Searching for the Soul in the Machine

by Richard Gylgayton

When I began my search for a new job in July of 1994 I turned to a unique reference work, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design, by Laurence G. Boldt. In the Introduction I came across a statement by Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and storyteller, a man who has been a major influence in my life for the last twenty years: "If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track, which has been there all the time waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living."

Well, I thought, any career guide that starts with a statement like that, a philosophy that I had already been practicing for most of my adult life, must have many other wonderful things to say. So I used it as my guide in planning my way through my career change.

Over the years I have discovered something else that Boldt’s excellent guide teaches: a job is more than just a job. It should also be a livelihood, a time and place that, rather than being separate and removed from your personal life should be a site of creativity, energy and service. In a manner of speaking, a good job should be like making art, just as challenging and fun, and at times just as painful and gradual.

The great challenge in our industry is keeping up with the technology. We are gurus, in a sense, the wizards that have all the answers. We are the ones who stay dry in a tidal wave of new products, concepts, software, and hardware, few of which are designed on the philosophy of de jure standards, and the majority of which ship either incomplete, broken, poorly documented, or built with the idea of grabbing as much market share as quickly as possible in order to become the new “must have” product. The bigger challenge, in addition to understanding how these things work (if they ever do) is in integrating them into our client’s business environments, or in getting them to operate if they were put there by someone else, and in keeping the clients happy while we complete these tasks. In that second challenge I have discovered that gratifying part of the livelihood of being a computer consultant, my own bliss in a sense: the search for the soul in the machine.

What I am referring to is that place where all the silicon, protocols, packets, code, array tables and bells and whistles evaporate and reveal what actually is happening: human beings responding to one another for human purposes, the majority of them certainly economic, but also regions where every person involved is acting out a role and a ritual that is powerfully unconscious. This is a place where the harried corporate executive, who has a major meeting in five minutes and can’t get his Microsoft Project chart to print properly, comes to me and says "help!" with a mask of agonized panic and stress rippling across his face, and where, after my intervention, as the chart prints perfectly, a smile crosses that same visage and utters an honest and grateful "thank you." At moments like that I feel like an artist and a guru at the same time.

That area of soul is very meaningful to me. Every time I hear the phrase "information superhighway" I cringe. When computers are discussed on radio talk shows, inevitably the same vapid question gets asked; "When is all this technology going to replace books? When is it going to solve all of society’s ills?" The point is that none of this technology is going to solve our problems for us in and of itself. (One could make a very strong case for it creating more obstacles than it resolves.)

People make the machines, people cause the dilemmas. It is also up to individuals to figure out a way to use the technology to solve the conundrums, not just to entertain and enslave the masses in some sort of multimedia opium den owned by Disney, Paramount, and Amblin Pictures. The old Irish curse of “may you live in interesting times” is fully applicable here, and the way to get around the unsatisfying surface structure is to dig deep and find the human being dwelling underneath the silicon.

Emerson said, "This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it." When I reach the end of a long day of swimming up to my neck in technology, I have to review the moments when I made contact with a person as a person, rather than as an object. That’s where the bliss is for me, and where I uncover the spirit of these interesting times.

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