Knowledge, Obsession, Daring

by rthieme on December 26, 1998

cover-of-consilience The best of times, the worst of times.

Governments prepare for the worst, ramping up toward New Year’s Eve 2000 and the dislocations expected at the ticking of the millennial clock.

And yet … so many of my colleagues, out of nowhere, have recently said: “I can’t believe I’m paid to do this for a living!” – “this” meaning the many ways the wired world enables us to work and play.

While others feel excluded or intimidated by new technology, many in the knowledge business are giddy from successive explosions, burst upon burst, of possibility and opportunity. It feels like summer in the long daylight close to the poles.

Writers, for example, have discovered that we work in the world instead of one country. A few decades ago, our readers were defined by our coasts or cultures. Engaging with electronic networks revealed the entire world as our playground.

Yet even to speak of “the entire world” is constraining.

I visited a Protestant Church for a post-Christmas service. The liturgy spoke of God’s love for “the world,” meaning our planet. But that’s not where we live now. Exploring routes to Mars, to the moon and the asteroid belt, to the tempting moons of Jupiter, coupled with years of living in the funhouse-mirror-world of UFO investigation, has shifted my perspective. It happened as Hemingway said bankruptcy happens, gradually then suddenly. Now I live in a universe teeming with life, knowing that a real Encounter, once we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of what is happening, will shatter our status as the “apple of God’s eye” and all the parochial notions that derive from it forever.

Columbus, McLuhan reminded us, was a mapmaker before he went exploring. Mapmaking transformed his sense of the possibilities of life. When we interact with new technologies, with complex networks or systems, we discover radically new ways of being in the world.

No wonder so many people are having so much fun.

Artists are creating new virtual worlds, reconstructing the gateways of perception. Corporations that scale up to trans-global dimensions are absorbing enterprises still trying to live in niches that no longer exist. Pan-national religious cultures like Islam or Christianity are trying to dig in, but they too live on borrowed time.

Nostalgia for what is vanishing is a symptom of the evolution of all organizational structures. What is lost – not only forms and structures, but clusters of values, sensibilities, ways of framing reality – is turned into touristic space. Theme parks replace living villages. When we enter Disneyland, filters created by landscape design eliminate telephone poles, dynamos, strung wires – everything connected to the infrastructure of our lives. Disneyland religion, too, screens out experience that doesn’t fit its archaic ways of constructing belief.

To be engaged in a real spiritual quest asks more of us than acquiescence or simple consent.

Edward O. Wilson in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge reflected on the motive power of scientists at their creative best. They shared, he said, a passion for knowledge; obsession; and daring.

Knowledge. Obsession. Daring.

At a recent hacker con, I was struck – again – by the fact that hacker culture is the space in which everyone will live in the next century. Hacking is not about breaking into locked rooms. Hacking is about mapping, then exploring; or perhaps exploring, then mapping. Hacking is a mandate from evolving technologies to enter a play space characterized by limitless vistas. Properly understood, hacking in its essence is a kind of spiritual quest.

Hacking is not just hard work. It is playfulness at its very best.

An article in the Boston Globe described the scene at a toy store before Christmas. “Board games line an entire wall, but they draw so few customers that visitors could hold a race down the aisle without risk of hitting anybody.” Across the aisle, however, “shoppers are jamming their carts with GameBoys and Nintendos.”

No doubt there will be days when families play board games around physical tables. But the brave new world we foresaw only a few years ago is already morphing toward something else. Children’s games prefigure the kind of world adults will inhabit.

We grieve for the loss of one kind of community, back-engineered from particular technologies, until we awaken to a new kind – just as real, immediate, and meaningful – created by new technologies … and created, as always, out of our alienation and need. New media distance us from one another, then enable us to connect at a deeper level than ever.

Hackers worthy of the name have a passion for knowledge; are obsessed with following luminous breadcrumbs through the darkening forest, solving the puzzle, and understanding the Big Picture before it morphs into a piece in a Bigger Picture still; and hackers are nothing if not daring.

But hackers do not only explore the electronic innards of a system. Top-level hackers work with images and symbols as they emerge in the hive mind of a self-conscious digital civilization.. They hack the network that we call culture, cobbling together meaning from broken tablets and dead language.

The boundaries between networks – electronic and human – are illusory, ways of differentiating everything from nothing. We are all linked inextricably to everything that is alive, we are the mind of a conscious Being creating and discovering the structures through which we will manifest our will and intention.

How we define or imagine our connection to the Ground of that Being is, quite simply, up for grabs.

Techno/spirituality is the search for our “human nature” as it is transformed and expressed in new structures of possibility. We are primates recognizing their faces in the river for the first time. Our gaze however is mirrored by a digital river, flowing through our collective mind.

Knowledge. Obsession. Daring. This is our genetic heritage, a gift from the earth. The courage to let go of what we were, endure the passage through a zone of annihilation to what we are becoming, and emerge onto the next level of the rising spiral of life.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: