Trees of Knowledge

In his book “L’idéographie dynamique” (The dynamic ideography) Pierre Lévy postulates the existence of a new language that would go beyond the distinction between text and image to provide a dynamic representation of thought models. This new language would radically alter the role of the creator who would work on interfaces, transforming the “spectator” into a creative actor. A second book entitled “Les arbres de connaissances” (Trees of Knowledge), co-authored with Michel Authier, develops an application of dynamic ideography in the field of forms of knowledge.

The following text is based on an interview of Pierre Lévy carried out at the end of 1992. Initially intended for scope magazine, the article was never published as scope ceased to exist. We believe that Lévy’s work opens up important perspectives which is why we have adapted some of the interview and made it available here.

Trees of Knowledge

From a static to a dynamic medium

To date all language systems have been designed for a static medium. Only since the end of the 19th century has the cinema given us a kinetic medium for representation. It would be easy to show that the cinema is not a language due to the fact that it is not an interactive medium, that it is linear and that it does not permit expression of abstract concepts, or only indirectly. But today we have a medium that is not only kinetic but also interactive. What is more, it is capable of memory and independent “reasoning”. That medium is the computer. Yet we are far from extracting all its possibilities. The current use of text and hypertext is a transfer of material designed for a static medium to a dynamic one. Why not invent a form of writing designed for a dynamic medium, using animated, interactive images. Doing so is the aim of dynamic ideography. Such a language would not be a notation using words, but an expression of our mental models as directly as possible.

Computer assisted imagination

We do not think by making logical deductions or following formal rules; we think by manipulating mental models which, most of the time, take the form of images. This does not mean the images resemble visible reality, they are more of a dynamic map-making. If a dynamic ideography were created, it would constitute a computer assisted imagination. It would help us construct much more complex mental models than we can with the structures of our mind and enable us to share these mental models with others.

What would we do with such tools? Give people models of kinds of environments with a certain number of actor-objects – ideograms – capable of a degree of interaction between themselves and with the user. What would the person do? Envisage possible scenarios based on these models: consider the standard scenario provided, alter the behaviour of the actors, invent other scenarios, etc. and then maybe send the new scenario back to the originator of the standard scenario or share it with others. Clearly such a micro-world could have economic, industrial, ecological or political consequences by making interactive imaged representations of collective phenomenon that concern us.

Creative decision making

Such tools could help enormously with decision-making, which brings us to another book “Les arbres de connaissance” (Trees of knowledge), which he wrote with the mathematician Michel Authier. Michel managed to provide a mathematical answer to questions raised by the concept of dynamic ideography. How can you create a virtual reality expressing the whole range of relationships that the members of a particular group of people have with one another. They are not talking about the kind of communication where one person sends a message to another who, in turn, may pass it on elsewhere. What they are taking about is more the kind of communication in which a member of the group transforms his own image and in doing so sends everyone a message that his images has been transformed. Simultaneously, the overall map of the group is transformed. In such circumstances, communication becomes the sharing of a common context and the reciprocal action in this context.

Trees of knowledge

In the field of the relationship to knowledge, to learning and to skills, Michel Authier and Pierre Lévy managed to give a technical form to this apparently purely philosophical idea. Called the “tree of knowledge”, it is a map of all the skills present within a given community organised on the basis of the order in which they were learnt. Everyone has an apprenticeship “curriculum” with small icons that represent their skills divided up into elementary units. A great variety of skills and know-how are included and not just those currently accredited by formal education and official diplomas. On the basis of these curricula, a computer charts the skills of the community, not on the basis of a re-established theory of knowledge, but on the order in which people have learnt things and the co-existence of skills in the curricula. In the trunk of the tree you have what people learned first, those skills that are common to everybody and, at the top, what people have learned during prolonged study or long experience. On the same branch you have what is generally combined in the curricula of individuals, but which are not necessarily disciplines. Let’s give an example. If, in a given group, all mathematicians play tennis and all tennis players do mathematics, you are going to have maths and tennis on the same branch. The tree is permanently up-dated whenever anyone learns something new. Each time a new person arrives in the group the tree is recalculated in real time. Everyone can locate himself or herself within this map by charting his or her curriculum in the tree, to obtain what the authors call that person’s “blazon”: a snapshot of the state of his or her current knowledge against the background of the skills map. The individual can fix a personal itinerary for learning on the basis of where he or she is in terms of the knowledge and know-how of the whole community, and not according to a predetermined cursus. Everyone in the community is situated in this virtual picture. It is not, however, the kind of virtual reality as we know it now that duplicates physical reality. It is an space for meanings that do not exist elsewhere, representing a new generation of communication systems. 
First published on Connected Magazine, Jul. 7th 1997.