Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/29/2011

Bill Gates and the Default Construction of Self


When I open a Word document on this computer to write, it’s set up (the geeks, nerds, and smart alecks call it the “default”) with a line space of 1.15 lines, and a 10-point space between paragraphs. This pisses me off. How does Bill Gates know how I want my document to look—or how his formatting will copy and paste into this blog space? He doesn’t. He just wants power over my life. That’s all. Macho, macho, macho man! 

I know how to change these “defaults” (1) after the fact, but I don’t have a clue how to reset them so I get to make the formatting I want, not simply react to Bill’s decisions. 

The use of “default” as a computer term emerged inl 1966 (2). Some computer wizard knew the meaning, “failure to act,” and decided we “fail to act” when we open a Word document and don’t immediately set the formatting ourselves. I guess I’m too lazy or too technologically incompetent to set formats to my liking. “Default” in the computer meaning is closer to the original Latin de+ fallere, “to put wrong, to lead astray, cause to be mistaken; to escape notice of, be concealed from.” I’m tired of being led astray by something concealed from me. 

But here’s the real problem. Because Bill Gates has decided a priori how a document should look and most people like me are incompetent or lazy and simply accept his decisions, the formatting of documents is standardized so everyone’s work looks the same. If you don’t believe me, look at a dozen student essays submitted as Word documents. 

From a Buddhist perspective, the epistemological mistake that the Western self psychological literature makes is to forget that the psychological sense of self is merely a construction of mind, and through forgetting this, to reify the self as if it were something substantial and/or self-existent. Emptiness meditations are designed to see this sense of self as a “mere construction” of mind, empty of any substantial or self-existing nature, and while the “construction” of a psychological sense of self may be useful as a point of orientation in everyday reality, ultimately it is merely a useful convention. (3) 

The construction of a psychological sense of self may be useful. Or is it merely a useful convenience? 

At Bunker Hill Community College (c. 1990), I taught a course “Music as Propaganda.” A student asked permission to write her research essay on “New Age Music.” The student taught the teacher. I could not imagine what she meant. She brought me some New Age writings and some recordings of New Age Music. I read and listened, did further research, and learned a tiny bit about New Age thinking. The student made a solid argument for her idea that New Age thought was “propagated” (the word stem from which I taught the class—from the propagation of the species, that is, the planting of identical offspring—ideas, in this case—in new situations. Think the Vatican Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith) through music. Propaganda. 

I remember discussing with the student whether or not it would have been possible for New Age thinking to have grown up anywhere but in a society where individualism—at any rate, individual freedom or the illusion thereof—was foundational.  In our (admitted) ignorance, we agreed that New Age thinking seemed to be a logical extension of the Protestant belief that the individual—the person, the Self—was to find God for him or her self, with no mediation necessary. 

Ten years later I was in a position to associate with and closely observe a New Age community for some time. I know the people I knew used the term “esoteric” as indicative of their religious experience, and meant by it—I believe—that their own experience of the divine (in many forms, most of which the uninitiated would find hard to understand, if not bizarre) was the basis of their beliefs and their living. 

The internet home page of the Light of Christ Community Church proclaims, “We emphasize a personal connection with a Universal God” (4). Their online bookstore lists seventeen publications under the heading “Esoteric Christianity.” Maarten Berg explains that the 

. . . term ‘esoteria’ literally refers to one’s inner experience. A basic assumption of the esoteric tradition is that (religious) knowledge is exclusively obtained through personal experience and not through external authorities and writings (5). 

The individual’s “esoteric” inner experience is the source of his or her religious understanding because 

. . . in the New Age philosophy God is not separate from us, but a divine source within. External guidelines and authority are, therefore, replaced by internal cues. As New Age is sometimes called a solipsistic (self-centered) religion, it is no surprise that it flourishes in an individualistic society (6). 

I am not implying that New Age religion is standard or even that it is acceptable to the mainstream. I use it as an example of religion flourishing in an individualistic society because its practitioners seem at least to be open about its dependence on the experience of self.  I am not convinced, however, that most of our inherited religions are un-self-centered, at least in the way we practice them. 

Yesterday I had a long discussion with another student (twenty years hence)—not about New Age Religion, certainly—about his plans to transfer to a different university. I will write him a recommendation because he is a very bright, articulate, and—a strange thing for a teacher to say—humble young man. When I asked which of the five schools is applying to he would most like to attend, he said the one with the best Business School. 

I asked him why, and he said, “I have to make a lot of money.” I tried to correct him. “You want to make a lot of money.” No, he said, he has to. 

Our conversation was distressing to me because I see his “need” to make money rather than study art history or any of the other subjects he’s interested in as opening his life in the “default” position. From my point of view the default position is the same in our society whether one speaks of religion or of finance. We are so accustomed to falling back on the solipsistic default position that we cannot “see this sense of self as a ‘mere construction’ of mind, empty of any substantial or self-existing nature.” 

We seem able only to take one of two paths: either constructing our self through materialism (the default position) or seeking individual experience of the divine (the esoteric position). The propaganda for the two responses to our existence is all around us. 

The transformation of the world is brought about by the transformation of oneself, because the self is the product and a part of the total process of human existence. To transform oneself, self-knowledge is essential; without knowing what you are, there is no basis for right thought, and without knowing yourself there cannot be transformation. One must know oneself as one is, not as one wishes to be, which is merely an ideal and therefore fictitious, unreal (7).
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(1) “default.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 2011.  Web. 29 Jan. 2011.
(2) “default.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Ed. Douglas Harper. Etymonline.com. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.
(3) Brown, Daniel. “Mastery of the Mind East and West.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1172.(2009): 231-251.
(4) Light of Christ Community Church. lightofchrist.info. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.
(5) Berg, Maarten. “New age advice: ticket to happiness?.” Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 361-377.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Krishnamurti, J. The book of life: Daily meditations. San Francisco: Harper, 1995. Quoted in Berg.

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