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21.44 YRS

speculative praxis

I’ll be around the Bay Area for a short while towards the end of May, so ping me if you’re nearby at the time and want to meet up!


I just finished Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and found it absolutely fascinating. Not the plot itself, though, as I couldn’t care less about the mysterious aliens, the smugglers at the pole, or ths secret lineage. Rather, I was mainly captivated by the worldbuilding aspect of the book, the coherent system of language, society, history, and mythology which was different enough from ours so as to feel odd, yet similar enough so as to feel relatable. If you were to use the theorical framework developed by the avout of Arbre, you might say that I was more interested in the location of the fictional universe in Hemn space, rather than in its trajectory, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The most obvious attempt to shake things up is through a mix of language and shared history. Occam’s razor becomes Gardan’s Steelyard: two explanations are to be placed on a scale, and the lighter (i.e. simpler) one is to be favored. The traveling salesman becomes the Lazy Fraa: how can an avout visit a set of maths in the shortest way possible? Adrakhones is close to Pythagoras, Hemn to Maxwell or perhaps Boltzmann, and for all I know, The Concent of Saunt Tredegarh might as well be the University of Cambridge. I’m trying not to spoil the juicier puzzles – there are dozens of ones like those above in the book. A few sample entries from The Dictionary, to illustrate the breadth of Stephenson’s worldbuilding:

Cnoön: According to Protan metatheorics, the pure, eternal, changeless entities, such as geometric shapes, theorems, numbers, etc., that belong to another plane of existence (the Hylaean Theoric World) and that are somehow perceived or discovered (as opposed to fabricated) by working theors.

Diax’s Rake: A pithy phrase, uttered by Diax on the steps of the Temple of Orithena when he was driving out the fortune-tellers with a gardener’s rake. Its general import is that one should never believe a thing only because one wishes that it were true. After this event, most Physiologers accepted the Rake and, in Diax’s terminology, thus became Theors. The remainder became known as Enthusiasts.

Matarrhite: One of an Order founded at the Centenarian math of the Concent of Saunt Beedle’s between the Second and Third Centennial Aperts. One of the few explicitly religious Orders of avout. Reclusive even by the standards of the mathic world. During the Third Sack they fled to an island in the southern polar regions, where they developed various distinctive cultural traits, including bolts that covered their entire bodies and an austere cuisine based on the limited range of edible things in their environment.

Orth: The classical language used by all classes of people in the Bazian Empire and, during the Old Mathic Age, used intramuros in both Cartasian maths and Bazian Orthodox monasteries. The language of science and learned discourse in the Praxic Age. In a revived and modernized form, the language used at almost all times by the avout. May also denote the alphabet used to write it.

Another dimension across which societies on Arbre and Earth differ slightly is social organization. In the Anathem universe, society is mostly split between the Sæcular and mathic worlds. The mathic world mostly consists of a network of isolated scholar communities called maths, which are grouped into concents. Interestingly enough, a math is mainly characterized by how often it engages in contact with the Sæcular world by opening its gates for ten days (i.e. Apert): once every year, decade, century, or millennium. Maths are then populated by orders, which are roughly equivalent to schools of thought, exhibiting the usual inter-order beef. Avout living in maths generally face austere conditions, having three material possessions, and are often shocked by the opposite patterns extramuros.

There are also contrasts in terms of values. The avout appear to have quite a different way of relating to time. It’s not unthinkable to stage a theatre piece acted out by plants in a garden over the course of a few months, with different species depicting different armies in a past battle. It’s not unthinkable to wait hundreds of years for the leaves of special trees to be pressed into a state which can be used to write on with ink. It’s not unthinkable for whole generations of avout in a remote math to take turns watching for light emanating from an experimental contraption devised to study quantum phenomena, before scribbling eyewitness testimony down in the math’s chronicle. It’s not unthinkable to have the same mechanical clock keep accurate track of time for millennia, which also handles the gate-opening at Apert. Yet I found it almost unthinkable for those things to be unthinkable – what a hardcore longtermist relationship with time! What’s even more interesting, though, is that The Mynster’s clock built at The Concent of Saunt Edhar is related to the real clock created by The Long Now Foundation with the goal of keeping accurate time for ten millennia, as an excercise in thinking long-term.

The idea of the Apert aut is also quite surprising in itself. By moderating the flow of information incoming from extramuros by means of the period of a recurring time window for opening the gates (i.e. ten days every year up to every millennium), the maths get a convenient knob for balancing internal and external influence on their dynamics. This echoes a framing from the dynamical systems online article written half a year ago, in which the key high-level decision to be made by a knowledge worker is how much external influence to bring in. Dial the aperture too high, and the person’s dynamics get entrenched by the external signal, not yielding much value. Dial the aperture too low, and the math’s theors might lose out on the advances of other concents. The recursive approach of stacking maths four layers deep from the influence of the outside world by using time as mortar reminds me of framing summarization as a recursive process, gradually improving the signal-to-noise ratio with each step. The scholar communities of the Anathem universe are literally perceiving the outside world in a principled way, the Unarians being exposed to the lowest-level features, the Tenners and Hundreders abstracting them away, before the Thousanders gaining the highest-level understanding and hence being able to develop their praxis of altering reality. Oops, forget that last part.

Let’s zoom out a bit for a few final thoughts on the relevance of worldbuilding. Take a few freestyle variations on language, society, and values which are for the most part internally consistent. Add next an ounce of “it’s just a damned book,” which makes it easy to suspend disbelief about said changes. What you get in the end is an immersive glimpse in a world different from ours, even if superficially so. It becomes natural to wonder: How arbitrary is our language? What if our value systems ended up in a different place? Could social dreaming reveal other promising structures? In sum, we become aware for a fleeting moment of the cultural lens through which we see everything. It stops being transparent for a few hours of immersed reading, as if noticing some dirt on your glasses, or the screen you’re reading this on. Once aware of it, you can question it. Once you question it, you can refine it.

Finally, I couldn’t ignore how fun it was to read about popsci ideas from mathematics, philosophy, and physics in a fiction book, rather than a dry non-fiction one. There’s simply no pressure, it’s infinitely more playful, and it’s sometimes an instrumental goal in figuring out what will happen next. Imagine if the unit of learning at school would be a journey, not a lesson. A mashup of a TARDIS and a classroom would be able to get students to different worlds. You could navigate across time in history, across space in geography, across scale in astronomy, across whole universes in literature, etc. You learn about said world by weaving yourself into its narrative, and agency in directing one’s learning process can be cultivated in students in the form of journeys for which they choose their own destination. Implicitly social and antidisciplinarian. A successor of NovelAI or Loom might help author content.

“For God’s sake, raise your sights. […]” And with that Varax drew his hood back over his head and walked back toward the canopy.