Virtual Memory Palaces as 3-D Immersive Learning Environments

April 27, 2010

While at the Immersive Education Initiative‘s Boston Summit April 23-25, I went to a workshop on Open Cobalt, an open source virtual world browser and toolkit.  What I found most helpful about the presentation was the “historical” overview, which began with reference to the radical nature of linking in Gopher (a text-based predecessor to the WWW) as well as the “walled gardens” of CompuServ and AOL.  One of the keynote speakers, Duke University professor Julian Lombardi, compared the “closed source” approach of Second Life to these walled gardens of the past and presented Open Cobalt as a potential solution to the current situation.

I immediately recognized the great potential for using this platform to have students experiment with the creation of virtual memory palaces, a concept I presented last month in the Writing for New Media class I’m teaching at Emerson College this spring.  Open Cobalt’s ability to connect virtual worlds via links echoing the powers of connection that Gopher inaugurated in the 1990s can allow for collaborative projects and experiments in collective intelligence (or collective mnemonics).  The possibilities are quite exciting–I saw this as one of the most promising developments to come out of the conference.

Analogical Heuretics

January 29, 2010

I just started teaching Writing for Interactive Media at Emerson College, for which I introduced Ulmer’s “Apparatus Theory” and the concept of “electracy.” Part of the talk presented two examples of “analogical heuretics,” that is, thinking via grammatological analogy as Ulmer is fond of saying and doing.  So the first one asks this question: if literacy makes conceptual thinking possible, what kind of thinking does electracy make possible?  In an essay I wrote titled “Imaging Place as Imaging Thought,” I conceived of four different answers to this question, playing with the etymologies in the same way that Ulmer suggests doing in a recent blog post:  deceptual thinking, receptual thinking, inceptual thinking, and exceptual thinking.

In the PowerPoint for the class, I expand a bit on “deceptual thinking,” drawing a connection to the famous New Yorker cartoon of the dog who, while sitting at a computer, tells another dog, “Nobody knows you’re a dog on the internet” as well as quoting from Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen where she writes that “You are what you pretend to be.”

While reading and commenting on Ulmer’s blog this evening, I got to thinking about thinking once again and pulled an old book (1889) off my shelf by George John Romanes called Mental Evolution in Man.  He studied and reported on animal intelligence, and when I googled “recept” at one point, references to his books came up.  And what he says about recepts (a word he coins to describe the kind of thinking that happens somewhere between percepts and concepts) resonates quite a bit with what we’re trying to do in establishing a category of thinking characterized as “electrate.”

For Romanes, the recept is a kind of compound idea that precedes the act of naming or use of language, which introduces a level of abstraction that elevates ideation to conceptual thinking.  He quotes John Stuart Mill, who invokes Auguste Comte,  who suggested that “besides the logic of signs, there is a logic of images and a logic of feelings.”  The recept, that is, is a kind of thinking before language, a thinking with images.

We can build upon Romanes’ idea of the recept, which he posits to suggest that animal intelligence is on the same spectrum as human intelligence (“the universal continuity of ideation, both in brutes and men”).  With electracy, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water; we will build upon literacy and allow the electrate apparatus to enhance literate modes of thinking.  In this case, I wondered if Lakoff and Johnson’s idea of “metaphorical concepts” or “conceptual metaphors” could be considered a kind of receptual thinking insofar as they are a thinking (“conceptual”) with images (“metaphors”), a kind of thinking in which metaphors/images/analogies are brought to a level of abstraction.  In virtual worlds, we take all of this to a new level and begin to think with and within 3-D spaces, via movement through a space, almost like the peripatetic philosophers of old.

Romanes himself relies upon Lakoff and Johnson’s key conceptual metaphor of the mind as body metaphor (so that “thinking is moving through a space”) when he asks, “how far can the mind travel without the vehicle of Language?”  With this metaphor, Romanes reveals an inherent bias in favor of conceptual thought:  the mind can only go so far without the “vehicle” of language.  But I’m more interested in the fact that, once again, in order to think about thinking, we resort to the use of spatial metaphors through which the mind moves.  In my comment on Ulmer’s blog, I think through and with this metaphor to suggest that allegory has powerful potential for advancing thought along these lines…

Abstract Revision/Whacky Thought

May 29, 2007

I didn’t post anything of substance on invent-l until yesterday–Memorial Day. Had the day off, and wife/kids are still in FL visiting grand-parents, so I was on my own. I sat in my pajamas until 4pm while I read the first chapters/pages of the Alliez book on Deleuze I mention below (among other things) and got swept up in the witch’s ride once again. The subject line was “whacky question #1” and was a reference to Craig Saper’s response to a question of mine at the conference (can’t remember what it was now). He told an anecdote of a French professor who would always characterize his questions (he was the only one with enough courage to pipe up in this particular class) as “whack-eee.” Here’s the message I posted:

(I think this might qualify as the revision of my conference abstract that Craig
requested a while back)

I’ve been quiet since returning from the Imaging Place conference in part because it was so intense (the preparation leading to it followed by the “being there”) and in part because I experienced a bit of burn-out and have been catching up with the rest of my life: phoenix rising from the ashes. I promised Craig S. at the conference to ask some whacky questions, so this is the first: What is thought? or (conversely?) what is thinking? or “what does it mean to think?”

One thing I hoped for from the conference but wasn’t very good at producing (perhaps my fault, perhaps the fault of the conference format) was a conversation about how a 3-D electronic space like Second Life will change the way we think spatially. To save (my) time in posing the question, I will quote Christy Dena quoting me in her article “Art and Aporia: Imaging Place” (;=view&id;=96&Itemid;=40

For the Greeks, the act of moving through a space was LITERALLY an act of reasoning for them, if you consider their use of the “memory palace” as a method of organizing their speeches, their argumentative acts of reason. As the fourth step in a rhetorical act, “memoria” was their way of remembering the “topics” (literally “places” in Greek) in their speech: they would put images which would trigger their memory of the speech topic into the places of their memory palace (the imagines loci). Craig also points out that the movement through a space is/was an act of reasoning in oral cultures as well. In aboriginal walkabouts, details of a journey are encoded in a song. And I remember reading in Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines that the aborigines would embed stories in the landscape so that, as they walked about, stories were stored in a kind of pre-literate version of the Greek’s memory palace. So what we are doing in SL/VR when we speak of moving through space as an act of reasoning is nothing new. The question is this: how does the electronic medium change the way that we think spatially? If oral culture’s primary mode was narrative (i.e. using space to tell stories), and literate culture’s primary mode was argumentation (i.e. using space to make arguments), then what is the primary mode of “electracy”? We might say “using space to make patterns” (a.k.a. artwork, aesthetically pleasing constellations of meaning: “The wide image is an emergent pattern…. a constellation that appears within a field of relationships” Internet Invention 276). I think what Ulmer is trying to work out is the codification of creativity, the actual in-corp-oration of discovery into the act
of reasoning (this is actually the first step of rhetoric: invention, which means “to come upon, find, discover”)….”

One thing I tried to do in my powerpoint presentation (now available in two parts at was to introduce Lakoff and Johnson’s cluster of conceptual metaphors based on the Mind as Body metaphor (Thinking is Moving, Thinking is Perceiving, Thinking is Object Manipulation) and consider these in light of using virtual reality as a prosthesis for thinking (Ideas are Locations, A Line of Thought is a Path, Understanding is Following, etc.). I wanted to ask three questions: If thinking is moving through space, then

–What happens to thought when our understanding of space changes?
–What happens to thought when we consider the space of non-Euclidean geometries?
–What happens to thought when we begin to navigate virtual spaces like Second Life?

This especially became resonant when Greg told his anecdote about his inability to use a doorknob when very young.

But the more I thought about thought, the more I wondered what thought actually is…. and thought that this would have to be answered before going much further.

Ultimately, I’m intrigued by what it means for abstract thought to be based on bodily experience of 3-D space and early infant/childhood experiences with manipulating objects and learning to navigate our world.

So what do you think? What is thought?


(I was encouraged to post this b/c I just returned from Gainesville [twin sons graduated from P.K. Yonge on Friday] and started reading a book I bought from Goering’s: Eric Alliez’s THE SIGNATURE OF THE WORLD: WHAT IS DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S PHILOSOPHY? in which the translator writes in the preface, “But what is perhaps most significant about Alliez’s operation… is the absolute centrality he accords to the question of *thought*, which he places at the very heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s recasting of materialism for the twenty-first century as a materialism of the concept. For *What is Philosophy?* clearly shows that it is impossible to answer the question without also expanding it to “What is Thought?”. . . (xxiii) ) (invent-l list, 28 May 2007)

I was surprised when Craig Freeman posted this in its entirety on the conference website, but I was also happy that my posting it seems to have gotten the ball rolling on the post-conference ‘formalized’ activity (like thinking about what product should emerge from the conference).