Chapter 51: Back to the Beginning
“Close the openings,
shut the doors,
and to the end of life
nothing will trouble you.
Open the openings,
be busy with business,
and to the end of life nothing can help you.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
How many browser tabs do you have open right now? I wager 5-7–on this window. One of these is likely your work email. Another is maybe your personal email. Through both of these openings, anyone in the world can at any given time make a free withdrawal on your stock of attention.
I am guessing you probably have another window with 7-10 tabs. Half of these are TLDR articles about e.g., the geopolitics of natural gas in Ukraine, the chances of democratic subversion in the U.S in the next few years, the latest climate-related weather disasters, whether we are in a crypto-bubble, and what, exactly, an NFT is. The other half are intriguing YouTube videos. All of these you’re planning to read and watch “sometime later this week.” They’ve been open for over a month.
If you’re reading this on your phone, I won’t even bother getting started.
The whole point of a matrix is that when you’re plugged into it, you don’t see it. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a prison.
In the Matrix films, the computer simulation in which humanity is trapped is initially presented as a prison for the mind. As the films progress, however, it is clear that there is more than meets the mind. After Neo escapes the Matrix created by the machines and wakes up in the “real world”—closing the openings and shutting the doors—we discover, at the end of the second film, that there is a “second” Matrix: the “real world” of the body and the senses is part of something deeper. Neo experiences a subtle, energetic connection with the machines, which culminates in a powerful gnosis experience in the third film: the machines and the humans are one, made of the same star stuff. Only from a superficial, dualistic perspective were humanity and the machines at odds, the true world opposed to the apparent world, the mind and body split.
The Matrix, in the fullness of time, is revealed to be not a prison, but a pregnancy.
Don’t be so quick to write off information technology as condemning us to a post-truth world destined to leach our humanity by capturing our attention. We must always remember that we are in early days—even when the hour grows late.
Here’s a thought experiment: rather than a culture of TLDR, we try “TSDR”: Too Short Don’t Read. Rather than taking sips from what technology critic Nicholas Carr calls ”the shallows,” we adopt the default of preferring the long and in-depth perspectives. By closing the many tiny windows, we open to the few bigger ones. We factor in the cost of these draws on our scarce attention the same way we need to factor the cost of carbon’s draws on the scarce resource of atmosphere.
Software engineering that solves for that—that would overhaul the attention economy of Web 2.0–would be a killer app indeed.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”