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.