Recently I had the strange and pleasant experience of re-visiting one of my books with a couple of graduate students doing an independent study with me on computation. I have suspected for some time that My Mother Was a Computer is the least-understood of my books, and my session with the students confirmed my view. The problem, of course, is not with readers but with my writing; somehow I did not sufficiently convey the powerful idea at the center of that text. So I will give it another go here. Intermediation refers to an idea that originally came out of research on simulations and complexity science. One of the long-standing problems with simulation is how one bootstraps from emergent patterns on one level of complexity—let us say, the one-dimensional cellular automata that Steven Wolfram shows can simulate a Universal Turing Machine—and more complex phenomena such as we see all around us. How do we get from cellular automata to cells, from cells to organisms?
The answer “intermediation” proposes is this: many agents interacting through sets of simple rules such as one sees with cellular automata generate emergent patterns more complex than the agents themselves (see the cover of Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science for a beautiful example). However, to progress up the ladder of complexity, these patterns have to be captured in new kinds of material configurations that in turn will become the primitives of the next level up. For example, electrons, neutrons and protons are the subatomic particles whose interactions are captured in a different kind of material entity called atoms; the interactions of atoms create yet further kinds of patterns captured in molecules; the emergent patterns of molecules are captured and materially instantiated in proteins, and so forth.
The essential dynamic here is that the interactions between agents at one level result in emergences that are “locked in” by changing material forms, which in turn create new emergent patterns “locked in” by yet other changes in material forms. Each level contributes patterns for the next level up, but any given level doesn’t cease to contribute once the next level emerges. Rather, all through the daisy chain of different levels, each continues to contribute dynamically both through continuing interactions between agents at that level (themselves dynamically generated by the lower level), as well as contributing to the next level up through its emergences Because each level is interdependent with both the levels above and below it, it would be misleading to think of this as a hierarchy. “Hierarchy” might tempt us to reify the different levels and see them as static rather than continuously emerging entities. To forestall this conceptual misprision, better to think of this as a dynamic heterarchy. The generalized form of this dynamic is what I called “intermediation,” where “mediation” refers to the essential feature of changing material forms between levels, and “inter” evokes the dynamic interactions crucial for the operation of the entire system.
If you find this idea intriguing, I invite you to re-visit My Mother Was A Computer for the intellectual genealogies that created it and to explore its implications between physical systems to cultural and textual interactions as well.