Saturday, July 22, 2017

FIREWALLS AND SILOS: TURNING FROM THE FACE OF THE OTHER

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

ALEXA and the SEDUCTIVE POWER OF THE DISEMBODIED VOICE

 
Last Thursday (7/13/17), the New York TimesStyle 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.

Monday, July 17, 2017

THE GLOBAL TELEGRAPH AND A PRESIDENT WHO CAN’T STOP “TWEETING”

THE GLOBAL TELEGRAPH AND A PRESIDENT WHO CAN’T STOP “TWEETING”


As early as 1851, in The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne has its protagonist reflect on the marriage of electricity and the human nervous system, presaging the emergence of the Global Brain. 
 
Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!" His listener who is less taken with modernity, responds, "If you mean the telegraph," said the old gentleman, glancing his eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, "it is an excellent thing, — that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don't get possession of it. A great thing, indeed, sir, particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers.”

Hawthorne goes on to suggest that this new technology would be ideally suited to the back and forth of lovers:
An almost spiritual medium, like the electric telegraph, should be consecrated to high, deep, joyful, and holy missions. Lovers, day by, day — hour by hour, if so often moved to do it, — might send their heart-throbs from Maine to Florida, with some such words as these 'I love you forever!' — 'My heart runs over with love!' — 'I love you more than I can!' and, again, at the next message 'I have lived an hour longer, and love you twice as much!' Or, when a good man has departed, his distant friend should be conscious of an electric thrill, as from the world of happy spirits, telling him 'Your dear friend is in bliss!'

As the telegraph network evolved into what Tom Standage has called “the Victorian Internet,” it never became the transcendent medium of Utopian global intelligence, but was quickly turned to “first-level” concerns of commerce, public safety, colonialism and war. Inventor and mystic Nikola Tesla too, in a 1904 article on “World Telegraphy,” had a vision of the earth “converted into a huge brain” once the wireless telegraph could be connected to a “cheap and simple device, which might be carried in one’s pocket.” 

Today, Tesla’s dream is a reality, over 560-billion text messages were sent worldwide last month (not counting 60-billion Facebook and WhatsApp daily messages!), but our new wired brain seems to be stuck in the most primitive level of communicating: “this message is all about Me.” It’s as if in the midst of our climb through the developmental stages [described by Maslow, Ken Wilber and Don Beck (and my use of the Chakra model)], from concerns with personal safety and control to true global interrelationships, from the telegraph to telephone, radio to television, the Internet to Virtual Reality and the Cloud, made possible by Cloud technologies, we’ve cycled back to the security of simple Yes/No binary signaling!

I believe that these mini-telegrams – short textual declarations, free of nuance, without even the perfunctory hellos and goodbyes, let alone the empathetic responses, of telephone talk, reflect the primary psycho-social inner work of individuation: discovering the I – and presenting it to the world.
At this stage of development, relationships are evaluated primarily in terms of one’s safety and one’s gain.

In Chapter One of Digital Dharma, I called these wireless services “the telegraph of Aliveness.” I connected RF-ID and texting to the coordination broadcasts of our living cells, 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.” And, today, the most prodigious user of texting, the loudest voice on Twitter, is the President of the United States! 

Clearly, we are beset with existential challenges. Our choice is to embrace them at the highest level of our consciousness, or drop back to fear-based responses – and an embrace of the technologies that amplify and reflect our hunger to be seen and to feel safe, to send out our He-Ne-Nee call, or by “following” our pop star heroes, to join in the safety of the (electronic) crowd.

I ended Chapter One with the hope that these messages connect us the Song of Aliveness transmitted by all Beings, that we use them to give voice to the planet itself as we extend digital sensors to the ocean depths and the tagging collars of dwindling wild species. This is still my view of the potential to live this aspect of our Digital Dharma.


DIGITAL DHARMA TEN YEARS LATER


Its been ten years since my book, Digital Dharma, was released by the Theosophical Publishing House (Quest Books). I’ve decided to look over some of my “predictions” a decade later, and in general, I think I did pretty well! Yes, Second Life and Friendster didn’t make it as online communities, but Facebook has over 1.9 billion monthly users. I called Twitter messages “twits,” but truly predicted the rise of SMS text-based services, and while I labeled the emergence of shared global intelligence networks “the grid,” we are all becoming dependent on our “smart devices” communicating via “the Cloud!”

In retrospect, using the chakras as the organizing ladder was probably a mistake in terms of marketing: my media-ecology and technology readers were frightened away by the esoteric references to “energy wheels,” while my New Age friends often told me that they “hate their computers and smartphones,” and have no interest in seeing them as tools for self-reflection. It might have been safer to rely more on Don Beck’s “Spiral Dynamics” and Ken Wilber’s holons, but in the end, the real leap I asked my readers to entertain was that our “outer technologies” both reflect and influence our inner psycho-spiritual challenges, and are in turn, created and used in ways that also reflect the state if our mass consciousness. As our world gets even more connected, having a “big picture view” of the emerging spiritual issues – the Light and Shadow of each technology – is even more critical to our mental health and the survival of the planet.

In the next few weeks, I will try to update each of the book’s seven chapters. I will also try to respond to any blog questions readers may have about the intersection of telecommunications technologies and spiritual evolution. As a start, here is a look at how the global telegraph, with its “first level” issues of security and self-identity, has reemerged in our constant “texting” and Twitter feeds, and a President who can’t keep his thumbs off the phone screen!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Building the Cloud: Hearing Gaia's Voice

The coupling of electricity with our nervous system over a century-and-a half ago started the process of what the prescient media sage Marshal McLuhan’s called, “the outering our nervous system.” From the one-to-one communications technologies of the telegraph and telephone, to the one-to-many forms of broadcast radio and television, and the all-to-all global grids of the internet and social media, we continue to grow more connected, more accessible, and more stimulated. Today, we are moving from interconnected networks to entire environments of distributed intelligence. With that change comes many potential negative outcomes, but I believe that despite the dangers of being seduced into Matrix-like pseudo-environments controlled by commercial interests, our emerging cloud consciousness – driven by these enabling technologies – also gives us an opportunity to reconnect with Gaia herself.

In the recent years we’ve seen the image of the internet morph from a two-dimensional “grid” to three-dimensional pervasive “cloud.” Distributed processing technology allows for data storage, software and computing technology to reside out on the network in large interconnected data centers far removed from the local user. Using these networks and remote data centers, extremely large-scale computing projects can now be shared across millions of independent loosely-coupled smaller processors worldwide, each "donating" its spare computing cycles to the functioning of the whole. Cloud-based shared computing networks are already tackling the modeling of new cancer-fighting drugs, the mapping of the universe, and the tracking of the smallest quantum interactions.

The cloud is now the "place" where we store more and more of our cumulative human intelligence. In addition to shared processing cycles and web applications, eventually every book written, every recording, every webpage, every film and television program -- the entire works of humankind, will find its way to the cloud, while we rely on ever-more-powerful search engines, "data mining" algorithms and crowd-sourcing to make sense of this overflowing abundance: the meshes, mixes and remixes of our evolving culture.

The explosive expansion of the information cloud is given more and more objects and places a digital voice: many office machines call in service technicians before their owners are aware of any problems, tiny sensors monitor soil and water conditions, alerting farmers when to irrigate and harvest. Similar devices in bridges are now sending wind, wave, and traffic data to the highway department, while soon vending machines will adjust their prices depending on supply and the current weather and traffic conditions, texting when they need restocking. Cellphone-guided neighborhood tours and local living histories are being developed in many communities: one New York artist has recruited his neighbors to record stories about the love life in their building, while another has poets tell the stories of individual trees in a Bronx park.

But beyond “talking trees” is the emergence of real-time connectivity to the earth’s life web itself. The internet has allowed us to vicariously participate in the naturalist’s work of monitoring and tracking wild animals: from nesting baby bald eagles on city sky-scraper ledges, to grey wolves in Yellowstone, to deep-diving seals, to tiny insects in the canopy of the rain forest. Earth-based monitoring – from interactive underwater observatories, to atmospheric carbon and ozone monitoring stations on the tops of mountains and deep in the forest; from stress sensors embedded deep in the earth, to the emergence of the “smart electrical grid,” is creating a proto-nervous system for the planet, making it possible to “listen” to Gaia herself.

We must learn to synthesize and integrate the messages from these extended neurons without becoming overwhelmed or overly thick-skinned. The technology of “ambient devices” provides one such tool. These devices track myriads of complex data inputs, synthesize their impact and display them in easy-to-understand interfaces such a cellphone app or a “cyber-pet” whose tail changes color as electrical consumption increases and whose purr is replace with a sad grumble as more carbon-based power is added to the mix.

As we learn to monitor our physical environment through such digital intermediaries, we will be challenged to pick inputs that represent our highest selves. What if we insisted that we use this planetary ambient awareness to electronically track and share the encroachment of the deserts, the thinning of the Ozone Layer, the decline of the ocean’s diversity? Not just the condition of our investment portfolio, but the number of malnourished children in the world? Not just status updates from “friends” we hardly know, but reports from our “adopted” whales, sea turtles, giant redwoods or tiny mushrooms living in the Amazon?

I believe that as we become more comfortable with our real-time connection to the planet’s multiple voices, we will begin to see ourselves less as individual beings competing for resources, power or status, and more as one node in a joyously, noisily communicating system. And with that system awareness, comes the chance to see in the Cloud beginnings of a paradigm shift in human consciousness: the modeling of a world where we connect not only with every other being, but through awareness of that interconnection, with the larger network itself – what the mystics have understood as "unity consciousness," the simultaneous experience of individual identity and cosmic oneness.

© Steven R Vedro, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Strenthening Our Inner Firewalls


Our always-on electronic devices have connected us to a pulsating web of information, social chatter and the possibility of endless distraction. Many writers have lamented the addictive nature of the never-ending stimuli brought to us by our smartphone apps, Facebook updates, texts and emails. In last Sunday’s (2/10) New York Times Maureen Dowd decried the “intoxicating lure” of instant electronic gratification, while Frank Bruni blamed “the Internet… and social media and cable television” for upending our belief in moderation, and replacing it with a culture of extremes— from food and diets, to sports and politics.

In Digital Dharma I discussed the “shadow side” of the Internet, digital realities and self-reinforcing online communities. 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,”[i] we need to cultivate the power of discernment – conscious attention and conscious inattention. In a hyper-stimulated media world, silence clears the “memory buffers.” Mind clarification must precede mind expansion. Our gullible consciousness responds to any software we put into it.[ii] 


These moments of silence are the “inner firewalls” against the waves of cultural spam that threaten to inundate us. 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.


[i] William Gibson, “The Road to Oceana,” New York Times, June 23, 2003; (p. 100 in Digital Dharma).
[ii] Discussed in more detail in pp. 132-135 in Digital Dharma.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gaia's Voice


In my 2008 book, Digital Dharma, I wrote about tiny digital chips becoming embedded in our physical environment – from our houses to shopping malls, to our appliances, clothing and body parts – and how soon these devices would evolve from simple one-way signaling beacons to fully-interactive and addressable nodes, monitoring their internal processes and sharing their status with every other device on the net.

In this world, office machines call in service technicians before their owners are aware of any problems. Tiny sensors monitor soil and water conditions, alerting farmers when to irrigate and harvest. Similar devices embedded in bridges send wind, wave, and traffic data to the highway department… and Coke machines adjust their prices depending on supply and the current weather and traffic conditions… calling nearby delivery drivers when they need restocking. (p. 150)

In our emerging Infosphere (of what we now call “the cloud”), we are beginning to give a voice to Gaia herself. From interactive underwater observatories, connected to each other and to land-based research laboratories, to atmospheric carbon and ozone monitoring stations on the tops of mountains and deep in the forest; from dairy cows that tweet that their udders are full, to stress sensors embedded deep in the earth and in roads and bridges, data about the earth’s health now pours in from all around our environment: each adding its own small signal to our collective nervous system.

We are even giving threatened species a chance to be heard. Last Monday’s (2/4/13) New York Times had an opinion piece about how the internet has allowed us to vicariously participate in the naturalist’s work of monitoring and tracking wild animals. Writer Emily Anthes told of how thousands of people had become friends of 832F, an alpha-female grey wolf who left her protected environment in Yellowstone National Park and was shot by a hunter. She describes how wireless “tracking collars,” connected to the Internet by satellite and cellular frequencies, are being used “to track everything from tiny tropical orchid bees to blubbery, deep-diving elephant seals.”  

As we learn to monitor our physical and social environments through such digital intermediaries, we will be challenged to pick inputs that represent our highest selves. What if we demand that our signaling technologies send us easy-to-understand messages about the planet’s true health as opposed to just the rise and fall of the financial markets? What if we insisted that we use this planetary ambient awareness to electronically track and share the conditions of our environment, the encroachment of the deserts, the thinning of the Ozone Layer, the decline of the ocean’s diversity? Not just the condition of our investment portfolio, but the number of malnourished children in the world? Not just status updates from “friends” we hardly know, but reports from our “adopted” whales, eagles, foxes, sea turtles, giant redwoods or the tiny mushrooms living in the soil deep in the Amazon rainforest?

I believe that as we become more comfortable with our real-time connection to the planet’s multiple voices, we will begin to see ourselves less as individual beings competing for resources, power or status, and more as one node in a joyously, noisily communicating, system. And with that system awareness, comes the chance to see in the Cloud beginnings of a paradigm shift in human consciousness: the modeling of a world where we connect not only with every other being, but through awareness of that interconnection, with the network itself: what the mystics have understood as "unity consciousness," the simultaneous knowledge of individual identity and cosmic oneness.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Book Talk Announcement in Sarasota on May 13th



In the last decade our shared planetary nervous system has been extended, as media sage Marshal McLuhan predicted in the early 1960’s, into a global embrace. Communications networks have advanced from wires to fiber optics, from interconnected radio and television grids to a world of billions of wirelessly communicating sensory devices – each with its own address in cyberspace. Our collective systems for sharing thought have undergone the most rapid change in human history, affecting our mental, psychological, and etheric bodies.

The electronic media amplify, distort and attenuate our senses, change our awareness, and “mediate” our experiences. But from a mystical perspective, everything we have created in cyberspace holds a lesson for our spiritual unfolding. The Infosphere is the new environment through which humanity must now play out its evolutionary challenges. If the universe itself, as many philosophers tell us, is a field, not just of matter, but also of information, then the Infosphere must hold in its microcosm all levels of human experience: all knowledge, all our dramas of politics and power, and all our dreams. This knowledge is encoded in our ubiquitous systems of telecommunications, and yet because it is so omnipresent, to most of us it is still invisible.

Based on his book Digital Dharma, Steven Vedro’s multimedia presentation will introduce the core communications metaphors of each of the seven levels of consciousness. Join Steven for a challenging and entertaining exploration of the developmental metaphors of light and shadow in our cellphone and texting mania, the impossibility of finding the truth over the internet, the challenge of deep-seeing brought to us by digital compression, and the glimpses of field awareness inherent in evolving social media and “cloud consciousness.”


Event Name: DIGITAL DHARMA BOOK TALK
Event Date Wednesday, 02/13/2013
Time: 7-9pm
Location: Rising Tide Spiritual Center, 5102 Swift Road, Sarasota
Price: FREE

Monday, June 25, 2012

ARCHETYPES IN THE CLOUD


ARCHETYPES IN THE CLOUD

Learning how to navigate a world where everyone and everything is connected, where every object has a voice (if not IP address), where all things can be found, and all that was hidden is seen, where realities comes into being based on what decoding scheme we chose, is truly a mythic challenge. Without proper tools and spiritual preparation, hyper-connectivity can be an endless hall of mirrors, trapping us in the morass of our electronically magnified addictions and fears.
                                 
Perhaps it is from the inner world of myth and archetype that we can find the wisdom to live and thrive in this new environment? Each archetype has its “gold” -- its power and its gift to connect us with our deepest aspirations for our soul, and its “shadow” -- its immature manifestation that tricks us with false promises (of safety, of power, of love, of spiritual connection), and leads us further into isolation.

Traversing this new world we can draw upon the deep wisdom of the protector archetypes: the Warrior, whose work it is to set and protect boundaries from a deeply grounded place; the Lover, who can establish clean connections with "the other;" the Magician, who is able to discern shadow from light, and recognize the larger patterns; and the Elder/Sovereign, who through the act of blessing and generosity, can not only see, but change, the codes of reality, healing the web of creation. We can see the light and shadow side of these archetypes at play within each of the current strategies we have embraced to guide us through the world of the cloud.

The Magician

Out in cyberspace, where every digital bit effects all others, and where each bit brings forth a slightly different “reality,” having a guide that can see through the “data smog” and recognize the underlying patterns -- the meta-information -- is critical. This is the domain of the Magician -- one who is comfortable in the shadow places, one who is a systems-seer, capable of finding their way in a sea of conflicting signals. The Magician is comfortable walking in the world of the manifest, and in the worlds of potential form. It sees beyond habitual concepts to the underlying patterns that modulate all reality. And, because it can past the illusion, it is not seduced by every immediate stimuli. “Spend time pondering not what you see, but why you see it,” Merlin tells the young Arthur in Depak Chopra’s The Way of the Wizard. ‘Look at the carpets rising and the straw blowing about; branches, leaves and trees dancing; the pond wearing rippled armor,’ all these things look different, Rumi tells us, but “in root and reality, they‘re one: the wind.”

At its best, this archetype can help us distinguish between all the potential tricksters and false signs that we meet on the journey; at its worst, in its “shadow” manifestation, it is itself the great manipulator, the promoter of false insights and dreams that pass for reality -- the land of the Matrix movies. More often, the Magician gets carried away with her mental abilities, becomes detached from the earth, and loses touch with her heart. Google’s reliance on its data-mining processes has much Magician energy about it: wonderful results can come forth, but sometimes it provides results that are completely disconnected from life as we live it!

Men and women following the Magician in cyberspace must be alert for the intoxication of data-gathering, for the delusion that “only the right algorithm can find the truth,” for the temptation to “just play one more level” or download “just one more app.” But, at its best, the Magician reminds us to venture past our fear of the unknown, to widen our reception channels, to take in more frequencies, until we can see with what Sri Aurobindo called “the eye of complete union,” finding, as poet William Blake saw, “a world in a grain of sand.”

The Lover

The Lover seeks connection, sparks our creativity, and holds all beings out in the web in its heart center. Relationship and reciprocity is the core communications focus of this archetype, its greatest desire is to reveal our dreams and joys, our innermost desires, to a trusting circle of friends. When in shadow mode, the Lover can lead us into obsessive concern about not being connected, and lead us to engage in compensatory over-communications to the point of drowning out the truly important signals all around us. It often mistakes codependency for compassionate listening, getting hooked into other’s stories as if they were “real.”

This guide is an important friend, as it pulls us back from the Magician’s conjured dreamspace and abstractions into the domain of feelings and the safety of trusted circles of friends. The Lover is a strong advocate of “crowd sourcing” and open-systems, freeware and shared content. It must be alert however, to the seduction of self-promotion, group-think and mutual ego inflation, that flows like a dark current through much of today’s social media networks. When disconnected from the intelligence of the Magician, and vulnerable without the protection of the Warrior, the Shadow-Lover may “spill its secrets” on to all and everyone with the click of a mouse regardless of the impact (some would see this “na├»ve openness” shadow in WikiLeaks).

A wounded lover can respond be becoming “thick-skinned” and cynical as a way of self-defense, eagerly awaiting another scandal or embarrassing video thrown up on to the web for all to see. At the other extreme, the shadow can take the form of hyper-sensitivity and the “victim syndrome,” compulsively finding more reasons for their own loneliness in every friend’s Facebook status update or Twitter post.

The Lover understands that a trusted friend is a much greater security check than layers of complex passwords and firewalls, that a referral from within one’s circle of intimates is going to carry much more weight that a data-driven recommendation protocol. The explosive growth of Facebook and social search, the flood of heart-tugging “cute animal videos” on YouTube, and the success of viral campaigns for human rights that continues today, reminds us that the Lover has never been banished by the geek Magicians of cyberspace. For this we can be thankful, for it will be the Lover responding to these calls for environmental sanity, that keeps us from destroying our spaceship Earth.

The Warrior

If we use the Magician to help us see the underlying data patterns within the cloud, the Warrior archetype gives us the power to move through this hall of mirrors towards our true goals. It gives us a shield to protect us from the constant bombardment of data distractions in our hyper-connected world. The Warrior is protective of boundaries, defending our personal information from expropriation by those that may want to harm us or use our data for inappropriate purposes.

The Warrior is not tricked by appearances (the Lover’s weakness) or seduced (as is the Magician) by the complexity of near-infinite choice. Warrior energy fuels the use of the internet and social media for justice and civil rights, for calls to live a life of mission and service. Listening to the cries of the Lover, this archetype takes on the responsibility of using technology for the care the earth, pushing the Magician to simplify and clarify (through careful design and presentation) the complex data patterns about global warming, population growth, pandemic outbreaks, etc., in such a way that individuals and groups can take specific action.

We are all too familiar with the Warrior’s shadow. Violence and aggression against projected demons and external enemies, rigidity and attachment to rules and procedures, distrust and distance from the messiness of life, are all signs of the wounded or immature Warrior archetype. We see these behaviors all over the web. On the aggressive side, flaming wars, scattershot spam, hate speech and “trolls” set out to destroy the infrastructure of the network itself. In its passive form, hierarchical systems of control that stifle others creativity and sharing.

In so many ways, Steven Jobs and Apple personified these positive and negative Warrior traits -- from elegant simplified design strategies and top-to-bottom responsibility for its products, to the rigidity of locked battery cases and non-interchangeable cables, to exclusive smart phone “apps” and cellphone contracts that trap its customers in a “follow the leader” relationship. In its quest for just-in-time streamlined manufacturing processes, Apple has been accused of forgetting the Lover’s core values in terms of worker health and safety.

Tapping the power of the Warrior allows us to navigate the cloud from a place of personal safety. And from this place, tap our power of creativity, whether it is the making of new programs and applications, to playing with our online identities and finding our personal expressive voice. 

The Sovereign

The Sovereign [Wise Elder/Crone] operates from a place of blessing and generosity. Closer to death than any of the other archetypes, she is no longer caught up in her own ego defense. She has no fear of the transpersonal realms, but her stance is not to “understand it” [as a Magician] or “change it” [as a Warrior], but to observe it with love and compassion, watching the flow of information as it traverses the cloud from a place of non-attachment. This distancing from the “hooks of attachment and attention” allows the Elder to offer unconditional love for the entire human experience. The shadow danger is here is one of inflation and narcissism, mistaking one’s “big picture understanding” for that of the Divine mind.

Healthy Sovereign energy fuels our efforts to heal the web of life. It is the underlying ethos of the internet itself -- openness, trust, the free flow of packets across multiple paths, all finding their way to the final destination through the “goodwill” of router devices that read the packet’s destination and generously forward it on to next node that is either closer to its goal or relatively free of competing traffic. The Sovereign understands that each packet has its own destiny and path, but that once assembled in the proper order, the true meaning of the message is revealed. Its job is to keep the network itself, and all of its potential paths and routers, as strong as possible.

When we tap this archetype, we are empowered to commit acts of kindness without attribution. Performing the ancient Jewish moral commandment of Tikkun Olam, the Sovereign calls upon all the other archetypical energies to guide its stewardship of the planet, and its electronic nervous system. It means staying fully conscious of our operating systems, and like the self-healing “mesh networks” we are building out in the Infosphere, downloading new applications that are in greater alignment with our inner work: stepping into the Cloud not as dependent children, or dangerously independent adolescents, but as “inter-dependent” adults, bringing forth a transformation of human consciousness.

From the Web to the Cloud



The coupling of electricity with our nervous system over a century-and-a half ago started the process of what the prescient media sage Marshal McLuhan’s called, “the outering our nervous system.” From the one-to-one communications technologies of the telegraph and telephone, to the inter-personal one-to-many forms of broadcast radio and television, and the all-to-all global grids of the internet and the emerging distributed intelligence of peer-to-peer and social networks, we continue to grow more connected, more accessible, more stimulated. Each technological stretching of our communications matrix has an impact on our emotional and spiritual life, on our language, and on the myths we live by.

Our technologies are the products of our evolving consciousness, and they also change our consciousness. Yet, it is from the deep well of consciousness -- myth and metaphor -- that we may draw the wisdom to guide us through this transformative shift. Our communications structures are moving from interconnected networks to entire environments of distributed intelligence. With that change comes the challenge of moving from focusing on “how do I relate to the other beings in this world”, to the transpersonal question of “what is it that we are all co-creating in every moment of that connection?” 

In the Internet world we are all connected. Boundaries mean little when all knowledge, both public and private, is available to anyone. On the internet nothing is protected from our eyes and ears: from leaked reports of government and corporate malfeasance, to all levels of violence and pornography. Once-hidden religious doctrines, mystical texts, and secret practices from Scientology to staged wrestling matches, are now available to all to see. Every person with a cellphone camera is a threat to the old order of secrecy and control. Even online bookies are finding that their clients now know more about the odds than they do!
Our Internet-connected computers have opened every "closet," short-circuited old modes of denial - for wayward spouses and for Presidents and Presidential candidates. We have become “data naked” -- every transaction, every credit card purchase, every trip through the grocery store, and every phone call (and its originating location) is now “on the record.” Even once-expunged court records (the “clean slate” granted by a judge for minor convictions years ago) are finding their way on to the Web, as records once held only in paper, are now are routinely digitized.

In this hyper-connected environment, “boundary control” becomes a full-time job. We are all conscious of our vulnerability, and the weakness of our carefully maintained public self. “Who am I and who do I pretend to be? Where am I, and where do I end and you begin? Who do I let into my space, and how can I trust that you say who you are?” Our networks are interconnected across the old boundaries of public and private, nation to nation, time and space, no one processor stands alone. With this new vulnerability has come fears of “information infection” and contagion. Is it no wonder that in our physical world we use the same metaphors? We fear viruses and foreign terrorist infiltrators, and we worry about the modification of our core operating systems, our food and our very DNA.

In the recent years we’ve seen the image of the internet morph from a two-dimensional ““grid” to three-dimensional pervasive “cloud.”  What Wired contributing editor Steven Johnson has called "long-zoom consciousness"- reflected by our digital capability to "zoom out" from the scale of DNA up through “Google Earth” photos and on satellite images of the earth and beyond to deep-space imaging of the enormity of the cosmos - is emerging as contemporary culture's defining way of seeing. According to Johnson, this has created a new view of information space - interconnected and multi-layered - that is as disruptive to our old ways of thinking as the earlier revolutions of Newton and Einstein.

Today, our computers are no longer discreet systems sitting at the desktop, but are all around us in “smart handheld devices” that combine mobile phones, music and game players, GPS locators, and dozens of other applications. Networked processors  are everywhere: in our appliances, on the street, at the market, and soon in our clothing and eyeglasses. Our technologies are even empowering physical locations to tell their stories: one New York artist has recruited his neighbors to record stories about the love life in their building, while another tells the stories of a grove of trees in an urban park.

But, beyond personal awareness of place, the web has metaphorically given a voice to Gaia herself. We are building grids of network sensors that will crisscross our world. From interactive underwater observatories, connected to each other and to land-based research laboratories, to atmospheric carbon and ozone monitoring stations on the tops of mountains and deep in the forest; from stress sensors embedded deep in the earth and in roads and bridges, to the emergence of the “smart electrical grid,” data will be pouring in from so many places in our everyday environment: each sensor with its own IP (internet protocol) address, each adding its own signal to our collective nervous system. Each aware of its location, each reacting to new data, monitoring its internal processes, receiving updates from, and sharing new information with, its peers.

Distributed processing technology allows for data storage, software and computing technology to reside out on the network in large interconnected data centers far removed from the local user. “Grid” computing distributes these resources not in central locations, but in small pieces across all the computers sharing the same network. Using these networks and remote data centers, extremely large-scale computing projects can now be shared across millions of independent loosely-coupled smaller processors worldwide, each "donating" its spare computing cycles to the functioning of the whole. Cloud-based shared computing networks are already tackling the modeling of new cancer-fighting drugs, the mapping of the universe, and the tracking of the smallest quantum interactions. In its shadow form, computer criminals have captured thousands of computers (by infecting them with “botnet” viruses and malware) turning them into giant “spamming engines” -- all without the knowledge of the computer’s owners!

On the net, our social challenge is to negotiate with all the “others“ out in the universe, conscious of our need for appropriate boundaries, but understanding that like it or not, we are now all connected. In the cloud, we assume this connection and our shared use of common resources and intelligence, and are challenged to take what we need and use it to create value for the whole community -- whether by offering spare computing cycles in a grid project, uploading environmental observations to a shared database, forwarding cellphone videos and tweets of street protesters fighting repressive regimes, contributing dollars to an online social cause, or engaging in other acts of “digital generosity.” New forms of collaboration are emerging as people engage in multi-user gaming, music and visual arts creation, creating new “mashups” from these aggregated offerings.

On the net, our content is locally-stored (on our personal hard drives); in the cloud, we store our files and programs across the network (in remote data centers), with only snippets of code (apps) residing on the local machines. We draw from these external repositories as needed, downloading content to our lighter, streamlined tablets and smart devices.  Indeed, the cloud is now the "place" where we store more and more of our cumulative human intelligence. In addition to shared processing cycles and web applications, eventually every book written, every recording, every webpage, every film and television program -- the entire works of humankind, will find its way to the cloud, while we rely on ever-more-powerful search engines, "data mining" algorithms and crowd-sourcing to make sense of this overflowing abundance -- the unleashed outpouring of the new, and the taking from and recreating of the old: the mash-ups, meshes, mixes and remixes of our evolving culture, that populates the "long-tail" graph of network destinations.

This scenario has of course, a frightening side - in the service of our "lower selves" these technologies can lead us to a beehive-like world devoid of quiet personal space; where global corporations extend their control to the most remote corners of the planet; where the smallest personal action is tracked in giant marketing databases; a world where physical nature and even human love are replaced by computer simulations. But when seen through the lens of metaphor, the very structure of the cloud offers us a path to a very different outcome. Cloud technologies show how people can be more than individual transmitters and receivers, not the infinite but separate reflecting jewels on Indra’s web, but part of a joyously, noisily communicating, system. And with that system awareness, comes the chance to see in the Cloud beginnings of the paradigm shift in human consciousness: the modeling of a world where we connect not only with every other being, but through that interconnection, simultaneously with something greater then ourselves.



Archetypes of the Cloud: Adventures in Cyberspace” was first published in the June 2012 issue of Noetic Now, the online journal of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, located at www.noetic.org/noetic. With permission from the publisher. ©2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Indian subcontinent edition

New Dimensions Radio Interview

While in California last month I was interviewed on the NEW DIMENSIONS RADIO Program. The show airs this week on over 100 stations in the USA and Canada. Here is their program description. You can use the link (above in the title) to order a podcast for $1.99.

How do we move through the glut of information and data, that the internet and “the cloud” has brought to us? How do we meet the challenge of mining the abundance of images, sounds, and wisdom from the new technologies? How will our spiritual metaphors shift? Vedro suggests there are filters and guides now cropping up, and they may be the, “the neo-cloud technology artist of the future.”

He says these people are emerging. “In some ways they will point us to what was there all along, but give us the filters [to see more clearly].” They will access many different bits and pieces from “the cloud,” and will mash them into new sounds and new images, which will help us realize our interconnectedness with one another and the planet. Vedro shares ways in which our metaphors are changing.

We are moving away from the old industrial society of hierarchy and power based on individuals holding information closely, as we enter an age of information that is mutually shared by multiple intelligences. It’s a culture in which our metaphors reflect a worldview of abundance and interconnectedness. (hosted by Justine Willis Toms)

Steven Vedro is a writer, lecturer, and nationally recognized telecommunications consultant He is the author of Digital Dharma: A User’s Guide to Expanding Consciousness in the Infosphere (Quest Books 2007 & Jaico Publishing House 2011). To learn more about the work and blogs of Steven Vedro go to www.teleconsciousness.blogspot.com

Topics Explored in this Dialogue:

- How our metaphors are moving from those of power and hierarchy to abundance and filtering
- What is the difference between the net and the cloud
- How the new guides of the “infosphere” might be likened to modern day DJs
- How this abundance of choices is actually limiting people’s perspective
- Who will be our guides to help us find our way through the information maze
- How have the metaphors of spiritual evolution shifted as technology has shifted
- How will technology bring us closer to a gift and trust economy
- How do we maintain our spiritual center in the midst of info smog

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Lytro Camera and "deep Seeing"

In the same issue of the Atlantic, Rob Walker describes the "Lytro Camera." This device incorporates hundreds of sensors and micro-lenses, and captures a scene in all of its depth. "The upshot is a photograph that's less a slice of visual information than a cube... a light-field visual object."

This seems to me to be another technological representation of the spiritual work of the 6th Chakra: that of "deep seeing." This camera reminds us once again that the reality we take so much for granted is really just "one slice of the hologram," that our brain is always choosing a more limited view of reality. Our spiritual challenge at this level of awareness is to see, as Sri Aurobindo challenged us, with "the eye of complete union."

Oprah and the Heart of Television

In this month's Atlantic magazine, Caitlin Flanagan writes about Oprah Winfrey's rise out of the hell of racism, poverty, and sexual abuse, and links it to the heart-centered power of television itself. "Because," Flanagan writes, "into every household in America, no matter how low or mean or outright evil, into each squalid nest and decent place pours the great, pure light of television."

Oprah invented herself, created her own dream of entering into that safe magical place, as a young child watching television when "every story had a happy ending."

I believe that Oprah indeed embodies and fully understands the feminine, embracing, emotion opening, power of this medium. Its light -- its ability to bring us into face-to-face relationship with "the others" in our interconnected family, and its shadow -- its ability to open the heart and then fill it with consumer goods and addictive longing.

This is the theme of Chapter Four of Digital Dharma.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Trans-personal Metaphors of the Cloud

If texting challenges us at the personal identity level, and the Internet and social media offer us an opportunity to examine our inter-personal boundaries, then our move to “the cloud” can be seen as a technological reflection of the metaphors of the transpersonal.

As we move more and more of our memory and our intelligence into the shared space of the cloud, we confront a set of metaphors based on drawing from a common source of Being.Distributed processing technology allows for data storage, software and computing processors to reside out on the network "grid" and be called forth only when needed. Extremely large-scale computing projects can be shared across millions of smaller processors worldwide, each "donating" its spare computing cycles to the functioning of the whole. In addition to connecting data sensors and data processors, the cloud is also becoming the "place" where we store more and more of our cumulative human intelligence, relying on ever-more-powerful search engines and "data mining" algorithms, crowd-sourcing and the "long-tail", to make sense of this overflowing abundance - the unleashed outpouring of the new and the taking from and recreating of the old, the collages and mash-ups, meshes, mixes, remixes of our popular culture - to our computers, MP3 players, and smart phones.

This scenario has a frightening side - in the service of our "lower selves" these technologies can lead us to a beehive-like world devoid of quiet personal space; where global corporations extend their control to the most remote corners of the planet; where the smallest personal action is tracked in giant marketing databases; a world where physical nature and even human love are replaced by computer simulations. The spiritual metaphor is the blasted open “Crown Chakra” – connecting unfiltered to all the gins and tricksters of the astral plane; lost in the psychic hall of mirrors, caught in never-ending attention deficit.

But when seen through the lens of metaphor, the very structure of the cloud offers us a path to a very different outcome: what mystics have understood as "unity consciousness," the simultaneous knowledge of the knower and the known, of individual identity and cosmic oneness. Beyond the communicating appliances, the mash-ups and the long tails, is the vision of an interconnected creative culture. And beyond this cultural vision is a spiritual teaching, the modeling of a world where consciousness connects with every other being, and simultaneously with something greater then itself.

On the net we negotiate with the other, protective of our boundaries, but understanding that, like it or not, we are all connected; in the cloud we begin to see how our intelligence has always been connected in every action, past, present and future – the we and the other are individual processors sharing the same memory and power source. On the net we share some of our localized content; in the cloud we download what we need from the Divine Treasury and return it to the greater good. On the net we process our own data, drawing from external repositories as needed; in the cloud we hold all the repositories in common, maintaining our foreground processing, but intentionally making room for seed programs to use our spare computing cycles for a higher purpose: our bodies and our life experiences, vessels of Divine Curiosity; our prayers of gratitude, the uploading technology that refreshes and heals the great web of consciousness.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Internet Mindfulness

In the Internet world we are all connected. Boundaries mean little, when all knowledge, both public and private is available to anyone. Our inter-personal relationships are being challenged at every level of intimacy. Infection and contagion, border control and foreign infiltrators, modification of our very DNA, are the metaphors of the day. On the web nothing is protected from our eyes and ears.

It seems that we are becoming “data naked” when every transaction, every credit card purchase, every trip through the grocery store, and every phone call (and its originating location) is now “on the record.” Even once-expunged court records (the “clean slate” granted by a judge for minor convictions years ago) are finding their way on to the Web, as records once held only in paper, are now are routinely digitized.

Pushed into the Infosphere -- all of our secrets revealed, our every thought accessible, connected to the planet's very intelligence -- we are being forced to redefine our boundaries. Who am I and who do I pretend to be? Where am I, and where do I end and you begin? Who do I let into my space, and how can I trust that you say who you are?

This is a core existential challenge, and has brought us a great deal of pain. Yet, from a spiritual point of view, maybe being mutually naked isn’t such a terrible thing. The Internet has allowed us to see beyond the masks of the ego-self, corporate and government posturing, and build our own “peer networks.” Yes, social networking allows for addictive connection, personal posturing and closed-minded self-referential “friends circles.” But, it also offers the possibility of experiencing self as part of a larger web – of friends, of communities of interest and of place, of creation itself.

As we struggle to define our multiple overlapping circles of “close friends, friends, or acquaintances” on Facebook, we are reminded that social connection to a small group of trusted souls (in support group, recovery meeting or sangha), has always been how we found the safety to explore the dreams and the shadows of our own souls. In an environment where everyone is connected and sharing their every experience, learning how to observe incoming data without reacting to every stimulus is a critical cyber-survival skill. The core tool is mindful awareness without reaction to every new message. Our flood of tweets and emails can inundate and overwhelm, or like the stick of the Zen master, invite us to pay attention to where we habitually put our attention. The shaman’s skill is in cultivating a wider-seeing vision that takes in all vibrations, and the shield ofdiscernment, that allows her to know what signals require action, and which ones are part of the background.

Many forms of spiritual practice involve stilling the busy mind and being present to, without being hooked by, these incoming data streams. Awareness meditation is, in effect, a process of observing the instruction codes of reality without processing them into thoughts, emotions and suffering. In Buddhism this is called mindfulness, watching the codes go by, “indifferent” to one story over another, but still very much connected to the experience of life – processing the reality of the outer world in full consciousness that one is in fact,data processing.

Signals of Aliveness: Staying Grounded in a World of Electronic Alerts

In Digital Dharma I discussed the impact of electronic media on each of the body’s seven psycho-energetic centers, the chakras. This approach be too “new age” for many potential readers, who might be interested in the social, psychological, and indeed spiritual, challenges of the Infosphere. So, in my next three posts I will summarize the core impacts of our new always-on, always-connected, information environment on our (a) personal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) transpersonal relationships. This posting is about the "personal" domain.

I believe that the explosion of text messaging among the world’s youth (many send hundreds of messages a day), the constant email alerts on our PDAs, and the never-ending roll of “tweets,” are primal cries for acknowledgement – for recognition of existence and individual ego identities, in a time when everyone and everything is calling out their unique location and update status. The danger of this explosion is a crisis of ego need and electronically amplified narcissism: everyone has a voice, and everyone is afraid of not being heard.

On a positive note, giving everything a “voice” is a deep immersion in what we too often chose to ignore or deny: the voices of the disempowered and marginalized, the voices of objects we take for granted, the voices of Gaia herself, the voices of our own body’s cellular broadcasters. Our challenge is to learn to listen with discernment, to create systems to recognize threatening changes in our ambient data environment, and to both figuratively and literally, keep ourselves “grounded.” Walks in nature, and quiet time listening to our own breath and heartbeat, are important centering strategies, and so is dancing and drumming, making vibrant tweets that arise from our physical being.


For more discussion of "everything has an [IP] voice" see my earlier essay on "Ambient Awareness."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reflections on James Gleick's "The Information"

In Digital Dharma I argued that as we moved into the Internet Age, our spiritual work would shift to the light and shadow of the core metaphors associated with the “second tier” technologies of the Internet (truth versus falsehood, contagion and connection, firewalls and other rigid “boundaries” versus “smart filtering”), digital compression (coding schemes, consensual reality, mindfulness), and the “cloud” (the universe as intelligent processor and humans as part of a large “grid computing” experiment with the Divine).

These are the same metaphors explored in great detail, and without their spiritual associations, in James Gleick’s book, The Information. He writes about the shift from metaphors of “energy” to “information” in describing the vastness of the universe [as a “cosmic information processing machine… the universe computes its own destiny”] and the microscopic world of our cells [where genes “encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out… Life spreads by networking”]. I described these functions – and the fascination with the metaphor of “the codes” – in Chapter Six, a look at the spiritual challenges of the technologies of digital representation, and their metaphoric association with the opening of the esoteric “third eye.”

I described the value of “attention” (when information becomes cheap), and the importance of “smart filtering” in dealing with the glut of data connections made possible by the Internet in my discussion of spiritual impact of “actually being connected to ‘the other’ versus the earlier moral crisis of seeing the other’s face brought by television into our living room in the 1960’s and 70’s. And finally, in Chapter Seven, I too found hope in the evolution of the cloud, where our true work is that of tikun olam, repairing the world.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Technology as Toilet Paper: Reflections from the SEED Conference

I just returned from a fascinating SEED Institute conference in Albuquerque – a structured hybrid of “Bohmian Dialog” and Native American talking circle, with 24 invited wisdom teachers (elders, teachers, and shamans) discussing the spiritual implications of science, technology and creativity. In a pre-discussion talk, I had a chance to present my vision of telecommunications technologies as external metaphors for the inner spiritual work of evolving consciousness. During the dialog itself, I mostly listened, and when I did contribute to the flow, it was from a place of deep metaphor: looking at technology as extensions of the body, reflecting our flight from limits of embodiment and at the same time, our hunger to connect more fully with the Divine as embodied vessels of Divine curiosity.

This contradiction ran throughout our discussions. Technology as an alienating force, removing us from contact with community, with Nature, and our Mother Earth; and yet, at the same time, we heard of communications technology as something that was preserving native languages, allowing native communities to reach out to each other and to supporters around the world, empowering youth and providing new ways for Elders to tell their stories.

In native communities, one way to resolve these tensions is through storytelling and humor. And one of the most powerful characters in Native stories is the Trickster, the one who forces us to look at our denied and repressed qualities, including our “shitty” attachments to symbols of power and prestige. One the last day of our meeting, Dan Longboat, a Canadian Mohawk environmental educator, told a joke about “technology as trickster artifice” that encapsulated all the themes of the conference. I’ve paraphrased it below:

This morning, Shawn Secatero (Canoncito Navajo), Leroy Little Bear (Blackfoot) and I, met for breakfast. Leroy, as befitting his elder status, was on “Indian time,” and hadn’t yet shown up. Shawn and I, as befitting male Indians showing off their ceremonial jewelry, soon got into a competition as to who had the coolest cellphone.

Shawn had a silver and turquoise Bluetooth-powered wristwatch phone. He could send messages and talk just by waving his arm, and putting his hand to his face. [Dan demonstrated by talking into his wrist, “hello, can you hear me.”] I brought out my I-Phone and showed him the latest “find a Pow-Wow” GPS app. We were going at it fast and furious, when Leroy interrupted us. We turned to him for his opinion. Each of us wanted him to know that we had the best communications technology device.

But while he was thinking about our request, we couldn’t help but notice that he had a long tail of toilet paper sticking out of his clothes. He obviously had just come from the bathroom, and didn’t do a good job of pulling up his pants. We couldn’t help but tease him. “Grandfather, what’s that trail of paper following you around? Were you in such a hurry to get here that you rushed out of the bathroom without noticing?”

Leroy looked at us, and at our flashy cellphones, and said, “That’s not toilet paper. I’m receiving a fax.”

This story has made the rounds in a number of forms before Dan adapted it for a Native American audience. I found a pretty funny version that begins, “A man walks into a bar,” on the web. But I really found the toilet paper metaphor powerful and appropriate when trying to understand the spiritual challenges of telecomm. Our media tools, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, are external facsimiles of our body organs. And, as Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (a powerful treatise on the “psychoanalytic meaning of history”) showed us, when technology is disconnected from our flesh and blood bodies, it becomes alienated containers of our fear of death, mentalized and transformed excrement.

As I learned from Brown (and the Trickster), the repressed always has a way of returning to bite us. I do believe that each of our technologies has a shadow side – externalized parts that we want to hide, repress or deny. Television has made over-consumption a way of life, stuffing ourselves to avoid the pain of really “seeing the other.” The Internet has pushed into our faces all the lies of humanity. Virtual reality has trapped us in a world of phantoms and information hypnosis. While our embrace of “the cloud” can be seen as the final step in disconnection from Mother Earth, from our bodies to the mental astral planes.

But buried within each of these “facsimiles” is a mirror pointing back to our selves, back to our physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. In Digital Dharma, I proposed that each external technology is a portal into a specific chakra, and that by returning to full awareness of the emotional light and shadow of each chakra, we could begin to heal our alienated selves. Looking at our technological toilet paper, shit and all, could be part of our reintegration process.

Our technologies are putting sensors in every corner of the planet. Our job is to learn to monitor Gaia’s health, and our own inner states through mindful ambient awareness. Twitter can take us out of our bodies, or into the thick of political protest, or playful dance. If the universe, as many cosmologists now think [1], is one big information processing project could it be that we are all part of a great “grid computing” effort - where consciousness, in its desire to know itself, created billions upon billions of small processors called humans, each thinking its own thoughts and living and dying its own dreams and desires, but each running way in the background, a small virus program dedicated to solving some small unrecognizable fragment of this great puzzle?

From this perspective, our technologies must in the end, point us back into the body. Two other stories from the SEED Dialog reminded me of this truth.

A native mother spoke of her fear of technology. How she had banned television and the Internet from her home, and how she was constantly fighting her twelve-year-old’s desire for a cell phone. Then she admitted that if she could, she would put an RF-ID chip and GPS locator into each of her children. She told her grandfather of this desire. “My dear one,” he responded, “you can always ask the eagle to see your children. Have your forgotten your shaman’s sight?”

Two elders from different pueblos had agreed to meet and conduct a healing ceremony. However, a fierce storm had closed the roads. Their grandchildren volunteered to use their cell phones to connect them. The old men greeted each other over these devices, and started their prayers. All was going well, until it was time for the blessing of the corn. “I can’t feel it, blow harder,” called out one of the pair. “No, I still can’t feel it,” he repeated, holding the kernels closer to the phone. Finally, he called out, “don’t worry, I’ll blow for you,” and he breathed into his hand, and smiled.

Is not the first story a reminder that we already have all of the powers of the network within our physical selves, that we can “visit the cloud” and return. The second seems to be telling us that in the end, it is our spiritual connection with one another that really counts. That our breath is most holy, and that while it cannot be sent via fiber optics or radio waves, it can be aligned with the breath of any person, anywhere on the planet.

[1] James Gleick, The Information (2011), Chapter 13.