End game

Automatic prayer wheel

You’ve probably heard of Tibetan prayer wheels. But now digital-age buddhists have realized there are much better devices for praying, and they’re all around us: Hard drives. Hard drives are, of course, spinning wheels — disks overlaid with language, whipping around at thousands of revolutions a second. Drop by Deb Platt’s site and you can download a mantra. Once it’s on your hard drive, it will become, in effect, a supercollider for karma:

To set your very own prayer wheel in motion, all you have to do is download this mantra to your computer’s hard disk. Once downloaded, your hard disk drive will spin the mantra for you. Nowadays hard disk drives spin their disks somewhere between 3600 and 7200 revolutions per minute, with a typical rate of 5400 rpm. Given those rotation speeds, you’ll soon be purifying loads of negative karma.

If you occassionally post articles to netnews, you can exponentially increase the good karma that is generated by including the mantra in your .sig file. Shortly after posting an article, every news server in the world will be spinning your mantra round and round. If we assume that the news servers are Unix machines that operate continuously, a single news posting with this .sig will probably spin over 5 trillion times before the article expires. Sentient beings everywhere will be thanking you.

There’s a very sly, jokey humor about Tibetan prayer wheels, almost as if Tibetan buddhists are well aware of how the wheels riff off the mechanistic aspects of spiritual observances. (After all, the rituals of most religions can be quite blatantly algorithmic, as if they’d been conceived as a set of IF/THEN statements. Do X, don’t do Y, and presto: You’ll attain unity with [insert theistic-being/spiritual-nullstate of your choice].)

Indeed, the hard-drive prayer wheel makes me think of the famous Arthur Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” It’s online here in its entirety, and if you haven’t read it, it’s about a bunch of Tibetan monks who hire two computer engineers to set up a computer for them. The computer’s job is to generate a list of all the possible letter combinations that spell out the nine billion names of god. The monks had been doing this task by hand for hundreds of years, and had assumed it would take them 15,000 more years to complete the task. With a computer, they can do it in three months. The programmers eventually find out that, according to the monks’ beliefs, once all nine billion names have been written out, humanity’s purpose will be fulfilled and God will step in to end the universe; th-th-that’s all, folks! The story ends as the two programmers, having finished the task, walk down the mountain:

“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

Which is, really, one of the best endings to a sci-fi story ever. But for our purposes, the real punch line occurs much earlier on. When the programmers show up to instal the computer, they ask where they’re going to get electricity to power it. The monks reply that they already have a diesel generator, which they use to power … their prayer wheels.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for picking up this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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