Okay, so imagine a vast computer lab, split into a lot of little cubicles where a lot of people are working on computers. As we walk up one row of these computer cubicles, you can look over and see what a handful of people are doing. One person is typing up an evocative chapter of a novel, on what seems to be reflections of past life and loss. Another person is forming a Craigslist search for hit men to murder somebody, with a side window in the background of bestiality porn. Another person is playing a Farm simulation game on Facebook, driving a little tractor around to plow a little imaginary pixel field.
Now, right off the bat, you’re probably thinking that the activities these people are engaged in are on different places in the spectrum of morality or ethics or just plain human decency: that their actions are imbued with inherent meanings. But now what if you realized – noticed in the reflections of their monitors – that all of these people at these computers were wearing blindfolds? What if they had no idea what they were doing at those computers?
It’s unlikely they would write a novel or control an imaginary tractor by random chance (though if you put 1000 monkeys in a room with 1000 computers, one of them will probably play Farmville). But you could imagine a simpler, streamlined program that either launches Craigslist assassins or composes poetry from pre-selected words every time any button is pushed, which would be random. Either way, all they’re doing is pressing keys. Their physical action is to press keys or a mouse button.
The same actions – the exact same – can do something beautiful, or something terrible, or something inane. And if when you walked through the lab, the monitors were off, all you would see is those exact same movements: people sitting at desks, pushing keys, moving mouse clicks about. The exact same tick-tacks and clicks for poetry, for pain, for apathy. The physical actions mean nothing.
Now, imagine that every hour a bell dings, and one of the computer lab dwellers has to walk to the front of the room, where a square is delineated in floor-placed duct tape. The blindfolded computer user whose turn it is stands in that square and flaps his arms for 30 seconds. Then he returns to his chair, none the wiser of what occurred. Sometimes on either side of that square are pillows in a heap. Sometimes it is nuns in wheelchairs, who get slapped silly. The person who stands in the squares doesn’t know the difference – whether his physical actions, always exactly the same, smacked about some pillows, or some nuns. The slaps have no inherent meaning.
A computer is a device with inputs and outputs that can be accomplishing a million purposes at any given time with strokes that have no pre-assigned importance – just like a human body. An easy analogue is sex: actions that have no inherent meaning, that can be very important or not important at all. But it isn’t hard to see that no act has meaning built into the physical processes that make it up.
If a person is having fun with their game, or getting satisfaction and catharsis from their novel, or feeling guilt or pleasure at their murderous plans, that perspective assigns meaning for the person doing the action, like a screen on which they make sense of their input. The other place meaning comes from is the network: the cables that connect us all together. The effect we have on other people, what we cause them to feel and think and undergo, that Internet of living interaction, is the other source of meaning for our actions. (To that end, don’t worry. The nuns were wearing protective armor jackets and full-face helmets. They are badass motorcycle nuns. They don’t need your pity.)