A Curious Mental Experiment – Co-Creation, Ars Combinatoria and the Infinite Game

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on August 28, 2019

Llullian Wheel – Photo: Mariano Tomatis

“Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.” ― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

There are a few figures that stand out as particularly relevant for framing the Liminal Analytics approach to the contemporary zeitgeist. 14th century Catalan contemplative, missionary and logician, Raymond Llull is one of my favorites.

While attending a technology event in Naperville, Illinois many years ago I had the opportunity to discuss Llull’s work on early information theory with the Chief Information Security Officer at Argonne National Labs – a topic that Dr. Diana Pasulka and I address in a co-authored piece for the upcoming anthology Believing in Bits- Digital Media and the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 2019).(1)

Despite his interest, the fellow from Argonne had no idea who Llull was – and right then and there the “Angelic Doctor,” as Llull is known, became a chief impetus in the founding of Liminal Analytics.

That conversation helped me realize that our cultural memory is limited – we have a drastic sense of amnesia as to how we’ve ended up where we’re at. Now I won’t pretend to have many answers for such a profound issue, but there are some key figures that have been forgotten who can help us get a better sense of things.  Figures such as our very own Raymond Llull.

So who is this enigmatic information theorist?

Well, the gist of it is that Llull is a rather complex character.  As I’ve outlined in a piece for The Global Catholic Review:

“…our missionary, the ‘Angelic Doctor’ Ramon Llull, was passionate about translating the message of Christ and had an ardent faith in the Catholic doctrine of God’s perfection. With those two pillars set in place Llull went on to a produce a prolific output of over 200 books on a diverse array of topics and developed what he called the Ars Magna, or the Great Art – an incredibly complex memory system and symbolic science that used tables and cipher-wheels to codify the common language with which all the Abrahamic faiths use to describe God and God’s perfect creation.

It was Llull’s hope that through this exact science representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would be able to reason together and clearly outline the illuminated nature of Divinity and the perfection of nature found in God’s creation, at least insofar as that’s possible through human reasoning.

Lull’s ideas are certainly not what we’re used to hearing from the Silicon Valley set and his diagrams don’t look very much like computer software, let alone some as complex as artificial intelligence, but that’s because you might not think of A.I. like this:


While Llull intended only the most basic mechanical devices to assist his art – relatively simple wheels and comparative charts – in developing and working with this system he changed the very nature of how he thought about thinking, and in so doing he changed the architecture of thought in those that followed him.

This subtle alteration helped foment the future of information science, and while it may seem hyperbolic to lay the weight of such a feat upon one individual, it was this one individual whose prolific output, evangelical enthusiasm and visionary expression inspired future generations to explore and expand upon these ideas.”(2)

Heady stuff I know, but let me tell you – these explorations aren’t limited to tech labs – take a look at the fun that his profound work can inspire in the right creative hands.

“Everything is repeated, in a circle. History is a master because it teaches us that it doesn’t exist. It’s the permutations that matter.” Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

For a performance back in 2013, Magic Experience Designers Ferdinando Buscema and Mariano Tomatis took inspiration from Llull, and using a replica of one of his ars combinatoria wheels provided by Liminal Analytics (with a few choice modifications) they were able to blow the mind of David Pescovitz, founder of well known web magazine Boing Boing, during the Boing Boing Ingenuity Event and Hackathon held at a former Masonic Lodge in San Francisco:

The ‘Llullian Wheel‘ shown in Buscema’s hands above appears at around 5 minutes and 30 seconds into the video itself.

The wheel housed in Buscema’s personal Wunderkamer is one of a limited number that were created for a select group of individuals during 2012 and early 2013. These wheels were distributed within the close circle of Liminal Analytics confidants who have provided particular inspiration to our work.

In a way, the wheels demonstrate what happens when we utilize the combinatronic aspects of our contemporary communication networks to bounce ideas back and forth in an infinite game of co-creative activity.  Mariano says of this type of play:

“…to “participate” is to narrate its story, add details, publish articles, discuss on web forums, create maps, suggest new links, propose extensions into new disciplines, write books, organize meetings.”(3)

So here we are, a global network of inspired individuals playing a game with a 14th century visionary – and Mariano himself just put out the next move!

As part of his ongoing web series Mesmer in Pillole (Mesmer in pills), which is ‘dedicated to those who believe that the world is a boundless museum of wonders,‘ he’s developed a new magic effect inspired by Llull’s combinatorial device:

English captions are available on the video for those who don’t speak Italian – as you watch you’ll see how something as simple as Llull’s wheel can open up new worlds of understanding. There’s also a special treat here for fans of Umberto Eco’s work, with Mariano demonstrating how these wheels play a crucial part in the plot of his most famous novel, Foucault’s Pendulum.

“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.” ― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

In the story Eco outlines the moves of an infinite game played with deadly stakes – and demonstrates how easily players become played if they are not careful in how they approach the liminal boundaries of these curious mental experiments. Our game, though perhaps less deadly, is no less dramatic in our quest to illuminate the hidden influences pushing and pulling at our global culture as we move into the future.

For my part, it’s a profound honor to play with the likes of my magically adept friends from Italy. What a wonder to see how such a simple little artifact can open so many fresh experiential dimensions – and as always, I look forward to the next move!

To further explore the work of these wondrous wonder makers:

Mariano Tomatis: http://www.marianotomatis.it/en/

Ferdinando Buscema: https://www.ferdinando.biz


(1) https://global.oup.com/academic/product/believing-in-bits-9780190949990
(2) https://www.patheos.com/blogs/theglobalcatholicreview/2018/06/gods-machine/
(3) http://www.marianotomatis.it/blog.php?post=blog/20110623&section=english
(4) http://www.mesmer.it/?id=pillole

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