Friday, July 30, 2010

The Soul of the "Cloud"

In earlier posts, I discussed how the coupling of electricity with our nervous system started the process of (in Marshal McLuhan's words) "outering" our neurons, leading to the leap into "network consciousness" made possible by the Internet and digital media. We have moved into a noisy twittering world of multiple networks, where the other is everywhere, where everything is a reminder that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.

I believe that this shift in perspective is vertical as well as horizontal. What Steven Johnson has called "long-zoom consciousness" - reflected by our digital capability to "zoom out" from the scale of DNA through satellite maps and deep-space imaging to the enormity of the cosmos - is emerging as contemporary culture's defining way of seeing. It has created a new view of space - interconnected and multi-layered - that is as disruptive to our old ways of seeing as the earlier revolutions of Newton and Einstein. It is also bringing us a new set of metaphors appropriate to the spiritual challenges of navigating the inter-penetrating clouds of evolving human intelligence.

The core metaphor of the Internet is the grid, its energetic centers the throat (fifth chakra) and the third-eye (sixth chakra), and its spiritual challenge is that of connection to the other. As consciousness reaches for higher and higher states of awareness, the work of associated with the Crown Chakra becomes activated, and we move to the challenges of operating in the multiple dimensions of the cloud: a space where we and the "other" recognize that we are the same - just different reflections of the divine.

The reflection of this "always on, always connected" relationship with the infinite is found in the convergence of peer-to-peer communications, universal wireless connections, GPS-based location awareness, and distributed information processing. These forces are the drivers behind what is now being called Pervasive Computing - a set of technologies that will enliven the space we move through by permeating it with myriads of ubiquitous, networked, mobile, reactive and self-referencing miniature computational devices.

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.

Grid 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. Multiple research labs are being networked together across the university-based Internet2, making possible new forms of collaborative instrumentation and collaborative research. From an esoteric point of view, it was not surprising that one of the first grid computing projects was one focused outwards to the vast universe. SETIatHOME involved over two million users, who analyzed a tiny portion of radio telescope data every night on their home PCs to detect signals from possible extra-terrestrial civilizations.

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.

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 understand that like it or not, we are all connected; in the cloud we begin to see the patterns of how we're connected in every action, past, present and future. On the net we share some of our localized content; in the cloud we download what we need 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.

A Sufi mystic looks at our physical universe as a manifestation of the Divine's hunger to know itself, and our individual consciousness a limited expression of the cosmic desire, love, and nostalgia: Ishq Allah. For the Sufis, our purpose is not to escape into the void, or awake beyond the limitations of physical life, but to awaken in life: to download from the "Divine Treasury" those latent codes and programs that make our minds isomorphic with the thinking of the universe.

Could it be that we are all part of a great cloud computing project - 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?

1 comment:

Steven said...

for more details and citations, see Chapter 7 of Digital Dharma.