read systematically: …we jump.57 No two people draw the same conclusions from the cue-filled images that are constantly being interpreted by the brain.58

Figure 4 Some [images] do little more than impart straightforward information.

Some [images] do little more than impart straightforward information.59 (Figure 4) To get this information, the brain draws heavily on past experience.60 Others convey strong atmospheric qualities. Much of this atmosphere comes to us through associative ideas. Ideas rooted in symbol, convention, legend and so on, that may bear little or no relationship at all to reality.61 By elective presentation, we can awaken associative feelings.62 Practice the art of concealment; suggesting a situation rather than trying to show it entirely. Use representational parts and symbolic associations to convey ideas.63 The purpose is to intrigue and tantalize.64 Our attention is attracted to something that is unclear, unfinished, or uncertain. The achievement of clarity or merely the search for it is what satisfies.65 The eye may be a camera, but immediately behind its lens there is a series of compensating, correcting, and retouching devices—the perceptual matrices of skilled vision.66


Eye and Brain

With due caution we can draw a limited analogy between visual scanning and mental scanning—between the blurred, peripheral vision outside the focal beam, and the hazy, half-formed notions which accompany thinking on the fringes of consciousness.67 The seeing of objects involves many sources of information beyond those meeting the eye when we look at an object.68 How do we recognize the identity of the features of a man, whether we see him in profile, in three-quarters face, or in full face? How do we recognize a circle as a circle, whether it is large or small, near or far; whether in fact, it is in a plane perpendicular to a line from the eye meeting it in the middle, and is seen as a circle, or has some other orientation, and is seen as an ellipse? How do we see faces and animals and maps in clouds, or in the blots of a Rorschach test?69 (Figure 5)

Figure 5 How do we see faces and animals and maps in clouds, or in the blots of a Rorschach test?

Objects are far more than patterns of simulation: objects have pasts and futures; when we know its past or can guess its future, an object transcends experience and becomes an embodiment of knowledge and expectation without which life of even the simplest kind is impossible.70 One can accept this kind of transformation conceptually without understanding exactly how it takes place.71 The significance, the value of the image, is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it.72 Our automatic creative mechanism always acts and reacts appropriately to the environment, circumstance, or situation.73


The Way Things Work

But where does beauty, aesthetic value, or “art” enter into the process?74

Economy in art consists in implying its message in the gaps between the words, as it were. Words…are mere stepping-stones for thoughts; the meaning must be interpolated; by making the gaps just wide enough, the artist compels his audience to exert its imagination, and to-recreate, to some extent, the experience behind the message.75 It can happen to you. In a flashing moment something opens.76 The moment carries its own truth; you can’t evade it.77 The intellectual aspect of this Eureka process is closely akin to the scientist’s—or the mystic’s—“spontaneous illumination”: the perception of a familiar object or event in a new, significant, light; its emotive aspect is the rapt stillness of oceanic wonder.78 (Figure 6)

Figure 6 Its emotive aspect is the rapt stillness of oceanic wonder.

Some writers identify the creative act in its entirety with the unearthing of hidden analogies.79 New knowledge often turns out to be merely old and hidden knowledge after mature contemplative analysis.80 This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards.81 For man cannot inherit the past; he has to re-create it.82 The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something from nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the whole.83

What then shall we do?84 Two of the phenomena which we consider to be characteristic of living systems are the power to learn and the power to reproduce themselves.85 Only when we have mastered the ABCs can we begin to write; a great poem or the novel of the century comes a long time later.86 Our view of the dynamic equilibrium of these balances has only come about in the past hundred years as we began to grasp the concept of universe as a total energy process—entirely and ceaselessly in relative motion. As defined out of our experience this process is finite, and, as energy may neither be lost or gained within the system, all energy patterning occurs in cycles of regenerative transformation.87 Reproduction is seen to be in large measure information replication.88 Art is a form of communication which aims at eliciting a re-creative echo.89 (Figure 7) That is all part of the new pattern that is rushing upon us.90 Furthermore a work of art is not ours alone but belongs also to an opponent who’s there to the end.91 Through this re-cycling, with no appreciable loss, it is again powerfully evident that our “created” wealth…is inexhaustible.92

Figure 7 Art is a form of communication which aims at eliciting a re-creative echo.

Ryland Wharton, Soft Information Systems Index #4 (Manual), 2014. One possible combination of the books that comprise the source material for this text. These books appear in the first volume of The Whole Earth Catalog.

Ryland Wharton
is an artist and software engineer living in Columbus, Ohio. He is co-director and curator of The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects. His project Soft Information Systems mines the contents of the books listed in the first volume of The Whole Earth Catalog as the generative base for new, recombinant ideas.


  1. Jolande Jacobi and R.F.C. Hull, eds., C.G. Jung: Psychological Reflections (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 7.
  2. Ben-Ami Lipetz, “Information Storage and Retrieval,” in Information, Denis Flanagan, ed. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1966), 177.
  3. Ivan E. Sutherland, “Computer Inputs and Outputs,” in Flanagan, Information, 48.
  4. Christopher Alexander, Notes on Synthesis of Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), 4.
  5. Jacobi and Hull, 28.
  6. Steve Baer, Dome Cookbook (Corrales, NM: Lama Foundation, 1966), 2.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Lipetz, 177.
  9. Jacobi and Hull, 200.
  10. I.S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan, Intelligent Life in the Universe (New York: Dell, 1966), 427.
  11. Baer, 2.
  12. The Whole Earth Catalog, 21.
  13. John Cage, A Year From Monday (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), 55.
  14. Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Berkeley Books, 1977), 373.
  15. Baer, 14.
  16. John Rowan Wilson, The Mind (New York: Time-Life Books, 1964), 122.
  17. Alexander, 4.
  18. Shklovskii and Sagan, 48.
  19. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965), 61.
  20. Thomas T. Woodson, Introduction to Engineering Design (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 41.
  21. Alexander, 81.
  22. Woodson, 44.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 45.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Lipetz, 175.
  27. Alexander, 4.
  28. Woodson, 46.
  29. Wiener, Cybernetics, 11.
  30. William L. Thomas, Jr., ed., Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 448.
  31. Wiener, Cybernetics, 158.
  32. Buckminster Fuller and John McHale, World Design Science Decade: Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs (Carbondale, IL: World Resources Inventory, 1963) (PDF), 7.
  33. Lipetz, 175.
  34. Ibid., 177.
  35. Woodson, 86.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Thomas, 448.
  38. Fuller and McHale, 7.
  39. Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (New York: Dell Publishing, 1967), 104.
  40. Herbert, 32.
  41. Theodor Schwenk, Sensitive Chaos (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 124–25.
  42. Fuller and McHale, 13.
  43. Ibid., 7.
  44. Herbert, 5.
  45. Fuller and McHale, 35.
  46. Koestler, 230.
  47. Woodson, 85–86.
  48. Koestler, 304–5.
  49. Ibid., 615.
  50. Jerome S. Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 53.
  51. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1954), 26–27.
  52. Koestler, 230.
  53. R. L. Gregory, Eye and Brain (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 7.
  54. Bruner, 103.
  55. Gerald Millerson, The Technique of Television Production (London: Focal Press, 1972), 310.
  56.  Paul Reps, ed. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961), 144.
  57. Cage, 26.
  58. Conrad G. Mueller and Mae Rudolph, eds., Light and Vision (New York: Time Incorporated, 1966), 161.
  59. Millerson, 343.
  60. Mueller and Rudolph, 150.
  61. Millerson, 343.
  62. Ibid., 206.
  63. Ibid., 332.
  64. Ibid., 343.
  65. Bruner, 114.
  66. Koestler, 527.
  67. Ibid., 158.
  68. Gregory, 8.
  69. Wiener, Cybernetics, 133.
  70. Gregory, 8.
  71. Woodson, 40.
  72. Koestler, 159.
  73. Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics (Hollywood: Wilshire Book Company, 1967), 206.
  74. Koestler, 303.
  75. Ibid., 649.
  76. Reps, 85.
  77. Herbert, 433.
  78. Koestler, 328.
  79. Ibid., 200.
  80. John C. Lilly, The Human Biocomputer (London: Sphere Books, 1974), 11–12.
  81. Koestler, 120.
  82. Ibid., 266.
  83. Ibid., 120.
  84. Cage, 71.
  85. Wiener, Cybernetics, 169.
  86. W. Hugh Baddeley, The Technique of Documentary Film Production (New York: Communication Arts, 1963), 250.
  87. Fuller, WDSD: Man as Universe, 3.
  88. Shklovskii and Sagan, 200.
  89. Koestler, 266.
  90. Buckminster Fuller, Education Automation (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 1964), 49.
  91. Cage, 71.
  92. Fuller and McHale, 20.