After Reading is a Trip Down a Rabbit Hole

As a kid I raised rabbits. I liked to draw them too. The introvert in me has an affinity for rabbits. Rabbits are weak on earth, but fast to burrow down a hole and traverse the underworld, just like an introvert on a psychological journey.

As an adult I generally avoid rabbit holes. It is too easy to lose perspective. There are many kinds of rabbit holes: a programmer lost in code, a writer fumbling with words, a thinker tangling with ideas. Code, words, ideas: they are bottomless pits. The trap is detail. Fancy oneself an artist perfecting an offering and there is no end.

This work, After Reading, is a trip down a rabbit hole, a psychological journey. The trip begins with books, traces a way through the internet, and then deals with the subject of machine life. It is a strange journey, a rabbit hole, but there is a natural end. We travel to the end of books, and code, and language, and thought. At the end of thought there are no details left to perfect. At the end there is a gate, a way out of the rabbit hole. I hope you come along.

A Rabbit Hole has Three Things: Falling, Strangeness, and Change

When it comes to adventure a “rabbit-hole” has three things: falling, strangeness, and change. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Alice is bored when she spots the white rabbit and follows it. She then suddenly falls a long way down the rabbit-hole. The fall is unexpected. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the wizard Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest. Bilbo declines, “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!”

We must fall into adventure because we are comfortable. A hobbit-hole has paneled walls and tiled floors and carpet. Comfy. Other holes are at best dry, bare and sandy. A rabbit-hole is often nasty, dirty and wet. To “go down a rabbit hole” means discomfort, a trip into the unknown and the strange. Alice encounters a world of talking animals and twisted logic. Bilbo faces hungry trolls, fierce wood-elves and a dragon. It takes a fall to dislodge the adventurer.

The strangeness of the rabbit-hole makes it difficult to get out. The adventurer must change. In the The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, and his friends also go on epic adventures. Frodo and Sam set out to destroy a magic ring. Frodo returns home physically and psychologically injured but Sam grows strong. Sam musters the courage to propose to Rosie Cottonwood. Merry and Pippin rally the Ents against Saruman and enlist in the War of the Ring. They return taller and braver, rallying troops to restore their home. Alice too finds courage to stand up to the King and Queen.

Merry joins the army of Rohan as esquire to King Theodin. Pippin volunteers his service to Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. I have a personal story about joining the army, though not nearly so epic or brave as that of the hobbits. In 1985, my hobbit-hole was a little house with my parents in small-town Ontario. I was graduating with straight A’s in arts, maths and sciences. I was a prime target for the Canadian Armed Forces recruiters. They made a good pitch: travel, a university degree, all expenses paid. I fell for it.

I was sent to Chilliwack BC for Officer Training. Head shaved, I woke early every day for inspection and exercise. We marched between classes, saluting and following the chain of command. Now, this is not a story about the hazing of a new recruit, nor did I suffer any abuse at the hands of my trainers. I was in the Canadian Armed Forces, a civilized institution with decent beds and good food. I was in Officer Candidate School, and that meant some respect. This is a story about a young man out of his comfort zone.

The warrant officer was an old bear, the sergeant a weasel. While others seemed to be adapting I would stay up late to read and smoke and think. Exhausted I got strange. I recall dusting out the room’s heating vents for fear the sergeant would inspect them. Beneath the vent covers a heating pipe trailed away like a rabbit-hole. It was in weapons class one day that I realized I had to leave. Rifles mounted on our shoulders, the captain barked out a question, “The commies are coming over the hill, what do you do?” The assumed answer, “shoot,” galled me. The Berlin Wall would not fall for another four years but the Soviets were not our enemy. If I let this assumption breach my ethical walls I would lose myself, so I thought.

It was relatively easy to get out of the Armed Forces, but my rabbit-hole was more complicated. After requesting my exit, I returned to my quarters, went into the shower for privacy, and bawled my eyes out. Knowing I could leave, I had to face the fact that I had failed. I would later feel ashamed in front of my family. My mother had cried with my departure on the train as if I was going overseas to war, yet here I was back already. I felt small with my friends. “Couldn’t take it, huh?” For years I dreamed about it. At first I had nightmares that I was back in the Army, failing all over again. Later I dreamed that I was in the army but I was coping, even helping others. Finally, years later, I dreamed I was thriving. The dreams stopped. Like Alice, I awoke to find myself out of the rabbit-hole.

Some might say that Armed Forces training is implicitly harsh. I suppose that was true for me, a nineteen-year-old sheltered introvert, but I maintain no complaint. I met many fine people. There was the former Army Cadet who did everything so easily, quietly giving me tips — psst you have shaving cream on your ear. A kind army psychologist met with me to ensure I was not being mistreated. He encouraged me to continue but accepted my decision. I was given an honourable discharge. As I left a cute Dutch girl called to me from the barracks, grow your curly locks! I did. There was lasting positive change. I learned I could accomplish more in a day than I ever thought possible. I recommend the army experience for some, especially clever youths who are just a bit too comfortable.

Technology is a Pernicious Rabbit Hole

One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1983 my sister invited me to play a board game, Payday. I gruffly declined. A month earlier it might have been the perfect diversion but something new had clamped my interest, a Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10. Smaller than other personal computers it was all I could afford on my newspaper route savings. A black and white television served as a monitor and a cassette recorder for data storage. With the 16KB memory expansion and reference book in hand, I was programming a digital Yahtzee. I had already programmed the rolling dice and was now feverishly working on the scoring. My sister chided me for spending all my time on the computer.

The expression, rabbit hole, comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice is bored until she spots a rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch, talking to itself. Curious, she follows it into a rabbit hole and falls into a fantasy world of strange creatures and twisted logic. In the end Alice grows in size and plucks up the courage to challenge the king and queen of hearts, calling them out as just playing cards. Alice’s sister wakes her up. It was a dream.

Carroll’s book was published in 1865. My modern rabbit hole is technology. Originally interested in language and literature, I was curious about the new phenomenon of the personal computer. I took high school computer courses. I played with them. I went to university for a psychology degree but in the late eighties computers were everywhere. The school computer lab had Apple IIe desktops and mainframe clients. I acquired a 14.4k modem with which I could submit statistics jobs, send email, and browse discussion boards. After graduating I worked in social services for a few years and managed to skip Windows 3.1 entirely. A later job in health research had me grinding numbers on spreadsheets, juicing my programming chops. One Visual Basic certification later I was qualified for nifty, good paying programming jobs. Scooped by IBM I began a lifelong career in information technology.

A corporate information technology department is a world of strange creatures. Alice (yes, like in Wonderland) was gifted with code but had no clue when to start or stop speaking. David was a well-adjusted college kid who could care less about code but liked the money. Helen was a middle-aged tester who resented our kind for taking her old job. I had an affinity for the book nerds. We liked reading, libraries, bicycles and public radio. Skilled with stories and a keyboard, most of us had tried our hand at creating a computer text adventure.

I had spells where I felt I had missed my original calling as a writer, librarian or psychologist. It was not that I disliked technology. Early on it was stimulating to learn the deep knowledge of how the computer world hung together. Analyzing software requirements was a bit like psychoanalysis, asking workers to explain behaviours they performed unconsciously. I enjoyed the zen state of coding, suspending the outside world, tracking a dozen variables in my head, coordinating the moving pieces as I wrote thousands of lines of code. I worked with teams that built four major software systems and dozens of smaller ones, still used worldwide today. It is likely that you have used my code. I still take pride in that. But I always expected to make an exit from the technology rabbit hole. It did not happen.

I became a strange creature. It was a daily battle, spending my best creative resources to increase the quarterly profits of banks, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers. We worked the mythical man month, too many people grinding out code too late at night and too long into the weekend. I smoked and drank. I ate badly and got no exercise. My theme song came from What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes, “And I try, oh my god do I try, I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray, I pray every single day, for a revolution.” I suppose I was hoping for a political and economic revolution that would upend the necessity of my job, but the revolution I got was technological, the rise of cell phones and the Internet. At first, having a cell phone made me sleep better. If it was not ringing I knew everything was okay. The Internet made me smarter, no question, being able to google coding questions and learn new skills. But cell phones and the internet also meant I could be found anytime, and I could work from anywhere. Early adopters, we were assimilated into the borg.

Seven years into the rabbit hole there was a moment of light. Randy was the sort of manager who disillusioned young new employees. Forget innovation and invention, Randy would say. Business applications are meatball programming. Maybe Randy was struggling too. One day he said something unexpected, that an employee needs to be comfortable in his or her own skin to be of any real value to the company. A little harsh, a lot true. I had always been uncomfortable in my skin. I made a business case to fund a Master of Library and Information Science. I used technical terms, like usability and information architecture. Randy approved it.

I imagined that library school would lead to a comfortable job reading books, but the digital revolution was in full swing for libraries too. It may not be obvious, but librarians and technologists do the same thing, organize information. Databases, markup, boolean search: all old news in libraries but digital tools make them fast. Today’s libraries are fast places solving interesting problems; my technology skills were a hot commodity. It worked for everybody. I wrote open source code for libraries, published in technology journals, and patented an invention for IBM. I finished my part-time degree in 2010. There were good library prospects but now IBM upped the ante. Until this time, most technology required that its data be normalized, that is, structured into neat columns and tables for databases. Unstructured data was considered second class, the loose insides of documents and books, best left to librarians. This all changed when IBM faced off its Watson supercomputer against the world’s best Jeopardy players. Watson measured its data in books, unstructured data. It beat the human champs easily using natural language processing. It was the ultimate librarian. I was offered a job in IBM Watson Group and I took it.

Technology is a pernicious rabbit hole, with enough intellectual and economic rewards to keep me there. My final chapter with IBM came after a failed attempt to create a partnership between Watson Group and the Digital Humanist researchers. In library school I had become familiar with the Digital Humanists, academics who specialize in understanding the algorithms of reading. They only lacked computer resources. Watson Group had the resources but needed insight into machine reading challenges. A perfect match it seemed. As I mentioned, it is not always obvious to get two groups to see their shared concern. Had I succeeded I am sure I would have stayed with IBM for life, but the partnership failed, mostly around fears about intellectual property rights. There was nothing more I could do. There was nothing left to interest me. I was offered a pile of money to stay but I was done. Do not mistake this conclusion as my victory over the rabbit hole. I took another job at a small local firm. I work at a civilized pace, live healthy and teach a fitness class. I deliberately avoid writing code but I still work in technology. In the end, people are what they do, and I am technologist. I live in a rabbit hole. I suppose I am a rabbit.

Quotidian Miracles. “These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out” — Jed McKenna

…. What is it here in the seemingly materialistic universe that we can focus on so we can see through the cosmetic layer to what, if anything, lies below?

Glad you asked. Behold the Quotidan Miracle.

Not the miracle of birth or sunrise or cellphone-deflects-bullet kind of miracles, but the ordinary kind that we all experience all the time, like when the phone rings and it’s the person you were just thinking about. You can’t prove it, you can’t reproduce it, but you know it’s happened and you know it was more than mere coincidence because it happens too often and because you experience enough stuff like it that you know there’s more to it than meets the eye. Those are quotidian, workaday miracles, and that’s where you look. You look where you know there’s more than meets the eye.

…. Following the white rabbit is the point, not who’s on the phone or if it’s a good day to play the ponies.

…. The world is transparent and all you have to do to see through it is look. Quotidian miracles are visible bits of the subtle realm, breadcrumbs you can follow, invitations that most people reject but you can accept. The real Wonderland isn’t underground, it’s on the surface in full illumination, but we dwell in the subterranean darkness of slumberland. These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out.

— Jed McKenna, Dreamstate, 172-175