By Yonatan Gordon
Recently I was researching how revolutions get started. Not because I actually was considering starting one … okay, it was because I was considering starting one.
So I went to an adviser in the field by the name of Google, and asked what they thought about the topic. The response mainly generated references to modern culture, and a host of people from the past that thought the world was made for them.
Still in a quandary, in one of those fortuitous moments that people write about (on their blog or whatever), I opened a weekly digest email from Quora. I’m still not sure how they decide what questions would be of interest to me, but apparently there’s some ‘algorithm’ that decides (don’t worry, I’m not sure what that means either).
It was then that one topic really caught my attention. It was entitled; “What was the first book ever ordered by a customer on Amazon?” While this may seem like an innocuous question at first, as one of the respondents declared, “…this may be one of the most significant answers ever posted.”
Why am I writing this? Because oftentimes we think that revolutions start big. That we need to cajole thousands to listen and read about what we have to say. But perhaps what is so enjoyable about this story is that it they begin with that first customer. That first person to acknowledge that your idea made sense.
But there is another reason why I thought to write this up. And that has to do with the first book itself: Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts.
Do Computers Have a Heart?
The subject of the first non-employee purchased book is interesting by itself, even without the history now also attached to it. The book deals, in a speculative manner, with the concept of artificial intelligence and cognitive simulation. While there has been much written about AI after Fluid Concepts was published, the questions still really remains the same: Can computers be made to “think” like humans? Can they make “creative” extrapolations from programming sequences that seem rigid and fixed?
There is another way to phrase this topic, based on the terminology used in the Kabbalistic work The Book of Formation. There it explains that the word “stone” (אבן) also stands for the word “letter”: one stone builds one house; two stones build three houses; three stones build six houses, and so on. This teaching is the secret of “permutations” (צֵרוּף), or “combinations,” based on the mathematical function called a factorial.
While numerical functions–such as factorials–are something that computers understand quite well, what they lack is the ability to transform these “stone”s into “letters.” Whereas a stone connotes coldness, letters (especially the Hebrew letters), have the potential to become fiery with flames of love. While a person may seem to have a “heart of stone,” the way to warm him up is by speaking letters of love and compassion. While stones are cold, letters have the ability to be warm with love and compassion.
This then was the message I took from this historical account of Amazon.com’s beginnings. That while generating a sale is nice, the most memorable part of the whole story for me, was a reminder about the factorial growth inherent in each of us. That each of us has the potential to transform stones (which sometimes are even thrown as a method of hate), into letters and words of love.
These are the real “fluid concepts” that begin revolutions.
With some material from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class on 26 Elul 5773 in Be’er Sheva.