Mystic Hippies and the I-Ching: App of Changes

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The Direc­tor of How To Change the World, Jer­ry Roth­well, kind­ly let the Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al staff in Ams­ter­dam have a sneak peek at his Sun­dance-award win­ning doc­u­men­tary of the ear­ly days of Green­peace. It’s a bril­liant, fun­ny, and mov­ing sto­ry. It’s also the only doc­u­men­tary I’ve seen that’s done jus­tice to the organisation’s mys­tic hip­py roots. Aside from the stan­dard cos­mic adven­tures of the ear­ly 70s, the film doc­u­ments the rit­u­al cast­ing of three Chi­ne­se coins that was once an accept­ed form of deci­sion-mak­ing in those pre-organogram days: the I-Ching.

If you don’t know it, The I-Ching or “Book of Changes” is an ancient Chi­ne­se ora­cle and book of wis­dom. It was used to describe the present, under­stand the past, and pre­dict the future in some­thing close to its present form as ear­ly as 600 BC. But ele­ments of it appear in Chi­na as ear­ly as the Hsia Dynasty (2205 — 1766 BC). Like The Bible, the book is the result of a lay­er­ing of many texts by many authors (Con­fu­cius and Lao Tzu among them) and there is no wide­spread agree­ment on its author­ship or birth­date. It was a stan­dard text you might find in any North Amer­i­can hippy’s con­crete-block book­shelves alongside the works of Alan Gins­berg Ken Kesey, Gary Sny­der, Car­los Cas­taneda, and Tolkien. The rea­son it might have been there might vary from hip­py to hip­py though: for some, it was a beau­ti­ful expo­si­tion of East­ern phi­los­o­phy. For oth­ers, it was a door­way to the sub­con­scious through arche­typ­al imagery and ele­men­tal poet­ry. For still oth­ers, it was believed to have pow­ers of div­ina­tion.

Bob Hunter, the Van­cou­ver journalist/activist who led the ear­ly organ­i­sa­tion and is at the cen­tre of the doc­u­men­tary, chron­i­cled many con­sul­ta­tions of The Book in his War­riors of the Rain­bow, the text of which pro­vides’ much of the film’s nar­ra­tion. Deci­sions about who would join the crew, what the out­come of a jour­ney might be, and even where a ship should go were often made by toss­ing three coins six times to gen­er­ate a hexa­gram of bro­ken and solid lines.

My own deci­sion to join Green­peace full time was helped along by a read­ing I did in 1982. I’d cut down on my hours at a good pay­ing job to make room for vol­un­teer­ing at a crazy place called Green­peace New Eng­land in Boston. I was can­vass­ing Sat­ur­days and a night or two a week, which brought in a lit­tle mon­ey in com­mis­sions, but spend­ing most of my time help­ing out around the cav­ernous ware­house of an office. There were only two paid staff, and the rest of us did every­thing else: main­tained boats, designed actions, fixed the pho­to copy machine, answered the phone. We were build­ing some­thing pow­er­ful, and I want­ed to be a big­ger part of that cre­ative pres­sure cook­er of a place, but it would mean trad­ing in the day job, a secure income, and warm, dry, book-lined envi­ron­ment for the uncer­tain­ty of the street, the weath­er, and the very real pos­si­bil­i­ty I was get­ting into some­thing that was going to get me arrest­ed. But I knew it was time to either com­mit or quit. I did what any mys­tic hip­py would do: I cast the I-Ching. The hexa­gram I got was “13: Work on What has been Spoiled.” Deci­sion made.

I knew and had loved the I-Ching before I’d arrived a Green­peace. I’d been inves­ti­gat­ing mean­ing­ful coin­ci­dences through the work of Brion Gys­in, William Bur­roughs, Carl Jung, and I was fas­ci­nat­ed not so much by the idea of the I-Ching as an ora­cle, but as a means to access what Gys­in called “The Third Mind” – chance as a col­lab­o­ra­tor. Whether you were cut­ting up a nov­el and past­ing it back togeth­er again or div­ing into the ran­dom­ly gen­er­at­ed texts of the I-Ching or any oth­er form of “Bib­lioman­cy,” (a word wor­thy of a Decemberist’s song) it struck me as a great approach to get­ting at your sub­con­scious incli­na­tions toward a ques­tion: by let­ting the imagery, the arche­types, and the lan­guage echo around in your head you find your thoughts attach to them, your guess­es at what they mean are glimpses into your brain’s strug­gle to find a pat­tern that match­es a par­tic­u­lar answer or out­come. What you’re real­ly try­ing to get at is an answer you already know, and which the book sim­ply helps you unearth. Or, as Gys­in put it:

The Third Mind jum­bles the lin­guis­tic net­work, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reveal­ing and antag­o­niz­ing it. It is a strate­gic device for con­fronting semi­otic assaults. But for it to do so, it calls on a fourth author–yourself–to estab­lish the oper­a­tional field of anoth­er book, an invis­i­ble book that you can make vis­i­ble.

It’s ulti­mate­ly about sto­ry: get­ting at the hard-wired cir­cuit­ry by which our brains select and reject pat­terns that fit the nar­ra­tive we believe — or want to believe — to be true. And some­thing about the nar­ra­tive I want­ed to be true was in the syn­chronic­i­ty in the sto­ry of how I got my own copy of the book. Days after I was intro­duced to the I-Ching by a friend who got me over my resis­tance to some­thing that seemed to bor­row from the worst of astrol­o­gy and for­tune cook­ies, she and I were bring­ing a set of old books to a sec­ond hand book shop. There, on the coun­ter, just arrived and yet to be shelved, was a beau­ti­ful­ly aged hard­cov­er copy of the defin­i­tive Wil­helm-Bay­nes trans­la­tion. I trad­ed up my entire box of dog-eared paper­backs with­out a moment’s hes­i­ta­tion.

That book trav­elled with me from the 70s into the 1980s, into a Nuclear Weapons test site, aboard Green­peace ships and into actions. I was cast­ing coins to the music of Tears for Fears and the news of Rea­gan and Thatcher’s sabre rat­tling. The “Per­son­al Com­put­er” was becom­ing a thing, and I dis­cov­ered mag­ic: pro­gram­ming. For a lit­er­ary geek, this was spell cast­ing: words that made real things hap­pen, that trans­formed things. I dove deep, taught myself enough to lev­el up to a sorcerer’s appren­tice kin­ship with Mick­ey Mouse in a pointy hat and a set of over­sized sleeves: I knew just enough not to know how lit­tle I knew. I start­ed mak­ing a soft­ware ver­sion of the I-Ching: at first just a ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tor that cre­at­ed the lines of a hexa­gram, then some­thing that cal­cu­lat­ed which of the 64 hexa­grams I’d gen­er­at­ed, then some­thing which trans­formed the hexa­gram accord­ing to its mov­ing lines. Then I start­ed writ­ing my own texts, snag­ging pearly ancient wis­dom from Lao Tsu and weav­ing it into tone poems that stole gold and sil­ver threads from lit­er­a­ture, pop cul­ture, T.S. Eliot poems, Dylan songs, Pyn­chon nov­els, Grate­ful Dead lyrics. It took me three long years of spare time cod­ing and writ­ing, but some­where around 1989 I released I-Ching.exe in the Share­ware forum of Com­puserve, and hand­ed out copies to every mys­tic hip­py in Green­peace I could find.

i-ching.exe DOS software oracle
You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you this was cut­ting edge user inter­face design in 1988.

And, in the US, if you bought a clone PC, you might just find it on the menu of installed share­ware that came with your machine. Or so I learned, some three decades lat­er, when Gary McCaskill wrote to say he’d always thought a lot of my lit­tle piece of soft­ware, had dis­trib­ut­ed it with hun­dreds of machi­nes he’d built and sold, and had I turned it into an app yet? I told him I’d thought about it, but the source code was locked away on the hard disk from a vin­tage Com­paq Sewing-Machine-sized portable com­put­er that I couldn’t get to spin up. I had a dot-matrix print-out of the entire source code, but the idea of retyp­ing all 512 pages of text was too daunt­ing. But it so hap­pened that Gary was a com­put­er tech­ni­cian, knew the Com­paq I was talk­ing about, had data recov­ery gear in his base­ment, and may­be he could help unlock my code. Syn­chronic­i­ty… pag­ing syn­chronic­i­ty….

I sent him the disk. He end­ed up going out and buy­ing a Com­paq from that era, recov­ered some of the code, and in the end saved the day by remind­ing me of a fea­ture I’d for­got­ten I’d built – a “print to disk” option that I could use as a back door access to the rest of the text. Gary was prac­ti­cal­ly a full devel­op­ment part­ner in this project; he nudged and sent me chat­ty emails, and we both enjoyed exer­cis­ing skills we’d not accessed in decades.

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I spent much of my Christ­mas hol­i­day learn­ing a new lan­guage for me, JQuery, with which I could build an HTML app that would port to Android, Kindle, iPad, and iPhone devices through a handy lit­tle trans­la­tion pro­gram­me called Phone­gap. It was a steep learn­ing curve, and there was more than one time I end­ed up hang­ing on a branch from a cliff, but it was a fun climb. I attained the Zen state of flow in which the world around you melts away and you become one with what you’re writ­ing. I worked with­in a set of beau­ti­ful con­straints, some imposed by my lack of flu­en­cy in the lan­guage I was work­ing in, some which I imposed myself.

I want­ed the sparest inter­face pos­si­ble: one but­ton. I want­ed no fake parch­ment back­grounds, gim­micky images of bam­boo or car­toon sages. I tried to imag­ine (hubris, I know) that Apple’s Jony Ive was design­ing it – not to imi­tate mate­ri­als in the real world, but to be its own thing, com­plete­ly at home in its dig­i­tal space. The Yin-Yang sym­bol I adopt­ed as a but­ton breathes qui­et­ly. Chang­ing lines appear in grey and ani­mate gen­tly between solid and bro­ken and back again, express­ing their nature through a visu­al change that wasn’t pos­si­ble in an ink medi­um, where X and O indi­cate chang­ing lines. The colour palet­te is lim­it­ed to black, dark and light grey, and white smoke. Texts fade in rather than flash. I strived to cre­ate a qui­et, reflec­tive, slowed down expe­ri­ence in an envi­ron­ment that nor­mal­ly shouts.

Did I suc­ceed? You tell me. It’s avail­able for iPhone, iPad, Kindle, and Android devices via Google Play. Whether you use it to fig­ure out where your ship is fat­ed to go, where you think it should go, or where wis­dom would advise it go, you don’t need to be a mys­tic hip­py to appre­ci­ate hav­ing 5,000 years of think­ing in your pock­et.

4 thoughts on “Mystic Hippies and the I-Ching: App of Changes”

  1. Hi.. my name is Renata
    i writ­ting from Italy…Rome..
    For first.. my eng­lish is poor.. im Croa­t­ian . liv­ing &work in Italy..
    my life is been changed with I King.. coin­ci­dence that im fin­ished here on your page?
    i’ve been look­ing for some film where is men­tioned
    “The book of change”..
    ..and end­ed up on his page… hap­py to dis­cov­er you and your world..I under­stand more and more of its mean­ing.. now even more… 5 year-old child? Yeap
    con­fess i did­nt done much till now .. even 1% about HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD.. to the best
    Best things.. will fol­low you.. for sure..p.s. Your zodi­ac sign ?Curios­i­ty only.. always if im not too intru­sive.. All best.. for your work.. 😉

    1. What a love­ly mes­sage, Renata! The I Ching is all about those coin­ci­dences and how your mind maps mean­ing to them. So glad to meet you! 

      Oh, and I’m a Leo, Can­cer ris­ing. 🙂

      (Se vuoi, puoi rispon­dere anche in Ital­iano. Ho vis­su­to tre anni a Roma e tre in Umbria.)

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