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Encoding Humans: Knots and Threads

Produced by: Julian Burgess and Isabel McLellan

This project traces a path from coding today to our early computational practices, through the lens of posthuman analysis. We are studying how technological developments figure the ‘human’ and our patterns of behaviour, drawing on how language and encoding contribute to the development of networked experience. The study of the interaction between computing and culture has been encapsulated in the term ethnocomputing.

This required a grasp on current posthumanist theories, we compared the initially familiar Silicon Valley ideology, a transhumanist and futurist understanding of the term, with the humanist interpretation from Rosi Braidotti and Katherine Hayles. What Braidotti means by posthumanism, is moving on from a society rooted in a humanist way of thinking, understanding the archetypal Vitruvian man as embodying rationality and reason. In this interpretation our ‘tools’ are those that have led us to develop a rich set of practices in the humanities to study and manipulate our world, like the development of language systems.

We connected computer code to the first uses of encoding to capture oral communication in physical form, to ask what happened to social structures when language was first recorded. The unrecorded spoken word is rooted to a point in time and location, it is ephemeral. Our development of systems for translating ephemeral speech into durable, and shareable, artefacts has generated tools for communication across both distance and time. Studying a number of physical language artefacts, we focused on the Incan quipu. The colonisation of the Incas mediates our experience, due to a lack of bridging linguistic tool and the small number that have been discovered, we can’t communicate directly with the artefact. Instead we chose to view this encoding system from the point of its materiality and structure. The studies of Ascher and Ascher discussed the analysis of the materiality of artefacts, and what ‘distortions’ may still arise. What we have to consider in our analysis is that how we interpret the quipu is the product of our environment, in our case, we can’t remove our interpretation from our perception of what language is.

We considered the affordance of rope as a counting device, it suggests being tied, with the number of knots, spacing and amount of times the string is wrapped to form each knot being integral to encoding. For this we devised our own rope-based encoding system, exploring the physical act of tying these knots as an expression of data. Neoquip, like quipu is a base ten encoding system. Our encoding uses the same knot structure for the number one to nine, but we added an explicit zero, using the alpine butterfly knot and a reversed the direction of the order of magnitude, so that values grow by a power of ten by their distance from the main connecting cord. We create an online encoder which can be seen here



But what rope also suggests is being untied, and to our eyes this suggests a mutable and editable encoding system, comparable to the way we use coding today to communicate with computers. Drawing parallels between original encoding technology and encoding from human to computer whilst thinking about posthuman theory led us to discuss whether the move from human to posthuman is linear at all, or might have more of a cyclical nature.


  • Braidotti, P. The Posthuman. 2013. Polity Press; First Edition edition (19 April 2013)
  • Hayles, K. How we became Posthuman. 1999. University of Chicago Press; 74th ed. edition.
  • Hayles, K. My Mother was a Computer. 2005.
  • Hutchins, E. Cognition in the Wild. 1995.
  • Ascher, Marcia & Ascher, Robert, 1981. Mathematics of the Incas: Code of the Quipu. Dover Publications.
  • The Quipu: "Written" Texts in Ancient Peru. Benson, P. 1975. The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 11- 23
  • Latour, B. We Have Never Been Modern. 1991. Harvard University Press.
  • Sze A. Quipu. Copper Canyon Press