Form and Frolic

The challenge of exploring the cosmos -- the underlying order of the universe -- is a wonderful way to make life interesting and meaningful. The universe is infinite in its diversity and ingenuity.

There's probably no end to its fascinating puzzles and mysteries. The cosmic grammar is infinitely complex. The closer you look at it, the more detail you see -- detail within detail, and so on forever, just like a Mandelbrot set.

The universe is an endless display of form and design, with new form folding out of the cosmic order all the time.

It doesn't matter at all, then, how you set out to explore it: music, mathematics, dance, physics, biology, astronomy, sculpture, or any other artistic or scientific activity where you look for interesting patterns and designs.

A psychologist who helped start the human potential movement, Abraham Maslow, had some interesting ideas about what he called the hierarchy of human needs. At the base of the hierarchy are the physical needs: warmth, water, food, and sleep.

Fulfilling those needs comes before everything else. Only after they're fully met does a person begin to encounter a further set of needs having to do with acceptance in a group, the approval and respect of peers, and so on.

According to Maslow, a person must also meet those needs before being free to begin self-actualizing. Self-actualizing means growing to fulfill your creative potential as a human being -- to "be all you can be."

Self-actualizing people are usually caring, cooperative, optimistic, self-confident, and above all highly creative. They also tend to be alert and curious about the world. In other words, they are psychologically healthy. Imagine an entire society of self-actualizing people -- a self-actualizing society.

It would be an amazingly flourishing society, more vigorous in the arts and sciences than any society that has ever existed.

Modern industrialized societies have managed to satisfy the first layer of needs -- the physical necessities -- for most of their citizens. People in affluent societies are usually quite preoccupied with matters of emotional fulfillment.

They usually take for granted that they will meet their basic needs of warmth, water, food, and sleep. They worry mostly about fulfilling emotional needs. They work hard to gain group acceptance and respect, usually by seeking symbols of achievement and high social standing.

People in rich countries are largely preoccupied with fortifying their self-esteem. Maybe it's really impossible to satisfy those emotional needs -- no matter how much prestige, acclaim, or influence they find.

Maslow suggested that self-actualization doesn't become a priority until emotional needs have been satisfied. He may have got it backwards, though. You must first begin to self-actualize before you can fulfill your emotional needs.

Emotional fulfillment begins with exploring the world and the inner self. Learning to play and to explore is the beginning of personal fulfillment and well-being.

People living in societies oriented towards discovery and creativity will be much healthier psychologically than those that are primarily oriented toward fulfilling emotional needs, as rich societies are today.

With their vibrant exchange of cultural knowledge, omni-networked societies will be highly creative. One of the best ways to discover something new about the universe is by engaging in some kind of creative activity.

Creativity means hunting for a source of fresh design and looking at things in novel ways. It is a strongly informational process where new form emerges in the mind and then gets expressed and communicated.

In wondering what people will be like who live in omni-networked societies, we should consider a few things about the process of discovery.

Play and creativity

An important part of the process of discovery is learning to play. By play, I mean an activity that you've chosen for purely personal reasons, and which challenges you to discover new abilities.

Play doesn't necessarily have to be fun. It can be hard work, requiring an enormous amount of effort.

To make this clear, I like to use the word toil to refer to the opposite of play. Toil, in this sense, is activity that's entirely directed and motivated by other people.

As is the case with play, toil isn't necessarily what you might think it is. For example, doing something amusing like going to a party can certainly be toilsome if it's not what you've chosen to do.

To be able to play well, you have to follow the exhortation inscribed at the oracle of Delphi: Know thyself. This is hard because it's difficult to distinguish your own self from the influences of other people and of society in general.

In many ways, each of us is a composite of many outside influences. Finding the innermost part that is uniquely you can be an enormous challenge that may even require you deliberately to step outside of what other people expect you to be.

Playing is like fishing. You feel the tension in the line, sometimes taking in line and sometimes letting it out. You do this by feel.

To learn to fish, you absolutely must hold the line yourself. Most skills are learned that same way. It's a terrible mistake to think you can teach somebody a new skill.

That's like the pipeline fallacy of language -- believing that language actually "contains" information.

You can't pour knowledge from your brain into someone else's. You can only try to make it a little easier for them to discover on their own.

Just like the tension in the fishing line, there's a point for each person where the challenge presented by an activity is neither too great nor too meager.

If the challenge is too great, you get overwhelmed, and your competence doesn't improve very quickly. If it's too meager, on the other hand, you get bored, and you don't push hard enough to discover a higher skill level.

There's a "sweet spot" where the challenge is just right. At that point, your powers of concentration are greatest and you become most creative. Many people enter an almost trancelike state and often lose track of time. That's what I mean by play.

Finding that sweet spot is a very personal matter. It's up to each individual to find it on his or her own. Just like feeling the tension in the fishing line, you have to know yourself well enough to judge which activities to take on, and how vigorously.

Societies that can afford to give individuals enough freedom to find the sweet spot and work creatively, will benefit from a generous outpouring of valuable new ideas, which will lead to the overall enrichment of the society.

It takes a very sophisticated society to see the wisdom in handing over so much control to the individual.

To take such an enormous risk, a society has to lavishly bathe its people in high-grade information.

Will individuals in such a free society be trustworthy enough to seek the welfare of others as well as their own? Perhaps not in all cases. Still, it's worth the risk.

If you can't trust the individuals who comprise a society, then whom can you trust, after all? Regardless, freedom will prove positively irresistible as societies become more information-rich.

Once people begin to awaken to the creative possibilities unleashed through freedom, they naturally strive for more -- not just political freedom, but freedom for their whole lives. This process is unstoppable.

Steps to a playful life

The road leading from toil to play is probably different for each person. Maybe we can spot some common principles, though.

First of all, people learning to play usually make a deep, personal commitment to discovering beauty or truth. That commitment is a daily matter, almost like a spiritual devotion. It means making a major choice, then a whole stream of minor choices.

The initial choice sets the overall course or orientation of your life, which then shapes subsequent decisions. It makes no difference whether you commit yourself to finding beauty, as in the arts, or to discovering truth, as in the sciences, or both.

Beauty and truth are really the same thing. The more you penetrate the truth of the universe, the more splendidly beautiful it looks. Truth has a profoundly esthetic appeal because it reveals something about the subtle nature of the cosmic order that underlies reality.

In my opinion, we perceive the universe to be ugly only when we don't fully comprehend it. Even the ugliness we may sometimes see is actually part of a larger, more beautiful picture.

Fully comprehended, the universe is starkly, utterly, absolutely beautiful.

Another commitment, which grows naturally out of the commitment to discovering beauty or truth, is to participate in the growth of human culture. As a result of this second commitment, many people become teachers.

Culture holds humanity's shared, public experience of the cosmos, and embodies our collective effort to broaden and deepen that experience, as well.

The universe is so immense and so subtle that only through the coordinated activities of our whole species can we broaden our awareness of it.

The third step is to learn to be open to change and to outside influences. This means being open to noise -- unfiltered feedback from the outside -- which is a rich source of novelty and innovation.

What begins as an accident may end up as an advantage. It's important to let noise jar things loose from time to time so they might later settle into a more effective configuration.

Opening up to outside influences can seem frightening and risky. Without exposure to those influences, though, the chances of making any discoveries or of creating anything original are extremely slight.

Trusting freedom

Our species has accumulated many thousands of years of priceless wisdom. The cultural warehouse where we store that knowledge is so full that it's getting harder to find the goods we need.

Fortunately, a powerful new tool -- the City -- is now under construction, which will link people up with the wisdom of the ages, richly supplying wisdom when, where, and how they need it. The City will provide a kind of "mechanical enlightenment." Whole societies will be transformed.

During the coming years we'll see more erosion of the power of large-scale, centralized institutions. Societies will grow exuberantly diverse and dynamic, as rich and self-regenerating as a tropical rainforest.

The tiny power centers that mushroom in place of the old centralized institutions will rely heavily on communication and information-processing technologies.

Without such "mind tools," coordination and cooperation will be impossible. The new structures that emerge spontaneously will be much more effective than the old, monolithic ones.

Omni-networked societies will have greater freedom, greater diversity, and more information than we could ever imagine. To a 20th century observer, omni-networked societies will seem chaotic and far from equilibrium.

It's exciting to watch dancers. Their movements are so pleasing and elegant. The dancer knows how to play with disequilibrium, to flirt with gravity, but then to consolidate again just an instant before disaster.

That gives the dancer a graceful, dynamic stability. It's an informed stability. The changes in culture brought about by the City will help human societies also learn to fully trust openness and freedom as the wellspring of information.

We'll learn to dance playfully with the cosmos -- the underlying order of the universe.

It's hard for human beings to trust freedom. When feeling threatened, a society naturally responds by drawing inwards, sealing itself off from outside influences, and curtailing the freedom of its citizens.

From the point of view of innovating a successful solution to a crisis, however, those are precisely the wrong responses.

At critical times, a society needs to open itself up as much as its communication and knowledge-processing tools allow it to do without causing the structure of the society to disintegrate from too much noise and chaos.

Only then can the society maximize its chances of discovering ways to work through its crisis.

Many of the problems we face at present are the result of having outgrown the old ways of doing business. We need nimbler, more intelligently coordinated ways of organizing ourselves.

Before those new structures can emerge, however, we have to continue shedding the dead skin of present social, political, and business regulations. Regulations increasingly become the cause and not the cure for foul-ups.

No matter how progressive bureacracies try to be or how much they try to reform themselves, they grow increasingly more inertial and out of touch with more sophisticated and diverse societies.

We have to learn that information is a more effective regulator than bureaucracy. That will mean taking a blind leap into what at first might seem like a chaotic abyss.

In order to willingly trust the creative and constructive power of information, we first have to understand it better. Otherwise, we'll never have the courage to abandon the false coziness of regulations and constraints -- freedom is too terrifying to consider without a mighty good reason.

Freedom truly is dangerous when not coupled with communication. Without communication, freedom is highly explosive. It can forcefully shatter the structures that ensure a society's stability without leaving anything standing in their place. Communication fuels the emergence of new, more appropriate structure.

The weightiest task for now, then, is to build much more effective tools for communication, in order to digest the immense freedom already unleashed by modern technology.

Such tools are being developed with marvelous alacrity today, although it often seems that we're in a close race to see whether we can put them to use before being overtaken by one of a long, gruesome list of possible cataclysms.

At some time in the not-too-distant future, we'll exhaust the communicative power of language itself, the mental tool that's been with us so long that it practically defines our humanness.

At that time, we'll have to build nonsymbolic machines which can surpass even the "Babel Barrier."

Once those tools are in place, and the sumptuous riches of human culture have been made fully available, we can be serenely confident that information -- the same process of evolution that has given rise to life itself -- will transform our cultures.

The transliterate societies that develop as a result of that transformation will be astonishingly inquisitive and creative.

Michael Webb, 1992

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