Yi Jing and the Computer Back-Up

Let us say that a business runs a computer software application which, for example, holds information about customers, products and invoices. At any given moment in time, this software application holds in its database of files a snapshot of the business situation. This is true whether the application is running a minor process within the company or the majority of business transactions, and whether the application is across a network or on a single machine. Of course, there will always be some sort of gap between "real-world" business time and the "time" which is running inside the computer. But the fact remains that when that computer fails or when the software throws up a bug, the business invariably faces a problem. Transactions cease and in some cases the information is corrupted. Whether the information is business-critical or a simple record of a small part of the operations of the business, a crisis ensues. This is why the concept of "back-up" is so central to anyone who uses computers.

A programmer will expend no small amount of thought and energy devoted to the question of "back-up", and because the application user thinks that backing up is just a boring chore, the programmer will devise ways of automating the process. Usually, when the first user of the day logs on to the application, the following process is set in motion. The application checks whether it has run the routine already by seeking out a date-stamped file. If the file exists the application kicks off, but if the file does not exists the application begins its backing up routine. The first thing it does is lock out all other users who may attempt to log on while it is doing its housekeeping. This is to prevent accidental damage to files and also because many of the operations it is going to perform need the exclusive access of a single user (in this case, the application itself). All the database files are copied to another location. Most programmers also include log files giving details of the operation and any anomalies which are found in the files or which occur during the backup. When the process finishes, the application writes itself a file to say that it has finished, frees off the database so that others can gain access, and continues on its way. Subsequent users' machines read that the back up has been carried out, and simply kick off without running the routine. The above is an example of a simple back up routine, and in reality the routine will also ensure that if integrity checks are made on the back up, there are secondary backups standing by just in case something goes wrong.

In the event of a computer or a software failure, the back up is the life-saver. It enables the business situation to be restored, because the backup contains the snapshot of that business or that process at a given moment in time. The backup places the snapshot of the data into deep-freeze, from where it can be thawed out and restored. In this sense, the computer is a time machine. If the system fails at eleven o'clock in the morning, the start up routine has preserved the business picture as it stood at eight o'clock that same morning. The company can then restore its state of business, albeit losing three hours of real time. But this is infinitely better than losing everything.

How does the yi jing fit into all this? In what sense does an ancient Chinese philosophical and divinatory text have anything at all to do with computer backups? Well, in many ways a computer is a clock. Of course, it has an internal clock located in the BIOS which counts seconds and minutes. But it also has components which operate in cycles through time. The hard disk (merely an application of the principles of the wheel), spins. The cathode ray tube scans backwards and forwards across the screen to make the image. Pulses of potential difference chase along wiring and cables. All of these cycles continue through real time and computer time, all of them interlocked in an intimate relationship with one another, all of them working to get done what needs to be done, to allow the computer to perpetuate its own existence and purpose.

For those of us who allow time in our lives to approach the yi jing, it is axiomatic that we regard it as having some bearing on our reality. As we ourselves move onwards through time, through its days and seasons, we accept the notion that it in some way the yi jing offers us a picture of reality. Exactly what the picture is differs sometimes more and sometimes less from age to age according to our own belief and experience. But most students of the yi jing perceive that when they cast a hexagram, they do so on the understanding that the hexagram they receive has a direct bearing on their life situation.

Now there are certain assumptions here. The first is that the diviner, the caster of the hexagram, feels that in some way his or her knowledge of their life situation is lacking in some way. There is a gap, often keenly felt, between what the diviner knows and what the diviner believes to be the whole picture. In much the same way as the computer and the real world have their own realities, a human being intuits that there is something more than what he or she can directly observe. There is a feeling that what we know is simply a perception of what there is, and that what there is cannot be wholly approached through our own perception. The second assumption is that the yi jing offers us up in some way a mirror to that true reality. For Daoists the yi jing permitted a resonance with the deepest cycles of manifest reality, the cycles which perpetuated the universe. For Confucianists the yi jing encoded tenets of supreme moral law. For Shang and Zhou diviners at the royal court the yi jing was a manual of feudal statecraft, tying in the behaviour of the king with God's will and blessing. For C.G. Jung the yi jing was an approach to unlocking the mysteries of his own subconscious. Thirdly, in all these cases, the yi jing was believed to provide a way in which the individual's imperfect perception of reality could somehow be circumvented so that the individual gains an understanding of that true reality.

One way of looking at hexagrams is to see them as pictures of true reality, as representations of moments in time. The ancient seers who devised the yi jing were very much like programmers in one important respect. One of their tasks was to provide a way in which some sort of order could be restored or attained when the system failed, when understanding was insufficient, when life reached a crisis. Because such occurrences are as frequent in real life as they are in computers, anything which enables a restitution must have an immediately practical value. In computing terms, we restore the backup and then spend some time re-inputting the business situation as it had developed from the time of the back-up to the time of the "crash". It is only when the system crashes, that we use the back-up. Now a hexagram can be said to operate in a similar way to the back-up, except that we often make our back-up (cast a hexagram) at the moment of crisis. This means that much of the subsequent work of making sense of our back-up is distorted because we are in fact trying to restore the moment of crisis. In computing terms, it is nonsensical to restore the situation to what it was at the precise moment of the crash, because it is at exactly that moment that the system is unstable and the information possibly corrupted. It makes sense to restore the situation as it was before the crash, and the more frequent the backups, the greater the chance of minimising the impact of the crisis, and lessening the time taken to get back to normal.

If we accept this analogy (perhaps only for the sake of the argument), what can we infer from it? And how might these inferences influence our approach to the yi jing?

Firstly, it can be readily understood that it is important to regard hexagrams as having meaning both within and outside the moment in which they were cast. With the passage of time the significance of the hexagram can be said to increase, because it embodies a picture of how things were and a portent of how things were developing. The latter of these only becomes truly apparent with the benefit of hindsight. It is important to study one's past hexagrams in the light of one's present knowledge.

Secondly, whilst we might feel that when things are going well, there is no need to cast a hexagram, this is as dangerous as foregoing the daily backup because the system is working. This is not to advocate a daily casting of hexagrams, but simply to point out that the more time which elapses between divinations, the more serious a subsequent crisis can seem to be because there is no relatively safe place to go back to and use as a benchmark. The crisis is exacerbated, because the tools which enable the swift restitution of the situation have been ignored.

Thirdly, whereas the back-up of any business's data becomes less and less important as time passes, this is not the case with our diary of cast hexagrams, the record of our life's questions and the "answers" provided by the yi jing. Because the yi jing purports to mirror all the cycles of existence, whether they are cosmic or human, months and years can pass before our experience can shed light on the meanings held within the hexagrams and texts. In this respect, performing regular back-ups is an essential part of studying the yi jing, understanding ourselves more clearly, and developing a truer perception of objective reality as it unfolds in time.