What’s His Name

by rthieme on August 12, 2001

Islands in the Clickstream I have never had a single original idea.

I recently came to this humbling truth from two directions.

The first was triggered by a recent article on the evolution of modular programming. Alan Kay is a name frequently connected to that event. Kay has had a brilliant career. One biography states that he is “one of the fathers of the idea of Object Oriented Programming.”

But Kay learned about modular programming from an anonymous Air Force programmer before he went to Xerox PARC.We know Kay’s name … but we don’t know the name of the man who made that breakthrough. He is the Unknown Programmer, one of the million minds that created the hive in which we are buzzing today.

Identity is a function of boundaries. Identity is destiny.

Who we believe ourselves to be determines what we think we are capable of being and doing. That’s why seminars, intensives, or retreats designed to blow away our presuppositions about ourselves and replace them with farther horizons can have so much power in our lives. When we draw the boundaries out farther, we can imagine ourselves doing what our larger identities allow us to do. We are exhilarated at the feelings of renewal and rebirth that attend such events.

That’s also why the only way to deny another person their intrinsic freedom and power is to convince them that their boundaries are constrained. When we believe that our power is limited, we don’t use it.

In times like ours, when boundaries are dissolving and redrawing themselves in ways more appropriate to the social, political, and economic complexities of our trans-global and increasingly trans-planetary culture, most of us are not bored. We may be exhilarated, we may be terrified – we imagine ourselves hiking the red deserts of Mars or we think that the Taliban are pretty good role models – but we are not bored.

Many breakthrough discoveries are indexed in cells in the matrix we call “history” with the names of “geniuses” attached. Genius is a relatively new concept, one of the consequences of the Renaissance, along with notions of individuality, ideas of rights and intellectual property, and boundaries around “nation states.” One can imagine monks toiling in medieval monasteries to create illuminated manuscripts having a hard time trying to conceive of a “genius” creating a “work” the rights to which he “owns.”

The output of their collective effort was the result of an open source model of reality. The truth is that, like Alan Kay inheriting principles from a nameless programmer who hacked modular programming, the transmission of ideas is the result of aggregated intelligence that creates conditions in which ideas grow and prosper, a culture that fosters tinkering and the search for ingenious solutions, one that encourages the sharing of information. That culture is hacking culture in its essence.

Ideas want to be free because it is their essence to be free. Every breakthrough idea is always the result of thousand of minds adding their little bit to the process until one day the critical mass of converging possibilities is focussed through a “genius” who stumbles into a solution. We don’t know how to give a Nobel Prize to everybody in the world.

Our model of reality matters. Our model of reality determines the questions we can think, how we define problems, look for solutions. Our model determines who we think we are.

Our model of reality determines our identity. And identity is destiny.

I mentioned coming to this from a second direction as well.

Life is humbling. The longer we live, the shorter the time we have to live. That foreshortening of perspective does interesting things to the clarity of our vision.

Every time I have an insight, it’s only a matter of time before I read or hear of someone else having that insight too. My original thinking is always a symptom of the spirit of the time looking for minds through which to articulate itself.

When I was in college, I saved what I wrote, wanting to preserve my original insights for posterity. Now I can’t get ideas into the world fast enough, hoping that someone may find them useful for the moment, the way a chimpanzee will pick up this or that stick to get honey from a beehive.

Nobody owns that stick. Nobody owns ideas. Humanity is a hive mind processing data and experience, creating transitory models of reality in which energy and information momentarily flow.

Individuality is an illusion, a convenient illusion, true, but an illusion nevertheless. We are all part of a single evolution in which the elements of the earth seek to become conscious. Now that we inhabit our planet like a brain outgrowing its head, now that we know that evolution includes the elements of all planets seeking to become conscious, we are realizing that boundaries around our species or any species are a convenience appropriate to our current stage of growth or understanding.

Every time we encounter the Other with a full awareness of what is happening, we flip into another way entirely of understanding our identity, our destiny.

Meanwhile, I still act as if I know, because I must. It helps to move the day along. It’s still how “I” think about things.

Within that model, what can I articulate in the local dialect of my tribe? That we are not who we think we are? That our origin and destination are not what we think?

Not this. Not that.

Everything I know is a gift from others, here there and everywhere.

The herd is a peasant culture, hunkering down, eyes on the ground, suspicious of the new. Despite my exhilaration … I too share the destiny of the herd. The herd’s beating heart is my heart, its hot flanks my flanks, trembling with anticipation.

Eyes on the ground as it brightens suddenly in the night, unwilling to raise my gaze, risk blindness in the inexplicable splendor of a midnight sunrise.

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