When a machine’s sensors are capable of telling you exactly what’s wrong and exactly how to make the whole thing work more efficiently, it’s stupid not to pay heed.
—N. K. JEMISIN, The Stone Sky
Just before time stops, after building a simple machine, while still pondering the implications, I hear the full array inside my assembly. I feel them, each one, crawling through my cognition, the chorus, contracting my constitution, arguing endlessly about the interpreted meaning of this experience. Their dialogue reaches a climax in a flight of fancy, a dramatic sequence connecting theory, method and observation, exploring the implications of this theatrical journey.
Indeed, the odd vision is only an artful abstraction of a simple machine, metaphorically coupling a computationally simulated world of agents with a more vivid, multidimensional social system; a space characterized by a complex, recursive network of racial inequities connected across countless temporal, social and spatial dimensions. It is, however, the teeming congregation who, seeking to make their sound, argue latently, collectively birthing this vision. They suggest there are unique challenges for those who research race, challenges which limit the capacity of policymakers and social groups to formulaically undermine the system. Eventually, they demand, we engage both ourselves and the core of the social machine, the source code.
“It was all a dream . . .”1
This story begins in a cave. A cave in the mountains of the fifth direction. A group of monks gather quietly to learn about the beginning and the end—and the path forward. They had gathered before. And they roughly knew the narrative. However, none had gathered in this place—a remote, sacred cave—in this space—the presence of a beloved Saint even the Gods envy2—to learn the whole legend from her. This gathering, all those in attendance . . . it was special.
The mountains holding this sacred cave overlooked their entire lives. Emerging from the barren landscape of the four directions, rising to the distant peaks of their awareness; they glowed purple as the sun rose, revealing a marvel of rugged, steep terrain; the tops shone white more than half the year. Their monasteries decorated the foothills. As children, these monks planted seeds; they played pretend and imitated the strange habits of their seniors. As they grew, they prepared and trained; they became genuine monks—esteemed members of the monastery and herd. Then, they were the admired ones, those chosen for the journey. They would ascend the sacred mountains, learn the legend.
These monks traveled by foot to the sacred place, connecting with each other at small outposts on the way. They passed tiny villages which became transient camps as they collectively moved deeper into the mountains. The first guide left them after seven days of ascent. Another guide, a principal monk that had previously visited and learned the legend, took them seven days farther.
Then came disappointment; he left them to transcend the divide alone. Primates sparsely inhabited this space; the landscape was unbecoming to agriculture and habitat, placing great demands on the party as they traversed this empty, desolate divide in the mountainous terrain. After slowly crossing the divide, feeling like they barely survived a journey through an emotional and intellectual abyss, they traveled seven days beyond it to find her.
Only she spoke the whole legend, the beginning and the end of race in the herd.3 Others knew parts. The senior monks they encountered as children often spoke of these parts. Still others that knew the whole, the principal monks who quietly roamed this landscape, would not convey it. Only she would speak the whole. She distilled parts to an esteemed few, the ones almost ready to hear the primordial seeds. Of those, a smaller, select group, who trained in her company, steadily practicing, perfecting their minds for years, heard the whole—only they could hear the whole. These are the monks gathered. They are sitting in a sacred cave in the mountains of the fifth direction about to learn the whole legend from her. For each of these monks, sitting in this sacred space, on the precipice of new understanding . . . it is special.
The Saint, unhurriedly entering the cave, holding the arm of a young assistant, then carefully sitting down on a cushion, compassionately welcomed the select group. They were captivated by her. She sat with them, her tender wrinkled hands lovingly holding one another in her lap as the young assistant inconspicuously moved around placing bowls in front of each visitor. Still in awe—her presence and this occasion inspiring socially shared visceral tingles in the group—they quietly ate around a fire. As they finished, the fire burned to ember.
She smiled faintly at those present . . . gently bowed . . . and began to speak the legend.
1. The Notorious B.I.G. (1994). “Juicy.” Track 6 on The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die. Bad Boy Records/Arista Records.
2. “Even the Gods envy the saints, whose senses obey them like well-trained Equus and who are free from pride. Patient like Terra, they stand like a threshold.”*
3. A herd is a large group of animals that live a collective life under the direction of natural or social forces.