From Cognitive Interfaces to Transcendental Protocols


Excerpts from the article published in Polysingularity Letters, Volume 8.


1. Everything is an Interface


Interface is something that is by definition in between. An operating system is the interface between the hardware and software. This website is the interface between the text and the reader. Language is also an interface, it is between us and we use it to interact. A cup, a cigarette, a phone, a pen, a condom, a tree are all interfaces – they connect something to something else.

In fact, everything can be seen as an interface, because nothing is isolated. Everything that is in between, just like an edge between the nodes or a node between the edges.

So what does it mean that everything is an interface?

Well, for once, it allows us to reconsider how we perceive what we already know. It also allows us to shift from object-oriented perception towards a more functional one.

A cup is a sum of all the potentialities that it implies: it can be held, we can use it to drink tea, it could break, or even serve as a present to someone to express our gratitude. Suddenly, a familiar inanimate object becomes almost alive. James J. Gibson called those action possibilities the “affordances” of an object and built a whole theory of visual perception based on it.


2. Cognitive Interfaces


Now, there is another shift. If everything is an interface, and, as an implication of such approach, the world is much richer than before (or, at least, in a different way, than before), a more specific question arises:

How do they affect us?

How do the interfaces influence the way we think, feel, perceive, interact, and live?

This is when the question of interfaces turns from something very abstract into something very concrete.

We will refer to those interfaces as cognitive interfaces, for a lack of a better term. In fact, it’s more of a certain aspect of looking at interfaces that this term implies.

Cognitive interfaces.

How do they work?

To start from a very simple example, the clock. It is a well-known fact that before the clock appeared there was a much less precise relation to time. You wouldn’t be able to have a meeting at 20.15, you’d have it when the sun goes down instead. A higher precision in the ability to plan time had huge implications on commerce, therefore affecting not only the individuals’ perception, but also the society at large.

These days Facebook is another such interface. First and foremost it promotes “sharing”. The whole internet is obsessed by it. Isaac Mao has even coined a term “sharism“, calling it “the mind revolution”. True, this particular interface is causing the revolution in our minds. What kind of revolution? The constant obsessive drive to share and to exchange “Likes”. The complex dynamics of human interaction has masterfully been reduced towards the binary code: Like or Ignore. That is not to say that it’s wrong, but this is definitely a change. We have not had such an effective way to communicate since the invention of language. Effective does not necessarily mean that it’s better, especially considering proprietary nature of Facebook and also the fact that it is the Facebook algorithms that ultimately decide what gets the likes and what doesn’t.

A language is also a good example. When we learn a new language, a whole new universe opens up to us. In English, you “have” a dream, in French you “make” a dream. In Russian you make something clearer, in English you make something plain (explain). In Chinese you don’t create words out of letters, you create symbols from combinations of other symbols. The R doesn’t follow the A, which is preceded by B. Instead a “bar” is a combination of images that relate to a certain context and has a specific sound, depending on what we’re talking about. A totally different logic, which, surely, has an effect on perception.

Programming languages are also interesting in this regard. Machines operate on the basis of 1s and 0s. Yes and No. Conditional logic: if this, then that. For this many times, do that. As long as the instruction is formulated correctly, it will be performed. The promise of total control. Inevitable execution. The mind of a programmer is formed by those expectations as much as it’s formed by precision in statements – something that human languages often leave open to interpretation.

A piece of clothing is also an interface, between the one who wears it and the outside world. The message one puts into it produces a certain kind of reactions. It may be that you simply “don’t care” or it could be that you “don’t give a fuck” or, maybe, you are just implying that you are from a completely different universe and that will carry into the way that people perceive you and treat you.

Photography is also an interface. It may be an interface between the place and the photographer, a temporary solidification of a certain point of view. It may also be an interface between a place, an emotion, a feeling, the viewer, the camera, the model – creating a complex web of relations, quite active relations that produce sensations and even real actions, creating a chain reaction of various transformative events.


3. Transcendental Interfaces


If we acknowledge this mind-changing capacity of interfaces (if not to say world-changing), it also makes sense to think how we could build them with all due intelligence, care, and respect that such powerful tools require.

Most interfaces today are replicas of the already existing ones. A slight variation or an improvement based on a similar kind can still offer a different point of view or make interactions much more efficient.

Another kind of interfaces are based on amplification. They don’t merely serve the need, they reinforce it. Think Facebook. It takes the obsessive nature of human beings and propels it into the digital realm, mixing in a few adverts here and there, producing a billion-dollar annual revenue for the shareholders. Well done.

There are also interfaces that propose something new. Steve Jobs once said that taking the LSD was one of the most important experiences in his life. Tap and hold any icon on an iPhone and after a while you’ll see that LSD vision right there (as the icons are shaking in unison). Add to this the immediate availability across all channels (voice, video, text) bordering in its potential to some kind of telepathy, and you’ve got a truly mind-bending device.
That is, if you are one of those few millions who can afford it.

The three types of the interfaces above can be summarized as:

1) Replicas
2) Amplifiers
3) Transcenders

Obviously, the boundaries are often not that precise and there can be many more categories (iPhone is as much of an amplifier as it is a replica and a transcender at the same time).

The interfaces that belong to the first two categories don’t really change anything.
They only make worse what is already quite bad or improve what already works well . Those interfaces may be somewhat useful, but we are more interested in the interfaces that belong to the third kind, Transcenders, the ones that have the capacity to change.

Those are the interfaces that transcend everyday logic. That don’t make sense. That are irrational, stupid, amazing, innovative.

The interfaces that make us think in a different way.

The interfaces that transform our perception.

The interfaces that make us feel human again (because in the 21st century that is one of the true transcendences).

4. Designing Transcendental Interfaces


How to design such interfaces?

First, we need some kind of fuzzy logic behind. Something that’s not out of this world. Or something that is, in fact, from this world, but is not as of yet represented enough.

A good example is Glitche, an mobile app that creates glitches on images. Chop and screw may currently be in trend, but it is a very good trend in the world that is full of the glamorous and the perfect.

Another example is Coub – an online video hosting for creating and sharing loops. It reifies the very basic human attraction towards repetition, driving it to an extreme, becoming a meta in relation to itself, an endless fractal of procreated intensities within a moving image.

Ableton Push is a musical instrument that brings loop-based music creation towards perfection. Ableton, in fact, is an example of something that has been revolutionary once, some time ago, until it became a de-facto standard inhibiting further development of the music stuck in the repetitive electronic 4/4 rhythmical patterns. Nevertheless, even Ableton can be a mind-bending tool for anyone who’s just starting to use it. The effect it has on your ability to listen and perceive sound is profound.

Transcendental interfaces do not only exist in the world of software. A piece of art, a good text, a musical track, a photograph, film, even a good conversation with a friend can have the same profound impact. It’s just that software finds itself in the position where it’s very easy to distribute, it’s often free, available almost anywhere, making it very hard to control through institutional and power structures (although that’s also changing).
Software is very easy to consume, which also creates a problem. You are more likely to find a life-changing book than life-changing software, but that is only because of the way we consume. The software, in our eyes, has to be useful or entertaining, whereas, in fact, maybe what we should look for is the software that is “interesting” and maybe even a bit “hard to use”.

BitCoin is an example of something like this. The digital crypto-currency made the headlines last year when its price went up 100 times over a period of a few months. If you try to understand how BitCoin works, it’s going to take an effort, but it’s worth it. The true importance of BitCoin, however, is not in it as a currency, but in the actual protocol that runs it. This protocol is a set of algorithms for value exchange inscribed into the software that belongs to everybody and no one at the same time. Its ability to disrupt the existing systems of currency is profound: BitCoin the protocol, not the actual currency, has the capacity to change the way we think about money (and value), forever.


5. From Interfaces towards the Protocols


The shift from the idea of interface towards the idea of protocol is an important one. That’s where the notion of practice comes in.

An interface, as defined earlier, implies a set of possibilities for (inter)action, a network of functions that it provides.

A cognitive interface is an interface that affects the way we think. So much, in fact, that it transcends the reality as we know it and creates the one of its own, which can be called transcendental interface.

How does the transition from interface towards the protocol occur?

An interface is something that belongs to a certain unity, be it an object or even an abstract concept.

However, if we are to take a fully functional approach, we have to transcend the idea of unity. There is no unity, there are only functions. That’s where we shift from the realm of interfaces into the realm of protocols.

A protocol is also a certain set, but it is a set for actions. An abstract entity, it nevertheless has very concrete implications. A protocol is a certain practice and it can fit into the same categories as the interfaces that we described earlier.

A protocol that is a replica is a set of rules (“do not cross here, cross there“). It has its use, but replicas are beyond the scope of this article.

A protocol that is an amplifier can be a set of laws created to achieve a certain purpose. We want more security, so we create regulations that will ensure the safety of all citizens. Leave that to institutions.

What we are interested in are the protocols of the last type: transcendental ones. Those protocols are the sets of actions performed to transcend the reality as we know it and enter the new realms. Meditation, martial arts, yoga, various esoteric practices are just a few examples. These are all sets of rules, practices, exercises, which take us out of here and bring us there. Perhaps, BitCoin belongs to the same realm. As well as, surprisingly, the version-control systems (VCS) used in software, chaotic itinerancy practices, hypercubism and abstract-identity theories, and various other polysingular approaches. Basically, any framework or a set of rules that proposes a different way of thinking.

This is the frontier which is not yet explored and that has more questions than answers, making it one of the most __________ realms today.