The Orrery

Last month I bought a copy of The Only Dance There Is, a collection of talks given by Ram Dass in 1970. Not a bad thing to read during the holy season. I don’t follow any particular organized religion, but my spirituality is who I am. It informs everything I do. I spend a lot of time reading religious texts, usually with an Eastern bent.

Ram Dass is always quotable, but this really struck me:

“What is happening in Western culture that is really awesome is that because of technology — not in spite of technology, because of technology — the limits of our rational mind are becoming apparent sooner. And the limits of what we can take in terms of total fulfillment from the world are becoming apparent earlier and earlier and earlier.”

This describes a feeling I’ve had for years, an intimation that where all this tech is leading — at least for me — isn’t to a particular solution, revelation or even a change in my everyday life. It leads to an enhanced awareness of something I already knew. I can’t pinpoint exactly what that something is, but I know it’s spiritual.

Which brings to my mind, as a metaphor, the orrery: a mechanical model of a star system. There are a lot of cliched metaphors to describe macro- and microcosms. I like the orrery in part because it refers to a human-made machine that demonstrates cosmic phenomena. To me, that’s one of the primary (if unintended) functions of information technology. The more I learn about IT systems structurally, the greater my awareness of infinity becomes. I gain a deeper understanding that one new technology, one new bit of content, even a new vision for connecting people is so relatively unimportant. Unto itself, that is: I also get the sense that each is absolutely essential, as the whole relies on parts. New cogs will continue to be put into the machine by technologists and visionaries. They will be placed there for different reasons, but regardless of intention, they will impact all the other cogs and widgets. That’s as decent a description of communication technology and my spirituality as any.

One of the reasons technology has had such a hold on me is social. I like programmers. I like being in the community, in my own ways. (Those ways are pretty minimal, honestly). I like it because technologists, in general, are optimists. If one didn’t believe that improvement was a) possible and b) reasonably likely, why would you build machines? And that’s really all tech is — machines. Means toward ends (the only techies who conceive of tech as an end unto itself are either insane, or fascists, or both).

So I like the optimism of technology, even if it’s not always applied to the greatest of causes. There are a lot of good people out there using code and network infrastructure to change the world for the better despite facing extreme odds. People trying to solve problems.

On the note of problem-solving, this is from the bio of Vitalik Buterin, founder and chief scientist behind Ethereum:

“In general, I am trying to move beyond just being ‘a cryptocurrency person’ and acquiring a more holistic and long-tail perspective of what role technology can play in helping to build more secure and trustworthy systems and reduce inefficiency and waste in society.

I find that individuals that identify themselves around a particular solution (eg. cryptocurrency, progressivism, authoritarianism, libertarianism, radical decentralization) are likely to be more susceptible to confirmation biases and generally less interesting than people who identity themselves around a problem, and dedicate themselves to the search for a solution to that problem no matter where the search takes them.”

My understanding of this is that Buterin is more interested in answers than in ideology. Not bad for a 21 year old.

I have some political leanings but, of course, I know that the most effective way to start tackling a complex problem is to check your own internal biases. The phenomenon Buterin refers to, confirmation bias is incredibly powerful. Ideological approaches can quickly turn into a full-on mental program, in which case the only problem that gets solved is the problem of your ego needing to maintain its illusion of superiority. You have to be willing to look at data rather than waffle in subjectivities. Just as science means willing to be wrong, problem solving sometimes means changing your perspective in the service of a solution.

So it’s inspiring to me that computer scientists — all scientists, really — continue on, dealing with data and models that attempt to describe reality more accurately. They’ve got the confidence to apply their skills to big issues but the humility to see those issues for what they truly are, which is often difficult. Not that any sort of science, technology-related or otherwise, will ever get a total picture of the reality it attempts to describe: the paradox summed up so eloquently by Ram Dass indicates that the more we know, the greater our sense of the scope of what can never be known becomes. It’s pretty remarkable. Tech just accelerates our sense of the unknowable.

Ram Dass described himself as a maker of metaphors, primarily, translating the wisdom of the East in terms Westerners could understand. Ram Dass is a sage and I’m not, but I like to write, and as a writer I feel like my main job is creating metaphors. Or identifying them. Like the orrery.

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