digital quipu (was personality transmitters)

Brian D Williams (
Mon, 18 Aug 1997 09:09:28 -0700 (PDT)

Anders Sandberg <> writes:

>Nice idea! It could probably be implemented *today* using smart
>badges (like the ones Olivetti produces). Maybe one could cycle
>through a list of codes (first the transhumanist code, then the
>roleplayer code and so on).

I had the Olivetti active badge system in mind when I wrote that,
the whole thing reminds me of a sort of "digital Quipu".

Note: the following info on quipu is from the Bruce Sterling
inspired and run "Dead Media Project"

Dead Media Working Notes 00.3

medium: the Inca Quipo aka Quipu

Source: Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society
David Crowley and Paul Heyer, eds.
Longman, New York and London, 1991
ISBN 0-8013-0598-5

From the article: "Civilization Without Writing -- The Inca and
the Quipu" by Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher (also authors of
"Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics and Culture",
publisher and date unknown)

"A quipu is a collection of cords with knots tied in them. The
cords were usually made of cotton, and they were often dyed one or
more colors. When held in the hands, a quipu is unimpressive;
surely, in our culture, it might be mistaken for a tangled old
mop. (...)

"Quipus probably predate the coming to power of the Incas.
But under the Incas, they became part of statecraft. (....)

"There are several extremely important properties of
quipus.... First of all, quipus can be assigned horizontal
direction. (...) Quipumakers knew which end was which; we will
assume that they start at the looped ends and proceed to the
knotted ends. Quipus can also be assigned vertical direction.
Pendant cords and top cords are vertically opposite to each
other with pendant cords considered to go downward and top cords
upward. (...) Quipus have levels. Cords attached to the main
cord are on one level; their subsidiaries form a second level.
Subsidiaries to these subsidiaries form a third level, and so on.
Quipus are made of cords and spaces between cords. (...) Larger
or smaller spaces between cords are an intentional part of the
overall construction. (...)

"As well as having a particular placement, each cord has a
color. Color is fundamental to the symbolic system of the quipu.
(...) Basically, the quipumaker designed each quipu using color
coding to relate some cords together and to distinguish them from
other cords. (...) Additional cord colors were created by
spinning the colored yarns together. Two solid colors twisted
together gives a candy cane effect, two of these twisted
together using the opposite twist direction gives a mottled effect,
and the two solid colors can be joined so that part of the cord is
one color and the rest of it is another color. (...)

"For the most part, cords had knots tied along them and the
knots represented numbers. But we are certain that before knots
were tied in the cords, the entire blank quipu was prepared. The
overall planning and construction of the quipu was done first,
including the types of cord connections, the relative placement of
cords, the selection of cord colors, and even individual
decorative finishings. (...) The quipumaker's recording was
nonlinear. (...) A group of strings occupy a space that has
no definite orientation; as the quipumaker connected strongs to
each other, the space became defined by the points where the
strings were attached. (...) Essentially then, the quipmaker
had to have the ability to conceive and execute a recording in
three dimensions with color."


Have you ever heard of the quipu of preColumbian Peru?
If you have, it's a minor miracle. The archives of
Incan quipu were burned by the Spanish conquerors, after
the Council of Lima in the year 1583. There are about
400 authentic quipus left in the entire world. Every
last one of the quipus we possess nowadays was dug out of
a human grave.

Well, not quite every last one. I happen to have a
brand-new quipu here in my pocket. I was doing quite a
bit of reading about quipu, so I decided I'd make one.

The word quipu means 'account' in the Quechua
language, so the quipu was basically a kind of accounting
device and calculator. This is a fabric network to carry
data. This was the only recording medium that the Incas
had. It served all the recording functions of their

No one today seems to have any real idea how these
quipu worked. They all looked more or less like this one
-- they had a thick fabric backbone, with a series of
dependent fringes. But the fringes could also have
fringes. Sometimes there were as many as six
subdirectories coming off the backbone of the network.
They had a variety of different knots. They had quite a
wide variety of colors. People have only the vaguest
ideas what the colors may have signified.

This is a very small quipu. The largest remaining
quipu weighs about forty pounds and has well over two
thousand dependent cords. No one has any idea what this
device signifies or what message it carries. It was
buried with a Peruvian gentleman who was modestly well to
do, but he doesn't appear to have been particularly

The Incas had no idea that the planet harbored any
civilization other than their own. As far as they were
concerned, these quipu were the absolute apex of human
intellectual accomplishment. And one must admit they
have a lot to offer. They're very light -- wool and
cotton -- they're portable and durable. Crush-proof. No
problem with power surges or headcrashes. A good thing
they were portable too, because one of their primary
functions was the census.

It appears that everyone without exception in the Inca
realm existed as a knot in a quipu somewhere. The Incas
were great masters of ethnic cleansing. They thought
nothing of ordering thousands of people out of their homes
to distant realms as pioneers and settlers. Everyone
simply loaded all their possessions onto their backs and
left immediately. Thanks to the quipu, there was simply
no way they would ever be missed by the authorities.

The Inca economic system was a centralized command
economy. A third of the nation's economic output was
stored in vast ranks of stone cells. Everything down to
the last sandal was recorded on quipu.

I don't think there was ever an alphabet in quipu. I
don't think that the Inca were literate in that fashion,
because their empire was only a hundred years old. There
was nothing to pronounce that you could find on a piece of
string. But there may have been geneologies in string --
hierarchies, maybe family trees. Maps, even -- three
days' journey, they forded a blue river, they fought a red
battle -- you can imagine how usefully suggestive this
might have been. Maybe you could attack language even
more directly with a quipu: meter, stress, quantity,
pitch, length of the poem -- why should this be hard to
believe? In English we sometimes call telling a story
"spinning a yarn."

These Incas were fine textile makers. They had a lot
of wool and cotton. The government made them grow it, and
their women spun yarn every day of their lives. When a
quipucamayoc read one of these recording devices, I don't
think his lips moved. There was nothing crude or halting
or primitive or painful about the experience -- a quipu is
certainly a more tactile and sensual and three-
dimensional experience than a book.

The quipu was a medium. It was a way to cast the
world into an entire new form of order. It was a medium
invented by and for a very careful and methodical people,
people who liked to fit huge boulders together so snugly
that you couldn't slip a knife-blade between them. For
the Incas, this was the Net -- a net that caught their
population in a sieve that dominated the whole material
world, a sieve that no one could escape.

You know, in today's ultramediated world, I think it's
quite a good idea to go into a quiet room with a quipu.
Go to a room and shut off the electricity. Don't look at
the quipu with scorn or condescension. Just hold it in
your hands and try to pretend that this the only possible
abstract relationship, besides speech, that you have with
the world. Really try to imagine what you are *missing*
by not comprehending all economics, all governmental
business, all nonverbal communication, as a network of
colored yarn. Think of this as a discipline, as an act
of imaginative concentration, as a human engagement with a
profoundly alien media alternative.

It's truly pitiful how little is known or remembered
about the quipu, a dead medium which was once the nervous
system of a major civilization. And yet that is by no
means the only form of knot record. There's the
Tlascaltec nepohualtzitzin, the Okinawan warazan, the
Bolivian chimpu. Samoan, Egyptian, Hawaiian, Tibetan,
Bengali, Formosan knot records. So far, I know almost
nothing about these beyond their names. I'd like to
learn more. If I learn more and you're on my list, I'll
tell you about it.