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!