Modules and Metaphors

by rthieme on September 26, 1998

Islands in the Clickstream As the pace of reorganization has accelerated, the modular construction of reality has become the norm. Businesses, governments, and individuals have shortened the horizon of planning and hold “long range planning” lightly, knowing that the variables that will interact to create the future are too many to be factored. In our personal lives, we identify “developmental stages” and imagine the trajectory of our lives as a long swim from island to island.

When the experience of our lives is congruent with our descriptions of them, it feels like we know what we’re talking about. The metaphors we have adopted become mistaken for literal descriptions of the landscape, protecting us from “the shocks and changes that keep us sane.” Our beliefs work as a filter until they don’t.

When I look at my current assumptions about modular life, I see that many of them derive from my interaction with the digital world. There (or here) I experience nested levels of modular reality that mediate the unthinkable complexity of our civilization.

“Civilization” is a name for the way we mediate energy and information. Information is retained in storage media appropriate to the task, but all media are dead or dying, including ourselves. Once organic media like dinosaurs or Neanderthals are no longer viable, they disappear. The evidence indicates that all storage devices are temporary, modular pieces that snap together in serial time as well as horizontally in space. Long before humans worried about killing off other species, thousands of organic media disappeared along with their unique ways of filtering data.

Many of the tidbits of information that find their way to my desktop computer concern genetic engineering and the splicing of humans and computers into new symbiotic configurations.

Sheep ranchers in Australia, for example, are injecting Bioclip, a naturally occurring protein, into sheep to cause fleeces to drop out. That saves money on shearing. But sheep shearers have a romantic image of themselves – as well as a union. They will fight to save the structure of their lives and the self-image with which it is fused, but it’s only a holding action. It’s more likely that they’ll adapt, die, or save “Sheep Shearing Land” as a simulated touristic environment for children to visit like a “Living Farm.”

Clearly evolution was served by a conservative stance toward memory storage and knowledge modification. Tribes and cultures that resisted change survived … for a while. But our environment is changing rapidly, so how do we change modules in a gradual way while still changing them as fast as necessary to stay connected to the changing environment? And when those environments are themselves symbolic modules, the simulated life we call “life” consists of a mental game, maintaining equilibrium among nested levels of symbolic reality that exist at different levels of complexity. Just like a computer game. Which is exactly what, for many of us, life has become.

Life inside a simulated civilization rewards those who are detached from their bodies until it doesn’t. Until the cost of living inside simulated images butts heads with the “givens” of our lives – the way our bodies regulate themselves automatically, the way life on earth has evolved to deal with this planet at this point in time.

Because I studied literature in my formative years and then worked as an Episcopal priest for sixteen years, I learned how the modular symbols that make the most sense of our lives are constitutive of our self-image both as individuals and societies. In any religion, the “conversion process” involves the reconstruction of reality, substituting modular images that disclose life-giving possibilities for those that are dead-ends. Religious communities maintain those symbols at the center of their affirmations.

When we think those images are identical with reality, we think we are them and they are us. That those images might change threatens who we think we are. But the evidence is that we are not and never have been who we think we are. All of it – businesses, individuals, religions, societies – are always morphing.

The symbols of our dominant religions evolved when the medium of writing enabled human experience to be reconstructed in written images. Now that our images are digital, that is, interactive, modular, and fluid, our communities, our global economy, our religions are reconstructing themselves in ways aligned not only with those images but with how those images are generated. Our experience is back-engineered from our interaction with our technologies of information and communication.

Businesses see this or, to their peril, do not see it, and disappear. The reorganization of work, the manufacture and distribution of goods, services, and images, is driven by a technological revolution. Because organized religions are part of the world, they too are being reinvented. And because religions are predicated on a particular definition of self, as that sense of self is altered by the digital world, religious structures will have to morph to connect with our intuitive grasp of experience, our “common sense,” which is simply what we have been taught to perceive or believe.

Genetic engineering is a way of altering the information storage and delivery of complex systems. So are computer networks. So are we. We are a medium of exchange between “organic” systems and “inorganic.” But those names are already obsolete. The difference between a pacemaker and a chip in our heads is one of degree, not kind, and so are the distinctions we create and then believe that describe both “body” and “soul” – another dichotomy stretched to the breaking point. The simple truth is, we are inventing ourselves. But maybe – from the point of view of the single system that is the universe -we always have. It’s just that “we” are so much bigger than we knew. We thought that our “species,” one of many modular conscious molecular clusters, was unique. Instead, it looks as if life is singular, the universe gregarious, and what it will all look like in a hundred years to whoever calls themselves human is beyond our capacity to imagine.

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