Thursday, July 1, 2010

Virtual inanity

Whaaaaasssssuuuup? There still isn't a whole lot going on here. There's a mid-term test coming up (I know, we had one a month ago), which means that my job gets a little more cushy. For one thing, I will have a day without lessons because all the kids are sitting tests. Also, teachers often devote the last couple of lessons before a test to old-fashioned textbook drilling, which doesn't really require one teacher let alone two. Mercifully, they sometimes let me sit these ones out. Also, Marie has been busy in her capacity as an after-school tutor because of the test, so I haven't been boozing so much either.

So I've had a bit of time on my hands. I've spent this time reading and pondering what I've read. I would like to warn you now that this post might be a bit navel-gazy and pseudo-intellectual. A bit like a one-man book group, perhaps. (Of course, the only time I joined an actual book group it was an elaborate gambit to get into the pants of a woman who turned out the be a lesbian. But that's another story.) I used to go drinking every friday with a bunch of PhDs, and we would typically get on to some pretty esoteric topics after four or five hours. I guess I'm missing that. Anyway, if you get through to the end of this, I promise to reward you with a link to an amusing YouTube video.

The three books that have got me ruminating are Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, In the beginning... was the command line by Neal Stephenson, and Sit down and shut up by Brad Warner. On the face of it, these would seem to have little in common, being respectively about a fictional dystopia, operating systems, and Zen Buddhism. But there seems to be a common theme running through them. If I had to boil it down to one sentence, they are all about the vain and childish desire to view oneself not as one of the brainless masses of 'sheeple', but as something special: a rebel, an Apple/Linux user, enlightened. No-one is more guilty of this sin than me.

Let's take them in turn. BNW (which I first read about five years ago) is, as you may know, about an oppressive global government. It has some clear parallels with 1984, but for my money is actually more interesting because of its moral ambiguity. 1984's Big Brother is, like his Channel 4 namesake, fairly unquestionably a force of evil. The society of BNW, on the other hand, actually seems like quite an agreeable place to live. (I particularly enjoyed that anyone practicing monogamy rather than the state-encouraged promiscuous lifestyle is viewed with deep suspicion.) Although its citizens have little or no freedom, every effort has been taken to ensure that they don't miss it, or even notice its absence. Those who do reject the programming are not tortured in Room 101, but are simply exiled to a remote island with other misfit individuals. Though I suspect many people would balk at the human genetic engineering (actually it's not genetic engineering, because it was written before the discovery of DNA, but that is definitely what a contemporary author would have used), I think a case could actually be made the world government is a force for good, and their society a utopia. Don't worry, I'm still a libertarian.

ITBWTCL is a rare non-fiction outing for Neal Stephenson, whose cyberpunk (actually, post-cyberpunk if you want to split hairs) novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are perhaps my favourite books. It's all about the evolution of operating systems, which I agree sounds about as interesting as a paint-drying expo held in Dundee. But Stephenson is an man whose intelligence kind of terrifies me, and consequently this essay-cum-book (which I'm only about two-thirds through) is full of very smart observations. It was published in 1999, so is now hopelessly outdated, but for a nostalgic geek like me this adds to its charm. It is like a time capsule recording exactly how the computer world was in the late nineties, just as I was starting out on my nerd career. He seemed to think that BeOS would be the next big thing, which of course turned out to be an unusual slip-up; this is the guy who described Second Life, Google Earth, and (sort of) Wikipedia about a decade before they became realities.

Thankfully, the book is not filled with technical details about multithreading and exception handling. He explores in some depth the curious social phenomena tied up with OSs - how it is that people end up defending their OS of choice and bashing the rest with the kind of fervour previously associated with racism or religious bigotry. In the aforementioned Snow Crash he likens culture/religion to an operating system for society, which is an analogy that appeals to me. In ITBWTCL he stretches this analogy some way past breaking point by drawing parallels between the growing popularity of pretty, dumbed-down, patronising interfaces and the trend he perceives of society as a whole becoming more apathetic and willing to be treated like children. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's interesting.

And so to Zen. Regular readers will know that I have been half-assedly flirting with Zen Buddhism for a while. When in Rome, and all that. For whatever reason, I recently got somewhat serious again, and have done zazen (seated meditation) three times this week already. I also broke the habit of a lifetime and paid for the physical instantiation of information, in the form of a copy of SDASU (the previous two books were downloaded onto the Archos). It is the follow up to Hardcore Zen, which I've blogged about previously. I should make it clear that I'm only about halfway through.

I'm sure almost everyone reading this will be relieved to hear the following. With some regret, I've come to the conclusion that Zen is nonsense. Well, let me qualify that. As religions go, it is the best of a bad bunch. If you forced me at gunpoint to be religious, I'd definitely become a Zen Buddhist. Incidentally, I would also accept Quakerism as a decent choice, though of course if you ever actually find yourself in that situation, chances are the most prudent answer would be Islam.

There is a lot that is really cool about Zen. It has no God in the Abrahamic sense, instead holding that God is everything. It has no holy book, just a collection of books written by regular people. It says you have no soul, which works for me. Literally nothing is sacred; blasphemy is actively encouraged and the original Buddha himself said that you should never believe anything just because a preacher tells you it is true, including himself. Furthermore, some of its central ideas really resonate with my own homespun philosophy. For example, while recognising that it is impossible to live your live in isolation, Zen teaches that the best way to lead a harmonious life is to avoid 'attachment', whether that is to people, possessions, ideas, countries, dreams, or even your own personality.

So far so good. So what's my beef? Well, it is said that you cannot achieve an understanding of Zen (I'm deliberately avoiding using the term 'enlightenment' because it is a loaded and controversial word) just by learning about it and thinking about it intellectually. You must practice zazen. Unfortunately, you have to do it more-or-less every day for several years to make any serious progress. Now, part of my problem with this is just plain old laziness, but there's more to it than that. I understand the power of cognitive dissonance (until I looked up that link, I didn't know the origin of "sour grapes"). If you've just handed over a wad of cash for a copy of Windows Vista, you're actually more likely to put up with all its bugs - and, importantly, delude yourself that they don't exist - than you would be with some Linux distro you picked up for nothing. The reason for this is that you don't want to believe that you are a sucker, so you unconsciously twist your reality is such a way as to disguise this embarrassing fact. Similarly, after spending thousands of hours of your life staring at a wall with your legs folded uncomfortably, you are unlikely to turn around after a decade or two and proclaim it all a waste of time. For all Zen claims not to require faith, I can't see how committing to the practice of zazen for no tangible reward whatsoever can be seen as anything other than a leap of faith. Not to mention that it bears more than a passing resemblance to certain brainwashing techniques.

And I have other issues too. The wackier assertions of Zen include that the both the past and future are illusions, and that the self is also illusory. My first problem with these is that every shred of my experience would seem to run counter to what they are saying. This is true whether I approach these riddles just as a layperson interacting with the world (I can move my fingers at will, I can't move yours, therefore 'I' and 'you' are two functionally distinct entities.), or as a scientist (If we are all part of one consciousness, how does it convey information around itself? Doesn't that imply faster-than-light communication?). But maybe I am attempting to run before I can walk, and I should try again after a few years of zazen. After all, I really enjoy trying to ponder the unponderable, like how a photon can be a wave and a particle, or what happens when you play chicken at 99% of the speed of light. But the surreal conclusions of relativity or quantum physics come from indisputable experimental results, whereas the Zen riddles are based only on subjective experience, and as a scientist there aren't many things that butter fewer parsnips than subjective experience.

My second problem is that if one could ever perform the mental contortions required to truly believe these statements, wouldn't it be rather dangerous, and indeed pretty much indistinguishable from insanity? If you sincerely believed that the future wasn't real, mightn't wildly impulsive courses of action seem sensible? And I'm deeply suspicious of any belief system that holds that the self is less important than the whole, whether that whole is the family, tribe, country, or everything in the universe. Surely every kamikaze or jihadist used a rationalisation along these lines shortly before blowing him or herself up. Bringing this full circle, one of the maxims of the society in BNW is "Everyone belongs to everyone else," which seems to be a reasonable representation of the Zen view too, although I suspect they would phrase it "Everyone is everyone else". I am uncomfortable with this.

Sure, selfishness is kind of unsavoury and leads to all sorts of small-scale day-to-day misery, but at least it's stable. All the truly repugnant acts of evil are carried out by people acting selflessly. Of course, Buddhism has something a bit like the Ten Commandments to tell you how to behave properly, but if you can get your head around the above, you probably wouldn't have too much trouble twisting the semantics of these to something that no-one else would recognise as good.

So, I'm not having it. However, I quite enjoy the experience of zazen, so I might keep doing it once in a while, not as an attempt to comprehend the nature of reality, but rather in the way that people take herbal baths or listen to Coldplay - to relax. However, given the paradoxical nature of everything in Zen, I wouldn't be surprised if meditating while professing not to believe in Zen is actually the most Zen thing you can do.

Whew, you made it. Here is an advert that I was astonished to see during half time of the England-Germany game. As far as I can ascertain that really is Jamiroquai singing in Japanese, and the translation is accurate. One of the little bonuses of living in Japan is that you often see big-name Western celebrities appear in ads they wouldn't dare do on their own turf for fear of ridicule. Just like in Lost in translation. But this one really is a bit special. It's amazing what ten years out of the spotlight will do for one's artistic integrity.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure we may discuss this at greater length in a couple of weeks time, but I think you're misunderstanding the 'future is an illusion' thing. My interpretation is that it is referring to the models of the future and past which you have in your head and that, while these might have some moderate value, the majority of people spend far too long living in and worrying about these purely imaginary pasts and futures while paying less attention to the actual now (I think the same can be said of self, but that's less clear to me).