For many years now I have been saying that there is nothing especially new about computers.

The earth orbiting the Sun is computerish. A city with all its streets and avenues is computerish. A tree with its regular system of branches is computerish. A rock searching out the shortest way to roll downhill is computerish. All of these objects obey the same physical laws that computers do. Computers are so ordinary and commonplace that I can make one out of a piece of typing paper. Seriously! Fold a piece of paper in half and it does something that is quintessentially computerish. Each time you fold the piece of paper, you create exactly twice the number of pages as you had before. That's how digital computers multiply and divide: Always by halving or doubling numbers.

Piece of paper folding in half four times.
It's the simplest calculation a digital computer can make.

I spend a lot of time with these palm sized paper computers, folding and unfolding them and numbering the pages. It's a challenge to write stories on them. But that's what I'll be doing when I'm waiting for a bus, or for someone to get ready. Instead of getting impatient, there I am folding and unfolding this piece of paper, writing sentences that continue from one plane to the next, stretching and spreading my thoughts across this surprisingly complex geometry, breaking the project off at any moment and throwing the pieces of paper away or stuffing them into my pockets or my desk and finding them again some other time and then, tying them back together again in new combinations that I hadn't considered when they were new.

A Piece of Typing Paper divided into 'Pages.'

I give each of the surfaces its own number, and each of these surfaces I call a page. When I run out of pages, I fold another piece of paper and add more numbered pages. I will link dozens of pages together this way and I am always amazed by how orderly the numbers remain as they double and divide from one card to another. In spite of the simplicity of the calculation that you make to generate the page numbers, you soon discover that you are creating an artifact that is as intricate and as seemingly random as a house plant... or any of the other computerish objects mentioned above.

Scanned Image of Hand-Written Computer Card.

Detail of hand-written story card, by the author, circa 1987. Each number represents a "page number." When converted to machine code, the number becomes a bit-map that links its page to every other page in the "book." For example, the "1132" seen above is a page number (The 2" X 4" page itself is a little hard to pick out of the confusion.) In binary code, 1132 becomes "10001101100", which is the series of odd ("1") and even ("0") numbered selections that will take the reader from page 1 to page 1132. Following a simple algorythm, Page 1132 opens to either Page 2264 or Page 2265. The route back to Page One can be traced by dividing the current page number by two and ignoring the carry. The success of the algorythm shows that an interactive adventure tale can continue forever without being drowned in its own complexity. How true-to-life can an interactive computer story be? The author feels that the brain reduces all of life's conflicts to simple yes-no decisions. There are no other kind.

Sometimes people see me writing on these pieces of paper and announce that they will write a story of their own this way. But it's not as easy as it looks. Every time you fold the paper, there it is: Twice as many spaces to fill. The imagination being taxed twice as hard.

If the person I'm writing about walks through a door on the left, I should also probably put him through the door to the right. He will walk up the stairs, and he will walk up the stairs not. No matter how complicated I make it-- no matter how many pieces of typing paper I use up to describe the endless dilemmas this multidimensional fellow is met with-- the numbers continue to manufacture themselves, as infinite and as orderly as the numbers in a Mandelbrot set.

Many times, while working with my story cards, I am startled by the number of things I didn't know I knew. The system keeps pulling me into realities I had never considered before. Sometimes I wonder if I have experienced that most mysterious of all psychological phenomena: Blind Sight . People with blind sight are clinically blind. But if they are prompted, they will point out objects that are placed before them. They may even laugh and shake their heads, insisting they can't see a thing. And yet they get it right more often than chance allows! What makes this event so interesting is the need for a prompt. Someone outside the observer's head, asking for an opinion!

I wonder: If the blind know things they don't know they know, why not sighted people? How much more rich and exciting would life be, if only someone--or something like a computer-- was continually prompting us to look for the alternative view: the ugliness in beautiful things and the beauty in ugly things, defeat in the midst of victory, victory in the midst of defeat--?

To the Drawing Board!

In the meantime, I've become quite the writer! Lately, I have transferred some of the stories I wrote on paper into the electronic format. You can read them here on the screen instead of on paper, but it isn't as much fun. (Because when you unfold and read a story card out loud, every person within earshot is suddenly paying attention to the way you and your companion are working your way through a long list of dilemma situations. By contrast, the computer is a loner's medium.)

The first story is a comic book that was originally written on a piece of legal size typing paper, folded three times. It has 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 pages, 16 pages in all. It's about Robin Hood. (Also, here is Some Other Stuff I learned about the Robin Hood icon and its role in western civilization.)

The second story is also a comic book, but with twice as many pages, because I folded it in half one extra time, making 32 pages. It is about a character I invented, Griddly.

The third story was scattered all over my desk and falling out of my coat pockets before I committed it to its electronic version. The story was inspired by an old Twilight Zone show, "Shadow Play" (Ep. 62, May 5, 1961), plus a term as City Hall Reporter (I became intrigued by the public servant who accepts bribes with the purest of motives. How can you blame him for placing the happiness of his loving wife and family above yours and mine??)

The fourth story is like the third but adds one more dimension. You can change the names of the characters.


Recently I was helping a high school student draw a map. I was handed one end of a 100 foot tape measure and we wandered through town dragging it in and out of the stores. I noticed that any number of merchants and their customers were not particularly amused by this activity. "Why are we doing this?" I finally asked.

"Because the map making software requires it." came the reply.

I promptly handed back the tape measure and resigned from the project. "WE tell the computer what to do." I exclaimed, "The computer does not tell US!"

That is the challenge before humanity today. I read authors (E.g. Asimov and Crichton) who speculate that it is only a matter of time before computers enslave us, because they are so much smarter and agile than humankind can ever be.

We must not let it happen!

Story telling isn't just a game. The word "narrative" is heard a lot these days. As in: "In the 2000 Presidential election, George Bush had a better narrative than Al Gore. That's why he won the election." It has even been argued that your narrative is the only thing that makes you REAL. That would explain why societies require religion and history ("his story") to provide a kind of drumbeat to help people remember where they came from, why they exist, and where they're heading next.

Story telling isn't just for fun. The Stock Market looks like a computer narrative to me. An opera by Puccini could not provide more tension than that squiggly line ("The Dow") that prances along the fringes of our daily news. And yet a considerable part of the drama is computer generated. We hold our breath when we read that our domestic Tranquility is resting upon "a twitchy assemblage of computer networks." that require "little human mediation." Recently, we felt sorry for a famous politician and decorated war hero because he never bothered to have a computer to sit at. His staff operated his computer for him, but it only made matters worse. Admired for his maverick opinions, he couldn't get his campaign's computer generated narrative to the gold. He was like those of us who can never get past the title page of a computer game our kids complete with ease.

Even so, as so many young people discovered after the bursting of the Dot Com bubble in the 1990's, a beautifully rendered plate of food is not so satisfying when you only wish you could cut and paste it to your face.

Make it a rule when you are playing a computer game of any kind: whether it is filled with fancy graphics and sound or nothing more than a text adventure. This computer adventure will open doors to me. This computer narrative will leave me amazed by all the possibilities life has to offer, and how easily I can accomplish them. I will never feel left out, thanks to this computer story. If it slams a door in my face, I will slam the door in its face. If it's going to be a battle between me and the computer, then the computer must die. I will simply turn the goddam thing off. Like Alexander the Great, I will untie the Gordian Knot with one terrible swift blow of the sword, and no one will object to the boldness of my solution.

When I began toying with computer simulated reality (on a 16K Atari 400 computer in the Sherwood Public Library many years ago), my goal was to prove how the machine expands our horizons. It is the same goal I pursue to this day.


Further Reading

New York Review of Books, "The Chess Master and the Computer," by Garry Kasparov, Volume 57, Number 2 February 11, 2010.

Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind, by Diego Rasskin-Gutman, translated from the Spanish by Deborah Klosky, MIT Press, 205 pp., $24.95

Incognito by David Eagleman, Pantheon Books, 2011. There are skills (like "blindsight") which can only be learned through trial and error. In fact: "Essentially everything about your interaction with the world" rests on "subconscious learning."

Clyde Ray List's Essay on Railways, the Sherwood Historical Society web log.