Weaving webs to wind me
February 22, 2012 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Can you find an example from before 1979 of the "crazy string wall" used in movies and television?

This is the wall or room where a mass of clippings, photos, notes and other things are fastened to the walls in chaotic layers and connected by string or yarn (often red) wrapped around push-pins, tacks, nails, etc. It's kind of a visual representation of hyperlinks. A string link means an idea link or a relationship.

I am specifically looking for examples that use string or yarn! Obsessive shrine examples without the string are interesting but not what I'm after.

Like the Crazywalls tumblr, the earliest I know of is from 1979 in the BBC miniseries Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Can you find one earlier?

TV Tropes has a "String Theory" page but it's not comprehensive and misses even the above example.

A similar question was asked here last fall, but it's about crazy walls in general, not just the ones using string, which is what I'm interested in. Similarly, TV Tropes' Room Full of Crazy entry only barely mentions the specifics of string-festooned rooms.

Last January someone asked here about a name for the process, which is interesting, but does not offer antedatings

I am aware of the Asian red string of fate but find no evidence that it has anything to do with this. Likewise, the string used in eruvs and Kabbalism seem unrelated. If you have solid, dated evidence to the contrary for either of these, please post it!
posted by Mo Nickels to Media & Arts (2 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know if this is going to fit your criteria, but as a method of handling information it's definitely got some age. The example that occurs to me most readily is in war planning. Something like this basic idea was used to track WWII fronts and information in the Cabinet War Room:
One large map was filled with wool string and push-pins connecting the string into boundaries. The various colors of the wool represented different fronts in the war (i.e. red wool represented the confirmed current front, black wool represented the limit of the German advance in 1941, blue wool represented the limit of the German advance in 1942, and pink wool represented the start of the Russian advance in 1943).
Here are some great images from the Western Approaches Command Center. See the WWII Plotting Table and Tote Board in this link.

Images like these were so widely dispersed in film and perhaps newsreel footage of the WWII era that I feel they may well be the basis of the trope. Modern war, of course, required a stupendous amount of information processing in many layers at once. I understand they're not as inexplicably "crazy" as the examples you're looking for, but I suspect that this is what that builds on. In other words, people saw military methods of tracking complex information in physical space, and adapted that somewhat haphazardly to their crazy-minded obsessions. Things like this and these ladies plotting submarine activity on a wall map really make me inclined to feel that it has its origins in the kinds of swift information-gathering campaigns and needed visualizations you have in war.

So I'd say it's not the idea of organizing images, maps, information, and linkages on a wall in and of itself, but the combination of that with a chaotic lack of discipline, that distinguishes a "crazywall" from a useful tracking and visualization device.

Why they would overlap? Another speculation - the cold war. There's a distinct whiff of spy stuff/paranoia in this sort of obsessive information compilation, including the suggestion that there's something hidden than can be ferreted out if the pieces are in the right places. Here's a historic image of a CIA cold war information plot that has a strong hint of crazywall.

As to what it's called, when I got my education training nigh on 20 years ago, we called big diagrams that linked information things like concept maps and semantic webs (before Semantic Web had a more, er, specific meaning).

If I were going to look for more stuff of this type I'd start with war - historic photographs from the Civil War (really the first systematic war) and then WWII-era movies onward, and I'd also look at spy fiction and film. I bet that spy fiction and movies could have helped create the bridge between "serious war info-gathering" and "paranoiac with delusions of interconnectedness."

One thing I feel like I keep rediscovering in history research is the truism that nothing comes out of nowhere. I've been really surprised to see methods of information visualization that seem superdigital and modern in material from the 1860s or 1930s. We invented web hyperlinks because we needed them, and we knew we needed them because we were already creating them, laboriously, in 'analog' form. Tropes get more clearly fleshed out and more densely inter-referential but they start somewhere. This has been an interesting and fun question to consider and I look forward to what else you may discover that has contributed to this phenomenon.
posted by Miko at 8:40 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Beautiful: couldn't have asked for a better image. Cold War Network Analysis.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

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