Tuesday, February 5, 2019
I just finished reading an essay by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman [Warning! Everything is Going Deep,” January 29] that aligns fully with the core thesis of Digital Dharma. “Technology moves up in steps,” he writes, and each step is “biased toward a new set of capabilities.” And right now, our society is experiencing the change from the technology metaphors of “connectivity” driven by the Internet and social media, to those associated with “deep knowledge.” According to Friedman, we’re all being driven by the explosion in complex systems-learning, AI, and huge database analysis, “to the deep end of the pool” where the forces of surveillance capitalism swim like sharks, and the regulatory lifeguard (government, social institutions, business and religious leaders) “doesn’t know how to swim!”
Readers of my 2007 book Digital Dharma (and this “teleconsciousness” blog), are already familiar with the idea that communications technology impacts all aspects of social, spiritual and cultural life, and that most importantly, this impact is a two-way street: our technology is both a product of the evolution of consciousness, and a mirror of this evolution; and it also reveals the light and shadow facing us at each stage of that evolutionary process.i Our shift from the issues of “connectivity” to those associated with “deep pattern processing” is indeed momentous, as the technologies of social media, smart devices, predictive algorithms, virtual reality and the all-encompassing Cloud, envelope, seduce and enrapture us, impacting our social, political and spiritual lives.
In this short essay I will expand on Friedman’s thesis of technology-driven metaphors. Using the 2012 election as an anchor, I will start a bit earlier: looking at the shift from a world dominated by television to that of the Internet. I will also go deeper into exploring the impacts of these shifts on our political and social life, and most importantly, look at how each shift brought forth a new set of spiritual challenges reflecting both our highest aspirations and lowest fears. Finally, I will look ahead, suggesting that Friedman’s “deep processing” metaphor can be split into two memes: our current “crisis of truth” reflected in the work deep seeing, and the emerging challenge of deep mind, brought about by AI, smart devices and the cloud.
2012: From Television to Twitter to Trump
Back in the late 1950’s, media scholar Marshall McLuhan watched as television swept across Canada, ending the dominance of radio and print media, but more importantly, changing family life, social norms, and even political beliefs. He coined the phrase, “the medium is the message,” to get us to look at the impacts of a communications technology form that had nothing to do with the programming delivered on it. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have analyzed television through McLuhan’s lens, looking at the deep changes wrought by this flickering “electronic hearth.” In Digital Dharma, I proposed that television was an extension of our emotional Heart: a medium of expression and feelings, stimulating both sympathy for those different than us, and an addictive hunger to suppress those new feelings by stuffing ourselves with food, material objects and distractions.ii
Television’s gift to the “boomer” generation was its face-to-face close-up view of the world’s diverse community. Despite its menu of cowboys and Indians, crime-fighters and often violent cartoons, TV also introduced us to the humanity of outsiders of different colors, tribe and nation. It connected us, along with the Space Program, for the first time to our entire planet as one Spaceship Earth. It was the medium of human and animal rights, the environment and holistic thinking. Balancing its diet of “hard news” and glorified sports violence, it was also a medium of the feminine: of the intimate family narrative and soap operas of personal disclosure, bringing the carnage of the Vietnam War into every living room. And, at the same time TV was bringing the world to the developed west, it was exporting these values, and the images of consumer wealth, to the rest of the world, destabilizing the old regimes, and stimulating migratory dreams.
In its reflection of the “shadow” aspect of the heart, television gave us addictive emotionalism: the glorification of desire, and its fulfillment at bargain-basement prices. Instead of true compassion, it offered a chance to feel pity or disdain for the parade of the world’s “losers” brought to our screens (or faux corporate boardrooms), a half-response that only deepened a sense of spiritual depression and disconnection. As consciousness evolved, television’s world-view of naive optimism, self-pity and addictive consumerism, became easier and easier to mock. Donald Trump’s network producers understood this, and brazenly used television itself to belittle its soft emotional (feminine) side, offering in opposition, a parody television masculinity: a loud-mouthed, unfeeling, so-called self-made millionaire, beauty-pageant and wrestling promoter.
At the same time The Donald was being introduced to the nation’s viewers, the Internet was moving from a carrier of email and a place to “surf the web,” to the home of Facebook, blogging, podcasts and all forms “social media.” If television was an extension of the heart, then the all-connected, all-present online world, was an extension of our skin.iii Over-connection, not over-emotion, would become the new challenge.
While television offered an opportunity to look at the multicultural world, the Internet brought us the gift and the challenge of actually connecting with it. As Friedman writes, “Suddenly connectivity became so fast, cheap, easy for you and ubiquitous that it felt like you could touch someone whom you could never touch before and that you could be touched by someone who could never touch you before.” In this world, the “other” is not just a face on a screen out there, but someone, invited or not, inside our personal space. This is the multi-cultural, globally-cosmopolitan, knowledge-based, world of today. It is a place where we can no longer ignore the multiple overlapping voices of minority peoples and cultures; a place where everyone is speaking all at once, and everything about us is revealed. At its best, a place for organizing decentralized online communities, and the creativity that comes from rubbing against new peoples and new ideas. Its metaphor of “we’re all connected,” offers an opportunity to embrace “holistic awareness,” an understanding of the true interconnection of all life, and the possibility of new tools to better integrate humanity into the biosphere.
Yet at the same time, the deep anxiety that comes from this realization leaves on feeling “data naked,” unprotected and overwhelmed by incoming signals. From the pandemics of AIDS, SARS and Ebola, to the waves of global migrants at the door of the developed world, to the data thefts, and cyber-attacks on the technological pillars of the information economy, the Internet has made us vulnerable to the darker side of being part of one web-linked world.
This was the world that Barack Obama symbolized. His campaign was based on data-driven Internet organizing, and his Presidency was based on the “cool management” of a less self-inflated nation in a multi-polar world. It is no surprise that this move into network-style governance would generate unease and push-back from those hurt by all this “connectivity.” All those left out of the capital flows of the information economy, those whose jobs were outsourced to internet-linked factories overseas, those frightened by the real or imagined appearance of the “the other” at the door, and those who felt that their (formally unquestioned and dominant) voices were now being drowned out by those they couldn’t shut down due to the new codes of “political correctness.”
In the 2016 campaign, at a time of deep social division and growing distrust of the new networked global financial corporations and financial institutions, the Democrats offered a candidate steeped in television’s aspirational memes (fairness and multicultural “rights”), coupled with an unpleasant air of boomer entitlement (“its my turn”). Donald Trump, who rose to fame manipulating television’s shadow as the exemplar of me-first materialism, crass cynicism and melodrama, easily embraced the role of anti-Internet metaphor avatar. Like many of the “strong man nationalists” coming to power today, he ran as the anti-connectionist (anti-diversity, anti-politically-correct speech, anti-feminist, anti-immigration) candidate. Trump effectively channeled his attacks against the metaphors of the multi-polar, all-connected internet (“America First,” “Build the Wall”), using not just his television persona, but even more radically, by mastering a regressive communications medium whose operative metaphor (“Here I Am”) is most aligned with the older values of security, survival, and fight or flight: the command and control, one-way 280-character mini-telegram solar-plexus broadcasts of the Twitter feed.iv In its declarative pronouncements, free of nuance (without even the perfunctory hellos and goodbyes, let alone the empathetic responses of telephone talk), Twitter communication is a throwback to the Victorian Internet, a rejection of holism and its complexities – the perfect medium of competitive narcissism.
Trump’s attacks on the “deep state” tap the very unease that Friedman calls “swimming in the deep end” – the sense that our interconnected databases and complex pattern-recognition software, while “abstracting complexity at a speed, scope and scale we’d never experienced before,” are leaving us “on the outside,” blind to what’s happening inside the algorithms that have begun to control our lives, while at the same time the surveillance state and the corporations of surveillance capitalism could see everything about us, including our decision-making processes that we hardly knew existed. Is it any wonder that one response to this sense of “not seeing” is the creation of a social media world of curated presentation – where everything is artifice and falsehood, where nothing can be believed, a place full of bots, scammers, poseurs and grifters, where everything is “fake news.”
How to manage the ethical challenge of deep seeing is our present dilemma and opportunity. Faced with the dark shadow of our smart technologies, and a President who is leading the charge away from even discussing its implications, Friedman sees great peril. He calls for trusted seers and navigators that can “offer the public deep truths, deep privacy protections, and deep trust.” Perhaps these attributes will be the focus of our next presidential race, as a number of candidates have embraced a return to complex policy analysis and are touting their “inner nerd.” We can hope that the rejection of science won’t continue in the face of global ecological catastrophe.
From an integral perspective, the spiritual “third eye” metaphor of deep-seeing offers a way out of the deep waters of false alarms, false friends and false truths. Recognizing that every sound and image we perceive might be manipulated, that every “solid physical truth” is really only a set of quantum probabilities, can lead us to a deeply cynical disconnected stance: to immersion in virtual reality escapism, or the passions of tribal regression. But it can also lead us to a more holistic understanding of our place in this complex universe.v Many spiritual traditions urge to recognize the bigger picture of creation: to see ourselves as part of an evolving whole, where no one is separate, and the face of the Other is a reflection of our shared divinity. Could it be that the metaphor of deep-seeing is an invitation to mindfully “watch the codes” of our own thought processes?
The second set of “deep processes” identified by Friedman are those associated with thought itself – artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, and predictive algorithms. In a future blog post I will look at these technologies as reflections of consciousness itself: are we separate thinking beings or part of one larger global brain?vi Are we stand-alone processors, or nodes on a giant network? Is our work to protect our ego-selves, or Tikun Olum – to repair the grid of Creation? To dance and sing together in community rituals and share in small face-to-face healing circles? Or to embrace the libertarian fantasy of preserving one’s separate self by fleeing to a bunker in New Zealand, a colony on Mars, or worst case, into a liquid-nitrogen-cooled brain-storage unit!
i Of course, I didn’t invent this idea! It is drawn from the field of media ecology pioneered by Marshal McLuhan, the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber, and the consciousness evolution model of Spiral Dynamics.
ii Philosopher Ken Wilber has called this response “boomeritis” – utopian dreaming and multicultural sympathies bordering on collective guilt for all the world’s victims, mixed with unacknowledged attachment to material luxuries and high drama.
iii In Digital Dharma (DD), I linked it to the Fifth Chakra: the Throat Center, the place of our voice and all communications.
iv In Chapter One of DD, I called texting “the telegraph of Aliveness,” and suggested that this medium was the perfect voice of adolescence: the time when kids start to push away and declare their individuality, announcing and reinforcing their ‘Beingness’ to their peers, calling attention to their cleverness. Adults usually grow out of this narcissism. When they don’t, in Maureen Dowd’s words, “its as if your id had a typewriter.” Twitter combines this First Chakra hunger to announce oneself with the broadcast power of radio, the Third Chakra medium.
v I looked at the impact of digital audio and video compression on our sense that “not everything we see is real,” and the resulting response of the “curated-self” in DD Chapter Five.
vi This is the work of the Crown Center, discussed in DD Chapter Seven.
Friday, March 2, 2018
Hillary’s Fourth Chakra Television-Based Campaign
The Fifth Chakra, Internet-Presidency, of Barack Obama
A Return to the Text: Donald Trump as the Twitter Candidate
What Might Come in 2020?
One can imagine further polarization along three versions of sixth chakra “truths” – (1) “My truth is the only truth, (and its written here in my Holy Book),” (2) “There is no truth, everything is fake, (and therefore only my tribe’s stories are real),” and (3) “All things are true, (and we must learn to communicate the deeper feelings and needs under our words).” Let us hope that our evolving consciousness brings us closer to the third response!
Saturday, July 22, 2017
In Chapter Five of Digital Dharma, I wrote about the impending “crisis of contagion” as our Internet connections collapsed every wall and barrier to the Other. “Television,” I wrote, “prods us to open our hearts to the world; the Internet reflects the challenge of dealing with the consequences of such openness… a sea of memes – idea fragments that flow from brain to brain, reproducing like viruses” (DD, 90). Reflected in the Internet are all the symptoms of a dangerously over-active Fifth Chakra: self-righteous speech that is often arrogant, over-reactive, dogmatic or fanatical. This unfiltered network gives equal voice to hate-mongers, liars, and unscrupulous profiteers and purveyors of pornography and rapidly-spreading viruses. For every online Utopian community, there’s another full of seduction and anger. (DD, 95)
I balanced this dark portrayal with the hope that we would find a way to truly see the gift in this technology that has pushed us into direct contact with all the truths – about our constructed false selves, our secrets and lies, and all the dark places – that we repress, suppress and deny. As we are forced to see the Other in every blog post, tweet or news-feed, we often respond by building stronger defenses and boundary walls to keep the “foreign contagion” out of our system, or countering with even more of the same – excessive “presentation of the self” that takes the form of nonstop talking, poor listening, or outright lying. As our world gets more complex and integrated, where former “outsiders” no longer keep their mouths shut, it is no surprise that for many frightened folks, the answer is to build higher walls and ban outsiders, challenge the idea of “truth itself,” making all values transient figments of fleeting clashing subcultures, and dropping down to safer forms of one-way discourse such as Twitter (DD, 88-9).
Ten years ago I warned that in a communications environment where everyone has a voice, and multiple “truths” run free, “being connected to everyone all the time” can easily overwhelm our brain’s defense systems. In a world of what William Gibson described as “deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness” (DD, 100), I suggested that simply building bigger firewalls and loading our computers with more and more anti-virus software, would not protect us. We needed to both turn inwards and outwards: participating in smaller, intimate communities, where we could drop our masks and ego posturing; and also begin to build links to “trusted sources” that could validate and verify the swirl of conflicting “truths” coming our way.
These conflicting responses – more walls and more “hyper-curated pretend-selves” on one hand, and the pull of staying in safe communities, have only increased in the intervening decade. We’ve seen the continued proliferation of special-interest sharing and support forums, “the private spaces where people gather to share information they might not be willing to broadcast publicly, or behave in ways they might not want their friends to know about.” Facebook itself, whose entire business model has been focused on getting users to “share as much information as they could, as publicly as possible” in its electronic town square, recently turned to promoting, as New York Times’ business writer Kevin Roose wrote, “its gated subdivisions” [Behind the Velvet Ropes of Facebook’s Private Groups (7/16/17)].
While these groups are a healthy response to media overexposure, and reflect our human hunger for the safety and intimacy of trusted small group connection, trusting only one’s friends at the expense of respected experts, seems to be a new cultural fault line. In some communities, science itself is under attack, and more and more people prefer to communicate from safely within their “thought silos,” taking their cue from their Twitter feeds and online “taste buddies.” Finding a way to step outside of our comfortable though environments without being overwhelmed remains a core challenge.
Our “digital dharma work” is to make a jump in consciousness – in Ken Wilber’s words, “from relativism to holism, or from pluralism to integralism” (DD, 88), simultaneously living in multiple overlapping hyperlinked networks, where everything and everyone are connected, where the true face of the Other cannot be avoided, all while maintaining one’s unique, but permeable, center.
One way to strengthen our ability to live in these multiple worlds is to strengthen our core Self through meditation practice: clearing the memory buffers and brain chatter that confuse and distract. These moments of silence are the “inner firewalls” against the waves of electronic stimuli that surround us all. From this place of deep quiet we can begin to perceive the whole web of illusion, beyond appearances and habitual concepts, to the true state of non-duality which modulates all reality. As media scholar Marshall McLuhan told us 60-years-ago, pay attention to the underlying medium, not the message.
Mindfulness meditation is, in effect, a process of observing the instruction codes of our consensual reality come and go, without actually downloading them and running their embedded programs of thoughts, emotions and attachments. From this place of unity consciousness, we can be both a “node on the network” and an observer of the network cloud, with all of its lightning and data storms. In earlier posts I suggested some “cyber-mediations” and offered “ambient awareness” as one way to help us with “Twitter overload.” They seem as timely today as when I first wrote them in 2007, and in my follow-up blog posts.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Last Thursday (7/13/17), the New York Times’ Style section featured a number of people admitting that they’ve developed quite an attachment to their Amazon Alexa “bot.” Whether “ideal roommate,” “a cross between a mistress and a nurse,” or “perfect woman, (who) never says, ‘Not tonight, dear,’” we seem deeply drawn to this disembodied, but friendly, voice in the dark. Media scholars understand that this allure is nothing new. It recapitulates our earlier fascination and deep emotional attachment to our telephones. Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1950’s, asked:
Why should the phone create an intense feeling of loneliness? Why should we feel compelled to answer a ringing public phone when we know the call cannot concern us? Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension? Why is that tension so very much less for an unanswered phone in a movie scene? The answer to all of these questions is simply that the phone is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity.
As I wrote in Digital Dharma, “a quality of intense longing has permeated the social history of telephony from the moment of its birth.” As opposed to the declarative texts of telegraphy and its modern rebirth as texting and Twitter, the telephone represented what Erik Davis has called the “ultimate animist technology… an inert thing full of voices,” – a technology of feelings, wants and desires.
While first seen as a business tool, limited to the male domain of business, government and the military, the telephone, by the 1920’s had become a domestic appliance, moving from the ordered left-brain-dominant realm of the alphabet, to the flowing, musical, feminine right-brain space of the voice. It was deeply unsettling to the established patriarchal social order: it empowered women in numerous ways, along with lovers, pranksters, and criminals. It was, in the words of historian Robert MacDougall, “a lawless thing, at times dangerous, at others sexualized, at others juvenile.” [See DD p. 36-42, for a discussion of the impact of the telephone’s “call to intimacy.”]
I believe that the telephone and its new forms as responsive “voice bots,” can be seen as extensions of our Second Chakra’s hunger for deep connection: at its best, drawing us into places of intimate sharing and community; and at its worst, fostering dependence and unhealthy emotional attachments. As we talk less and less on our phones, interacting with the world through our eyes, it is no surprise that our primal prewired attachment to the intimacy of the human voice is reasserting itself through these new devices. Our inner challenge before we fully engage with these external “voice whisperers,” is to create our own internal “voice of validation,” clearing old attachments and disconnecting the stuck cords to the unhealthy belief systems of our inner wounded children. With these cords of communication cleared, we can truly enjoy our newfound talking, Cloud-connected, playful electronic friends.