A Digital Fable

by rthieme on November 14, 1997

16_05_9-high-street-in-the-rain_webA sacred canopy of shared belief used to soar above our heads like a large umbrella, keeping us warm and dry as the contradictory data of real life beat down.

A canopy doesn’t have to be sacred — any canopy will do — but because our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it is such an important part of our stance toward life, a canopy always has a sacred component. What we believe determines how we act.

No model of reality contains everything. Life is larger than our models of life. All we need is an umbrella that is “good enough” to manage the odd drops by keeping them irrelevant. As long as our model of reality makes enough sense of the world to let us act, we hold to our beliefs.

But there is an awful lot of rain these days, forty days of rain, more than forty days, and it keeps on raining …

Our trans-planetary network of computers is a rain-making machine that — finally! — works. There is no snake oil this time, no flim-flam man. It’s really coming down out there. More and more data just doesn’t fit. Our umbrella has more than a few holes in it, and the water is trickling through.

At first we act as if we don’t notice. The real experience of our lives contradicts what we say about life. When we hear ourselves speak, we sometimes sound like … someone else, someone we used to be or someone we’re overhearing. If we refuse to believe our experience and believe our beliefs instead, we get a headache, a very very bad headache. We crawl into bed or pop a Prozac, but we keep getting wetter and wetter.

Alas! we’re all too human — stubborn, blind as umbrellas, frightened out of our shivering skins — so we still insist that we’re not wet. We hold the handle of the umbrella more and more tightly, telling ourselves and everyone else how dry we are, what an excellent umbrella we have found. Others politely suppress giggles and move on.

It’s so easy to see holes in someone else’s umbrella.

Finally the umbrella is so battered that we can no longer deny what everyone else has seen for a long time, that we’re holding nothing but shreds of wet black cloth on a skeletal metal frame and we’re soaked to the skin.

We all want to stay dry, but one legacy of living in the twentieth century is that no canopy spans us all. We join organizations to experience the momentary consolation of agreement, but we can’t live there. Life today is like living in a village of grass huts in which everyone has a radio tuned to a different station. However high we turn the volume, we can’t shut out the other songs.

I recently spoke about “The Stock Market, UFOs, and Religious Experience” to an investment conference. The speech distinguishes between things we think we see out there and things we really see. It’s about the psychology of projection and the psychology of investment.

I noted that in the United States and increasingly in the world, an attitude of respect for other religious traditions creates a good deal of tension. We have to both believe in our own belief system and acknowledge that others are entitled to contrary views. Holding mutually exclusive truths simultaneously in our minds is difficult. We’re not even always sure which is the umbrella and which is the rain.

We will try to surrender our freedom to those selling cheap umbrellas, but we cannot avoid our destiny: we are each responsible for inventing ourselves, for creating our own lives. There is no high ground on which to hide.

Our calling is made more difficult by the digital world. The digital world consists of simulations, models so compelling we mistake them for reality. Sometimes the digital symbols refer only to other symbols, what Baudrillard called simulacra, simulations of simulations, copies with no originals. All those simulations are umbrellas, and all those simulations are rain.

Nietzsche saw it coming at the end of the last century. It’s what he meant when he said “God is dead.” He wasn’t talking about the creator of the universe, but about the gods in our heads, the cultural artifacts that we invent. He saw that our sacred canopy had shredded and the rains were pouring down.

Prophets are people who get wet before everybody else and start sneezing. We try to quarantine them, but reality is a cold it is impossible not to catch.

As did speech, writing and printed text, electronic media are transforming what it means to be human, what kinds of gods we are likely to worship. Gods, that was, not God. God is always God, and God is with us, out here in the rain, getting wet.

In the digital world, Nietzsche’s questions are more urgent than ever. Never mind that he asked them long ago. As Kafka wrote slyly in “The Great Wall of China,” it can be many years before an edict of the emperor is heard out here in the hinterlands. Civilizations take lots of bullets and walk dead for a long time before they fall.

Some treat the digital world as if it is an umbrella, as if simulations can be more than an umbrella, as if they can be stitched together into an ark. And who can blame them? Who does not want to be warm and dry? But the words “warm and dry” will not keep us warm and dry, nor will digital simulations of 3-D umbrellas dancing and singing on the screen. The digital world is water, a rising tide, a tsunami impacting our consciousness with revolutionary force, levelling our villages, sweeping away our shrines and altars, sweeping everything, everything out to sea.

What games, asked Nietzsche, what festivals shall we now invent? Indeed, my friends. And what games shall we simulate? What games shall we play? What games shall we dare to believe?

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