Preface to Volume 1, Issue 1

Metapatterns are useful as tools for thinking. This theme was key to the course I ran at New York University in spring, 2017: Metapatterns in Nature, Mind, and Culture (AHSEM-UA 154; ENVST-UA 254) Students hailed from various majors at NYU.

All nine have written papers in this inaugural issue of what I am calling the NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns. In the papers, you will see explorations using metapatterns such as borders, binaries, centers, layers, holons and clonons, tubes, and cycles and breaks in time.

The class took as the central text my 1995 book, Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind (Columbia U. Press). I also introduced material from my newest book, Quarks to Culture, which was not yet published during the course. The students did weekly projects or prepared diagrammatic materials for class discussions, which ranged from physics to biology and psychology, from fact to fiction, from microscopic to big picture. We used metapatterns to explore topics of interest and the discussion was often enthralling.

In mid-April, with 4 weeks remaining, I asked everyone to suddenly focus on one final project of his or her own design. Each thinker, now trained in metapatterns, was charged to develop a topic or concept to work on. The weeks were limited. Each gave a preliminary presentation. Each wrote a draft of a paper that was reviewed in small group roundtables. Each went back several times to their ideas. I was impressed how quickly interesting topics developed and reached maturity.

The results are these papers. They have been formatted for this wikidot metapatterns website, conceived and run by my good colleague and friend Jeffrey Bloom, emeritus professor of science education, Northern Arizona University

The concept in these projects was to demonstrate and show metapatterns as tools for thinking about specific topics of personal interest. Such basic patterns are “out there” in nature and culture. They are in the mind. The topics addressed here could have been thought about without metapatterns. But they probably would not have.

I’d like to say a few word about these papers, which are in this journal in order of final submission, as a, easy way for me to make a decision on placement. You will note that many of the students developed their own terms for patterns that they found.

Paper 1, “The Intertwined Development of Technology and the Sleep-Wake Binary: A New Pattern of Unnatural Breaks” by Nina Naghshineh. In this paper, Ms. Naghshineh used the metapatterns of binaries, cycles, and breaks to discuss linkages between our biological sleep-wake binary cycle and the Earth-based, day-night binary cycle. Furthermore, she develops the concept she has named “natural and unnatural breaks.” Natural breaks in our daily wake-sleep cycle are tied to our planet’s rotational rhythm and our deep evolutionary past. Unnatural breaks occur in lives today, as technology disrupts sleep patterns and thus our daily cycle. This paper weaves together a number of important binaries as Naghshineh sets up a contrast between past and present, between natural and unnatural, and between the unnatural as something we do not have to accept but strive to change. Thus she also deploys the binary between what “is” and what “could be” in a better world.

Paper 2, “The Metapatterns of ‘We,’” by Yvonne Bowman. This paper shows a skillful use of metapatterns of binaries, borders, and holons-clonons to investigate multiple aspects of the complex and enigmatic subject of the self and the “we.” A particularly important part of this paper is a new concept that Ms. Bowman calls “assumptive learning.” To get to that, she shows that the “we” (or “us) is often made of individuals (holons, with unique differences), because individuals see others in their “we” as also having selves and mental properties. Psychologists call this projection of mentality “theory of mind.” In contrast, the “them” is often conceptualized as a single “other” consisting of numerous parts that are more or less similar (clonons). A discussion of thinner or thicker personal borders eventually leads the author to the new concept of assumptive learning, which happens most explicitly in asking a question of the “other.” Assumptive learning takes place within networks of people who see others as holons. Assumptive learning is essential to “debates and discussions,” and therefore the structure of society and its potential improvements.

Paper 3, “Propagation, Variation, and Selection as a Metapattern:
New ways of envisioning evolution outside of the biological sphere,” by Thomas Flott. The entire class read papers on cultural evolution, and Mr. Flott became intrigued that the evolutionary process was a generalizable metapattern. Crucial are the component subprocesses of propagation, variation, and selection. Mr. Flott gives us a sweeping quick tour that shows “PVS” at work in biology (as a start, a given); in the scientific method; in visual art (using medieval cathedrals); in product development cycles (using the iPhone as example); in personal habits, behavior and learning; in language; and in internet culture (the development of slang and the setting of parameters such a message length). Look for the personal discussion of how he picked up the reading habit from his parents (propagation), but then prefers different authors (variation). He concludes by asking, could this way of thinking be “applied further to solve problems in non-traditional ways in areas such as economics or art history?” I think, yes!

Paper 4, “The Real and Virtual Cycles of Evolving Life,” by Austen Wigglesworth. This paper begins with the technology-art binary: the cultural evolution of technology (through PVS) creates the possibility for new kinds of art, thus changing human communication. But what happens when technology—as is happening—creates increasingly “real” new worlds of virtuality? What happens to art? How can these questions shed light on the binary of reality-virtuality, which is currently occupying so many aspects of debates about the future of humanity? Mr. Wigglesworth looks analyses Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The main character discovers that what had been a hard division between human and machine becomes blurry. The hard binary becomes a gradient. Mr. Wigglesworth extends this point by asking and answering, “Where, then, does the border between reality and virtual simulation lie? Perhaps it does not exist at all.” With the gradient as thinking-tool, he becomes positive about our future, if we are vigilant. Indeed, we can “create new possibilities for what it means to be human.”

Paper 5, “Tonally Expressive Metapatterns,” by Tom Hagan. This paper introduces the concept of “sonic metapatterns” to refers to “metapatterns that propagate through auditory means.” What is an example? Mr. Hagen proposes a general pattern that connects music to speech in the form of a pair of binaries: major-minor scales in music and excited-subdued tones in speech. Despite complexities about the nature-culture binary that influences us, Mr. Hagen finds evidence that at least some aspects of a deep binary (probably a gradient) in emotional tonality in human communication (the excited-subdued binary used in the paper) are mirrored or transferred into the emotional tonality of major-minor scales in music, which is often split into music that is quicker in tempo and more excited music and music that is sadder, slower, softer. One consequence of an interesting finding is that further, provocative questions come along. This paper asks at the end, “Does then the voice speaking in excited or subdued speech have to have some sort of tonic to define it?” A possible answer is offered.

Paper 6, “Megacities, Metapatterns, by Cate Stern. This paper uses metapatterns to explore the globally growing trend to urbanism and what that trend will mean for city design and the human experience. Ms. Stern focuses her paper’s sections and discussion on the metapatterns of borders-pore, holons and clonons, and layers. This can be conceptualized as multiple kinds of interactions or pores through which individual relate. Holons and clonons appear, as individuals relate to repeated units or to parts of their world as possessing unique aspects. The twisted, unique streets of Paris are an example of holons in our experience of a physical environment. Finally, the metapattern of layers are applied in a way that brings in both physical layers (say, verticality) and layers of perception. Ms. Stern both lauds and then questions the use of the system of metapatterns as a thinking tool. Without trying to summarize, I will let you read her interesting final paragraphs about patterns, labels, and ambiguity, relevant to her overriding interest about the analysis of human experience.

Paper 7, “Metapatterns of Transportation: From Wheels to Warp-Drive, by Arturo Alemany. This paper progresses from the use of certain metapatterns in the common automobile of our daily lives to imaginative speculation about a faster than light travel called a warp drive. First, Mr. Alemany remarks upon fundamental metapatterns of shape, such as spheres-circles and sheets, which are coordinated for the efficient motion of automobiles. He next turns to warp drive and offers us thoughts about what devices might emerge if the ideas of bended spacetime by physicist Michael Alcubierre are true. Mr. Alemany uses and describes reasons behind he choices for the sphere and the half-sphere, the center, and the sheet, as well as the for the ship to enter and leave a warp bubble to start and end transit. He makes an analogy to the nucleus of the eukaryotic cell, showing how design solutions from the realm of biology can be a start for thinking about future applications.

Paper 8, “Deconstructing Evolutionary Dynamics in Online Social Networks (OSNs),” by Nicole Lim. Ms. Lim is interested in an analysis of components of cultural evolution to compare and contrast online social networks. She first develops the trio of propagation-variation-selection (see above, papers 3 and 4). She then looks at three OSNs (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Users can “sieve” through the suggestions for additional contacts, which form a constantly updated set of variants selected by the companies producing the OSNs. Thus there are two scales of PVS operating: the social (the company) and the user. There is a kind of evolutionary dynamics in the progression of one’s OSN accounts. This kind of analysis is an fascinating way to go in studies of cultural evolution. Ms. Lim concludes that, “we now know that evolutionary dynamics can be applied to OSNs and the concept certainly helps us understand more about the current state of our society and help us better plan for the future.”

Paper 9, “Two Metapatterns Across Cultural Timekeeping,” by Ryan Cuddy. This paper is a fascinating tour through various calendars throughout history: ancient Greece, pre-Zhou China, Sumerian, Julian, ancient Iceland, the current western Gregorian and its predecessor Julian (to note some). Mr. Cuddy investigates the ways that cultures have partially reconciled the mismatch between the Earth’s day cycle and its solar year. He proposes two new patterns (or metapatterns) within calendars. First, strange time, a “solitary, recurrent segment of a calendar system that is unlike any other segment in length.” Second, the leap cycle, which is the “largest unit of time, infinitely recurring, that is always identical in length to other units of the same name.” The analysis too wonderfully rich to summarize, and Mr. Cuddy even concludes with his own suggestion to make our still imperfect Gregorian calendar more precise (with its rules for when a leap year is skipped and when that skip is skipped) and speculates on how living someday in space might allow us to have a perfect calendar of efficiently nested cycles. Read!

Tyler Volk
Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies
Department of Biology
1009 Silver Center
100 Washington Square East
New York University
New York, NY 10003-6688
phone: 212-998-3736
email: tyler.volk(AT)

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