The story is a fictional biography of Joseph Knecht, who becomes the Magister Ludi or Master of the Glass Bead Game, the highest accolade in the, fictional, future province of Castilia. We follow him through childhood and his education in an elite school, where he is taught the basics and history of the game; his time as a research student and his travels in the outside world; eventually he is elevated to the position of Magister Ludi.
While ensconced in this position he fears something is 'rotten' with Castilia and its way of life. Knecht comes to realise the state is stagnating under obsessive intellectualism - everything is analysed but nothing is created - and he forsees the eventual, inevitable, downfall of Castilia. He steps down from the position and exiles himself to the outside world.
Castilia is a state hosted within another country (alluding to the city state of the Vatican); it is home to the intellectual elite of the world, and was created after a great war, as an archive for 'the arts' and sciences. The purpose of its inhabitants is to preserve art, philosophy, music, literature and science to ensure its survival in case the world succumbs to another war and 'the arts' are lost.
The glass bead game is Castilia's greatest invention; to explain it in simple terms would be to think of it as a game of association encompasing everything from the great to the minute within 'the arts'. One person creates a game - a group of items linked by a common theme - and the others must meditate on the meaning of the game and see how each item links to the next one.
The complexity of the game comes when you think of what you can link together; anything from a piece of classical music to a complex philosophical theory; from a game of chess to a piece of Romantic poetry; from a great painting to a complex computer program. Hesse describes the game thus:
The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.
Das Glasperlenspiel has influenced everyone from the hippies - with its references to Buddhism, individualism and the duality between body and spirit - to technologists - with references to storage of information and linking of information - to games designers - trying to re-create the glass bead game - and even business theorists who see it as featuring 'all the business issues of the decade'.
For a book written over fifty years ago it is still surprising how relevant it is today. It seems to encompass all aspects of society which existed during Hesse's lifetime and afterwards. During the 1960's he became a cult figure and helped to influence the hippie movement, interest in him waned during the 1980's, but, now, from the 1990's and beyond, his work is becoming more relevant in regards to the World Wide Web.
With the advent of HTML and the ability to link information together the realisation of a 'real' glass bead game is slowly becoming a reality. As Bruce Milligan, director of new media at the AOL subsidiary, Redgate, says:
As I work to help position Redgate as a leader in the programming of content for the World Wide Web, I've spent a good deal of time thinking about the nature of the Web -- a realm of pure intellect, minds interacting with machines, constructs of information designed to facilitate the sometimes-ordered, sometimes-random and often serendipitous roamings of human inquisitiveness... But more than anything, this process of information publishing and linking on the Web reminds me a lot of the Glass Bead Game that Hermann Hesse wrote about in his 1943 novel Das Glasperlenspiel (translated "The Glass Bead Game", subtitled "Magister Ludi"...)
Future technologies, like XLink - which will allow two-way linking - and new web trends, like backlinks, are helping to create a semantic web - which should provide more meanigful associations between links - could have come from the pen of Hesse himself, as his writings are imbued with the spirit and philosophy of the web even though he was influenced more by eastern mysticism rather than technological invention.
In the avant garde, cyber-hip frontiers of the computer culture, around Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, around Palo Alto, in the Carnegie Mellon AI labs, in the backrooms of the computer graphics labs in Southern California, even in the Austin labs of MCC, a Hesse comeback seems to be happening. However. This revival is not connected with Hermann's mystical, eastern writings. It's based on his last, and least understood, work, Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game.
Webmagister Ludi and the Glass Bead Game
Hipbone: Hermann Hesse