The Mystic In The Machine

The Tao of computation

Imagine a black dot on white paper. A visual representation of duality. Which is something and which is nothing? Is the black dot the object of substance? The figure that has boundaries and limitations, surrounded by white nothing? Or is the black dot the nothing, like a hole in a piece of paper? The black and the white are very clearly polar opposites, and at least one of them has to be something. And yet the quality of something-ness can be argued for either. As can the quality of nothing-ness.

This is a far from satisfactory situation. But it may just help us in navigating this kooky world of ours. Because you cannot have one with out the other. Although these two polarities cannot be more different, each underwrites the existence of the other. The existence of black implies the existence of white. They are explicitly different, but implicitly the same.

This is a good visualisation for contemplating the deceptive intricacy of duality. The interplay of these two forces weaves the complex tapestry of our entire universe, all that can be experienced, observed, imagined and conceived. In the trickster fashion that it apparently delights in, duality is both everything, nothing and one.

The fact that our laptops are based upon technology first conceived in a 3000-year-old text from Zhou Dynasty China sounds like a tall tale, but this is precisely what happened, as they both utilise the positional system of binary arithmetic to compute data. Like all technology, neither was created in a vacuum (let’s not go there!) but resulted from observation of governing principles of the natural world. In this case it was the essential nature of duality itself.

The title of the I Ching, one of the seminal texts of the Taoists, translates as ‘The Book of Changes.’ The Changes refers to the constant interplay of light and dark, yin and yang, something and nothing that coalesces into each unique moment, explicitly different, inextricably linked, implicitly the same.

The text was a computational technology that for the first time enlisted the elegance of the binary system to communicate myriad subtle and nuanced realities. Its unprecedented advantage lay in the same way that modern computation has enabled our modern life, by computing vast amounts of data to present a snapshot of a reality that is engaged in constant flux, a dance of duality between yin and yang. Its power lay in revealing the pixels that combine to form the image, drawing out the elements and forces that could not be seen.

When humans watch a film, are moved by music on Spotify or design a skyscraper, all of the required information is represented in binary code. Binary is an arrangement of off/on switches arranged in a positional system with each position assigned a particular value, increasing by the power of two as it moves from the right to the left.

And so from two choices — something or nothing, this system is able to encode and represent every conceivable form of complexity in our world. The I Ching computer was even more ambitious than that, as it sought via the same method to represent the opaque depths of the human unconscious.

The I Ching is a divination tool, used continuously and often uncannily since its inception in ancient China until today. If, like me, you are allergic to the term divination, then hang in there, and in the meantime consider that our computers today fulfil the same function.

The 64 Hexagrams of the I Ching

The Somethings and Nothings of the I Ching are the universal dualities. Yin and yang, masculine and feminine, light and dark, encoded by either an unbroken or a broken line. The user thinks on a question and generates one of sixty-four hexagrams (different combinations of six lines) by throwing three coins six times. These hexagrams represent the archetypal situations of our human lives as a reflection of the interplay of universal dualities. The produced Hexagram is then interpreted in a section of the text, which provides commentary, often in the form of imperatives, about the seen and unseen forces in the situation.

The term divination is misleading, as it implies supernatural communication. A more helpful perspective on why people have continually employed this technology for 3000 years and across cultures is the ability that it has to allow the unconscious mind to reflect itself to the conscious.

We live under the illusion that we are in control of our choices, like a stern captain steering the solid wooden ship of our mind. The reality is far closer to the opposite; the conscious mind is like a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean. The sailor has a small degree of both perspective and agency. He can see to the horizon; he can paddle with his arms or shift his weight to the other side of the raft. The raft however is being conducted along the ocean currents, the untold depths of our unconscious.

As all archetypal combinations of universal duality are contained within the sixty four hexagrams, the divination usually serves to prick at those same latent forms that lie beneath the surface of the seekers conscious mind. This technology allows some of the unseen forces to be perceived and contemplated along with the seen. From this perspective of greater depth and clarity, the divination delivers the opportunity to make a better informed decision.

The binary system that informs our computation today was developed and refined by Gottfried Leibniz in the seventeenth century. Leibniz was a relentless thinker and maker, credited with the invention of differential and integrated calculus. He created many mechanical calculators including the Leibniz wheel- the first mass produced calculation device.

Leibniz contributed widely in the fields of Philosophy, Physics, Technology, Mathematics, Biology, Medicine, Geology, Law, Linguistics, Ethics, History and Psychology. He wrote in several languages, but preferred French, Latin and German. He anticipated may notions that were not fully taken up until hundreds of years later, in some cases (such as computer science) because the field did not exist at the time of his writing. And he managed to do all this on the side, while running a busy and successful legal practice. What an asshole.

In 1679 Leibniz was working on the binary system and despite his striving was struggling to come up with a proof for his theory, when a copy of the I Ching came into his possession. Here he had a visual proof laid out in the 64 hexagram forms. Leibniz was well on the way to this discovery before the arrival of the text, and so the I Ching can not be credited as the direct source of computer code. But both the Leibniz and the authors of the text were tapping into a language that seems to underwrite our reality. Oneness masquerading as duality in order to conjure limitless forms.

Just as the firing of zeroes and ones can convey the highest forms of artistic expression, the incessant interplay of duality creates the most intricate weaves that comprise the fabric of the universe. However, for the good life, computation alone is not enough. It was not then and it is not now. Both our ancient and modern computers do not supply wisdom, merely information. Wisdom lies in the choices that each person makes with that information. The I Ching could show the user the forces seen and unseen that inform the situation, and based on that data recommend the best way to act. But the individual must act. And what is not more definitive of the tragic beauty of humanity, that we act in the way that we know to not be in our best interest.

The reasons for this are numerous, but the Taoist philosophy has something to offer here also. It lies in the dichotomy between the explicit and implicit universal forces that animate our universe. Put more simply: Good cannot exist without bad, and our suffering truly comes from our chasing one and running from the other. In the northern hemisphere generated Taoist thought, the Yang or masculine principle is symbolised by the South facing, sunny side of a mountain, The Yin Principle is symbolised by the North facing side of mountain. The wisdom implicit in this imagery is that you cannot have a one sided mountain.

Here is the rub: the problems that we face in the world today and in our personal lives are not due to a dearth of information. There is no secret to losing weight, preventing climate change, or having a more equitable economic system. And yet, despite all the data, we collectively and individually continually fail to take the right decisions.

Why? Because we are fooled by how things appear on the surface. We chase the good and run from the bad, forever trying to scale a one sided mountain. The illusion of our separateness from each other and our world, prompts decisions that put immediate gain ahead off holistic good. This pattern repeats itself through all scales of our socialisation, from global policy right down personal health decisions.

We have more data at our finger tips than ever before, and yet data is not enough. In the same way as the I Ching can reflect the mood of the universe and give the seeker insight into the forces coalescing around her in the moment, our computational powers are painting ever more intricate pictures of an increasingly dire situation. We have the most powerful divination tools known to human history. The question is whether we will choose to digest that data into wisdom.


This article By Steve Ditlea is a fantastic indepth look at binary and its relation to the I Ching and was a great resource in researching this article

The visualisation of the black dot on the white paper and the explicit/implicit concept have come from Alan Watts talks, this one in particular.

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