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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Truth and Lies - The Challenge of the Internet (excerpted from Chapter 5)

Fifth-level dharma challenges are held at the throat center, the transponder of cosmic sound, self-expression and creativity. Its core issue is communications itself; and its demon is falsehood. Positive fifth chakra energy can be found in the free flow of information and creative ideas within and among small, trusted groups such as fellow worshippers, service volunteers and support and recovery circles. Its shadow can be found in cults of all kinds, and in a world where every communications is about making money or promoting the false self.

Mastering fifth-level dharma in the digital age requires speaking truthfully, and acting in ays that cause no harm. For in a world of instant, unfiltered connectivity, even small “private” actions often have large systemic consequences. On the receiving side, the equivalent challenge is about learning how to remain present to, but not swayed by, all the messages – electronic and physical – that bombard awareness. In our interconnected world, unprotected (fourth-level) “compassionate openness” is an invitation to be overwhelmed or manipulated.

All of the light and shadow of fifth-level digital dharma is held for us by the web of instantaneous connectivity, overlapping voices, online communities, and shifting realities, that is the Internet. This is a virtual “place” where such conventional limitations as time and space are gone forever, along with previously assumed distinctions between self and other. While the mass media of radio and television bombard us with images and sounds, they do not demand much other than our attention and our commitment to consumption. The Internet on the other hand, offers both instant "surfing" for fleeting stimulation, and an opportunity to connect deeply and co-creatively with other souls. It is the medium of a new generation, and has shaped its worldview no less than television did for the “boomer” generation.

On radio, one had to fight to get to a microphone; on the Web, access is no longer an issue. Now the challenge is ensuring that your voice won't be lost in the simultaneous broadcast of a billion other streams and podcasts. Television prods us to open our hearts to the world. The Internet reflects the fifth-level challenge of dealing with the consequences of such openness. “Always-on” network connections have thrown us head-first into a sea of memes – idea fragments that flow from brain to brain, reproducing like viruses, the net's constant chatter inevitably mimicking the babble and distraction of our planetary “monkey mind.” We are discovering the hard way that living with such an information glut without adequate “boundary protection” can be dangerous. In critic John Lahr’s words, “we know too much and too little; the world is at once too close and too far away…”

The Internet is a technology whose gift is to show us all the ways that we – and our entire society –hide our light through secrecy and lies. It has thrown open every “closet,” of human behavior, and beyond all denial – for wayward spouses and Presidents, hidden fraternity hazing practices and the bad behavior of college sports heroes. Way beyond anything on “tabloid TV,” on the Internet nothing is protected from our eyes and ears: from stupid and silly “ex-girlfriend revenge” photos, to the painful facts of spousal cheating, to the horrific expose of prisoner abuse in Iraq.

Once-secret religious doctrines, practices and mystical texts are now available to all. According to recent news report, “husbands and wives, moms and dads, even neighbors and friends increasingly are succumbing to the temptation to snoop,” using inexpensive “keystroke recording” software to track their partner’s (often now, their “ex-partner’s”) emails. Funeral directors now have to cope with screening online memorial guest books for posts from disgruntled family members, mistresses and coworkers that “diss the dead,” or reveal, through postings such as “they met the deceased at an AA meeting,” more than the family might wish to know. Because of Internet postings, professional wrestling has been revealed to be a scripted soap opera in tights; and even online "bookies" are finding that their web-savvy clients now know more about the odds than they do.

Web-based citizen documentation regularly thwarts information control by the powerful. The Pentagon is in a quandary about soldiers’ blogs originating from Iraq. Journalists are no longer the only pipeline to the front. “A lone individual,” writes Wired contributing editor Dan Pink, “can now monitor a large institution and transmit the pictures to the entire planet.” And, at the same time, satellite photo images of any place or manmade structure on the planet are now available for all to see – often over the objections of the building owner or the local government – with a few clicks on Google-Earth.

Yes, surfing the Internet can put you face-to-face with the uglier side of humankind: Internet ‘road rage” channeled to harassment and electronic vendettas, disgruntled “exes” turning to stalkers, predators in chat rooms, online identity theft, hate sites, and the proliferation of viruses and spam are just a few examples. Because it cannot effectively be censored, it forces us to ask the hard question of where is the truth when everyone can say anything they want?

Pondering the immense social impact of Internet connectivity presents parallel lessons for one’s personal inner life. Fifth-level dharma asks you to live with a transparent heart in an overwhelmingly diverse world. This requires appropriate energetic filters to keep out unwanted negative signals – just as we have our Tivos and caller-ID, air filters, the V–Chip, noise-canceling headphones, and our I-Pods. In a world where "transparency" brings not the one big truth, but in Gibson’s words, “deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness,” we need to cultivate the fifth chakra power of discernment. On the Internet as in all communications, appropriate and healthy interfaces between medium and message - between the expanding universe of information-producers and one’s inner consciousness – are required. This means practicing the Buddhist art of mindfulness: conscious attention and conscious inattention.


Steven said...

In my book, I write about the importance of "good, trusted references" (i.e., communities of friends) as a way of creating appropriate filters to handle wide-open communications channels.

This is the model behind Google's search engine, the next-generation of "spam filters" [see NYTimes 12/3/07 --], the hunger to share (with so-called "friends") all of one's secrets behind the "safe walls" of Facebook, and the "oral" nature of the web's social networks [].

Kennita said...

"Funeral directors now have to cope with screening online memorial guest books for posts ... that ... reveal ... more than the family might wish to know."

This brings to mind a speculative fiction film called "Final Cut", in which there is a class of professionals trained to edit and cut together a film of the memories of the deceased for viewing at a memorial service. Very thought-provoking; I recommend it!

Thanks for your talk at SAP tonight! I hope to meet you again someday!

Live long and prosper,

Steven said...

PBS' FRONTLINE did a great program on the radical change in teenagers lives brought about by the Internet. Key point is that whole nature of "privacy" has changed for this "always connected" generation. Young people are quite comfortable sharing intimate info with online "friends," but still retain appropriate boundaries regarding sharing where they live or their private phone #s.

To watch the show see:

Steven said...

On the "hunger to see everything" being expressed as "the surge of voyouristic entertainment" linked to revealing the intimate, "unvarnished details of celebrity life," see [4/29/08, B1] NY Times story on the resurfacing and marketing of an alleged Jimi Hendrix sex tape from the 1960's.