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Model and Process, part I

Model and Process, part I published on

Being called on to pinch-hit for a colleague at GSLIS (and seriously, it’s an honor to be asked), I am today pondering the relation between “document modeling” (especially but not only as a sort of “data modeling”) and the design and implementation of processes, that is, actual workflows that perform actual operations and achieve actual results.

To describe it thus is to see this immediately as a deep set of questions. (Not only are the questions themselves, but the set is deep.) Yet many or most even of those who are students of these dark arts, ever much ponder them, pretty much going on our ways developing models and deploying (and even operating) processes, without much thinking about how truly dependent on one another these are.

It is not that one must always devote a document model to a process: document models can be designed independently of any actual or particular process — and have been so much so it puts me in mind of what Mark Twain is said to have said, when asked if he believed in infant baptism: “Not only do I believe in it; I’ve seen it”. Indeed, this activity is theoretically necessary (or at least that argument can be made), and to design such models  (to be “application independent”) — and to design systems that support the design (and yes, ironically, the processing) of such models is work of paramount importance. Yet at the same time, it is only when we actually try to do things with actual data — leveraging our modeling, that is to say, and capitalizing and profiting from our investment in it — that we discover the true outlines and limits set by our models along with (and reflecting) their powers. (Well, that is not strictly true, as some people are possessed of enough perspicacity to be able to envision and thus anticipate the limits of a design, without actually running the thing. But these people are rare, and tend not to be listened much to in any case.)

Thus there is a theoretical as well as a practical interest in process, as well as model, as indeed there can be an abstraction of process too — models of process, as are specified in multiple layers of our system in any case, in its various software components designed to interface with each other in various ways. It’s models all the way down. But what enables the models to layer up is the processes in which they are expressed and transformed.

Maybe “model” and “process” are simply projections of “space” and “time” in the imaginal worlds we construct and actuate in our systems building and operation? Space can be thought of without time, if geometric relations can subsist among however many spatial directions there may be, straight or bent, outside of time. (Let no one come in without geometry, as it said over the door of Plato’s Academy.) But time moves, is not static, and in one direction only, even as it ebbs and flows and branches and aligns, as time lines (it may be, however we might define such a thing) cross and rejoin other threads or strands of themselves. With time, space is more than just a cold, abstract unchanging field of potential. It has energy, becomes capable of transformation, a setting for organic emergence.

Is this what we also see within the simulacra we build in the machine, whose laws of physics are so different from ours? Add process to model, that is, and you really get legs. A process must always have or work with a model, even if only implicitly, so the model comes first. But it is only when we put fuel in the line and start cranking that we find out how the engine runs.