Friday, June 17, 2005

Mysticism in Cyberspace

Even though I've been tackling a variety of new programs and online activities so far this summer, I've noticed that there's one challenge I keep putting off - installing a new operating system. Gossip says that Tiger, despite its name, goes in smoothly without much of a fight, so why am I hesitating?

Back in my early days of computing, I played with the operating system like it was a game of tiddly winks, cheerfully flipping in and plucking out extensions and control panels in order to customize my machine with such necessities as Christmas lights hanging from the menu bar. Over time, as I realized that things can go terribly wrong if the OS is not happy, I came to appreciate it as the mysterious heart and soul of the machine - that complex entity that you don't mess with unless you have a good reason. If the OS is peaceful and harmonious, all is well... If not, something, maybe everything, goes awry.

How many people really understand the OS? Those of us who take pride in our computing skills know a thing or two. The tech support people usually know a lot more, until they face a dilemma that forces them to put customers on hold so they can run to the company guru. Who do the gurus go to when they don't understand the machinations of the OS? One of my fellow students in graduate school (since serving as a consultant with many elite computer companies) could understand what a computer was doing by reading the binary code .... that's right, by perusing the seemingly endless string of ones and zeroes! Are people like that the ultimate gurus?

I don't think it's happenstance that we use terms like "guru" and "wizard" to describe the technological elite. Despite our scientific zeitgeist, a part of the human mind still views the workings of computers as magic and mysticism. We just can't help ourselves. It's in our nature to sense the transcendent when we experience something new and wonderful springing, seemingly, from a source beyond our understanding. The first time I saw a photograph on my Mac Quadra, I nearly fell off my chair. "How does it do that?" Even the guru's gurus have that same feeling of wonder and awe when they witness some new software or hardware marvel, or when an old and familiar program suddenly produces something unexpected.

Of course we could argue there's nothing transcendent at all happening here in our machines. Even though it may seem like a mind-boggling constellation of code, it's still just code. Just a string of ones and zeroes doing their job like the programmers instructed them. But when you stack up enough ones and zeroes, something mysterious starts to happen. The interaction effects go beyond what the programmers expected. It takes on a mind of its own. The transcendent "other" steps in. Call it HAL, Colossus or Skynet - if we want to get a little paranoid about the machine somehow developing that mysterious thing called consciousness - but it's not necessarily a threat or just science fiction. It's the Internet, Cyberspace, that living and growing entity, maybe even a consciousness, that transcends the sum of its individual human and microchip parts.

There's even something mystical in that simple one and zero at that micro-level of the bit. The mathematician Leibnitz created the binary system. Where did he get the idea? One legend says he was inspired by the I Ching - the ancient Taoist text based on the insight that all things arise from the interaction of ying and yang, the this or that, the simplest dichotomy that springs from the unity of all things that knows no distinctions.

So we might consider the possibility that in our everyday computing, even though we don't realize it fully, we reside between the infinites. To one side, there's the deceptively simple but marvelous bit. And on the other, the incomprehensible complexity of all of cyberspace. What could be more mystical than that?

Perhaps this mysticism also helps explain the media motivation and anxiety that I've been discussing in previous entries. Does that awe and wonder, that sense of magic, draw us into new realms of cyberspace.? And might our encounter with unknown forces beyond our comprehension also create some anxiety? Tell me you didn't feel those things the very first time you turned on a computer or logged onto the Internet.


Blogger Rick said...

This is fascinating! I recall thinking, the first time I became aware of the binary code, that these are rich symbols: the containing circle, inside which there is safety, the feminine principle, and the line that could go off, in either direction, into infinite space, exploring, the masculine principle. I must quickly add that either a male or a female, of course, can be the safe circle or the exploring straight line. And the notion that the binary code numbers can be seen as symbols of the sexual organs is, perhaps, too banal to mention. My anthropomorphizing of the binary code is more like mythology than mysticism, I think.

As you say, however, where the internet can be thought of as mystical or transcendent is when one sees cyberspace as a vast ocean of consciousness, akin to Carl Jung's notion of a vast ocean of the unconscious. I have begun to think, in recent years, of this unconscious ocean as one of the places where one can find God: God as the sum of everyone's individual unconscious . So, I agree that cyberspace (although I can't bring myself to capitalize it, make it equivalent with God) might be "a consciousness, that transcends the sum of its individual human and microchip parts."

I am having a little trouble seeing mysticism in the space between the infinites, especially the "incomprehensible. . . .cyberspace" part. This is probably so, because I have always thought of mysticism as a way to spiritual understanding. Yet, mystical can also mean "spiritually significant."

1:42 PM  
Blogger John Suler said...

Excellent thoughts, back in the day. If we look to both sides, and up/down, and see the infinite, then we can't help but find ourselves at the center, perhaps the Source, of all things. Like Nietzsche said, "The center is everywhere."

Within the digitizing of human experience, once again we see that consciousness and "mind" seeps everywhere. After all, where exactly IS cyberspace? Everytime I try to define it, or locate it in some specific way, I find that I'm only seeing part of it. Like grasping the elephant's tail.

7:58 AM  

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