Narrative Construction, Software and the Pearl Necklace Metaphor

FEBRUARY 8, 2005


  1. We process information linearly. This is a fundamental fact. (Aside: example of polyphonic music and the Glenn Gould radio program). Symbol processing in home sapiens is serial and cannot manage either parallel or non-linear presentation. Particularly textual symbol processing. This is not only related to the methods by which humans obtain sensory input but derives from the very structure or high level information processing in the brain. This is manifested very clearly in language.
  2. thus even where information is presented non-linearly, or more commonly in parallel, we still create our own linear thread as we progress through it. A concrete example is given by the internet or by encylcopedias. Though both examples present a web of information rather than an explicit linear narrative the human mind cannot branch multiply in any literal sense. Thus as I progress through a website or an encylcopedia though I may branch I then leave the original line of investigation - perhaps to return later.
  3. Given this fact that we can only read along one dimension at once we see the great challenge or all analytical writing, namely to present in single-dimensional linear form, that which is always multidimensional and non-linear.
  4. Thus we are presented with a dilemma. Much knowledge and information is multi-faceted, approachable from many different angles simultaneously, yet if it is to be understood and processed by humans it must be presented serially, that is to say linearly along a single path. Now I do not suggest that we can overcome these inherent limitations but I do suggest that we can approach knowledge storage and categorization in such a way as to impose the minimal limits on the possible methods of presentation.

The Metaphor

We can imagine the building blocks, the factlets, as pearls, little pearls of knowledge. We can then imagine the creation of an expository line, or narrative if we allow ourselves to abuse terminology, as the stringing of these pearls onto the thread - the thread of narrative - which when complete provides a 'necklace' of exposition (NB: though we should avoid seeing any cyclical structure in analogy with the circular necklace as it is more usual for a exposition to resemble an interval with a beginning and end and a direction of progression).

Other Items

The multiple classification problem. Analogies and examples:

  1. no canonical basis vectors for a finite-dimensional vector space.
  2. The borges story cited by foucault on the chinese emperor's encyclopedia

The Art of Writing History

That most history writing, even of the analytical variety, consists of linear exposition. I often describe this as a narrative but this is dangerous as narrative usually denotes a very specific form of linear exposition.

An Example

The example we shall examine is the hundred years war (This is, of course, a subject eminently suited to a narrative historiographical approach). The Hundred Years war describes the century long struggle between the English and French crown for control of France and various of its subdomains. From the very beginning of historiographical interest in these events (e.g. Froissart) the approach taken has been a narrative one. The most recent work in this tradition is the multivolume work by Jonathan Sumption. He encounters a classic problem. How is one to shoe-horn this struggle into the linear strait-jacket of the printed page. For not only do we have the obvious approach given by time's arrow (which is the backbone of traditional 'narrative' in history) but also the thematic structure given by the geographic dispersion of the conflict.

A simple method for visualizing these situations is given by reducing this problem to two dimensions with time on one axis and all other themata being put along the other axis:

(themata) English throne French throne Charles the Bad King of Navarre Major Battles ....
.... .... .... ....

Further work: detailed examination of chapters in vol. 1 of Jonathan Sumption's History of the Hundred Years War