Memetic synchronicity and open source

Whatever eddies and currents govern synchronicity in my life seem to be getting rather turbulent, and focussing on memes and words at the moment. I’ll use a phrase, or think about a concept, and bam!, there it is, strewn across my path in various forms. C’est le web, I guess.

One that struck me particularly was my off-the-cuff use very recently of the phrase "open source philosophy". Obviously, posting every day means you think about posting, and writing, a little more than usual, and I’d been homing in on something to describe what I like writing here, and that something turned out to be "open source philosophy". It’s obviously not strictly open source—my ideas here aren’t really presented in a way that’s that closely analagous to the nature of open source software. Like much of my writing, I’m maybe more concerned with the spirit than with the letter here. Including my wrong turns, not being too concerned about revealing various peccadilloes, disclosing (some of) my personal investments and biases… All this hopefully adds up to a flow of thinking that’s a little more accessible than traditional, professional philosophy, where the arguments have been built into daunting edifices through years of mental labour, and much of the gaffer tape and idiosyncratic, less than stable underpinnings in the foundations are hidden behind confidence and rhetorical polish.

Well, shit, that might describe me to some people! There are infinite lessons in relativity… But really, it’s an ideal, not a fully formed reality, and I’ve other concerns that pull in other directions—like sounding cool and convincing everyone that I’m right. It’s also another attempt to define my slippery self—as with my shift in section labelling here from "articles" to "essays"—and a get-out clause.

In any case, a couple of days later I’m checking out Douglas Rushkoff’s site and I see he’s got an interesting-looking recent book out, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. And a web project to accompany it: Open Source Judaism.

It’s an inevitability, this conjunction of libertarian concepts of software development and these long-standing human institutions of mind and spirit. It’s just odd, and nice, how first-use and first-encounter like to huddle together in time.

The technical structure of the internet, as we all know, is the prime factor in this wave of enthusiasm for "open source", for transparent collaboration, for harnessing collective intelligence. When I first got my head around building web sites in the late nineties, I was deep into some rather intensive, poetically-inclined etymological research. It’s still all in notebooks and ancient Microsoft Works files somewhere (I think), an enthusiastic amateur rumble through Indo-European languages for associations between words related to the Pole Star, centrality, naval navigation, and cheese-making (don’t ask—yet). At the time I enthused about building an openly collaborative website, dumping it all in there, and getting others with similar strange habits to add their research to the mix.

The idea came up once with Julian Cope, hanging in the Stones restaurant next to Avebury Henge, and he warned me against it. He had a load of etymological speculation—etymosophy he called it—in his then upcoming tome, The Modern Antiquarian, and some of our research had overlapped. I recall his reasoning being that there’s a dissipative effect in just splurging your research on the web mid-stream. I guess it depends on where you want to go with it. There’s also some sound advice on personal creativity there—allowing something to gestate for its proper time before it comes to term.

But there are new ways of generating novelty and connections emerging, not without their pitfalls and ambiguities, but certainly worth exploring. There’s been some interesting buzz recently about the free, radically open online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. A journo in Syracuse, New York, published something a few weeks ago where a librarian was quoted emphasising the lack of trustworthiness of this web resource where anyone can edit nearly anything. Communications boffin Alex Halavais set about testing the responsiveness of the Wikipedia non-system, by seeding a bunch of intentional errors. All thirteen were spotted and corrected by the amorphous collective editing process within a couple of hours. (Though please read this strong caveat before "testing" Wikipedia yourself.)

Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.

Friedrich Nietzsche

This has become such a truism to me that it is rather difficult to take on board this kind of "collective intelligence". (Nietzsche would probably have been horrified at such inflexibility of conception. Or he might have just erupted with misanthropic bile, hitting the table and shouting, "Bollocks! They’re all stupid bastards out there!") But orgs like The Co-Intelligence Institute (via WorldChanging) seem to be the tip of an iceberg that’s been steadily accumulating weight as computer networking has reshaped society and ecological research has revealed and delineated the power of sheer numbers: millions of heads are better than one.

So what about open source religion? It may be an oxymoron whose time has come. If we go back to the likely origins of religion (and much else besides), shamanism, I think even then real "open source" is impractical. The way I see it, even before the Microsofts of the human spirit, the priestly horders of divinity, came along with their coded texts and zealously guarded secrets, powers and privileges, the shaman as the "technician of the sacred", however non-elitist the social structures she was embedded in, had to keep some stuff to herself. I think part of the deal with shamanic healing is the persona of the shaman, the mask of power and knowledge.

Not that this mask or persona implies any lack of real power or knowledge—far from it. These things seem to me to be very sophisticated tools, interfaces between the shaman’s actual power and the social group, that are part of her power to effect healing and transformation. People need to believe they can be healthy again, and this slippery, almost ungraspable shift in mental constructs often needs a bit of trickery to accomplish.

An exquisite seduction carried out not only in the cause of mutual satisfaction but also as a conscious act in a deliberately beautiful life—may be the ultimate Poetic Terrorism. The Poetic Terrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE.

Hakim Bey, ‘Poetic Terrorism

Of course Bey isn’t talking about shamanism (or is he?), but the sentiment is the same. The vitality of archaic trickster figures, and their degeneration into our Devil, "the father of lies", speaks volumes about our loss of sensitivity to the ambivalence of both lies and honesty.

So, a shaman, in a professional, socially benevolent capacity, needs to keep some cards close to their chest. But—in case you hadn’t noticed—we don’t live in a tribal society anymore. Previously secret indigenous traditions revealing their wisdom and techniques, due to a perception that our world’s up shit creek and needs any paddles that can be thrown at it, seems to be an increasingly common occurrence (despite the fear and mistrust in indigenous societies that we have dragged into shit creek with us, without a boat, let alone a paddle). The ways of the world ebb and flow, but I don’t think this flow of esoterica into the open is needing to ebb just yet—our problem is almost certainly that it hasn’t flowed enough.

The gates need to be opened, the seals broken. Let’s put our cards on the table.