As I wrote in Digital Dharma, the Internet and all of our hyper-connected communications networks can be seen as physical representations in glass, silicon, photons and magnetism, of different ways our consciousness is reaching out as it evolves into a global field of awareness. The coupling of electricity with our nervous system, as Marshal McLuhan wrote fifty years ago, has "outered" our neurons, projecting the light and shadow of our collective psyche into the tools of telecommunications.
In this essay, also posted on REALITY SANDWICH, my focus will be less structural, and more metaphoric. Specifically, I want to look at the impact of having our global nervous system so rapidly extended that we are now at the cusp of a true transformation into "second tier thinking," where in Ken Wilber's words, one's thinking moves from relativism to holism, from pluralism to integralism. Here, one lives in multiple overlapping and integrative networks; here the other is found everywhere; here one is a part of a commons much larger than one's family, nation or culture.
The challenge of second-tier consciousness is to stay fully present in the lower chakras -- maintaining power and compassion, centeredness and truth, while also remaining fully open to the waves of information that now bombard us all. In this newly expanded and networked sensory space, openhearted attunement without appropriate self-protection is dangerous to self and others. 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. Pushed into the Infosphere -- all of our secrets revealed, our every thought accessible, connected to the planet's very intelligence -- we are challenged to define 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?
Television prods us to open our hearts to the world. The Internet reflects the challenge of dealing with the consequences of such openness. "Always-on" network connections have thrown us head-first into a sea of memes, idea fragments that flow from brain to brain reproducing like viruses, the net's constant chatter perfectly reflecting the chatter and distraction of our planetary "monkey mind." We are discovering that living with such an information glut without adequate "boundary protection" can be dangerous. In critic John Lahr's words, "we know too much and too little; the world is at once too close and too far away." [i]
Surfing the Internet puts us in direct contact with many of the unpleasant truths of humankind. Because it cannot effectively be censored, it forces us to ask the hard question of "what is the truth when everyone can speak?" It drags us into hard places, exposes us to situations where we must make our own values clear and public, forcing us to examine and defend our own core beliefs. Our inability to know if the person in the chat room is really who they say they are, our fears of fraud and identity theft whenever we enter personal data online, and our being deluged with false spammed messages all reflect our trickster self run amok.
Way beyond anything on "tabloid TV," on the Internet nothing is protected from our eyes and ears: from the stupid and silly "ex-girlfriend revenge" photos, to the painful facts of spousal cheating, to the horrific exposé of prisoner abuse in Iraq. Our Internet-connected computers have opened every "closet," short-circuited old modes of denial - for wayward spouses or for Presidents challenging the definition of "sexual relations." Once-hidden religious doctrines, secret practices, and mystical texts are now available to all. Even online "bookies" are finding that their clients now know more about the odds than they do. As Cluetrain Manifesto contributor David Weinberger, observes, "hyper-linked organizations never met a wall they liked." [ii]
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/Crone/King, who through the act of blessing, can not only see, but change the codes of reality, healing the web of creation.
There are many web behaviors that reflect the Shadow Warrior (who is really the Savage): angry words and flames, scattershot spam, trolls intent on destroying not only the false shield of persona, but the entire being behind it, violent games, hate speech and hateful religion. The true Warrior metaphor however, is now manifesting in the return of groundedness to the web. We can see this in the explosion of RFID devices, giving more and more objects their own IP voice; the extension of ecological sensors across the ocean floor, in bridges and farm fields, across the electrical grid, in our everyday environment; and the mashing-up of this data with GPS-powered geo-spatial information.
Much texting content is about place: where I am, what am I doing here, and where am I going. A GPS phone can point one to Mecca or search the web for a nearby mosque, or on a more mundane plane, find a particular type of restaurant and tell you how to walk there. One can call or Twit a friend and get block-by-block directions to their house; better yet, the phone can alert you if the friend is sitting at a coffee shop nearby. On a much larger scale, the Warrior can now listen to the earth's voice via ambient devices that integrate and display complex data patterns about global warming, population growth, or world hunger in formats that we can all understand.
The Warrior's shield can be painted with many designs, projecting different identities out into the networked world. Safe behind our aliases and proxies, we now have the freedom to reclaim the power of our voice -- whether by text, video or podcast. One can download personal ringtones that announce to the world your "tribe of the moment." One can practice playing with the shields of persona, trying on different identities, exploring in Sherri Turkel's words, one's "inner diversity."
On the other hand, sometimes throwing down the shield is the biggest high: requesting in the act of blogging exposure, a validation of one's existence, telling the world, in Emily Gould's words, "all my secrets [so that] you won't have any ammo against me that I haven't given you." A healthier (more Warrior-like) stance is not to throw down the shield in the Lover mode, but to invite our trusted ones to gather behind it in safety. While one may have hundreds of Facebook, Twitter or MySpace "friends," the truth is that our intimates fit in a much smaller circle. Just as in the physical world of "recovery circles" (and our original tribal groupings), the net has made it possible to build small networks based on trust and earned respect. And within these networks, the old cartoon of "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" has been flipped. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekc, told Clive Thompson, "If you don't want people to know you're a dog, you'd better stay away from a keyboard."
With the Warrior providing grounding, protection, and a safe place for circles of intimacy, we can call upon our Lover and Magician qualities - the subject on my next essay.
[i] John Lahr, "Cultural Gas," The New Yorker, October 6, 2003. 136.
[ii] The Church of Scientology has been trying for years to block Internet sites revealing their practices. See: http://www.answers.com/topic/scientology-vs-the-internet. The Internet made earning real money on bookmaking possible by sharply increasing the volume of gamblers a bookie could handle, but it also made the average gambler, 'the square,' somewhat smarter too... Valuable information now appears instantaneously on the Internet, and it takes only a tiny bit of it to start a bookmaker on his downward spiral. They just can't keep up with it." William Berlind, "Bookies in Exile," The New York Times Magazine, August 17, 2003. Frederick Levine, Christopher Locke, David Searles, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, (Cambridge MA: Perseus, 2003), p. 155