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Monday, July 17, 2017



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.

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