Fifteen years ago, I saw a Complicite’s production of their remarkable play Mnemonic
. The show is about the nature of memory and shared origins. I remember the way the text, lighting, and set design made half a dozen concurrent stories blend together fluidly, like memory. After delivering bad news to a patient, the doctor stands up, takes his chair by the back, flicks his wrist, and as the lights refocus, the chair falls limp
to become a puppet Ötzi
, the 5,000 year old wanderer who died, alone, in the snow on the South Tyrol mountains. It was thrilling.
, the Artistic Director, started the show with a kind of guided meditation, asking the audience members to wear an airplane sleep mask and hold a dry maple leaf. As we trace the veins on the leaf in our hands, he explains that memories are not written to brain cells like a hard drive but are instead connections between previous experiences. It’s called sprouting
. It’s why you remember that someone who shouted at you was wearing a blue shirt. Then he asks us to remember New Year’s Day last year. And New Year’s Day ten years ago. And finally:
“We will go to when you are six years old. It’s summer. Or perhaps your first day at school, or pre-school, primary school. Look down at your feet. What shoes are you wearing? Look behind you, to the right, hold up your hand in your imagination. Another had clasps yours. It’s your mother. Look up to your left. Another hand clasps that one. It is your father. Your mother, your father, and you. And now look back behind your right-hand side. Behind your mother, with a hand on each of her shoulders, are her parents. And to the left, on your father’s shoulder, are his parents. His mother. His father. Six people stand behind you. All looking at you. And now look back again and behind your grandparents are their parents. Eight great-grandparents, four grandparents, your parents and you. And behind the eight of them are sixteen others, all looking at you. Now feel the leaf. It has several veins. Imagine that each vein is a line of your ancestry all coming down to you, the stalk. All of them leading to you.
If you look back along the line behind you, as you look back, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, standing in that line of ancestors are 256 of your relatives. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there is a line of 4,064. In the seventeenth century there’s 64,000 and the sixteenth 1.5 million. And a thousand years ago, if there really were no kinship ties, that line would be longer than all the people who have ever been born, which is of course not possible… but it means that you’re related to everyone sitting in this theater.”
When he asks you to lift your blindfold, McBurney has become Virgil. He is wearing the same mask you are, holding a leaf just like you, and he’s listening to the same voice that you are. You realize that while you were listening, the voice became a recording, and the show has started. It is exciting and disorienting, and it works: I think of that show almost every day. McBurney says, “…our job, the job of remembering, is to reassemble, to literally re-member, put the relevant members back together again.”
The allegory is majestic, especially if you work on computers. The human need to connect is so strong that memories, the basic building blocks of how we interpret the world, are themselves countless connections. So meaning and purpose, predicated on memory, are not atomic after all, but simply something we derive from countless unreliable, ephemeral memories at a particular time. So it is with highly distributed software systems, like the Internet, which derive their meaning from countless interactions.
We’ve learned that these systems thrive when we clearly define the How, rather than the What or Why. What and Why are central planning questions, which would help if a system’s memories were captured in millions of well-ordered cells, but they’re not – and the combinatorics of all those connections will beat hubris every time. Instead, we have to focus on How we make the connections and let the system figure out the rest of it. That makes a well-defined software interface, an API, a platform capable of hosting ever-more interesting work, and after reading McBurney’s meditation is it really any wonder.
The API, the shared experience, is where we can congregate. Everything before and everything after bifurcates too quickly. So we attend Mass, we go to the movies. We use Amazon S3 to store our images or link our code to glibc. It’s all the same.
If you’re standing there at the endpoint, at the stem of the leaf, you and everyone else standing there with you are, for a moment, all related, and we can trace our fingers over the same leaf. Comforting, isn’t it?