The Driving Force That Nobody Wants to Talk About...

There is something that I want to talk about, not because I'm hung up on the issue, but because I think that its an important driving force of "the new age" that's overlooked or even denied. If I don't mention it here, probably nobody else will. The driving force that I'd like to bring forth is: A change in cultural reference--the impact of non-Western culture on the Western mind.

It is only through a change in our ways of thinking that we can expect any fundamental breakthroughs in our world.

I'd like to discuss case studies of four technological and cultural innovators whose works exemplify that the embrace of philosophical and theological traditions outside of Western culture can lead to fundamental technological, and hopefully social breakthroughs. This trend of thinking outside of Western cultural constraints while developing with Western technolgy could most certainly influence the evolution of the world of 2005.

Peter Small, programmer, author of Lingo Sorcery champions the adoption of a new mindset

Lists are a specific Lingo term for arrays: sequences of data held in an ordered computer record field. They are indispensable tools for processing and manipulating data and all computer languages support lists or arrays in one form or another. For object oriented purposes, lists have another major attribute: they can hold and manipulate objects, images and variables.

In the technical sense, lists of objects are just lists of memory addresses, but, conceptually, they are far more powerful. Remembering that objects in memory can represent any product of the imagination, an object list can be a list of any conceivable collection of thoughts or concepts.

Placing objects and abstract concepts in list structures opens up completely new ways to analyze and think about ideas. It allows us to physically process and manipulate metaphysical constructs in ways which are completely different to those of the classical methods associated with the conventional treatment of philosophical issues.

Using conventional language and thinking, there are certain areas which cannot be sensibly discussed or even comprehended. One of these areas is the mind and its mechanisms of emotion and the sense of "self". As was seen in "How God Makes God", using the convention of Lingo lists and objects these concepts can be given a reality which enables them to be studied, examined and experimented with.

On of the nicest remarks made to me about my Lingo Sorcery book was:

"Object oriented programming seems so wonderfully simple and obvious after you have explained it and it makes me wonder why I didn't think about it in this way by myself".

The concept of avatars is somewhat similar to the concept of object oriented programming in that once the concept clicks it seems so obvious that you wonder why it was ever necessary to have to have it explained...

...excepting of course that it is very difficult to explain.

Typical, of a Zen approach to teaching Zen concepts, is the story of the Zen master who asks his pupils:

"Tell me, what is the quickest means by which you can reach enlightenment?"

All the pupils remain silent, not knowing what to answer.

After several minutes of silence the Zen master exclaims, "Excellent! Excellent! You have answered well".

Of course, the pupils are completely bemused by this - until they realize that the Zen master is telling them that enlightenment cannot be reached through words. "Zen", we are told, "Is outside of the concepts of language" (which can be totally confusing, especially if you have read this in a book which you have just bought in order to try to understand Zen).

I could never understand this paradox myself until I came to write "Lingo Sorcery" where I had the task of explaining the concept of object oriented programming using Lingo - the programming language used in Macromedia's multimedia authoring package: Director.

This appeared to be fairly easy as it involved only four special words: "new", "me", "ancestor" and "property". Within a page or so, I could easily show how to create a fully functioning Lingo object.

Unfortunately, just knowing how to create an object is quite useless in itself because, to use the object, it has to be seen within an abstract conceptual framework. This concept is extremely difficult to explain - it took another two hundred pages to get it across and even then I couldn't be certain that all the readers understood what it was all about.

In "Lingo Sorcery", I likened the experience of learning about objects to that of learning how to ride a bicycle. Object oriented programming cannot be taught as a series of logical steps - it has to be learned as an acquired experience. Even then, when the knowledge comes, it doesn't come gradually: it arrives suddenly, as a kind of explosive enlightenment.

It is this difference, between learned instruction and conceptual break-through, which lies at the heart of differences between Eastern and Western religions and philosophies.

In the Western world, the concept of "God" is the embodiment of a book of rules or laws - the Word is the Lord and the Lord is the Word. "The Word" and "The Lord" are synonymous in most Western religions. The rules come in the form of a bible; tenets of a religion; commandments; a sacred book; a set of ancient scrolls; etc. In effect, the "God" of any Western religion is the provider of a verbal heuristic strategy: a set of algorithmic rules of behavior for leading an optimally efficient life in terms of survival and reproduction.

In contrast, the Eastern "God" does not represent any particular algorithmic set of rules; the Eastern "God" represents a conceptual framework, which cannot readily be explained in terms of words and logic.

To the Western mind, the idea of worshiping an idol in the form of a physically sculptured Buddha figure is ludicrous until it is realized that this "God" is not supposed to represent any human figure at all: it is representative of a non explainable conceptual framework (Buddha is a Sanskrit word meaning "Awakened One").

In reading the draft manuscript of the introduction to this book, several people objected to the use of Eastern mysticism in a book which they felt ought to be about computer programming. "Forget all this Zen nonsense", they said, "Let's get into the code". But, isn't this just the Western mind set: looking for the algorithm, the set of rules, the instructions?

In this book, we are going to use the Eastern mind set, which doesn't look for rules but for enlightenment. In taking this approach, we will not be attaching much importance to the exact syntax of computer code or even to the type of multimedia authoring package used. We will be looking to trigger an enlightenment to an abstract conceptual framework. We shall be looking for that same kind of "something" which allows people to put models into the empty cells of spreadsheets.

In this way, we can consider the techniques and methods used in this book to be as the Buddha described his teachings "Like a raft: useful while crossing the water but to be left behind afterwards".

In Zen philosophy such practical teaching (Dhama) is referred to as:

"A finger pointing at the moon".

In the process of writing the manuscript for this book I chanced to have some correspondence with Stephen Guerin of Redfish. He had just returned to the USA after spending three years working on Web systems in China. He pointed out that the references to Avatars could be extended further into Eastern philosophies. He wrote:

The idea of temporal states of objects and transformation has strong parallels in Taoism.

Neo-Confucianist Chang Tsai (1020-1077) writes;

"When the Ch'i condenses, its visibility becomes apparent so that there are then the shapes (of individual objects). When it disperses, its visibility is no longer apparent and there are no shapes. At the time of its condensation, can one say otherwise than that this is but temporary?

The Great Void of Tao (i.e.. the Great Intranet) cannot but consist of Ch'i; this Ch'i cannot but condense to form all things; and these things cannot but become dispersed so as to form (once more) the Great Void. The perpetuation of these movements in a cycle is inevitable and thus spontaneous."

Having had a brief love affair with these Eastern mystical interpretations of the new physics when they were all the rage in the early 1980's I was somewhat skeptical about applying Eastern philosophies to modern day science. I looked at Stephen Guerin's associations:

The Great Void of Tao = The Internet

Ch'i = bit patterns

Li = code

How could Easter mystics, of a thousand years ago, possibly have anything useful to say about a new emerging technology a thousand years hence?

Then the penny dropped. Of course, they were not talking about the Internet and the World Wide Web they were talking about life and existence. They were propounding an abstraction of life so as to determine its meaning and consequence.

If the environment of the Internet and the World Wide Web could be mapped across to the biological environment of planet earth to produce a common abstraction in terms of information theory, there was every reason to believe that the philosophies of the Eastern mystics would also be applicable to the Internet.

This is not just a trivial consequence. We are looking to try to understand this newly emerging phenomenon of the Web. How do we appreciate what it is, and how do we deal with it? If the Eastern mystics thought about a similar phenomenon (life) over the course of a few thousand years they must have come up with some interesting explanations and metaphors which may well be useful to us in our comprehension of this intriguing complexity.

With these thoughts in mind, I looked through the pile of dusty paperbacks I'd bought back in the 1980's. In between Capra's "The Tao of Physics" and Gary Zukav's "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" was a slim volume called "Games Zen Master's Play" by Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr.

I remembered buying this book some fifteen years before, on the strength of the title, and then being bitterly disappointed to find it quite beyond my comprehension.

It struck me that this book could provide a good test: by seeing if this new mind set I had acquired allowed any of this stuff to now make any sense. To my utter amazement the writings of the ancient Zen masters suddenly acquired an enimatic logic.

To understand, it is necessary to realize the mental attitude of the Zen masters. To them, the Self or God of the universe saw life as a type of game. The concept of Zen they promoted was an elusive concept and its explanation was by way of puzzles, contradictions and paradoxes. Typical of these teachings is the story of the student who went one day to a famous Zen master and asked:

"If someone were to ask me in one hundred years what I thought was your deepest understanding, what should I reply?".

The "Zen master replies, "Tell him I said, 'It is simply THIS'"

Until you click onto the mind set that can give such a reply, it seems to be utter nonsense. Let's look at the this same kind of mind set displacement in a contemporary technological environment:

Mark Pesce is the inventor of VRML, Virtual Reality Modeling Language.
Connective, Collective, Corrective: Lessons Learned from VRML is one of his many lectures that can be found on the web.

Brian Eno from "Gossip is Philosophy" an interview with Keven Kelly, Wired Magazine.

Let's say I was to give you a round-trip ticket to the past, when art really made a difference. Where would you go?

The intellectual Arab world at its height - somewhere between, say, the beginning of the 11th century and the middle of the 13th - would have been absolutely amazing to experience.

Why there and then? Why not the Renaissance a little later?

I've never been that thrilled by the Renaissance, to tell you the truth. I can imagine the excitement of having been there, but it seems to me that the Renaissance had a great deal to do with leaving things out of the picture. It was about ignoring part of our psyche - the part that's a bit messy and barbarian. There was also a sense of perfectibility, of the possibility of certainty - a sense that has become a real albatross to us.

But there are analogies between the height of the Arab world and today. At that time, there was a big shift from one type of consciousness to another. Old systems decayed and broke up, and, painfully, new ones were born. The equilibration between science and alchemy, and philosophy and religion, would have been thrilling to behold.

Now, am I allowed to move forward as well, into the future?

It's a different ticket, but I can grant that as well. How far in the future do you want to go?

Oh, only about 50 years.

Doesn't that seem like a waste of magic? Fifty years - you might get there yourself. You just can't wait, is that the problem?

Yeah, I can't wait. I want to know what happens to Africa.


Africa is everything that something like classical music isn't. Classical - perhaps I should say "orchestral" - music is so digital, so cut up, rhythmically, pitchwise and in terms of the roles of the musicians. It's all in little boxes. The reason you get child prodigies in chess, arithmetic, and classical composition is that they are all worlds of discontinuous, parceled-up possibilities. And the fact that orchestras play the same thing over and over bothers me. Classical music is music without Africa. It represents old-fashioned hierarchical structures, ranking, all the levels of control. Orchestral music represents everything I don't want from the Renaissance: extremely slow feedback loops.

If you're a composer writing that kind of music, you don't get to hear what your work sounds like for several years. Thus, the orchestral composer is open to all the problems and conceits of the architect, liable to be trapped in a form that is inherently nonimprovisational, nonempirical. I shouldn't be so absurdly doctrinaire, but I have to say that I wouldn't give a rat's ass if I never heard another piece of such music. It provides almost nothing useful for me.

But what is tremendously exciting to me is the collision of vernacular Western music with African music. So much that I love about music comes from that collision. African music underlies practically everything I do - even ambient, since it arose directly out of wanting to see what happened if you "unlocked" the sounds in a piece of music, gave them their freedom, and didn't tie them all to the same clock. That kind of free float - these peculiar mixtures of independence and interdependence, and the oscillation between them - is a characteristic of West African drumming patterns. I want to go into the future to see this sensibility I find in African culture, to see it freed from the catastrophic situation that Africa's in at the moment. I don't know how they're going to get freed from that, but I desperately want to see this next stage when African culture begins once again to strongly impact ours.

Do you have any guesses about what that reunited culture would look like?

Yes. Do you know what I hate about computers? The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can't use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds sort of inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important. You know why music was the center of our lives for such a long time? Because it was a way of allowing Africa in. In 50 years, it might not be Africa; it might be Brazil. But I want so desperately for that sensibility to flood into these other areas, like computers.

Whenever I hear a neat dichotomy between the fuzzy logic of Africa versus the digital logic of a white tribe, I always find it interesting to triangulate and introduce the Asians. Where do the Asians fit into this?

It could be that any strong infusion from another place would help greatly. The African one is just the one I understand well. But the Near East can show what happens. For instance, harmony is primarily a Western invention. There is no equivalent to harmonic interest in Arabic music. In the West, the orchestra was invented to play harmonies. But in the Near East, the whole orchestra plays the same thing. So Arabs take the orchestra, which was basically a machine for making harmony, and make it a machine for making texture, which is an Asian preoccupation. It plays one voice, always. But it's a voice that can have different and changing textures. So this is a perfect example of using a Western tool and linking it with what I think is an Asian sensibility, the interest in texture. And, bingo! There you have it, this huge texture-making machine, the orchestra.

So, how does one Africanize, or Brazilianize, or otherwise liberate a computer? Get mad with it. I ask myself, What is pissing me off about this thing? What's pissing me off is that it uses so little of my body. You're just sitting there, and it's quite boring. You've got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That's it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It's imprisoning.

So, we need to make whole-body computers that get the heart pumping, through which we can dance out text and pictures and messages? Why haven't we done that yet?

History is changed by people who get pissed off. Only neo-vegetables enjoy using computers the way they are at the moment. If you want to make computers that really work, create a design team composed only of healthy, active women with lots else to do in their lives and give them carte blanche. Do not under any circumstances consult anyone who (a) is fascinated by computer games (b) tends to describe silly things as "totally cool" (c) has nothing better to do except fiddle with these damn things night after night.

What? And give up all those totally cool buttons?!

I've been telling synthesizer manufacturers for years that the issue is not increasing the number of internal options. The issue is increasing rapport, making a thing that relates to you physically in a better way. Of course the easy course is to add options, since absolutely no conceptual rethink is required. But the relationship between user and machine might be better achieved by reducing options.

Quoted from the text of Brian Eno's Diary A YEAR WITH SWOLLEN APPENDICES:

"New technologies have the tendency to replace skills with judgement--it's not what you can do that counts, but what you choose to do, and this invites everyone to start crossing boundaries."

"A few years ago I came up with a new word. I was fed up with the old art-history idea of genius--the notion that gifted individuals turn up out of nowhere and light the way for all the rest of us dummies to follow. I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large numbers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this "scenius"--it means "the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene." It is the communal form of the concept of genius."

Lingo and X Objects were developed by John Thompson an inventor of African descent. Lingo is one of the most innovative scripting languages for driving multimedia presentations, games, and reference programs authored in Macromedia Director. Lingo was developed as a programming language for the non-programmer. Did an African world view influence JT's conception and development of Lingo and X Objects?

Parting Thoughts

December 12, 1997
December 10, 1997 Presentation
December 8, 1997
October 16, 1997
October 14, 1997
October 8, 1997