Thank you for inviting me to speak here today, in the space of “Computers & Writing.” Among the many projects participating here, those that interrogate the computer as a very ENVIRONMENT for writing, share some of the people, objects, matters-of-concern, powers, and ecologies important to me in my work.

In spaces such as these we demonstrate a care about and for our ecologies, indeed a care OF media and communication AS ecologies, and, even, all our reasons that media and communication MATTER, including HOW they matter: how they materialize, how they become quite literal.

Nowadays I am newly interested in those dynamics through which we participate in, are ENFOLDED among such complex systems, and WHY it matters to share with each other and students how we OURSELVES become one sort of thing among those self-organizing in our environment, our ecologies.  



 “The coral reefs are dying!” I heard Rex Weyler, cofounder of Greenpeace, say last summer at “An Ecology of Ideas,” a joint conference of the American Society for Cybernetics and the Bateson Idea Group. A breathtaking projection of marine life around a coral reef took up the wall behind him. “I’ve been saying this for twenty years; what will it take for people to do something? How do we talk about this so people will listen?” (Weyler 2012)

I worry about what happens when we use “dying” as the unit of urgency, even while I take seriously Weyler’s knowledge of what is actually happening to coral reefs and our planet, not to mention his history of action and caring here. How do human bodies in their cognitive macro and micro biomes make distinctions between our own individual deaths and the deaths of species? Between an adaptive planet and a dying one? Between recurrent stories of worlds ending that humans apparently love to scare ourselves with about every thirty years or so, and the damages, intensities and traumas of change, power rearranged, worlds ending and coming into being. Getting people to care about just how we are participant in complex systems in ways that are only too indirect, only too non-linear, only too immersive, involves what Vinciane Despret, Belgian ethologist and philosopher of science calls, “learning to be affected.” (Despret 2004; Latour 2004; King 2012) Belief and disbelief stagger between climate change publics, amid money behind global economic and academic restructuring, and even, say, together with feminist juggling acts with objects, new materialisms, and communities of practice. Interrogation here has meanings that are manifold quite properly, for being enfolded we find ourselves dancing around our own political critiques; we find critique itself only partially able to attend to such complexity of value and values.

We are caught up in what analysts of complex systems call “stigmergy”: or what it feels like to be one of the elements in systems undergoing emergence: to be among those self-organizing bits in so-called indirect coordination. (Marsh and Onof, 2008) We intra-act, eddying along with other actants, in pastpresents characterized by another “systems” term, “hysteresis,” in which more than one temporal state is happening simultaneously, and past environments interact with current ones at different lag times. (Barad, 2007)

I felt this quite personally, in many layers, at this Bateson event, where Nora Bateson’s film about her father and my teacher Gregory Bateson was shown, where Jerry Brown, multiply governor of California at very different moments of economic restructurings attracted and repelled political affinities. And where my friend Eric Vatikiotis Bateson attempted to demonstrate a range of “bilogical coordinations” among complex systems, the roles of fluctuation, entrainment, and blocked synchrony, which pressure logics of systems thinking, and work amid hopes for recognizing “probabilistic mechanisms for relating to the world.” (Bateson, N. 2011; Vatikiotis Bateson 2012) Over and over climate change returned among papers, talks, and projects as a collective status.

What has all this to do with computers & writing? Well, computers & writing make up a series of spatial-temporal eco-zones, object ecologies, that keep on re-teaching me what I partially learned in the past, and now can begin to enfold trans-contextually. Let me offer some examples. 



It’s the early 80s and I’m sitting in the basement of the computer center late at night, writing on a computer mainframe in the days before personal computers. Using the visual editor I type in words displayed as numbered lines; they look rather like poetry. Every few minutes the system crashes and I lose my work unless I save it line by line. Suddenly I realize I am staring at the screen “hearing” the computer say to me “Your core has been dumped; you’ve reach the end of the disk”!

At that moment my body rearranges: I “feel” its edges alter. I “see” a funny disk-like space. And although I actually had no idea what the mainframe set up looked like, I experience myself INSIDE the computer rather than outside it. I become AWARE of such cognitive sensation for the first time, aware of my distributed embodiment. Although partly “not me” it is also “all me.” I am me and an object simultaneously: the contexts are inside. 



I hang out with nepantleras, “those who facilitate passage between worlds,” both people, and actually lots of objects. Identified by Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa, those who work with nepantla then are associated “with states of mind that question old ideas and beliefs, acquire new perspectives, change worldviews, and shift from one world to another.” (Anzaldúa 2002:1)

Increasingly I think of writing as a cognitive companionship humans have arranged with their favorite objects and ecologies, managing and being managed through and among complexly enfolded systems and artifacts. Nepantleras – including the so-called wizards or gurus of technology organizations – because they live in “enough worlds at the same time,” in the words of technoscience theorist Lucy Suchman, are folks with a feel for work-arounds in ranges. (Suchman & Scharmer 1999) They practice systems coordination and facilitate the work-arounds of collaboration, often through the agency of the objects called by sociologist of knowledge work and classification systems Leigh Star “boundary objects.”

Let me share with you a new story about writing: the sort of thing tech wizard Julian Bleecker calls a design fiction….



A design fiction: (very) roughly 5000 years ago in (at least) two segmenting ecologies on our planet humans messed around with some cognitive companions, each coordinating multiple agencies characteristically. • In Mesopotamia tiny clay token sheep were enclosed in clay envelopes with markings indicating what was inside. • In the Andes strings were wrapped around sticks and attached to a main cord. In the first case the favored sensory technology for making was molding and inscribing clay. Worlds set into motion from this sort of making eventually sustain what some consider “true writing”: that is to say, writing that companions preferentially with language. In the second case makings involved spinning plant and animal fiber and feeling, tying, and untying knots. Worlds set into motion there eventually sustain a different sort of writing, one said to be “without words,” instead preferentially coordinating actions and practices directly as their very ecologies. (Boone 1994)  



This second sort of companionship, at the very edge of what has been mostly meant by this word “writing,” is meaningful today precisely because computer machine language is binary, and it turns out, so is this knotted device, or khipu, and so are elements of the worlds it coordinates.


As ethno-mathematician Gary Urton… (He is the guy who won a MacArthur Award in 2001 for demonstrating that thinking of khipu as if they used computer machine language, allows us to understand, across time, just how much information such past forms of binary coding might have been able to hold….) As Gary Urton, and khipu database administrator and web designer, textile historian and anthropologist Carrie Brezine, say… (on the online database that hopes to collect for worldwide scholarly attention the material details of all known khipu across museums and collections, and shares with a range of publics why all this might matter….) As Urton and Brezine tell us at that website:

“The word khipu comes from the Quechua word for ‘knot’ and denotes both singular and plural. Khipu are textile artifacts composed of cords of cotton or occasionally camelid fiber. The cords are arranged such that there is one main cord, called a primary cord, from which many pendant cords hang. There may be additional cords attached to a pendant cord; these are termed subsidiaries. Some khipu have up to 10 or 12 levels of subsidiaries. Khipu are often displayed with the primary cord stretched horizontally, so that the pendants appear to form a curtain of parallel cords, or with the primary cord in a curve, so that the pendants radiate out from their points of attachment. When khipu were in use, they were transported and stored with the primary cord rolled into a spiral. In this configuration khipu have been compared to string mops.” (Urton & Brezine 2003--) 


How could these things possibly be “binary”? What does that mean here?

Andean social and conceptual systems are radically dualistic: for example, a common person might wear a tunic woven from yarn spun z or clockwise and plied s or counterclockwise, while a pacu or shaman might wear a tunic woven from yarn spun s and plied z. On the left hand of this slide is a schematic of the 7 bit binary code Urton theorizes the khipu uses, taken from his book Signs of the Inka Khipu. (2003) He calculates that this system could manipulate 1536 unique units, comparable to the sign capacities of early cuneiform, Shang Chinese ideograms, and Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs. Seven types of information are coded in binary bits: • the material a string is made from, • the color class of each string and • its spin/ply relationship, • how it is attached to other cords, • what s or z direction the knot is tied in, • which of two number classes it belongs to, and • which of two kinds of khipu string it might be, either one for recording numbers, or, Urton theorizes, one used to record histories, "poetry or other ritual, canonical narrative forms." (48) On the right hand side, is the binary “signature” of one knot on a khipu, showing how this 7 bit code could be used.


It was in the context of research on historical and cross-cultural writing technologies that I first learned about khipu, these Andean recording devices made of strings and knots, not all that long ago considered by academics to be "counting" and not "writing." What counts as writing? as counting? as connecting or disconnecting them? Restructuring knowledge systems in the nineties and after create contexts – economies, critical design, speculative feminisms, technology infrastructures, excavations, new historical knowledges – for cascading • forms of attention and • frames of analysis for alternative khipu speculations at different • grains of detail. The khipu is both something to think WITH and something to think ABOUT.

Khipu knowledges today are created, shared, demonstrated, used, and stored in many transmedia storytelling forms: not only monographs, books, conference talks, but also websites, databases, images, exhibitions, reenactments, television documentaries, tourist and heritage tours, sites and festivals, as well as village and kinship ritual work processes. Gender and nationality, ethnicity and race, indigenous politics and university restructuring, all play roles in such systems entangled as current processes of globalization. (A range of examples are linked on my Pinterest site:

Who knows what about various khipus and when? We will have to keep returning to this question across worlds, temporalities, and knowledge agencies…. It is a transdisciplinary question, one that does not assume that objects are unitary, that knowledges are universal or expert, or that times are not interactively in contact remaking each other.

In the seventies US scholars Marcia and Robert Ascher demonstrated just how a decimal numeric reading of specific “counting” khipu works. (Ascher & Ascher 1978, 1981) They began a process of collecting data of material significance (something that changes) on every surviving khipu, at that time in museums across Europe and North and South America, a process continued since by Urton and Brezine. The Asher code books are in eformat available for download today, and the Harvard database site is still in operation, although Brezine is no longer its manager. Brezine has also worked with anthropologist Frank Salomon, who has documented on the web the current display and ceremonial use of khipu in Rapaz, Peru, where a storehouse of khipu still exists in community. These differ strikingly from the Inka khipu described by Urton: not in decimal array for sure, but rather full of objects tied onto a single cord. (Salomon 2005-2008)

Khipu are things in the sense joked about by French science studies scholar Bruno Latour: "Facts are no longer the mouth-shutting alternative to politics, but what has to be stabilized instead. To use another etymology, 'objects' which had been conceived as wholly exterior to the social and political realm, have become 'things' again, that is, in the sense of the mixture of assemblies, issues, causes for concerns, data, law suits, controversies which the words res, causa, chose, aitia, ding have designated in all the European languages." (Latour 2002:21)


In the Introduction to his book The Cord Keepers, about Andean cultural continuities, multivalent and multi-temporal, anthropologist Frank Salomon speaks of

“Khipus in Search of Contexts and Vice Versa” (Salomon 2004:18)

What would writing have to mean to include what “we” (who is this we?) may perhaps know about the khipu – so far? What does this something called a khipu have to teach “us” (which us?) about thing-ness? //Maybe even about climate change? and how to share how that matters?// And what sorts of temporalities do “we” need to share with khipu in order to figure with them or to figure them out? They seemingly have their own temporalities to teach us.

Khipu can be understood for us as interrogations themselves about assumptions embedded in all of these. (Even interrogating the computer as an environment?) Certainly as agents of and for knowledge play. Anthropologist Salomon likens them to infographics, but he means by this to suggest that khipu have a sort of agency we usually reserve for only one side of that gap we think we jump across to create a “representation” or to engage in “making.”

Khipu possibilities in speculative play today consider how writing might operate as a system or perhaps several interacting systems, each with alternate layers of semiosis mapped onto or perhaps better, mapping themselves together with other objects and features of the world than words, indeed some never verbalized. Some of the most exciting rethinkings of khipu today involve what we might call workarounds for something we might still want to mean by “writing.” The Andes become then a multi-temporal geopolitical zone for considering “writing without words,” the title to a ground-breaking book on alternative literacies in Meso-America and the Andes. (Salomon 2001; Boone & Mignolo 1994; Brokaw History 2010, “Polygraphy” 2010)

Salomon points out “the fact that data can be formulated as speech is not the point. The quipocamayo process would have compacted social process into an impressively data-dense medium whose clarity did not depend on expansion into words.” (Salomon 2001:266)

How would this work? Caringly working out in great detail bits of who knows what over which ranges of Andean cultural continuities, Salomon in The Cord Keepers pays close attention to the “transpositions” (term from Brokaw History 2010:18) of content over time among different historical khipu sharing worlds with us. Such continually re-enveloping temporalities that khipu now impress upon us, flickering among progressive chronologies, wormholed simultaneities, cyclical coincidences, and other time-traveling ecologies, require us to cultivate the sort of knowledge making that Bruno Latour reminds us, has never been modern. (Latour 1993 [1991]) The pastpresents (all one word strung together) of binary coding, allow us to play extensively and transcontextually, at the very same time that they urge us to finer and finer grains of detail, carefully textured and textiled.

Salomon asks us to consider khipus as “an immensely consequential data writing.” (Salomon 2004:281) Data writing is a term that emerges from current data analytic practices, which today play consciously among sensory modalities: taking for granted, say data visualizations or even data sonifications, just now suggesting data dramatization, and you will even find on the web, data textilization….

Salomon and others working out among Andean “writings without words” extensively connect across time and technologies forms in which processing information does not have to jump a gap created by ideas about language.


In chapter after chapter Solomon explains (in ways that reverberate with the kinds of things we need to notice to inhabit and value an adaptive planet’s complex non-linear systems), how to understand in detail a highly complex and multiply embedded Andean system of social organization: one • both hierarchical but also contingently collective among possible groupings; one with • different kinds of interactivities possible with each range of connection in attention, as well as • altered in cycles that do not recur in any simple way; and one • always imperfectly “known,” in any time period, to any set of people, both cooperative but also idiosyncratic. He calls khipu in this context “reciprocity made visible” (279), but means by this something more variantly sensible than vision as they “allow one to use different parts of the sensorium for grasping the different variables.” (281) In pairs and used differently at different moments of social and ritual purpose, in some parts of “their use cycle” (278) khipu are simulation devices and at other parts agents in performance of duties and entitlements. They are coordination artifacts embedded within complex systems.

The kind of “aboutness” here is not representational, not a way of keeping abstractions layered by logical type, but rather a kind of recursive relational agency, both “of” and “about” reciprocities in worldly processes. Salomon understands khipu in pairs worked as both • simulation devices knotted and unknotted in projection, planning, enactment and re-enactment; and also as • records of how things have happened, with whom, when, with what informational needs, and sometimes as • agencies travelling worlds. (276)

“Semiotically heterogenous” is what cultural studies scholar Galen Brokaw calls khipu themselves, khipu contexts, and khipu techniques. That different khipu “developed at different levels of society” over time, but worked at historical moments simultaneously across worlds, means that both standardization and idiosyncracy existed among khipu literacies. In other words, “the existence of different levels or domains of khipu literacy…often employed different types of conventions and exhibited different degrees of standardization based on the nature and relationship among the institutions functioning in each domain.” (Brokaw History 2010:262)



Who knows what about various khipus and when? Let’s return to this question across worlds, temporalities, and knowledge agencies….

I would argue that it is not by accident that semiotically heterogenous khipu become interesting to so many so extensively at a time period in which it is to our own advantage to come to terms with our own practices of semiotic heterogeny ourselves. Or come to terms with our own needs to collaborate in emergent knowledges of complex systems and to inhabit responsibly a range of ecologies that matter.



Khipu live with us now in media ecologies that are not an area of study only, but the very air we breath, quite as much a part of global ecologies as global warming, if also ambivalently politically charged and attended to. Media ecologies include the hormonal and neurological circuits within and extending beyond human bodies, along lines of ecological action and distributed being. Even what we might call social media learning takes place across whole systems not just in human heads. Mass and burgeoning new media have many demonstrations for any of “us” moving among knowledge worlds of what we might work with as transcontexualities. And political affects come necessarily to shape work now in and around academies.

Salomon speaks of sharing agency with khipu that “never ceased to be updated, never stopped changing, and therefore never ceased to be of ‘live’ interest.” (233) How to share agency with and among things as things ourselves is a design fiction khipu help us to narrate in an ecology we begin to want to inhabit explicitly.



This “design fiction” speculatively entangles “design, science, fact and fiction” as a practice “that, hopefully, provides different, undisciplined ways of envisioning new kinds of environments, artifacts and practices.... Design Fiction is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating about the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations….” (Bleecker 2009) 



Nepantleras, because they live in “enough worlds at the same time,” practice systems coordination and facilitate the work-arounds of collaboration, often sharing agency with the objects called by Leigh Star “boundary objects.”

Star reflects on the origins of the concept of a boundary object: “As I delved deeper into the relations between developers and users, it became clear that a kind of communicative tangle was occurring. I used the work of Gregory Bateson, who had studied these sorts of communicative mishaps under the heading of ‘double binds.’ As with Bateson’s work on schizophrenics, and what he called ‘the transcontextual syndrome,’’ the messages that were coming at level one from the systems developers were not being heard on that level by the users and vice versa. What was obvious to one was a mystery to another. What was trivial to one was a barrier to another. Yet, clarifying this was never easy. The users liked the interface when they were sat in front of it. Yet, they did not know how to make a reliable working infrastructure out of it. They would ask the … team, who would reply in terms alien to them. I began to see this as a problem of infrastructure – and its relative nature.” (2010: 610; Bateson 1972: 276)


A curiosity about what, in a last essay, Star called “growing boundary objects” becomes part of creating just enough trust to share, necessary for understanding our travels among knowledge worlds, feminist workarounds in the midst of global (academic) restructuring. (Star, 2010:602) Hysteresis is a piece of this as well. Star talks about “understanding local tailoring as a form of work that is invisible to the whole group and how a shared representation may be quite vague and at the same time quite useful.” (Star, 2010:607) To participate in what Star called good and just standards for those who have suffered their absence (Clarke, 2010: 591), we struggle to befriend an often mandated transdisciplinarity and there to recognize comrades. Having to participate in social learnings of many sorts across ecologies of knowledge, “we” (in distributed being and cognition) learn to sort knowledge managements, and are helped by the very sensations of social cognition amid intensities of affect. With Leigh Star, Gloria Anzalduá, and others, we look around for nepantleras, “those who facilitate passage between worlds,” a perpendicular knowledge for the messy and conflictual. (Anzaldúa, 2002:1)


Bateson famously said that in “the pronoun we, I of course included the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.” (Bateson, 1979:4) Khipu, design fictions, boundary objects, all these participate with nepantleras, not just to facilitate moving among worlds, but to augment their realities: to learn and demonstrate how to be affected or moved, how to open up unexpected elements of one’s own embodiments in lively and re-sensitizing worlds. These are necessary practices for participation in non-linear systems, data densities we participate in embodying. Collaborations and many makings across transcontextualities are among the projects of a feminist transdisciplinary posthumanities and its work to live in enough worlds at the same time, to re/write cognitive companionships, and to open to ecological complexity. To open to ecosystem understandings in which media are co-agents as well as transmaterials hooking bodies through and as worlds.