Imagination: Humanity & Computing

My first meeting with Grady Booch was highly unusual for reasons that are relevant to the topic of this post: imagination and computing. At the time, in 2006, Grady and I were both working on projects that we’ve been developing in all the time since. His is Computing: The Human Experience, and mine is The Imagination Age, a way of thinking about navigating this time between the Industrial Era and the Intelligence Era.

At the heart of the Imagination Age is the idea that we are at a crossroads between ways of thinking, being, and organizing. Our brains are good at making sense of tangible industrial concepts such as engines, conveyor belts, factories and punching in and out of work. The products and ideas that govern the intelligence era, by contrast, are much more nebulous and difficult to understand. Algorithms, interconnected networks, code, mathematics, insights from data, bioengineering and above all, machine learning and artificial intelligence, are not easy to grasp. This makes it difficult to shape policies and predict the consequences of our relationship with ourselves and technology now and in the future.

The central questions of the Imagination Age are: What does it mean to be human? How can we apply imagination to what we create and how we collaborate with our own inventions?

When Grady told me about his project, Computing: The Human Experience, I wanted to learn more about this story of “ambition, invention, creativity, vision, avarice, and serendipity, powered by a refusal to accept the limits of our bodies and our minds.” His transmedia project “explores the science of computing, examines the connections among computing, individuals, and society, and contemplates the future, taking us on a journey of what it means to be human in the face of a technology that can amplify us, diminish us, and perhaps even replace us.”

I was electrified by this idea from the beginning, but I had no idea who Grady was, or how lucky I was to encounter him, or that he would become a mentor who helped me cross the line into an extraordinary world.

The Hero’s Journey

When Grady and I met, we realized that we share a passion for the Hero’s Journey framework by anthropologist Joseph Campbell, who studied the world’s cultures and looked for common elements between them. I try to separate Campbell’s personal beliefs and feelings, as well as the context of the time period in which he lived, from the more valuable aspects of his research.

Even if you don’t know the Hero’s Journey framework by name, many people are familiar with the model because it serves as a frame across time and culture for many of our most epic stories. The essence is that an ordinary person in the ordinary world receives an invitation to cross the threshold into the extraordinary world. Think of the cycle as a circle with a horizon across it. This horizon cuts across at the two and ten o’clock positions. The ordinary person begins at the twelve o’clock position and moves clockwise through the milestones of the journey, crossing the line twice in a full cycle.

This call to adventure is often resisted at first, since the ordinary person has no motivation to risk their own safety and security for the unknown. A mentor appears to help this person recognize that there’s a universe of possibility beyond the status quo to which they are accustomed. Change is inevitable, however, and one can either shape the future or let the future happen to them and others. The purpose of this adventure is to develop powers from within oneself to bring benefits back to humanity.

As the ordinary person crosses over the line into the strange new world and begins to develop allies and antagonists, many things happen, including the abyss, the dark night of the soul at six o’clock. This must occur before a transformation can take root. This is the magic that turns the ordinary person into an extraordinary one. All of us have this capacity, if we accept the call to adventure and meet it with our full selves, flaws and all.

Many years after we met, when Grady shared the outline for Computing: The Human Experience, I was stunned to see that he had placed The Imagination Age at the ten o’clock position, where the newly transformed hero has a meeting with the goddess. During this meeting, the hero gains items and wisdom that will help him or her shape the future. This meeting is physical but also deeply spiritual, and no matter where it takes place in the world, it also takes place in the most sacred chamber of the heart or temple. The goddess, who exists in every woman, represents the final test before the hero can return transformed into society.

The story of computing spans centuries, but Grady is quick to point to the origin of the industry: women gave birth to computing. Now it has “woven itself into the very fabric of civilization, having draped itself across all of humanity.”

It’s true. Grady and I met in the form of pixels, in avatar form, in a virtual world.

A World Where Anything is Possible

Grady and I met in 2006. I had just wrapped up six years as an investigative journalist and researcher. The focus of my work was on the relationship between people and technology, and the unintended consequences of our creations. I also wrote intimate stories about people’s lives for private use in families so people could understand each other on a deeper level. That’s another story entirely, aside from the fact that it taught me to find the story that matters to people and connect it to a larger narrative arc, no matter whether I was interviewing a 96-year-old parent of eight who survived tragedies of all kinds or a senior executive in a corporate setting.

Understanding that I was at a crossroads in my career, my friend Clifford Pickover suggested exploring something new and fun. Second Life, he said.

“Second Life?” I asked. “That sounds like a retirement home for robots. What is it?”

“It’s a magical place where you can meet people from all around the world and live in any kind of house you want.” He asked me what kind of house I would want if I could have my choice of anything, anywhere. I answered without hesitation: a windmill on the beach. “You can have that in Second Life,” he told me. “You can have it today.”

Driven by curiosity, I raced home, opened my laptop and searched for Second Life. I had no idea what it was. On the desk next to me, I had a slip of a paper on which Cliff had written a name, Jessica Qin. Once I was in Second Life, my first assignment was to find her. In order to register to get in, I too had to choose a new name. I was offered a list of surnames. Some of them were strange and others were beautiful. Some of them were both beautiful and strange. Two that appeared back to back caught my attention. Dejavu and Eureka. I considered becoming Rita Dejavu or Rita Eureka, but then I realized that I was not bound to choose the name my mother gave me, which also happens to be her name. I chose to be Eureka Dejavu.

I didn’t know that I was picking a name for an avatar. I didn’t know what an avatar was. On the screen in front of me, in rectangular boxes, cartoonish figures appeared. I had to pick one of them in order to move on to the next step. My cartoonish figure, labeled Eureka Dejavu, was dropped into an animated environment, where other generic figures stuck their arms out as if flapping their wings. The gesture, I soon learned, meant that someone was typing.

I figured out how to message the other inhabitants of this strange world, and in this way contacted Jessica Qin. The feeling I had when this avatar appeared before me was on the edge between awestruck and hallucinatory. Unlike the basic avatars, including Eureka Dejavu, on the screen in front of me, she was vivid, half robot, half woman, in gleaming armor. Her movements flowed. Her arms did not flap when she typed. Instead, equations gathered in the air around her head as if written in chalk, and floated up into the air and disappeared as her first words to me, “Do you want to teleport out of here?” appeared on screen. I said yes, and with the click of a button was whisked into a cosmic wonderland.

“Where are we?” As I typed, my arms flapped. My raw awkwardness was offensive, even to me, in this landscape of planets and starlight.

“My castle,” Jessica typed back. I asked her how she had become so advanced, and she explained that we were in a realm limited only by imagination. I could turn Eureka Dejavu into anything I wanted, and I could create any environment I could imagine. Eventually, she said, I would start dreaming of my virtual life. I laughed at this, not realizing how right she was. She gave me a list of places where I could go and spend real money on virtual goods, everything from a new shape and posture to shoes and facial expressions.

Within a day or two, Eureka Dejavu was taller, with higher cheekbones, hair that stayed in perfect waves, violet eyes, and a new wardrobe that included business suits and a leather catsuit. Jessica Qin was kind enough to assemble my windmill on her beach. Before long, I started a company exploring this new dimension in imagination, humanity and technology. In 2006, IBM hosted a company-wide Innovation Jam so 150,000 participating employees could select focus areas for exploration and investment. One of those areas was 3D Internet. IBM engaged me and my new company to explore the business value of this frontier.

The life and, yes, death, of Eureka Dejavu is a topic that I am still exploring. Creating her led me to redesign my own life in the physical world, and took me to nearly twenty countries working with various clients and collaborators. What matters in this context is that it was Eureka Dejavu who first encountered Alem Theas, the avatar of Grady Booch, in Second Life. His island had it own weather system. Rain fell outside the window of his office, past the shelves loaded with books. Why do avatars want closed office spaces with windows? For the same reason that we still want bodies, even in a disembodied space.

I didn’t know, as I crossed the threshold into the extraordinary world, that this avatar who looked very much like the person who created him would soon become my real friend and mentor. I had no idea that he’s so famous in his industry, or that what he taught me about software architecture would plant seeds in my mind that would later grow into a new era of my career.

Here we are, nearly thirteen years later. Seeing Grady frame part of Computing: The Human Experience through the prism of the Imagination Age has given me an opportunity to take this journey to the next level. As we think about the limits of computing and humanity, and how we can think our way beyond them, we should do it in a way that the goddess finds worthy. What does this mean, exactly, to have a meeting with the goddess? I can’t fully say, yet. I’m still learning, but I know it has to do with love, and the ability to demonstrate ourselves capable of it before we are ready to bring the impact of our transformed selves back into the ordinary world, which is never the place we once left.

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