In Search of the Dancing Bee

by rthieme on July 27, 1997

waggle_dance_beesThe accelerating pace of our lives contributes to the feeling that there is no firm ground under our feet.

Since the average American worker in the 90s works one month per year more than the average worker in the 60s, it’s no wonder we feel pressed.

And once upon a time our forebears lived under a single “sacred canopy,” a shared construction of social reality. Their core beliefs were never called into question; supported by consensus wherever they turned, our ancestors swam in their shared assumptions like fish in water. Their everyday sense of “reality” was never challenged. In the Middle Ages, European towns devoted generations of effort to building a cathedral. The cathedral was a physical image of the sacred canopy under which they lived. They built over hundreds of years because they had all the time in the world. One generation died and another grew, but the symbolic structure that mediated day-to-day as well as cosmic meaning stayed in place.

Imagine a movie of that cathedral-building process running at the accelerated speed of time-lapse photography. Villagers rush about frantically, build a cathedral, and disperse in minutes instead of centuries.

That’s what online communities look like and — increasingly — off-line communities too. On-line communities coalesce, persist for a while, and dissipate. We give them names — usenet groups, listservs, web sites — and connect with each other like shuttles docking at a space station.

Off-line too, in the “physical” world, we dock at modules more like space stations than cathedrals. Our communities come together, disperse and regroup continuously like time-lapse flowers.

Virtual organizations live and die at accelerated rates. We co-create them as opportunities for meaningful human interaction, building a context that quickly fades into the background. If we believe those structures are “real,” we forget that we invented them. We notice them by contrast only as they replace one another in rapid succession.

I am writing this column on a jet. I am on the last leg of two large circles. The first took me from Milwaukee to Las Vegas where I keynoted two conventions — the Black Hat Briefings, a forum for dialogue between the computer hacker underground and members of the computer security, intelligence, and IS communities, and DefCon V, an annual hackers’ convention. Then I went to Boston to speak at MIT at a conference of academics and religious on technology and spirituality.

Then I plugged into the home module for two days.

Then I attended the convention of the National Speakers Association in Anaheim. Then I spoke at a conference in Chattanooga on education and technology.

During these weeks, I also exchanged email with people from Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, and the USA.

I am a little dizzy.

I am more than ready to dock at the home module once again.

Each of those modules is a distinctive community with its own mores, language, assumptions about reality, and behavioral expectations. Jet lag was incidental compared to the necessity of understanding and participating meaningfully in the different “constructions of reality” that characterized each community.

Moving in and out of modular communities requires an ability to live between and among paradigms. That challenge calls forth moments of striking illumination, when we see how our “selves” flicker back and forth like holograms between different constructions of reality. We see or sense the persistence of a protean Self that unifies our experience.

The challenge is to remember who we are and to whom we are speaking.

The interaction between distinctive paradigms is giving birth to a new paradigm, a new construction of reality, that cannot be described from inside any prior paradigm.

Hebrews encountered Greeks and a new reality emerged in western civilization. Neither could have predicted the new reality before it happened. It included and transcended what had come before.

Trying to speak to the old paradigm from the new paradigm is like writing a 32-bit application for an IBM XT. The old OS just can’t handle the code.

We can react to the clamor of clashing paradigms like children pulling the covers over their heads to blot out the noise of someone banging at the door, but our denial simply testifies to the loudness of the knock. Inevitably we must take our stand in the new paradigm, the emergent reality we are co-creating, and align ourselves with the pull of the future rather than the drag of the past.

Some observations:

(1) Context IS content. What is NOT said is as important as what IS said and gives meaning to what is said.

The cues with which individuals and cultures signal their beliefs must be read quickly and fluently. That’s easier to do when you enter a roomful of hackers, educators, or professional speakers than when opening an email.

Creating the context in which email communicates clearly is one of the great challenges of online life.

(2) Churchill noted that we shape our buildings, then they shape us. The structures of life in the physical world resemble the simulated structures of life online. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. Our symbiotic relationship with networked computers is a dynamic process in which we rise together up a spiral of mutual transformation.

(3) Although I only docked at the “home module” for two days, that module defined the context in which I experienced everything else. In the new paradigm emerging from our encounter with “otherness” everywhere, we are driven inside ourselves to seek the center that serves as an anchor, a “psychic home,” wherever we go. As we talk to each other about that experience, we will discover new symbols, new images, new concepts for identity and community.

That new community too will be simulated online and from our online interaction we will continue to back-engineer new ways of living in the physical world.

(4) New ways of living require new ways of talking about our evolving selves and the real spiritual needs of those selves. The Internet is a mediating structure of symbolic interaction. It is more than one of the space stations at which we dock: It is an emergent reality in which that conversation and that community are evolving.

The Internet is an opportunity to create and discover a new multimedia language of sound, images and text, “a language of the heart,” as Andre Gregory said, “a new kind of poetry, the poetry of the dancing bee, that tells us where the honey is.”

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