Playing in the Cybernetic Meadow

“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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