For many writers, myself included, their “process” is golden. That is, their ritual—for sitting down at the same time every day or every week and forcing themselves to get done so many words or pages or hours worth of work—many times means more to them than the work done itself.
This week marks the beginning of the spring 2014 semester at WKU and my last semester as an undergraduate student. It also marks the return to the college campus from vacation and a required change in my “process.” So, bear with me these next few weeks as I adjust to a new swing of things.
In addition, however, to the return to campus is a return to my apartment, my makeshift research lab in the corner of my room, and a stack of books, included in which is a beat-up, glued-back-together second edition of Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial.
I’ve mentioned before that this is my favorite text written by my favorite systems thinker, but I do not believe I have yet given it proper treatment.
Central to this work is Simon’s method of analysis. This technique draws a hard line between the “internal” and “external” environments of an object. Next, in the interest of simplification, as many features of the object—called an “artifact”—are moved from the internal to the external, reducing its description so much that any more reduction and it wouldn’t be the same thing at all!
For example, imagine a clock. Is the clock digital or analog? Nevermind, let’s say the choice of digital/analog is part of the external environment and that some interface connects the inner workings to this human-readable “face.” Is there an alarm built in? Nevermind, let’s abstract this out too and imagine another interface. This thought process continues until the clock has been reduced to nothing more than a means of reliably tracking the passage of time.
Through this procedure, Simon reasons early on that “man, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of his behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which he finds himself.”
In his reduction of a human, as an artifact, he moves all to the external envionment except a sort of reasoning device. This device interfaces with the senses, the memory—yes, even memory is moved outside the inner workings!—, and an abstract space of potential decisions. Because this combined environment is complex, human behavior, as a whole, appears complex.
The rest of the text roughly addresses how human rationality interacts with these three environments. The first of these is trivial, any reader being familiar with at least the concept of the five classical senses.
It’s the other two that get interesting.
Simon provides some numbers from psychology experiments on the speed of memory acquisition and recall. It is found that memory is likely stored in “chunks.” That is, a nonsyllable such as “QUV” would be easier to recall later if the subject has stored the item as one chunk—the whole word—instead of three letters. Furthermore, memory tends to be hierarchical, a list of items being easier to retain if memorized in a tree-like fashion, where one level of items brings to mind the next level and so on, instead of in a flat fashion, when the entirety of the list is memorized one item after the next, start to finish.
In a very Computer Science line of thinking, Simon reduces all problem solving to essentially a search process. Using cryptograms and chess games as examples, he reasons that the mind considers an abstract space of next actions to take, weighs their pros and cons, and selects the best. A chess grandmaster, because he or she has spent more than ten years’ worth of study “chunking” board configurations, is better able to navigate this space because complex moves are more readily called to mind—just as QUV is called to mind quicker if remembered as a word instead of the three letters that make it up.
The latter chapters, following the reasoning that human thought processes are essentially search processes, propose a corriculum in Design Science, a study of the human ability to make good decisions, whether in the solving of complicated cryptograms or putting together a work of art. Human behavior is simple either way: learn the tools of the trade, figure out what to do next, and do it.
So maybe there’s something to the idea that a writer’s process is golden. It took years to figure out how to summon up a stream of consciousness for hours at a time, and who would want to mess with that? ∎
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