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The Octopus Model Of Knowledge – Agnes Denes

Agnes Denes released the Book of Dust - The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter in 1989, drawn from 15+ years of research that involved conversations with scientists and other specialists. The Book of Dust is out of print — only 1100 copies have been printed, and digitized versions are hard to come by, but I've included a lovingly hand-scanned PDF for your enjoyment.

book of dust.pdf18489.2KB

Here's how the Book of Dust is described on her website:

Using dust as a metaphor and a connecting thread to facts and phenomena, she studies the human mind, our ethical values, standards of living, and survival, presenting haunting images of dust particles from outer space, such as the death of a star, distant and large objects in the universe, as well as earthly dust, including human dust, hallucinogens, poisons, chemicals, and nuclear waste. (...) From cosmic dust to human dust, from molecules to intelligence, this work is a cross-section of existence.

I've found her Octopus Model – "a visual metaphor for our society in the information age" – exceptionally useful in thinking about academia, government, media, and other legacy knowledge ecosystems, even over 30 years after its writing.

The Octopus Model

Book of Dust - The Beginning and the End of Time and Thereafter, Agnes Denes, pages 115-116

Think of the body of knowledge as a form of octopus whose countless tentacles represent specializations. As these tentacles multiply and extend, new ones grow out of the old forming thousands of sinuous strands. Each specialty is locked into its own interests and language that narrow daily. Breadth is sacrificed for depth, detail and special interests. Meaningful exchange with the main body, for feedback and direction, becomes increasingly difficult. Specialization, by definition, is narrow, limited, restricted, and concentrated on one aspect at the expense of all others. While it does create experts who can analyze in unprecedented depth, it is all-consuming, leaving no time or inclination to integrate, filter, or even care about the growing wealth of information that obviously needs to be compressed and translated into a universal language. The process accelerates as the system grows in complexity. Ideas, events, and all human traffic become increasingly tangles. Communication with the main body is further reduced by delays and garbled transmission.
The tentacles of specialization become aware of the need for feedback or exchange and turn to each other. But since each has its own language and limited capacity for understanding the others in depth, false analogies and misinterpretations are passed on as facts. The tentacles can barely make contact among themselves, let alone with the general public where their expertise is useless. Here they become the public at large while valid data remain trapped in the tentacles. Fragments and hearsay are passed around; even valid information is so dispersed that it can trigger false conclusions. All information is in a state of flux awaiting some verification or affirmation. Accuracy fluctuates, while the ultimate, ideal state of precision for which the system strives, remains unattainable. Knowledge is barely enhanced, progress is slowed and the main body lacks proper nourishment. Nothing improves; everyone knows only what he knows and cares little about the rest. And all the time new information arrives, remains unabsorbed or oversimplified, and the debris accumulates.
To complicate matters further, the tentacles now tend to crossbreed as alien disciplines integrate, giving birth to hybrid specializations whose common denominator is need, practicality, or curiousity. Though this may be a modest step towards some simplification, it still lacks direction, true understanding, or overview, and fragmentation soon resumes. The tentacles, no longer governed by the main body but still attached to it, now act on their own impulses and needs. Amazingly, the whole organism performs without clearly defined direction or purpose, lacking the perspective to oversee and correct itself. Communication begins to resemble a form of sophist dialogue, based on false analogies born of necessity and constraints, not reason.
Tunnel vision coexists with the broad, shallow view that offers insufficient data synthesis for drawing valid conclusion. Clear and accurate summation–reduction without bias, omission, or distortion–is possible only when the entire system can be held up for scrutiny and all facts become known to those doing the summation. Such a world view does not seem possible in today's society, and efforts along these lines are seldom promoted. Specialization is encouraged with no peripheral view. One must be trained in some skill, no matter how important or mundane, or else be considered a dilettante or nonentity.
Today many main bodies of knowledge have branched into countless tentacles. These vast, swarming organisms, made up of many parts, are all intermingled, while the individual elements of the conglomerate become progressively alienated. Each experiences some marginal freedom but is unable to interact with the rest of the system. The tangled mass does not support a primary purpose. The bodies take more from the environment than they return from it, feeding the needs of accelerated growth. The main body has now lost most of its volume to the tentacles and has little purpose. The tentacles developed many small heads but lack a central brain, while the many faceted complex multiples and siphons off its limited environment.
The Octopus Model is a visual metaphor for our society in the Information Age.

Notes

  • Agnes Denes's work was enmeshed in a scientific, academic, and art world that centered whiteness and western thought. I take her observations on "our society" as representing the characteristics of the part of society she was enmeshed in – mostly white american/european intellectual circles in science, academia, and art.
  • Some elements of this metaphor come off a bit too totalizing and centralized for my liking — a "universal language", a "main body" that desires more knowledge and control.
  • I'm really interested in how her observations on specialization can be combined with black feminist thought and other non-universalizing ways of knowing.