XXX.5 September - October 2023
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Notes on Nothing

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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Nothing, perhaps, has fascinated humans more than notions of nothing. This seemingly simple yet endlessly generative abstraction has intrigued theologians, philosophers, artists, scientists, innovators, and social revolutionaries across cultures for millennia. Here are five instances that demonstrate the importance of nothingness in Western knowledge traditions:

  • Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea (considered the founder of ontology) invoked the notion of "what is not" to circumscribe a field of possibilities for defining "what is," thereby sparking foundational discussions about the nature of being, thought, time, perception, and truth.
  • Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas asserted that all creation was made from nothing (Latin: creatioex nihilo), thereby provoking significant debates about causality and observation.
  • Renaissance cosmologist Giordano Bruno proposed that the universe had no center, for which he was burned at the stake since his hypothesis was in direct contradiction with the then-prevailing idea of a geocentric universe and the beliefs of the Catholic Church.
  • Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote about existential dread experienced by individuals when confronted with nothingness as a void of meaning and its implications for human freedom, ethical responsibilities, and the quest for an authentic life.
  • French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas engaged with notions of void to highlight the radical alterity faced by the self in an open encounter with others that informs his approach to philosophy as the "wisdom of love at the service of love," in contrast to the "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" dictum.

The above five instances are crude etchings, not a comprehensive overview. Encounters with an abstract notion such as nothing have concrete consequences, sometimes leading to major advancements in multiple areas, often fraught with power struggles, and in at least one case incurring being burned at the stake. In this column, I explore notions of nothing with an emphasis on non-Western traditions by pursuing the question: What has nothing to do with the design of technology?

I begin my response by drawing attention to the anthology Software Development and Reality Construction, edited by Christiane Floyd and colleagues. In "Human Questions in Computer Science," Floyd, a pioneer of participatory software design, relates ontological concerns about "what is" (i.e., reality) to epistemological concerns about "what we can know" (i.e., knowledge production). In her formulation, human cognition "may be viewed as bringing forth concepts and insights fitting our experience and viable for obtaining our aims in open situations where we interpret our needs," and therefore, "the technical result of software development, the execution of programs may be characterized as constructed reality" [1]. Floyd's articulation has profound sociopolitical implications wherein "computability has almost become a modern moral category, a vehicle for discussing the validity of decisions for action in human terms" [1]. Floyd's worldview is evolutionary, participatory, action-oriented, and invested: 1) concepts fit our experience and provide viability for obtaining our aims; and 2) to design technology is to construct reality with significant sociopolitical implications. But what might we gain by engaging with non-Western notions of nothingness in relation to the design of technology as reality construction?

What has nothing to do with the design of technology?

Floyd traces the origins of computer science to Greek philosophy, which plays a significant role in Western thought traditions. HCI researchers, in turn, have pointed out that computer technology is still often designed based on the intuition, knowledge, and values of people who are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic [2]. Commenting on Western traditions of hermeneutics in relation to software design, Joseph Goguen's article in the anthology mentions, "What is missing is a set of guidelines that tell us how to deal with the problems that inevitably arise, and other practices that are less involved with conceptual content and have the possibility of sharpening our general mindfulness and awareness" [1]. If design is by default approached as "doing something" about perceived problems, we might be stumped when faced with a situation that requires us to do nothing or where nothing can be done. Attempting to work with practices that are less involved with conceptual content, Goguen turns toward Mahayana Buddhist meditation and notions of emptiness. He articulates awareness as "the context, the space, within which mindfulness happens [and] is not at all a matter of calculating or of grasping for meaning" [1]. Informed by Buddhist notions of emptiness, Goguen's articulation detaches from the desire to calculate and grasp to make space for the emergence of awareness that remains latent otherwise. In this instance, we observe how an encounter with emptiness can: a) catalyze detachment from the desire to control, and b) uncover to reveal awareness that remains backgrounded otherwise. Such articulations informed by non-Western traditions can provide different sets of values, priorities, and commitments as impetus for designing technology in alternative ways.

Reflecting Absence—a water pool at the memorial site of the Twin Towers symbolizing the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks of September 11, 2011 in New York, USA. Reflecting Absence, a pool at the memorial site of the Twin Towers symbolizing the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York City.

Following Goguen, Rodney Burstall's article in the anthology observes, "A striking difference between the computational tradition and the Buddhist tradition is the place assigned to conceptual thought [wherein] in the former it is the be-all and end-all, in the latter it has a subordinate role" [1]. Taking a transcultural approach toward community technology design, Heike Winschiers-Theophilus and colleagues indicate the relevance of Burstall's Buddhist perspectives for HCI [3]. They highlight his concerns about "people's lack of mindfulness, the situational energy, and atmosphere present at that time" and observe that "those deficiencies pointed out became the focal points in the so-called three paradigms or waves in HCI" [3]. Burstall concludes that engaging with non-Western traditions "may provide a starting point for us to look for ways of working with computers without being entrapped by a limited perspective based on desire for control and exclusive reliance on conceptual thought" [1]. It is worth noting here that "almost 3/4 of the knowledge we produce at CHI is based on 11.8% of the world's population" [2]. Inclusion of perspectives from the "rest of the world" is premised on the ability to participate in and negotiate with existing vested interests of design discourses. Working toward decolonizing epistemologies, Walter Mignolo astutely notes, "Exteriority is not the outside, but the outside built from inside in the process of building itself as the inside" [4]. Design research discourses must therefore strive to go beyond including user studies of non-Western populations through Western theoretical constructions. Researchers interested in the design of technology must nurture ongoing critical dialogues with non-Western traditions and knowledge practices.

Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub;
It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges.

We make a vessel from a lump of clay;
It is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful.

We make doors and windows for a room;
But it is these empty spaces that make the room livable.

Thus, while the tangible has advantages,
It is the intangible that makes it useful.

— Lao Tzu (verse 11 of the Tao Teh Ching, translated by John C. H. Wu)

Engagements with notions of nothing have a long, complex, and fascinating history across cultures. The verse shown here from the Tao Teh Ching, a fundamental Chinese text in Taoism, relates intangible emptiness with the usefulness of what is created by emptying. In Christian theology, the term kenosis can be understood as the act of emptying as surrendering and opening up to receive grace. Tracing engagements with notions of nothing can reveal shared similarities across geocultural boundaries, crucial differences in value systems, and dialectical evolution of knowledge practices over time. Almost four decades ago, Alan Kay wrote, "One feels the clay of computing through the 'user interface': the software that mediates between a person and the programs shaping the computer into a tool for a specific goal" [5]. The field of HCI has evolved by shaping the "clay of computing" for specific goals across problem domains of application. While use and usability remain core concerns for HCI, critical explorations such as nonuse, undesigning, balancing design tensions, and the joy of missing out (JOMO) have provided much-needed analytical and generative insights for alternative ways of designing technologies. An ongoing critical engagement with non-Western notions of nothing is necessary for designing technologies toward aiding inclusive collective futures. In relation to design, I advocate for approaching nothingness as a creative principle in action—emptying to hold space and uncovering by carving out. To this effect, I introduce the notion of śūnyatā (pronounced shoon-YUH-tah), originating in Hinduism and Buddhism as a critical provocation for exploring nothingness as a creative principle in action with respect to the design of technologies:

śūnyatā — emptiness, voidness; metaphysical voidness of things as unsubstantial or devoid of their own essence. A Mahayana Buddhist term, expressing the idea that things and beings, and indeed all reality, are devoid of any conceptually graspable essence. In the Tantric context, however, it came to be associated with the symbol of yoni, which suggests the idea of a hidden germ within so that śūnyatā came to mean a "potent" void, and since Tantrism frequently possesses both Buddhist and Hindu connotations, this potent void came to be seen as harbouring both the seed of enlightenment and the seeds of manifestation [6].

A decolonizing perspective acknowledges nothingness as a potent void.

It must be noted that śūnyatā is not a negation of existence but rather emphasizes the undifferentiated infinite from which all observable entities, categorical distinctions, and contained dualities arise based on intention and perception of self. In a personal conversation, Amanda Marisa Williams hinted at the significance of śūnyatā in relation to how analog circuits are transformed into digital, binary logic—splicing the undifferentiated infinite into discrete entities for pragmatic purposes. Hinduism and Buddhism are pluralistic traditions with varied, and at times contradicting, practices. Depending on the tradition, śūnyatā can be approached as: 1) a neutral pragmatic placeholder (such as the number zero), 2) a negating movement that reveals undifferentiated reality by removing categorical distinctions imposed, and 3) a positive expansion that allows the possibility of unlimited, boundless, infinite, and indefinite existence (similar to the Greek notion of apeiron).

That being said, here I focus on the Indian conceptualization of zero that is tied to the notion of śūnyatā. Cosmologist John D. Barrow observes that a "fascinating feature of the zero symbol in India is the richness of the concept it represents…as part of a wider philosophical spectrum of meanings for nothingness and the void…and the way in which different aspects of absence were seen to be something requiring a distinguishing label" [7]. Barrow characterizes śūnyatā as "a nexus of complexity from which unpredictable associations could emerge without having to be subjected to a searching logical analysis to ascertain their coherence within a formal logical structure" [7]. Further, Barrow qualifies śūnyatā as "an image or an idea with a well-defined form and meaning in a specific science, yet be continually elaborated or reinvented by artists working with different aims and visions" [7]. Barrow's account of śūnyatā presents challenging assertions about: a) a spectrum of meanings for nothingness with well-defined form, b) how nothingness can be continually elaborated or reinvented for different aims, and c) emergent unpredictable associations that defy formal logical structure and analysis. Thus, śūnyatā must be approached as a multidimensional and multistable notion that allows contradictions and congruencies to coexist.

Explorations of nothingness in non-Western traditions are manifest in multiple ways: Witnessing emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism, absence of separation as nonduality of existence in Hindu Advaita tradition, emphasis on interconnected reality through negation of individualistic worldview in African Ubuntu philosophy, and the Taoist concept wu-wei, which refers to nonaction or effortless action, are some examples. Barrow underscores that the notion of śūnyatā "embraced the notions of space, vacuousness, insignificance and non-being as well as worthlessness and absence" [7]. Feminist traditions from the Global South variedly engage with the concept of nothingness, raising implications for power dynamics, social norms, and liberatory politics. Specifically, postcolonial and decolonial feminist efforts seek to identify, challenge, and dismantle colonial power structures by exposing the erasure and devaluation of Indigenous knowledge practices and ethics. Feminist efforts with an epistemic commitment to decolonize knowledge production reject the idea that nothingness represents a lack. A decolonizing perspective acknowledges nothingness as a potent void—a womb of creation that contains seeds of manifestation and provides space for nurturing possibilities for different futures. This premise of a potent void: a) urges us to critically reexamine what is registered as insignificant, worthless, mute, or absent through existing knowledge practices, and b) necessitates acknowledging the voices, perspectives, concerns, and experiencesof people who are discursively marginalized and remain ignored otherwise. Thus, nothingness approached as a potent void, not a lack, allows for recognizing and cocreating discursive spaces for potentiality, alterity, resilience, respect, regeneration, and renewal. Non-Western notions of nothingness such as śūnyatā resist totalizing modes of thinking by remaining indeterminate and non-thematizable, and yet multistable, thus allowing endless generative elaboration and creative reinvention. Working with the notion of nothingness as a potent void toward pragmatic goals for the design of technology requires further communal engagement from researchers and designers to aid the cocreation of inclusive futures.

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Liam Bannon, Amanda Marisa Williams, and Thomas Mitchell for their constructive feedback and encouragement on this work.

back to top  References

1. Floyd, C., Züllighoven, H., Budde, R., and Keil-Slawik, R, eds. Software Development and Reality Construction. Springer Berlin, Heidelberg, 1992;

2. Linxen, S., Sturm, C., Brühlmann, F., Cassau, V., Opwis, K., and Reinecke, K. How WEIRD is CHI? Proc. of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2021, Article 143, 1–14;

3. Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Zaman, T., and Stanley, C. A classification of cultural engagements in community technology design: Introducing a transcultural approach. AI & Society 34, 3 (2019), 419–435;

4. Mignolo, W. Decolonizing Western epistemology/building decolonial epistemologies. In Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy. A.M. Isasi-Díaz and E. Mendieta, eds. Fordham Univ. Press, 2012, 19–43.

5. Kay, A. Computer software. Scientific American 251, 3 (1984), 52–59;

6. Werner, K. A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism. Routledge Press, 1994.

7. Barrow. J.D. Zero—The whole story. In The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas About the Origins of the Universe. Pantheon, 2001, 12–49.

back to top  Author

Gopinaath Kannabiran is an HCI researcher, design educator, sexual rights activist, and yoga instructor. He is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Pratt Institute in New York City. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2023 ACM, Inc.

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