Playing in the Cybernetic Meadow

Playing in the Cybernetic Meadow July 19, 2019

“I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.”

— Richard Brautigan

In his 1967 poem, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”, Richard Brautigan dreamed of an idyllic place, “where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony.” Brautigan wrote the poem during his short stay as poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology, as likely a place as any to muse on the possibility of a new-age Walden Pond constructed from the whole cloth of perfect code.

It is debatable whether Brautigan was joyfully anticipating a tech-infused serene future, or warning against delusions of such idealistic visions. This is the ironic beauty in his poem. In either case, his poem clearly reveals the streak of “techno-utopianism” that flows from coders’ optimism and the beauty of clean code.

Techno-utopianism creates ethical blind spots for business strategies that fail to recognize the risks and realities of sin. This is the tragedy in Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that the solution to Facebook is more Facebook, as I pointed out in my previous post.

There is both beauty and risk in the idealism that springs from the power of code. The creative power of the coder reveals the beauty of the human soul to create new worlds. Brautigan lauds this beauty in his poem. The “cybernetic meadow” is a place of beauty. It is an imaginary beauty, however—a beauty-to-be-desired. It represents the longing of the human heart for reconciliation with nature, and the healing of hurts.

Techno-utopianism makes sense in the culture of Silicon Valley. The ethos of the Valley sprung from the foundation laid by those optimistic pioneers who unleashed the magical power of quantum physics to develop computer chips in silicon substrates and thereby launch the computers into the mainstream. Today, the leverage has shifted from hardware to software. “Computing is not about computers anymore. It’s about living,” said Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, and author of in Being Digital, back in 1995. The boundless creative power of code to “change the world,” and make money in the process, has fostered techno-utopianism in the culture of Silicon Valley. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, says he felt it immediately upon arriving there: “When I first joined Google I was struck by the fact that it was a very idealistic, optimistic place.”

Steven Levy traces the genesis of this worldview back to the camaraderie of the “hackers” who began to play with personal computing in 1959, before PCs became commercially available. They espoused the “hacker ethic” as “a new way of life with a philosophy, an ethic, and a dream.”

The power to create something that feels alive is essential to understanding the hacker ethic. This invites the programmers/coders to see themselves as creators and guardians of life. This feeling is so central to the hacker worldview that Levy has a chapter in his book titled, “Every Man a God”. This sense of having godlike powers inspires dreams of utopia. After all, what’s the point of playing god unless you can create a world according to your idea for life? Levy describes this sentiment well—

Wouldn’t we benefit if we learned from computers the means of creating a perfect system, and set about emulating that perfection in a human system? If everyone could interact with computers with the same innocent, productive, creative impulse that hackers did, the Hacker Ethic might spread through society like a benevolent ripple, and computers would indeed change the world for the better. (Levy 2010, p. 37)

Brautigan captures this sense of godlike powers to create a new Eden in his dream of “a cybernetic meadow.” This power is enticing. It is a siren song of sorts with an aphrodisiac effect. As if beguiled by a muse, the coder is drawn into an all-consuming relationship with the machine that channels one’s energies into a focused stream of attentiveness to the task of coding:

[T]he effect on the neophyte programmer is electric and Olympian. “Is this feeling of control,” as a coder and Noisebridge, the famous San Francisco hacker space told me. “I was 13, and I had this machine that came to life and would do whatever I said. And when you’re a kid, that feeling is wild. It’s like you have a little universe to control, that you create.” (Thompson 2019, p. 14)

This power to concoct and control one’s own “little universe” explains how the work of coding plays into the psychological experience of self-realization. The creativity of the task confers a sense of identity based in the ability to control and fabricate. Furthermore, coding is by and large an individual task. The glorified role of the coder as a creator of new worlds epitomizes the modern, individualistic image of homo faber: the person-as-maker. As with other forms of creative work, we see here a reflection of the imago Dei. Yet the focus on the individual’s power to construct new worlds or manipulate reality distorts the image of God. In extreme cases, the allure of the siren song may move a person further from, rather than closer to God.

Another name for movement away from God is “sin”. This is why we need to develop a theological understanding of sin in order to diagnose and prescribe medicine/treatment for the problems of idealistic thinking in (business) ethics.

In future posts, I shall continue to unpack this thesis, express reasons for hope, and suggest some constructive direction forward.

 

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  • I wonder what Levy makes of stuff like this:

    Our basic thesis—that we are strategically blind to key aspects of our motives—has been around in some form or another for millennia. It’s been put forward not only by poets, playwrights, and philosophers, but also by countless wise old souls, at least when you catch them in private and in the right sort of mood. And yet the thesis still seems to us neglected in scholarly writings; you can read a mountain of books and still miss it. (The Elephant in the Brain, ix)

    Or:

    … I am not convinced that the social and behavioral sciences, at least implicitly, do accept the fact-value distinction. I argue that they are committed to a utopian program by their history and by the expectations that keep them alive and funded, namely, that they will help to improve the future prospects of mankind. This is so taken for granted that many people will not see that there is an issue: of course these disciplines are intended for the future betterment of mankind; why else would we have them? One answer might be to look for the truth about human social nature whether or not the ensuing news be good or bad. In other words, it is certainly a logical possibility that there is no improvable future for mankind, that the news is indeed bad. At least the issue must be faced, not assumed to be settled. It is hard for the social sciences to face it, however; it is a poor basis for research proposals.
        The result is that there is a tremendous bias in all the sciences towards the bearing of good news. It is inconceivable that any news refuting any part of the utopian program should be well received, however incontrovertible. The funds would immediately dry up. The bad news is, therefore, usually delivered by renegade philosophers (Nietzsche, Sartre), or by humanists (Orwell, Golding), or by theologians of an orthodox stripe, who can all be discounted by the social scientists of the academies. H. G. Wells spent his long and active life dutifully delivering the good news about the possibilities of a scientific utopia. But just before his death, and having witnessed World War II, he wrote the remarkable Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), in which he concluded, “Homo sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is in his present form played out.” Certainly not a sound basis for a research proposal. Or Orwell’s proposition that the vision of the future is a boot stamping on a human face; or Sartre’s that evil cannot be redeemed (What Is Literature?); or Doris Lessing’s that we have very little idea what is going on, and what idea we have is largely erroneous (The Sirian Experiments).
        Yet this alternative message has been with us since the Greeks and the Prophets and perhaps we should pay it some respect. Very few of us do or dare to. Like the dean’s wife with Darwinism, we hope that if it be true it not become generally known. Lately, the human sciences have become particularly strident in their collective condemnations of the bearers of bad news. Given the nature of the Enlightenment project of which they are the heirs, one can see why. If, for example, we were to treat Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa as utopia, not as ethnography, then we would understand it better and save a lot of pointless debate. (The Search for Society, 2–3)