by rthieme on April 10, 1999

yoda Back in the old days, it was exciting when new software came out. Every day, we hurried to Computerland, hoping it was there. I remember a new version of WordStar with a million control-everything commands. I remember new interactive fiction games like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from Infocom.

I don’t remember the first time I skipped an upgrade on a software application, but now I skip them all the time. I seldom need the less-than-essential new features that require close perusal of an eight hundred page manual to master.

Same with life. Living life at different speeds, we inhabit different temporal niches. Generations no longer last a generation.

I wrote an article – “In Search of the Grail” – in 1993, describing the impact which playing that Infocom game with my oldest son on an Apple II had on my understanding of what would happen to the world as the world played games with distributed networks.

I believed that interacting with the different world of symbol-manipulation in a context of distributed computing would change how we thought in fundamental ways. In retrospect, my intuition was correct. But six years later, it is also dated, at least three (digital) generations removed from the present.

A generation now in its teens or twenties has been so thoroughly socialized by interaction with the digital world that it doesn’t see the lenses through which it sees. What was revolutionary a few years ago is ho-hum, the stuff of wild-eyed speculation now the platform on which that generation stands.

Last week I delivered a keynote speech for a web-based training conference. I said that the symbiotic relationship between networked computers and networked humans had spawned a large number of people who think they’re working for the human side but in fact are working for the electronic network. “You’re working for HAL,” I said, “teaching people how to speak HAL’s language.”

A woman approached me after the speech.

“Many people in the audience,” she said, “don’t know what you mean by HAL.”

Or what I mean by an Apple II. Or interactive fiction. Or Infocom.

No narrative chronicles the social history of popular computing. The way it came to us like an unexpected birthday present. And nobody seems to want one.

My wife came upon an “ice box” yesterday as we toured a Victorian house. She told a guard that she remembered a real “ice man,” how she waited as a child until he had hacked ice into blocks for delivery, then picked up the shattered splinters to eat as a treat.

The guard listened politely and looked away, checking his watch for closing time.

They said it would happen, but they didn’t say it would happen again and again, faster and faster. But it does. The points of reference that define the shared experience of a generation are changing more rapidly than ever.

“The Big Picture changes,” a mentor once said, “about every ten years.” I discovered that, indeed, every decade or so, I transitioned into a new developmental stage which re-contextualized everything that had come before.

Now, I am finding that I must reinvent myself, that is, revise the points of reference of how I think, every eighteen months to two years. The leisurely pace of an evolutionary life cycle that changes by the decade is a vanished luxury.

The fact of history itself as a shared point of reference has morphed into an indifference to the historical perspective entirely. History as a discipline, threaded through textual narratives and how text defines time and causality, has morphed into a world of hyper-textual images, in which our personal interests determine the path we travel through images of meaningful events. The patterns of our explorations either connect at intersections or they don’t. A shared vision is less important than the machinery which enables us to search in the first place.

I can hear a dissenting voice, pointing out that people ALWAYS did that. We ALWAYS chose which books to read and created a unique pattern from our study. But – and this is a huge “but” – readers in a universe of printed text did not know that’s what they did because they shared a vocabulary with which to discuss their experience. That vocabulary imposed what felt like a shared perspective. Only in retrospect – only after images and words had been reorganized in digital space – did we see our former experience as computers have taught us to see it.

The singular prism that bent all light in a print text world has been shattered by a hyper-text world that perceives that prism as a prison.

The excitement of my vision in 1993 is gone. Merchants, circumspect and wary, prowl the digital world. They have taken the gold from the pioneer miners who had to use it to buy food, shovels, and hovels. Merchants are always the pragmatic parents of the next generation, defining the real possibilities of their offspring. They even sell their children uniforms sewn with symbols of rebelliousness, the symbols each generation needs to pretend to break new ground.

So what is the value of experience? A broader perspective? Patience, as Yoda suggested … what? Who, you ask, is Yoda?

Yoda is a puppet invented many years ago by a film-maker to represent purveyors of ancient wisdom. Yoda articulates wisdom in sound bites that we can snatch on the fly.

I remember diving on the reef, chasing the quick fish and never catching any. One day I swam out over the reef and sank in thirty feet of water. Then I just sat there, waiting, and all sorts of fish, wondrous and strange, came to me.

The digital world can be exploited or pursued, dreams of stock options feeding our greed. But it can also simply be observed. We can just sit there, under the ascending bubbles of our deep breathing, listening to the subterranean clicking. Not even learning the wisdom of not doing. No. Not even that.

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