April 9, 2012
PCMs by Alan Sondheim

A very interesting text posted on the Nettime-l mailing list this Saturday by Alan Sondheim. The text is a reflection on old ideas and how they may be collapsing (or coalescing) into new ideas. I’m posting the text here in it’s entirety due to it’s relevance to the weblogs topic and as another location in the network to preserve it.


Years ago I designed a PCM, this was around 1970 maybe. PCM stands for Parameter Control Module; the idea was to create a unit which could connect and control other similar units. PCMs were digital but they didn’t need to be. There were any number of inputs and outputs. The idea was that anything could be connected to anything else. In other words, there were standardized simple protocols in terms of voltage and bandwidth; every-thing functioned like blood in the veins of some untoward ganglion. In order to enter the PCM array, translation was necessary from an outside world into the protocols; this was the job of an input interface which could be tailored for particular situations. The interface was divided into two sections: the outer section was tailored to the world, and the inner, to the emission of protocols. So the input interface was generous in its acceptance. At the other end of the array, there was a similar output interface, divided into two sections; the inner section was tailored to the protocols, sending the signal current to the outer section, which was tailored to the world, and generous. For example, an audio input interface might take microphone signals and standardize them, sending them to the array; an audio output interface might take the array protocols and send them simultaneously to audio amplifiers and a lighting board. What made the array of greater interest, of course, is that input and output signals could also be applied directly to any particular PCM, bypassing the standard interfaces. The array as a whole, as a ganglion, would be in effect a ganglion open to the world at any place or space, both for input and output. One might think of the PCMs as formal neurons. Internally, the components of the PCMs might be smoothly voltage-control-led, with the possibility of directly inputting different equations; one might begin with standard smooth trigonometric functions and replace them with discontinuities of all sorts, including chaotic behavior. I believe to this day that designing the PCMs would have been a relatively trivial matter. Although the project remained stillborn, the concept behind it remains of interest to me. I’ve begun to think of the arrays, inputs and outputs, as an affair in which anything might modify or influence any-thing, including, reflexively, itself. The arrays in fact might be virtual and one thinks only of empty, undefined, space or air, a distant model of the real and external world, where such things happen. Thus anything here and now has the potential for affecting anything else, and anything might seem to turn around and talk directly with you, listening, at the same time, to your innermost thoughts, whatever you choose to reveal: here are the input and output interfaces. What goes on in such virtual arrays is only the ideality of the world itself, the ability to take-for-granted that there are always relatively stable domains for communication or dwelling, for work or discourse, and so forth. Any dynamic action, any action which changes in time, might be considered to be modeled thus; any static action might be one which leaves the virtual array quiescent. The size and power of the virtual PCMs are also of interest; as they decrease, one might argue that the granularity of the world is increasingly differentiated, just as their increase transforms the granularity into rougher constructs handled by integration. In the middle lies everyday life, where processing of this sort is kept to a minimum. I can imagine in this fashion thinking of the world as a vast complex of fundamental operations on the ordering of everyday life, just as Aristotelian logic and its laws of distribution appear to deal well with the uncanny lack of transience of everyday objects. The edges of such modeling, however, are always limit-points which a different kind of roughness appears, for example quantum phenomena or color vision or even corrosion. To some extent, these rough processes, including unknown one, can be imagined within the virtual array which would have additional signals, alarm signals, that anomalies were working their way into or out of the array; there could be, in fact, virtual interfaces utterly open to the real, whose sole purpose would be the conversion of such anomalies. One process would be that of the name, beginning with the proper name, and working towards untoward generalizations; another would be that of radical smoothing, and a third might be the cessation of array activity altogether. I think of this as burrowing or death, depending on the degree of destruction or rearrangement encountered. Likewise, there would be inverse processes, those of birth or emerging, in which partial identity transformations would remain and perhaps even be backwards-traceable, backwards-compatible in terms of the protocols. The whole, virtual and real, is a form of metaphor ready to be implemented. I can only conclude that the same is already in the world, and perhaps always already in the world, it is there and here, it is operational or quiescent as you like. And such would be the world and its dynamics; it is only a question of looking over your shoulder, back into the space you have just left behind, forward into the space your are about to enter. If you have the time, of course, without catastrophe or disruption.

- Alan in Omaha

It’s worth noting how cutting edge the PCM discussed was through comparison with similar contempory ideas such as Gordon Pask’s Universal Constructor.

The full text can alternatively be read on the Nettime-l mailing list archive here.

    Posted by: Garrett @ 4:27 pm

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