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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

As Above, So Below: Social Media and the Evolution of Consciousness

    As Above, So Below: Social Media and the Evolution of Consciousness

No one will challenge the fact that an electronic web now surrounds the planet. Emerging from what French philosopher-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the shared noosphere of collective human thought, invention and spiritual seeking, the Infosphere the totality of our electronic systems for sharing knowledge, is now a field that engulfs our physical, mental and spiritual self. The human nervous system has been “outered” as media sage Marshal McLuhan predicted in the early 1960’s, into a global embrace.

Today, this embrace seems to be choking us! Our smartphones, social media Facebook and Twitter feeds, while promising connection, have only cut us off from really seeing and honoring each other’s inner essence. Teenagers with calluses on their thumbs from sending text messages every few minutes cannot hold a face-to-face conversation, while many parents are spending more time checking in on their social media “friends” than listening to their children, and a whole market has developed for “digital detox” weekends and self-help strategies to bring us back into connection with our own bodies. Wireless connectivity seems to have forever breached the border between work and home; destroying what little rest we have eked out for our inner self.

Our culture is beginning to understand how deeply our communications technologies impact all aspects of life. But even more importantly for those of us who see the world through spiritual eyes, is to recognize that this impact works three ways: (1) electronic media impact and change consciousness, (2) they are also products of the evolution of consciousness, and in their history, structure and content, they also mirror this evolution on a global and personal level: as above, so below! All of our communications technologies – from the first telegraph signals to today’s intelligent cloud-based networks, have emerged from the collective mind. And that mind, in its upwards evolution, is constantly changing, bringing forth new spiritual challenges for us to overcome, including those embodied in our communications systems.

In my 2007 book, Digital Dharma, I looked at the evolution of telecommunications as an externalization in radio waves and wires and fiber-optics of the mystic’s “perennial wisdom path” – the journey of the soul from separation to unity consciousness, mirrored in the psycho-spiritual ladder of the yogic system of the chakras. In this essay I will update the specific chakra links associated with the internet, social media and the looming power of algorithms and artificial intelligence: from the Heart Center to the Third Eye and Crown, from emotionality, to connectivity, to deep sight, and to global intelligence and Unity thinking.

A Look Back: The Emotional Heart of Television

In the late 1950’s, media scholar Marshall McLuhan watched as television swept across North America, changing family life, social norms, and even political expression. He coined the phrase, “the medium is the message,” to get us to look at the impacts of a communications technology form that had nothing to do with the programming delivered on it. Scores of books and thousands of articles have analyzed television through McLuhan’s lens, looking at the deep changes wrought by this flickering “electronic hearth.” In Digital Dharma, I proposed that television was an extension of the fourth chakra’s emotional heart: a close-up visual medium of expression and feelings that stimulated a new generation’s sympathy for the “underdog,” while at the same time creating compassion fatigue and guilt that could only be numbed by over-consumption of material goods.i

Television’s positive social gift was its face-to-face close-up view of the world’s diverse community. Despite its menu of cowboys and Indians, crime-fighters and often violent cartoons, TV also introduced us to the humanity of the Other, people (and even animals, think Flipper) of different colors, tribe and nation. It challenged us to see our entire planet as one Spaceship Earth. It was the heart-stimulating medium of human and animal rights, and the environment. Balancing its diet of hard news and glorified sports violence, it was also a medium of the intimate family narrative and soap operas of personal disclosure, and it brought the carnage of the Vietnam War into every living room. And, at the same time satellite TV was bringing the outside world to the developed west, it was exporting the West’s liberal values and its images of consumer wealth to the rest of the world, destabilizing the old regimes, and stimulating migratory dreams.

In its reflection of the “shadow” aspect of the heart, television – and many of today’s YouTube videos, gives us addictive me-first emotionalism: the glorification of desire, and its fulfillment at bargain-basement prices. It offers a chance to feel the energetic charge of feeling pity, or often, disdain, disgust or anger. Despite the heart-triggering impact of so many of today’s videos asking us to love one another, protect the earth or contribute to a worthy cause, we can see how, in an unregulated, market-driven economy, the shadow side of video has monetized and weaponized our worst emotions. Our true “television work” is to watch our own emotional projections on to the others around us, and choose compassion over reactivity.

The Rise of the Internet and the Metaphor Connectivity

If our relationship with television and online video is a reflection of the work of the esoteric heart center, then our all-connected online world is an opportunity to look at the metaphors of the next higher center: those of the throat – the nerve center of all communications. Protecting our synaptic boundaries from over-connection, not over-emotion, is the new challenge. While our videos offer an opportunity to look at the multicultural world “out there,” the internet brings us the challenge of actually connecting with it. In this world, the “other” is not just a face on a screen out there, but someone, invited or not, inside our personal space. Everything touches us, everything calls for a response, everything we do impacts everyone else.

On the outer domain, this is the multi-cultural, globally-cosmopolitan, knowledge-based, world of today. It is a place where we can no longer ignore the multiple overlapping voices of minority peoples and cultures; a place where everyone is speaking all at once, where all secrets are outed and every dark corner’s shadow (whether police or priestly misconduct, to a politician’s affairs or racist yearbook photos) is revealed. At its best, this is a place for organizing online communities, and stimulating the creativity that comes from rubbing against new peoples and new ideas.

From a spiritual perspective, the internet’s core metaphor of “we’re all connected,” offers an opportunity to embrace the true interconnection of all life, and the possibility of creating new tools to better integrate humanity into the biosphere. Yet at the same time, the recognition that one’s secrets are no longer safe, and that “transparency” works in both directions, leaves one feeling “data naked,” unprotected and overwhelmed by both incoming signals and the loss of privacy. From massive data thefts and cyber-attacks on the technological pillars of the information economy, the internet has shown us the darker side of being part of one web-linked world. Projected outwards, this connection-anxiety is reflected in our heightened “fear of infection” (from computer viruses to the pandemics of AIDS, SARS and Ebola, to the waves of destitute global migrants pressing on the borders of the developed world) and the calls to “protect our borders” and build stronger walls against “the outsiders.”ii Our developmental work reflected to us by the internet is to create appropriate boundaries: filters, not walls, moderating our connectivity with others in order to connect with our own spirit of guidance, and with the natural world. Fortunately, consciousness itself is suggesting one way to “step back and see the codes” without processing every input. In the personal world, this is the path of mindfulness; in technology, its about “seeing the patterns.” In both cases, this is a Sixth Chakra step: the place of deep seeing.

The Coming Crisis of Deep Seeing and Deep-Data

In addition to politicizing our fear of too-deep-connection, political attacks on the so-called “deep state” are black and white responses to our collective complex uneasiness about controlling the interconnected databases, algorithms, and complex pattern-recognition software of “deep data.” The internal self-learning processes of artificial intelligence are invisible to us, leaving us blind to what’s happening inside the computational box. Is it any wonder that one response to this sense of “not seeing while being too seen” is the creation of a social media world of protected interactions and curated presentation – where we hide behind walls, connect and share only with our “friends,” and have online sex with virtual partners? This is a place where much of everything is artifice and falsehood; a dark world where nothing can be believed; a place full of bots, scammers, poseurs and grifters; where everything is “fake news” and dark conspiracies.

From a spiritual perspective, the “third eye” metaphor of deep-seeing offers a way out of the panic of media-induced nerve-jamming false alarms, grasping false friends and maliciously-spread false truths. Recognizing that every sound and image we perceive is already compressed and manipulated on its way to our brain, where it is mapped against our already-set internal expectations of reality, and that every “solid physical truth” is really only a set of quantum probabilities (and some would claim, shared mental algorithms), can lead us to a deeply cynical disconnected stance: to immersion in virtual reality escapism, or the passions of tribal regression. But it can also lead us to a more holistic understanding of our place in this complex universe.iii

In a world of millions of YouTube videos, drone-taken images that take us over every wall, macro- and micro- cameras that take us to the outer reaches of the universe and into the workings of the smallest cell, time-lapse and slow-motion podcasts and movies of the once-hidden, unheard or ignored natural processes all around us, we are indeed seeing more than we used to see!iv The internet has already allowed us to vicariously participate in the naturalist’s work of observing and tracking wild animals: from nesting baby bald eagles on city skyscraper ledges, to wolves in Yellowstone, to deep-diving seals, to tiny insects in the canopy of the rain forest. Real-time monitoring – from deep undersea observatories, to atmospheric carbon and ozone stations on the tops of mountains, from tectonic stress-sensors embedded deep in the earth, to the emergence of the “smart electrical grid,” is making it possible to “listen” to Gaia herself. Could it be that these “new seeing technologies” are suggesting what so many spiritual traditions urge us do: zoom out to the bigger picture of Creation, seeing ourselves as part of an evolving whole, where no one is separate, and the face of the Other is a reflection of our shared divinity?

Big data technology in the wrong hands can be a true threat to democratic institutions, but while we fight for appropriate regulation and oversight, let us not ignore its message of holistic “deep pattern thinking.” These tools are already powering a new “ambient awareness” of our complex interconnected natural systems, tracking myriads of data streams, synthesizing their impact and displaying them in easy-to-understand visual representations, living maps, or even physical devices.v As we learn to monitor our physical environment through such digital intermediaries, we will be challenged to pick inputs that represent our highest selves. What if we insisted that we use our new planetary awareness to electronically track and share the encroachment of the deserts, the thinning of the Ozone Layer, the size of the islands of plastic floating in the ocean, or the decline of the ocean’s diversity? Not just the condition of our investment portfolio, but the number of malnourished versus newly-immunized children in the world? Not just status updates from friends we hardly know, but regular tweets from our adopted (and now grid-connected) whales, sea turtles, giant redwoods or tiny mushrooms living in the Amazon?

While we wait for the ambient awareness interfaces described above, we can adopt simple practices such as programming our smartphones to remind us to “stop and take a deep breath,” or we can send thoughts of loving-kindness to all the faces we come across on Facebook or Instagram. We must teach ourselves data discernment, through the mindfulness-based practice of “watching the codes go by” without downloading them into our brain’s distraction processor! And yes, as spiritual pilgrims have been doing for millennia, we need the gift of the Sabbath: time for technology disconnection, walks in nature, and the gift of community: face-to-face, full-sense human interaction in “circles of practice” – whether they be a place for sharing meditation, recovery support, or just joyous dance!

As we become more comfortable with our real-time connection to the planet’s multiple voices, we will begin to see ourselves less as individual egos competing for resources, power or status, and more as a self-aware node in a joyously, noisily communicating system. And with that system awareness, comes the chance to see in the structure of the “smart grid” a model for a paradigm shift in human consciousness: a world where we connect not only with every other being, but through awareness of that interconnection, step into Unity Consciousness, where we connect with the Divine Network itself, and joyfully take up the work of Tikkun Olam: reweaving (at the most personal to the global) the frayed threads of the web of creation!vi

i Philosopher Ken Wilber has called this response “boomeritis” – utopian dreaming and multicultural sympathies bordering on collective guilt for all the world’s victims, mixed with unacknowledged attachment to material luxuries and high drama.

ii Global connectivity was the theme of the Obama presidency, and the anxiety it produced was the subtext of the 2016 presidential campaign. At a time of deep social division and growing distrust of the new networked global financial corporations and financial institutions, the Democrats offered a candidate steeped in television’s positive aspirational memes (fairness and human rights), coupled with an unpleasant air of boomer entitlement (“its my turn”). Donald Trump, who rose to fame manipulating television’s shadow as the exemplar of me-first materialism and melodrama, easily embraced the role of an anger-fueled, anti-internet avatar. Like many of the strong man nationalists coming to power today, while carefully using social media to target potential voters, he ran as the anti-connectionist (anti-diversity, anti-politically-correct speech, anti-feminist, anti-immigration) candidate, offering (fire)walls and disengagement, to those left out of the capital flows of the information economy, those whose jobs were outsourced to internet-linked factories overseas, those frightened by the real or imagined appearance of “the other at the border,” and those who felt that their (formally unquestioned and dominant) voice and status were now being challenged by those they could no longer shut down due to new codes of “political correctness.”

Trump’s power was also magnified by his mastery of a new, and yet structurally regressive, communications medium whose technology form is aligned with the First Chakra values of security, survival, and fight or flight: the command and control, one-way 280-character mini-telegrams of the Twitter feed. In its declarative pronouncements, free of nuance (without even the perfunctory hellos and goodbyes, let alone the empathetic responses of telephone talk), Twitter communication is a throwback to the Victorian power relationships, a rejection of holism and its complexities – the perfect medium of competitive narcissism.

iii On the political front, we can hope that these attributes will be the focus of our next presidential race, as a number of candidates have embraced a return to complex policy analysis and are touting their “inner nerd” as they promote healthcare reform, systems-based economic and racial justice, or a “Green New Deal.” Most importantly, our global ecological catastrophe of planetary heating requires complex systemic action in response to the outputs of complex data models.

ivSee Louie Schwartzberg’s great time-lapse videos of flowers opening, and his data-driven mapping of the global movement of clouds, water, airplanes and ships at sea at

v One example is a “cyber cat” whose tail changes color as electrical consumption increases and whose purr is replaced with a sad grumble as more carbon-based power is added to the supply mix.

viSurely, this is preferable to preserving one’s separate ego self by fleeing into a VR alternative universe; or, if one has the wealth, to an armed bunker in New Zealand or to a colony on Mars, or in the worst case, into a liquid-nitrogen-cooled brain-storage tank!

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