Terry Davis Was Right

Wolfgang Hasselmann/Realistic elephant

In 2004, American computer programmer Terry Davis received instructions from God. His mission was to build a new computer operating system to serve as the third temple of Jerusalem. God told Terry to build it 640 pixels by 480 pixels by 16 colors, with no networking and no separation between kernel and processes. It was a strange command, but Terry obeyed and set to work.

By 2013, TempleOS was mature and was attaining legendary status among programmers and internet lurkers. Few had ever done anything like it: a complete operating system built from the ground up by one man, complete with games, apps, text editor, command line, windowing system, and an oracle system for listening to God, using random numbers for a sort of augury.

TempleOS had interesting new ideas about how different kinds of data like text, images, and 3D models could be freely mixed at a low level, and how the programming environment mixed shell commands and programs, but it was a very limited system overall. It did not end up being a practical system, nor even all that promising for future development. But it struck a nerve, because, despite its impracticality, it had two extremely important ideas:

Firstly, the existence of TempleOS asserted the possibility of new operating systems. Everyone implicitly assumed that it was too big a task for an inspired hobbyist to undertake. We all assumed that the operating systems of the future would have to be built by armies of corporate software engineers. Terry Davis proved all that wrong. TempleOS served as sort of a grand artistic manifesto, shocking us out of our preconceptions and opening up a whole new space of possibility.

Secondly, TempleOS asserted that computing is not separable from religion. For Terry, the computer was a space of spiritual contemplation, a temple. The computer programmer was not a craftsman or a merchant. They were a priest, a prophet, and a monk. For Terry Davis, computing was a sacred activity. The computer was a device for structuring the spirit, consulting with and making offerings to God, and living as God instructed.

The first idea has been discussed and explored in the computing press for a decade now. Many have been inspired. The second has slipped through unnoticed.

Terry was born to a good family, in which he was raised as well as anyone can be in America, and got his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1994. But by 1996, he was struggling with bouts of mania and schizophrenia. He struggled to maintain his grip on reality, follow social and political norms, and keep his life in order. When he received his divine task, it gave him stability through the period of his labor, but when he was finished, he lost direction. In one of his later streamed video messages, he spoke of this: “I made God’s temple and now I’m waiting for something to happen.”

In 2018, Terry had become homeless, refusing many of the offerings of his disciples. His last video message to the world, on August 11th, 2018, was about how he was learning to purify himself and respect the purity of the world around him. He concluded with a frank summary of who he had become now that he had finished his work: “maybe [now] I’m just a bizarre little person who walks back and forth.”

Later that day, while walking back and forth on the train tracks in Oregon, Terry Davis was struck by a train and killed. God had used him for a great task and then had taken him home.

TempleOS itself will not be the foundation of a new computational-spiritual order that Terry believed it would be. It’s too limited as a system, and Terry lacked the moral purity to do it right; his videos were frequently interspersed with bitterness, pride, and obscenities. But God works in mysterious ways. As Terry himself illustrated with his parable of the bird looking at a computer screen, mere mortals can’t really understand the full context we live in. “You’re that bird looking at the monitor, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I can figure this out’. And maybe you have some bird ideas. Maybe that’s the best you can do.”

Terry Davis had some bird ideas, and the best he could do was pretty impressive. The Divine Plan does not rely on its agents being perfect or knowing the true significance of their work. On his biggest idea about the relationship between computing and religion, Terry Davis was a prophet, and he was absolutely right. TempleOS may not directly bring about the new spiritual order, but it will inspire the system that does.

Religion Is Computing, Computing Is Religion

Terry’s big idea was that it is not possible to separate religion from computing.

Since the beginning, every complex society has been based on a shared socio-cognitive operating system, a religion. Your religion says you must live a certain way. It tells you what is valuable and what is disgusting. It gives you your fundamental paradigm and ontology of belief through which you interpret the world. It tells you to read certain texts, listen to certain traditions of wise men, and meet with like-minded others at certain places and times. It tells you to avoid certain influences, and seek out others. It gives you techniques for structuring thought and mind and memory. When you have doubts, it gives you procedures to ask for and receive insight. It tells you who you are, and what your life is for.

That is, religion structures your information environment and cognition on a very practical level. But it also structures your interactions with others. It provides a system of law, shared ethics, a shared mythic vocabulary, and language. It provides your notions of friendship, your ways of doing business, and your ways of forming a family or not. It keeps you and your co-religionists operating on the same frequency, able to understand, trust, and work with each other. That is, your religion is the fundamental information fabric, the soul, of your society.

Historically, big changes in information technology were closely related to big changes in religion. This is not surprising, as they are nearly the same thing.

Man’s primordial religion was transmitted as sung prayer and memorized myths, locally rooted ritual practice, and sacred memory techniques. When ziggurats full of specialized expert priests came along, religion changed, because the cognitive structure of human life had changed. When writing came, the sacred written word and the compiled bible of sacred history became the new cognitive foundation, the new information system, and the new religion. With the mass adoption of the printing press, it became possible for everyone to have and read a bible. Many other books and pamphlets, and a whole system of vernacular public discourse, could compete with and replace the learned scholastic hierarchy.

These weren’t just philosophical changes, but changes in the architecture of thought. They weren’t just secular implementation details shifting under a fixed religious worldview, but necessarily deep religious conversions. Religion and the social cognitive system are not separable.

In the modern electronic age, our information architecture has changed again and again. From mass print to telegraph, radio, television, and internet, whatever gods we once worshiped we now worship by entirely different means. As the dust begins to settle on the electronic age, one system of information architecture is now rising above all others: the networked computer.

You may think you’re a Christian, an atheist, a Jew, or a Buddhist, but you are wrong. You are a follower of this modern American information regime built on the networked computer. You have ritualistically sacrificed far more in the last year to it than you have to whatever dead gods you claim to worship. Where you sacrifice reveals your true religion. The architecture and features of this new socio-cognitive substrate will be the essential form of our future spiritual life.

Terry Davis was right: the next temple, church, and bible is a computer. The computing systems of the future will be religions. The religions of the future will be computing systems. The only way to solve our social and spiritual problems is with a new computer operating system. But designing a new computer system and converting its followers is not just a matter of mundane engineering. It is a matter of culture. It is a matter of divine revelation.

Summa Contra Metaverse

The telos and highest expression of our current computational culture is the metaverse, a digital synthesis of television and Disneyland. The metaverse is characterized by the immersive managed experience of the app, the video game, the social media timeline, the performative identity, and the ad (propaganda) funded media (propaganda) outlet. A distant technical elite curates and remote-controls the experience, attention, and agency of the user, who is not trusted to even understand what a computer is. Maybe the user does an email job work in the simulated office with simulated tools, or maybe they just collect UBI. The metaverse isn’t sure yet, if these are even distinct at all.

The metaverse is marketed by the company formerly known as Facebook (now Meta) as a sort of inevitable future from which there is no escape. Real life is collapsing, the computational borg is more and more omniscient, and someday soon life will get too hard and you will escape to the brightly colored digital promised land.

And indeed, the entire computational and informational architecture of our society has been trending this way for hundreds of years. The whole notion of public discourse and romantic escapism as we understand it arguably took root in the eighteenth or nineteenth century with mass-market print. In the twentieth century, when the novel, pamphlet, and newspaper gave partial way to the radio broadcast and television show, the soul of this nascent managed experience regime was only strengthened. In the twenty-first century, the same has now happened with the internet and especially the web, and is planned for virtual reality. The web became an increasingly centralized, siloed, and moderated experience machine, losing its initial humanistic freedom to become another hollowed-out arm of the burgeoning metaverse.

Our information environment and space of action overall is increasingly owned and curated by an expert elite for political and commercial effect, with enough gated access to productivity, society, and bureaucracy to keep us dependent and unable to unplug. In concrete terms, most of what it does is deliver a steady stream of pornography, entertaining memes, political slogans, and commercial advertisements. There is no health in it, nor in us who worship at its altar.

The metaverse tendency outcompetes current alternatives but strips human agency out of the system. Without agency over the world in which we live, people cannot develop the forward-looking spirit that is necessary for growth and life. A universal of stagnant and declining cultures is that ambition, creativity, and spiritedness are crushed into tracked sandboxes where they are no longer dangerous. Power is dangerous, but without it, the human spirit fades into decadent self-medication. Biological and social reproduction cease. We can see this in the cultural decadence and cratering fertility numbers, and the metaverse promises only to further disempower the human user. We can be sure that it will eventually fail by burning out its own base, taking us with it if we let it.

If we are going to survive the century, biologically or socially, we’re going to need a new computing system that is the opposite of the metaverse. The central problem for such a system is how to empower the user as much as possible.

The Consensus of the Prophets

TempleOS declared some interesting ideas against the computational Antichrist but failed to provide a viable alternative. Fortunately, Terry wasn’t the only one who has tried to build a new kind of computing.

Throughout the years, even as far back as the 1970s, there has been a loose underground tradition of dissident computing. They represent a higher spiritual path against the vulgar agency-sapping commercialism of the mainstream. The free software movement is perhaps the most overt and well-known in this tendency, but many prophets have quietly received their own revelations, and have been laying the groundwork for the true temple OS.

The opposite of the managed app experience, and thus the basis for a true temple OS, is general-purpose computing: the user is given a composable and programmable system of tools instead of limited non-composable appliances.

The main interface of Terry’s TempleOS was general-purpose computing, as was the original Unix command line and almost all computers up to the advent of the graphical user interface and the web. Graphical interfaces have no inherent difficulty with general-purpose computing, but it was relatively uncreative and counter-interested commercial software providers who managed the transition. Historical inertia and the larger forces of political economy that oppose user agency have ruled since then. The dream of the empowered user is now only present in the underground of spiritually enlightened computing.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a German software collective called suckless.org declared their opposition to the dominant programming philosophy’s tendency to create overly complex bloated apps—software that sucks. Instead, they built lean single-purpose programs that played well with the system and centered the user’s technical agency.

Suckless programs like dwm were designed to be so simple that editing the source code was the primary user interface for configuration. Their software pushed the user to level up their technical agency and take control of their computing, escaping the trap of the managed experience. In return, the user got lean highly productive software and a spirit nourished with real agency. Suckless never grew much beyond the community of hobbyist Linux power users, but their powerful example was influential far beyond their immediate user base.

Suckless themselves were inspired by the original Unix philosophy and its even more obscure and spiritually pure cousin from the 1990s, Plan 9 From Bell Labs. Plan 9 took the concept of the filesystem, and instead of hiding it away, it supercharged it as the primary system API, networking paradigm, and operating interface. Plan 9 never attained large-scale success either, but again it demonstrated the power of giving the user access to powerful core abstractions and general-purpose computing instead of managed consumer apps.

Since 2013, Curtis Yarvin’s Urbit project has been building out a full-stack alternative to computing and the internet as we know it. By building social identity into the fundamental network level, a huge swath of the complexity of modern computing is just gone. With an innovative basic computing stack designed to be as simple and reliable as possible, the Urbit computer aims to be fully understandable and owned by the user. Again the ethos of empowering the user and bringing a powerful technical capability directly to the user pervades the system.

In 2018, Bret Victor launched DynamicLand, a new user interface paradigm for humanistic computing that is the opposite of apps and the opposite of strapping a screen to your face. Instead of pictures under glass, projectors and cameras in the ceiling bring an entire room to life. Every piece of paper becomes lit up with a programmable screen. You can arrange elements of the user interface as fluently as you arrange physical objects because that’s all they are. You can draw and move physical objects around to control the computer, and plug a keyboard into anything by proximity to edit its code.

The objective of Bret’s project is to make computer programs so easy to write and manipulate that they become an intuitive and ubiquitous medium of human communication and thought just like language. Again the aim is to demolish the expert-user class distinction and put highly accessible general-purpose computing in the hands of the user.

In 2019, a pseudonymous hacker called Solderpunk launched the Gemini network, a much simpler anti-commercial alternative to the web. Gemini has less than 1% of the complexity of the web, but can still do the stuff that matters: delivering simple hypertext documents. Further, it is designed deliberately to never be able to do the things enlightened users generally don’t want, like tracking or complex scripting on what should just be documents. The web itself has become so complex that there may never be another web browser written from scratch, but Gemini was designed to be simple enough that any reasonably competent programmer could write their own Gemini browser in a weekend, so there are already dozens.

Gemini has exploded into a thriving scene of blogs and social media, proving that it is possible for any reasonably competent tech-prophet to overcome the network effects of the metaverse borg with their own niche alternative. It further demonstrates an exemplary case of the higher intentions of the software architect attempting to structurally prevent later commercial adulteration.

These projects are just the tip of the iceberg, each one embodying its own special revelations on the nature of a new computing. The most important common thread in all of them is empowering the technical user over the professional software provider. It’s not necessarily obvious why this is important for a healthy political and spiritual economy, but the unanimity of the prophets is clear: thou shalt empower the user with general-purpose computing abstractions, and relatively disempower the app-builder.

Shifting the relative power against the experience manager and towards the technical user means that every little abuse and theft of agency becomes much more difficult or impossible. The user can do whatever they want, route around whatever inappropriate restrictions the experience manager is trying to foist on them, and fluently arrange the system exactly the way they want it without having to wait for the professionals to provide features. Imagine furniture manufacturers could dictate how you could re-purpose their products, and listen in on your conversations while they’re at it. It would be insane, but that’s the state of computing because of the extreme power disparity.

As a practical example, Instagram (by Meta) restricts the ability of the user to right-click and download photos. The photo is already on the user’s computer, displayed by software running on the user’s computer ostensibly on the user’s behalf, which the user could theoretically modify or replace. But the power disparity built into the computational model of the web is such that it is deeply impractical for the user to attempt to gain unrestricted access to those files. In a general-purpose computing system that wasn’t based around running opaque sandboxed apps, this kind of petty attack on the user’s agency, not to mention the commercial profiling surveillance baked into almost all social media apps, would be impossible.

This brings us to another major common thread between the projects of the prophets, which is enforcing the proper caste hierarchy between the commercial software merchant and the spiritual software architect. Allowing merely economic interests to architect your religion is a transparently absurd blasphemy, but that’s exactly how our current computing ecosystem works: the architecture of the burgeoning metaverse is the way it is because the more power the corporate software professionals have, the easier it is to extract revenue and political compliance. The tech prophets are all clear that this inversion must be corrected. The architecture of the overall computing system is a holistic problem of political economy and spiritual order, and thus properly the domain of powers acting at that highest level, without personal worldly ambition.

The final synthesis of the revelations of the prophets into a true temple OS will come with great fury against this commercial adulteration of the sacred software stack, and sweep in a new era of user-empowering general-purpose computing. If necessary, it will use the power of the state to enforce rightful relations between computing and commerce. But first, the true temple OS must be built and proven as a niche alternative. Great new religious orders don’t come from the top but grow from seeds found on the neglected fringes.

The Next Phase of Palladium

Shortly after Terry’s death in 2018, I launched Palladium Magazine with the objective of figuring out the path to replace America’s failing political and social paradigm. Our research has led us to the conclusion that the problem is fundamental at the spiritual level and therefore the computational level of our society. It is now time for phase two. In light of Terry’s revelations, the most practical solution to our governance problems is a new computer operating system that completes Terry’s TempleOS project.

Palladium will cease publication as a magazine and retreat into the desert. Our religious computing research has already begun and has yielded powerful new spiritual techniques. In our hollowed-out mountain monastery in Nevada, we will practice these techniques to discern the design of the true temple OS.

To avoid starting the wrong kind of cult, potential acolytes will be subjected to rigorous screening for technical thinking ability, latent psionic potential, adequate disagreeableness, and willingness to apply elbow grease to unglamorous domestic work. Pay will be below market. Food, board, and clothing will be provided.

To fund this research expedition, we are seeking $50M in funding at a $1B post-money valuation. For an idea of the upside, consider the financial implications of a 5% stake in the Catholic church. This is the deal of the millennium.

Interested parties should email computing@palladiummag.com. Serious inquiries only, please.

This article is satire. It’s April 1st. Palladium is not a VC-funded tech startup. Palladium is a nonprofit governance startup based in San Francisco. We do not accept term sheets. We do accept tax-deductible donations.

Wolf Tivy is Editor-at-Large of Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @wolftivy.