Autumn Spring: A Philosophical Look at the Internet

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Richard Thieme


Thirty years ago the first email message marked the birth of the Internet, so members of our extended family are sharing memories of our digital nativity.

The visions of most Internet pioneers were limited.  Most saw trees, not forests, failing to glimpse the distant horizons of new possibility they were creating.

A few, such as J. C. R. Licklider, saw what would happen when we plugged computers into one another. We will live, Licklider told a gathering of world-class scientists, in a human-computer symbiosis, a coupling of symbol-manipulating networks that will be much greater than the sum of its parts.

As brilliant as those scientists were, many mocked his prophetic vision. Prisoners in their paradigms, they couldn’t see past the bars of their cages. Visionaries who see imaginary forests and foresters who tend real trees have different gifts.

Most of us miss the significant beginnings of New Things until long after they have passed. Beginnings are full of mystery and promise, darkness brooding on darker waters, while endings can be easier to spot. Toward the end of a trajectory, just when we have grown accustomed to “how things are,” it will dawn on us that the trajectory is losing energy. We pause in a moment of reflection, realizing that a time of life, a way of being, a comfortable structure that had sustained us ... is not what it used to be. Not what it was.

Of course, every ending is also a beginning. Autumn leaves on the fast-flowing stream are interlaced with seeds. Nothing vanishes, nothing disappears. The universe is an engine of transformation that conserves everything, everything, even the light of dying stars as it streams toward black holes.

Horicon Marsh is one of the beautiful environments of the state of Wisconsin, a vast expanse of wetlands that stretches from horizon to horizon. My wife and I recently walked out into the marsh on a warm day. 

It was late afternoon. The sun was low in the sky, sinking toward the flat expanse of still water. Our shadows lengthened in the tall grass and we paused, listening to the silence. The world around us was teeming with life. The edge of the light of the late afternoon seemed to be translucent, a boundary of our mutual journey.

In the spring and in the autumn, hundreds of thousands of migrating geese fill the sky above the marsh from horizon to horizon. They emerge from a vanishing point beyond the horizon into our short-term vision and fly overhead with cries growing louder and softer again as they disappear toward another vanishing point in the opposite direction.

Our children have all left home. Our decades of being a blended family have flown through the sky toward a vanishing point beyond the horizon.

One of our sons, nearly twenty years ago, yelped with regret after reading Stephen Levy’s “Hackers,” a chronicle of the days at MIT when the seeds of Silicon Valley were sown.

 “Oh, Dad!” he cried. “I was born too late! It’s all over!”

And it was. The digital world had arrived for us through the narrow aperture of an Apple II, through which we crawled at 300 bps on ASCII Express toward BBS islands in the narrow dark seas of cyberspace. The world of hackers for which he grieved was fused with an exploration of inner space defined by mainframes that had already morphed.

The progressive death of each successive network has engendered another. Death and life embrace in a slow dance, cheek on cheek. The music ends. The music begins.

In response to a column called “Digital Autumn,” a friend in Australia wrote:

“You write of autumn, but I look around at Spring, which is well underway. The sun is higher in the sky, greens seem greener than a week ago, and nearby I can still enjoy the seldom occurrence of a whale that frolics in our harbour. Slowly the days lengthen and I seem to live in a world where our real communities are becoming more and more fragmented while digital communities are drawing us closer together. But how can this replace the ability to reach out and touch one another and look into another's eyes and share mutual moments in silence?”

Under the thin ice that forms on our hearts at the first frost, new spring life grows in the soil of irrevocable dissolution.

Autumn spring.

Life begins at edges, on the boundaries, at the interface where solitude is redeemed, transformed into community. When we touch one another and share a moment of silence, we feel the world fall away with a dying fall, we shift back into the rocking chairs of our souls, letting the inexplicable rhythms of life rock us to an unexpected beat.

Everything is ending, everything is beginning. The Internet is dissolving into the interstitial tissues of our symbiotic human/machine body/mind. The digital image of the universe filtering into our brains is a spiraling wheel of stars that fills the sky.

All of the symbol systems in the world, not just one religion but all religions, not just one civilization but all civilizations, are falling into this moment of transformation, into this black hole at the center of our galaxy. They emerge from a vanishing point beyond the horizon and disappear toward another vanishing point in the opposite direction.

The body/mind conceives of a luminous cloud of new illusions, phantasms and imaginings that we will once again mistake for real gods and real demons. We can only pray that this digital pier on which we are standing will become a bridge across a galaxy teeming with life.

We are like toddlers coming down the steps of our house for the first time. We are lesser lights of all those who have learned, who are learning to fly, our outward migration pouring out of the deep cave of our home planet at twilight. Filling the sky from horizon to horizon.

Our ancient identities cracking open, litter of broken shells feeding the fertile soil.

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