We think of the digital revolution as “our” revolution - a fairly recent phenomena that started to sweep through the world during the second half of the 20th century and then quickly alter the way we interact with technology and each other. We are “connected” now: converged, addicted and forever changed by the experience. But it isn’t really our revolution at all.
When Steve Jobs dropped out of college in 1973, he studied an ancient Chinese system of philosophy and divination for a complete year. It was called the I Ching and though he probably didn’t know it at the time, it was this system - basically the world’s oldest book - that provided the essential link to the digital revolution which Jobs himself would so actively immerse himself within the years to come.
Initially created as a system of divination by the legendry Emperor and sage Fu Xi some 5,000 years ago, it was popularly believed that his inspiration was supernatural, but paranormal mysticism was as common in China during that period as Facebook is today - it was everywhere - so we must take such statements with a grain of salt. However the I Ching was definitely far from mundane. Regarded by many as a book of “magic”, it seemed to somehow know a questioner better than they knew themselves.
Apparently a pragmatic and perceptive leader, Fu Xi transformed a basically backward and feudal society, teaching his people how to fish with nets, cook properly and hunt with weapons made of iron - a complete novelty at the time. According to Ban Gu the 1st century Chinese historian, Fu Xi also created the laws of humanity and devised eight trigrams in order to “gain mastery over the world”. These eight trigrams formed the basis of the original I Ching, but since it was also said that Fu Xi lived to the ripe old age of 197, we shouldn’t get too carried away by his biography - or perhaps we should? Suffice to say that Fu Xi certainly created a remarkable phenomenon that not only endured but then morphed into a one of the world’s great philosophical texts.
Whatever the I Ching’s true genesis though - supernatural or more cerebral - its system of divination steadily acquired mythical associations with the great and revered Chinese philosopher Confucius announcing that should he live another fifty years he would spend them all studying the I Ching. He added many philosophical texts himself and not surprisingly the book’s reputation then spread throughout the land. In the language of today’s digital revolution: it went totally viral.
The idea behind the I Ching was extremely simple: that the various circumstances that occur in our lives - indeed the whole universe - are the result of two interacting forces named Yin and Yang. Yin was regarded as yielding, feminine, fertile and of the earth, while Yang was masculine, masterful, creative and heavenly. These two symbols interacted with each other in various formations and so created the various influences and changes that affect our lives. Representing Yin with a broken line and Yang with an unbroken one, a system of divination was then created. By throwing coins or yarrow sticks a questioner could then be given answers according to how the coins or sticks fell.
Eventually developing into a more sophisticated system of 64 hexagrams of 6 lines each, the I Ching’s methodology - how it calculated answers - became as much an interest to inquiring minds as did it’s uncanny abilities to foretell the future. It certainly fascinated one of the greatest mathematicians in history, Gottfried Leibniz who, in 1703, published a description of a new form of calculation called “an explanation of the binary arithmetic……and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi”. He had been inspired to create this “new” system after studying how the I Ching basically synthesized all universal interactions into a system of either broken or straight lines.
The new arithmetic which Liebniz described is used in the digital device on which you are reading these words right now: Binary Code. Nearly 250 years later, the great mathematician John Von Neumann – a colleague of Einstein - was largely responsible for the construction of the world’s first digital computer and it is no coincidence that he too was as fascinated by the workings of the I Ching as had Leibniz been before him.
But perhaps the greatest testament of all concerning the mysterious workings of the I Ching isn’t that the well-respected psychoanalyst Carl Jung studied the I Ching for decades and based his Theory of Synchronicity on it, or that Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli collaborated with Jung - equally transfixed by a system that seemed to understand the binary mechanism of the universe - but that Bob Dylan said in a 1960’s interview: “I just don’t have any religion or philosophy. I can’t say much about any of them (but) there is a book called the I Ching, I’m not trying to push it, I don’t want to talk about it, but it’s the only thing that is amazingly true, period…”