Crossing the First Distinction

In order to take a look at our problem from the first distinction, we have to cross the Boundary the first distinction represents in a controlled manner.

In the same way that we have the means to perceive and cause perceivable change in our environment, we will need to model a connection channel that allows the crossing of the boundary between our first distinction and our surroundings.

In Smalltalk, Boundary Crossing is achieved by sending messages. Note how object Encapsulation provides a distinction that separates the contents of the object from its environment. There is no way to directly interact with the interior of an object’s boundary. Instead, messages must be sent to the object with the tacit understanding that answers will be reasonable.

Life, in a way, works that way too. Cells have boundaries that separate them from their environments, and it is only through messages that multicellular organisms organize themselves. If a cell does not provide reasonable answers, its relationship with the rest of the cells becomes unstable. Outcomes typically range from eviction, to the whole cell colony shutting down entirely.

One way or the other, improper interaction is strongly selected against. The fact that in Smalltalk it is very easy to do damaging things, such as `true become: false` or `Object become: nil`, is sometimes used to argue that the lack of restrictions is actually a defect. This argument is most counterproductive.

In fact, it is the lack of pessimism what makes Smalltalk powerful, as its scarce constraints let the cost of change stay low. Besides, were safeguards put in place against doing damage, they would immediately become dead code because they would never run after the program becomes stable. Thus, it is not worth to spend time or energy in them.

When we interact with our environment, we depend on the fact that we are sensitive to some of the messages that reach us. Our senses are passive receptors of this information: photons excite our retinas, the heat from the environment lets our skin know about the temperature around us, changes in air pressure are interpreted as sound, speech, or music. We measure the interference caused by the environment in us, and we then say we perceive things.

We also correlate things we do with the reaction observed in the environment we live in. The way we walk maintaining our balance on various types of ground depends on how the pressure felt on our feet is correlated with our estimated speed and acceleration in 3 axes. Many things, some trivial such as how we pick up the phone and dial a number, some fundamental such as the way in which we have learned to speak, or to whistle, or to sing, depend on the feedback we obtain from our environment. The precision with which this is done makes our everyday life a huge circus act. (See “This Side Up”, episode 2 of the BBC series “The Real Thing”, by James Burke.)


Thus, let’s assume that, as happens with cells and other things which lay inside a distinction, there is an interface attached to our boundary which allows us to be aware of some messages going in and some other messages going out. This is our connection to our environment.

After working with Laws of Form for over a decade, William Bricken learned to recognize the depths to which Spencer Brown had deconstructed our notions of Truth and Rationality.

Assuming we can trust our surroundings truly exist in as much as they will provide feedback, on one hand the interface provides us uninterpreted perceptions of the blob around us, and on the other hand it allows us to cause changes in the blob.

The ethernet cable is connected. This provides the basic Scaffolding setup on which an observer entity can evolve. Now, what we can say about the traffic coming and going through the wire?


A boundary separates a System from its Environment or from its sub and supra systems.

After working with Laws of Form for over a decade, William Bricken learned to recognize the depths to which Spencer Brown had deconstructed our notions of Truth and Rationality.

* has to be set up as close encounters and careful but invisible Sequencing to allow the children to make the final leaps themselves.