Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Night Light

All my life I have explored imaginary landscapes. From short stories to hypertext and interactive fiction, I have been fascinated by the way narratives are knitted together, ensnaring our minds in complex webs of luminous symbols and deceiving us into mistaking those illusory landscapes for reality itself.

Brains filter out as well as filter in. We wear our brains like blinders, protected from the splendor of the universe so we can keep our noses to the daily grindstone. Most of what matters most is beyond our grasp.

The deeper meanings of our lives manifest themselves as intimations that show up not in words but in the silence between words. Maybe that's why Buddhists say, those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know. Our images and symbols can take us to the gates of that nether-domain of darkness but then we must lower ourselves alone down into the caverns ... hang like a spider on a thread ... and let go of the rope.

And plunge into the cave of unknowing. Into darkness brimming suddenly with radiant light.

The midnight of the millenium has passed. It is still a ticklish world out there, but for the moment we are all breathing a little easier.

I asked myself, if this were my last opportunity to say what I have learned, to leave these words as a legacy for my children, what would I say?

Of that of which we cannot speak, said Wittgenstein, we must be silent. And humility, said Eliot, humility is endless.

But still, I would like to try.

Computer programmers often learn to think in terms of top-level languages like C but nested in those friendlier languages are languages like assembly that describe the operations of computing at a different level of precision. These days, assembly language is often difficult to distinguish from machine language. That makes it hard to say what computers are "really" doing.

Machine language organizes how logical processes operate. But the process of manufacturing logic is too complex for humans alone, so the chips themselves contain many of those processes. Our network is manufactured by a symbiosis of human beings softwired into designs in turn hardwired into millions of invisible switches.

When we try to look under the level of machine language to the flow of electrons or photons, we spin dizzily down into the depths. When we try to look under our lucid explanations of biological processes to the genetic code that generates them - a code to which it seems we must only add water to grow symbol-manipulating machines like ourselves - we grow equally dizzy. Our identities cascade into a recursive process that spirals down into the darkness.

What is the ultimate source of our identities?

Our identities both as individuals and as civilizations seem to emerge from a recursive process acting on an unknowable initial condition. That's a way of saying that our origins are mysterious. "We" have bootstrapped ourselves from that unknowable condition into the light, hauling ourselves up by our own symbols, just as the universe has bootstrapped itself through successive levels of complexity via sentient beings distributed throughout all of unknowable space.

So when we look into that luminous darkness ... who are "we?" If we try to respond to that question, language breaks. All we can say is that "we" are not who "we" thought we were.

We are more than a community or a collective. Sentient life is woven in a singular web shot through with the light of luminous symbols. We are part of one another and of everything. We belong to one another and we belong to the universe.

We are not merely "fulfilled in community" - we are fulfilled when we so yield ourselves that we lose ourselves and our power is transformed into the power of others like ripples amplified endlessly in the still pool of the universe.

Here at top-level, high up at the level of language, all we receive are hints. At an immense distance - even at opposite ends of the universe - when those we love are hurting, somehow they let us know. At the moment of death, they often manifest themselves. Our connections are protected. We feel their presence as certainly as we know when someone has entered a room. And they have, in a way, entered a room, they have etched themselves indelibly in our souls. When we are socketed deeply into the love of others, we experience their energies whenever they extend in our direction and we know it.

Prayer is a name for clairvoyance radiant with omni-directional power. Telepathy means that we "get it" when it happens. Mystics have described this domain with precision, but a mystic is just an ordinary person who said what was so.

It can be startling to find our words, posted long ago to a newsgroup, archived at Deja News. Or old email stored on a server. Or the pattern of our lives linked and mined and sold to a list. So it ought to be even more surprising when we learn for the first time that all of our words and actions have a life of their own, that our lives are feedback loops of actions and reactions in which we live like ghosts in machines, going along for a ride. Yet paradoxically, our deepest intentions have always generated the patterns of our lives. Freedom and necessity fuse in a way that only the language of paradox can say.

So our ultimate task seems to be to try and try again to align our actions with our best intentions. Our lives will reflect our intentions anyway no matter what. Our lives tell us what we really meant if we have the courage to look at what we did.

And once we know, we can never forget.

An inner compass points always toward True North. The universe is a gesture intimating generosity and gregariousness, the primacy of what we call "love." Life is an invitation to discover somehow despite the seeming evidence to the contrary the means of unceasing affirmation.

Of course we love stories! Stories tell stories, after all, that cannot be told. Every technology of the Word - spoken, written, printed, transmitted - makes this real matrix in which we live a little more visible. These digital images that string us like beads or drops of dew on a spider's web are like dye in the arteries of our Soul(s).

The ghost in the machine is no pale shade. It is more than a luminous mist, more than a demented spirit hungering for its home. It is an intelligence transcending nested levels of insight into the darkness in which wings of the spirit infold into a single point of light and almost disappear.

For Julie, Barnaby, Rachel, Aaron, Scot, Susan, and Jeff

Islands in the Clickstream is an intermittent column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology and the ultimate concerns of our lives. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations - the human dimensions of technology and work - and "life on the edge."

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1999. All rights reserved.

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