A Machine for Lovely Thoughts

Douglas Englebart Watches the Arena

But how does one love what’s made of light and so far away

– Emilia Philips

Latte foam, the smell of a hastily made lunch, and buzzing computer fans are the essence of Serious Play. Our little collab, spread out across a series of random-access-houses, a network both digital and interpersonal. At the heart of this blogpost is a distinction: there are two “Serious Plays”. One is the couch surfing, dungeon delving, lunch zoning group of people – a group of scholars [no matter what side of the screen you’re on]. The other is a little machine with a chat client and a very basic, but nuanced, input output logic. Viewers query, streamers query back. Serious Play the machine, henceforth referred to as SP, is a fickle problem solver. A time traveler living 14 to 4 seconds in the past.

And yet, Serious play has serious dreams for SP, seriously. Expectations of addressing embodiment in fantasy avatars, testing computer lib excel spreadsheets, and imagining Tim Burton’s take on Banjo Kazooie [a rare treat, that one]. These are moments of time when new ideas entered the machine and what came out was an explosion of concepts, free association, and lovely thoughts. SP is, by all logical standards, an abstract machine for thinking with. A way of, in the words of Ted Nelson, “twiddling symbols” (305) like any good computer. Insert a genre, game, text, poem, performance, or anything else and out comes every little association we’ve never had. SP is thinkertoy.  A social, video based, massively multi-user way of playing with play.


The Coffee House at the End of Dataspace

Thinkertoy is a critically mishandled term. My brief attempts to figure out what happened to it were flooded with corporate self-help rhetoric. Nelson’s original definition, however, is fairly precise,

By “Thinkertoy” I mean… a system to help people think. (Toy means it should be easy and fun to use.) … A computer display system that helps you envision complex alternatives (330).

Hard to understand how someone would take that to be something you could do without a screen, but I digress. Nelson’s thinkertoys are an imagined set of digital environments where a user could easily compare data structures (330). Nelson calls this act collateration or linking together the comparable parts of parallel texts (330). Think of it like pointing out the same rhyme in two poems or connecting complex statistics on cheese purchasing to complex statistics on decreasing lunar mass. Think Google Docs, then think bigger. Nelson imagined that text thinkertoys [namely his Parallel Textface] would allow for certain clear functions. These would include allowing the user to annotate, offer alternatives, link together annotations, leave spurious comments, save edit histories, and [I’m sure] be witty while doing it (332). Computer Lib // Dream Machines is very focused on text, but surely that isn’t the final dream of the display system!

What if we went further? What if we went to video? What about broadcasted performance? What about SP? It’s impossible not to imagine Douglas Engelbart’s December 9th, 1968 performance when reading Nelson. The Mother of all Demos, perhaps the first livestream [if we stretch the definition], comes to mind in its deliberate demonstration of collaborative document editing. And Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Engelbart’s most influential work and the basis for Nelson’s ideas, includes “hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for the situation’” (95) in computing’s goal of complex symbol manipulation. For Engelbart, the human contingency was always part of equation. Those new pieces of media pressed into the twitch-hosted-machine pump out nothing if not hunches, first guesses, and the combination of one data set [the game text] with another data set [prelim reading lists shared scholarship]. Perhaps we can conceptualize the chat client as an audience annotation tool full of their wit, alternative theories, and linkages. After all, twitch streams are historically filed [ for two months, anyway].

Essentially this positions SP as a textual whole all it’s own; the game an imbedded part of it’s system.  In “When Paratexts become Texts: De-Centering the Game-as-text”, Mia Consalvo describes Adam Koebel’s streams in a similar manner. Consalvo argues that Koebel’s stream is a text for consumption in parallel with the game being played; a paratext as much as a parallel text (182). Koebel’s live improvisational critical analysis provides a space for the audience to co-think and for opinions to be modified in real time. A bona-fide thinkertoy just like SP. A ludic place for ludic dreams. The coffee house at the end of dataspace.


Chairs or CHARS?

A thinkertoy [ethically sourced] is an effective way to conceptualize the way SP behaves, but no matter how the machine clicks it can’t make you use it. How do we bring this concept out of a stagnant, textual, context? How do we capture the coffee house of the live chat; the urge to drum up any old idea, no matter how silly, about MMOs, ARGs, Fan-games, or Excel. In Mad at School Margaret Price defines kairotic space as a place where knowledge is created, and power is exchanged (60). Furthermore, Price argues that Kairos must include its space, it’s infrastructure, as much as it’s temporal standing (61). This is an extension of the idea of Kairos as “opportune time”, to instead consider a socially situated time when things must occur. Kairotic space can require high stakes, sociality, real-time events, improvisation aesthetics. All of these are check boxes SP can gleefully fill in.

The beautiful resonance of the thinkertoy and the kairotic space is underpinned by Price’s inclusion of infrastructure. While we lack physical tables, chairs, desks, projectors, and the like; SP is built on a presentational foundation. There’s a logic to how the thinkertoy functions, the way the twitch overlays work, the shape of the chat client, and the importance of all of it being preserved in the amber of the VOD. Kairotic space gives back to the thinkertoy too. It allows us to cement the thinkertoy with a particular cultural logic, just as contingent on logos as hard code. It helps us underline the movement of privilege and power inherent to the SP machine and ask the question: are we really, foundationally, accessible?

I’m in no shape to answer that last question. Nelson argued that the beauty of the thinkertoy was that it could take complexity and make it simple; make it playful. I’d like to think that’s the goal of SP and Serious Play. There is always the looming question of whether or not we’re lacking something of human physicality in this digital space. Every coffee spill is a spill through glass and a thousand miles, currently and always. But this conceptual framework for viewing SP doesn’t evaporate when the collab returns to in-person streaming [in 50 years or so]. There are elements of the kairotic space locked away in Curtin Hall and new evolving logics for the thinkertoy all waiting for a post-viral world. Analog or digital we’ve built a powerful tool; so powerful that every new show begins its life with a chaotic burst of lovely thoughts. So, let’s throw open the doors, seat new minds in the coffee house full of chars.


Works Cited:

Consalvo, Mia. “When Paratexts become Texts: De-Centering the Game-as-Text”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol.34, No. 2, 2017, 10.1080/15295036.2017.1304648

Engelbart, Douglas. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Monfort. The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 95-108.

Nelson, Theodor. “Computer Lib / Dream Machines.” The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Monfort. The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 303-338.

Philips, Emilia. Empty Clip. University of Akron Press, 2018.

Price, Margert. Mad at School. University of Michigan Press, 2011.


Wren Dalton


  1. I quite like the idea of “co-thinking” from Consalvo x Koebel you bring up. I feel like every stream is a collaborate co-think between all of us as “hosts” and the audience. It’s like SP is a place to experience mental expanse and we collectively become one bigger (and much more easily distracted) computer or Thinkertoy. As one who is often for absurdly expanding metaphors, it’d be interesting to ask who is which part of this PC!

    • Expanding metaphors is always a fun little endeavor: Who’s the GPU? Does the computer have antivirus software? Etc. The co-thinking concept is a term I’ve kind of minted in order to shorthand a much longer description by Consalvo. But the ARG community has an old term for the concept that does back to the days of the Cloudmakers (so 2001), Collective Detective.

  2. “The Coffee House at the End of Dataspace” is the next Annapurina Game I guarantee you! I like the idea of “co-thinking” too and I think it’s a really fruitful way of thinking of SP and what it offers us as scholars and students. It’s a space where we have some institutional structures (like a connection to C21) and a freedom to explore ideas in ways we like, definitely akin to a kairotic space. Can Wren dibs the term co-thinking as an academic term?!

    • I could dibs it, but all the academics want to print new terms. It’s like the poets, they all want their own epic… I’m happy rescuing old terms for now! I’ll mint a term when I’ve earned it!

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