Re: digital quipu (was personality transmitters)

Forrest Bishop (
Mon, 18 Aug 1997 15:52:17 -0500 (CDT)

Wow! I have some questions on this:

Were any wreath-shaped quipu found? These might be monthly or
yearly calendars. Planting and harvesting might be represented by
a pendant string, for example. An astronomical calendar should be
recognizable, and decipherable.

Were any fids, needles, combs with widely-spaced teeth, or odd-looking
frameworks found in the graves that held the quipu?

Any children's graves found? These may hold the equivalent of a
grammar book.

Are some of the knots of a kind that can be easily moved along the string
(e.g. the simple overhand knot)? These would allow updating the record.
Loosening the knot with a fid, then sliding it along the string with the fid,
pulling the ends to re-set the knot. Are three any beads on the quipu that
might perform the same function (beads can encode more local information
than a knot, like the icons below)?
What type is the primary knot?

Have any knot theorists studied these things?

Are there cross-links from one branched structure to another? These may
indicate interrelationships, or simple keep the structure organized. It seems
to me a large and complicated quipu might have had an associated framework.
Alternatively, they might have been suspended on several threads from
something that looks like a small gallows.

The knotted string construct you describe has the ability to store information
in a multi-variable (multi-dimensional) fashion. Several knotted strings tied
together at a single point may represent many different aspects of the
same thing.

The efficacy of this system of representation may have hampered the
development of the written word.

I have dabbled with various means of representing information in a 3D
construct. My latest effort is a 3D animated scheduler- icons stand or
march along a time axis, priorities and other variables on the other
two axes. The icons code for various kinds of projects and activities,
colored lines (!) connect between them to indicate interrelationships.
It is unfortunately entirely visual, although audio could be added
(e.g. click an icon for a spoken description).

The tactile (in addition to the visual) nature of the quipu is, I think, a decided
advantage- something I argued for on a recent panel discussing VR
applications. I was shouted down (by Howard Davidson, no less) based
on the amount of the brain devoted to visual vs. tactile processing. I would
now argue that this ratio is a recent development, that primitives (like me)
have a somewhat different ratio, weighted more towards the physical. This
is a testable hypothesis.

Incidentally, much of my inventive work involves conceptually _feeling_,
or _being_ the thing, as opposed to looking at it from the outside.
Einstein spoke of a similar method, I think he called it “muscle knowledge”.

Forrest Bishop
Institute of Atomic-Scale Engineering

Brian Williams wrote:
> 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)

>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.
> 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.
> 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,
. 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."
> ... 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,