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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Twitter, Ambient Awareness and Spiritual Practice

Our new IP-based communications systems and forms – the Internet, digital media, pervasive wireless networks and embedded communicating microprocessors – are not only changing our ways of seeing the world, they have pushed us, like it or not, into a new psychic environment of hyper-connectivity. The coupling of electricity with our nervous system over a century ago started the process of (in Marshal McLuhan’s words) "outering” our neurons. From the telephone to radio and television, and now from the internet to the distributed intelligence of peer-to-peer and social networks, we continue to grow more connected, more accessible, more stimulated.

From MySpace and Facebook, and the “twittered” thoughts that fly through one’s mind during the course of the day, our minds are always online, and our personal life is now part of the public record. On the web nothing is protected from our eyes and ears. We have opened every "closet," short-circuited all the old modes of denial. We are all “data naked” when every transaction, every credit card purchase, every trip through the grocery store, and every phone call (and its originating location) is now “on the record.” Even once-expunged court records (the “clean slate” granted by a judge for minor convictions years ago) are finding their way on to the Web, as records once held only in paper now routinely digitized.

Infection and contagion are the health metaphors of the day. Idea fragments flow from brain to brain, reproducing like viruses; the net's constant chatter perfectly reflecting the distraction of our planetary "monkey mind." Pushed into the Infosphere -- all of our secrets revealed, our every thought accessible, connected to the planet's very intelligence -- we are challenged to define our boundaries. Who am I and who do I pretend to be? Where am I, and where do I end and you begin? Who do I let into my space, and how can I trust that you say who you are? In critic John Lahr's words, "we know too much and too little; the world is at once too close and too far away." For many, addiction to email and texting, Twitter and the Blackberry, are all too real.

Much has been written about this new state of affairs – and much of it is deeply troubling! This wired distopia is a place where global corporations extend their control to the most remote corners of the planet; where the smallest personal action is tracked in giant marketing and “homeland security” databases; a world where physical nature and human love are replaced by computer simulations; where endless distractions keep us moving along, without ever being truly moved. However, while this future is indeed possible, I believe that the emerging metaphor of ambient awareness offers a way out of the shadow land and into deeper connection with our fellow beings and the very physical world that virtual reality seems to abandon.

As the internet exposed us to the dangers of connectivity without boundaries – exposure, infection, and false identities, it also gave us a new freedom to speak truth, to see beyond the masks of the ego-self, corporate and government posturing, and build our own “peer networks.” Social networking allows for addictive connection, personal posturing and closed-minded self-referential “friends circles.” It also offers the possibility of experiencing self as part of a larger web – of friends, of communities of interest and of place, of creation itself. The path of conscious web awareness is not a new invention. It is what all the great mystical traditions have been teaching for millennia. Learning how to navigate a world where everyone and everything is connected, where every object has a voice (if not IP address), where all things can be found, and all that was hidden is seen, where reality comes into being based on what coding scheme is chosen, is at the core of shamanic journeying and magical sight. Perhaps it is time to take some of these esoteric practices into the real world challenges of living in the Infosphere.


In many ways the Infosphere is “placeless.” Our communities are defined by interest, not local geography. We email, text, talk and share video with friends anywhere and at any time: communications taking place without the need for transportation, communication without embodiment. Yet being disconnected from the physical solidity of the body, and from the grounding power of the earth, is something no shaman would allow. Even while traversing the astral realms, he or she maintains the silver cord anchored in this dimension, for without a reference ground, one has no way to decode binary information, to determine a one from a zero. All that remains is noise.

Without a connection to the earth and to the physical body, all signals become static.

We instinctively know this. So many of our technologies involve helping us find our location. Text messages and twits are often simply about place: where I am, what am I doing here, and where am I going. GPS-equipped phones can point the believer to Mecca or search the web for a nearby mosque, or on a more mundane plane, find a particular type of restaurant and tell you how to walk there. GPS tracking allows parents to keep an eye on their children’s driving habits or their pet’s whereabouts. Satellite images of any structure on the planet are now available for all to see – often over the objections of the building owner or the local government. Our technologies are empowering physical locations to tell their stories: cellphone-guided neighborhood tours and local living histories are being developed in many communities, one New York artist has recruited his neighbors to record stories about the love life in their building; another uses stickers with text-messaging numbers to alert passer-bys that something of interest lies nearby.

But, beyond personal awareness of place, the web has given a voice to Gaia herself. We are building grids of network sensors that will crisscross our world. From interactive underwater observatories, connected to each other and to land-based research laboratories, to atmospheric carbon and ozone monitoring stations on the tops of mountains; from stress sensors embedded in roads and bridges, to the emergence of the “smart electrical grid,” data will be pouring in from so many places in our everyday environment: each sensor with its own IP address, each adding its own signal to our collective nervous system.

Like the incessant chatter of our Facebook news feeds and Twitter accounts, we must learn to synthesize and integrate the messages from these extended neurons without becoming overwhelmed or overly thick skinned. The technology of “ambient devices” provides one tool – and a core metaphor – for coping with information overload. These devices track myriads of complex data inputs, synthesize their impact and display them in easy-to-understand interfaces such as a “personal dashboard” or a cyber-pet whose tail changes color as electrical consumption increases and whose purr is replace with a sad grumble as more carbon-based power is added to the mix.

As we learn to monitor our physical and social environments through such intermediaries, we will be challenged to pick data inputs that represent our highest selves. What if we demand that our signaling technologies send us easy-to-understand messages about the planet’s true health as opposed to just the rise and fall of the financial markets? What if we insisted that we use this planetary ambient awareness to electronically track and share the conditions of our environment, the encroachment of the deserts, the thinning of the Ozone Layer, the decline of the ocean’s diversity? Not just the condition of our investment portfolio, but the number of malnourished children in the world?

And, just as we expand awareness to the outer reaches of our environment, we use our sensitized consciousness to tune inwards – to listen to the “cellular tweets” of our own bodies? Imagine receiving a twit from an “awareness partner” asking you to stop and center, to take a deep breath and reflect on one’s inner state. Imagine doing this four or five times a day!


In an environment where everyone is connected and sharing their every experience, learning how to observe incoming data without reacting to every stimulus is a critical cyber-survival tool. Too heavy a shield (firewall) is as bad as no shield at all. The challenge is to create and flex filters appropriate to the level of protection needed. Knowing whom to trust is the key, and the best filter is a trusted reference. We do this naturally when we decide whom we add to our social network – who will be an acquaintance, and who will be an intimate. Our web networks reflect the same levels of trust that we bring to face-to-face relationships: wide circles of loose friends, and tight sacred circles such as recovery groups, prayer and meditation sanghas, and ad-hoc dance and celebration communities.

Beyond conscious boundary setting, the other lesson of mystic practice that is embedded in digital life, is the recognition that our consciousness is shaped by how we choose to process the signals of our senses. Ambient awareness need not be unconscious. It is a skill that can be cultivated into a powerful tool for not only coping with electronic overload, but also a doorway to greater compassion, peace and personal power. Our flood of tweets and emails can inundate and overwhelm, or like the stick of the Zen master, invite us to pay attention to where we habitually put our attention. The shaman’s skill is in cultivating a wider-seeing vision that takes in all vibrations, and the shield of discernment, that allows her to know what signals require action, and which ones are part of the background symphony of existence.

The mystic sees all reality as a stream of compressed data that most of us decode using habitual, consensual algorithms. Many forms of spiritual practice involve stilling the busy mind and being present to, without being hooked by, these incoming data streams. Awareness meditation is, in effect, a process of observing the instruction codes of reality without processing them into thoughts, emotions and suffering. In Buddhism this is called mindfulness; in Sufi practice it is called Vairagya, watching the codes go by, “indifferent” to one story over another, but still very much connected to the experience of life. Sri Aurobindo called it “seeing with the eye of complete union” – seeing the point of view of each separate thing, while at the same time remembering that all the points are in fact the same – processing the reality of the outer world in full consciousness that one is in fact, data processing.


Without the cultivation of discernment (in whatever form), our technologies of connection will continue to overwhelm us with “data smog” – drawing our attention to every stimulus, resulting in either debilitating hypersensitivity or protective numbness. With practices that expand consciousness and teach appropriate filtering, we can extend the web metaphor into all dimensions, seeing in all of our tweets, texts, emails and videos, the raw data that we use to create personal and consensual "stories" through patterns of prediction based on (intentionally) limited data. Stopping the processor that Joseph Chilton Pearce calls our over-eager "reflective memory,” gives us a moment, however brief, to be in the Now.

I believe that the “ambient awareness” that is emerging within Twitter circles can be extended beyond the subconscious knowledge of what one’s friends are up to, into an actual mindfulness practice. Beyond receiving a tweet to “stop and center” and reflect on one’s inner state, one can set aside time to listen to (and write down or draw) the tweets of one’s heart, of one’s cells, of the water and the rocks, of the sun and stars that surround us – each sending us its own pulse of aliveness. We only need to commit to stop and listen.

As we become more adept at taking in all the signals of our various networks, we may find ourselves reaching beyond the equanimity that comes from awareness practice to something even more powerful: the “seeing-everything-all-at-once” consciousness where one is a node on the network, and simultaneously the entire web itself – an individual data packet traveling outward over a specific radio channel, and the entire spread spectrum symphony of frequencies, part of a joyously noisy communicating system.


ri said...

It's great to read an article like this. I look forward to your book.

As a yogi many conversations with people show a great concern over de-coherence. Contrary to many conversations, I don't think Twitter, Facebook, etc. are doing that.. but instead, as you state, connecting us all externally to match our non-local connections that are inherent within us.

Bignosia said...

it's all just a step on our way to the coming INNERnet where we'll do all the same things without the use of electrons in motion.

Steven said...

Yes, my book DIGITAL DHARMA suggests that the outer forms of telecomm are but reflections of the light and shadow issues we must deal with as we get more connected on the "innerNET."

Lion Kimbro said...

I had a friend who criticized the web, saying "We need to be here, now."

I replied, "Here has gotten bigger. At this very moment, right now, my friend in China taps his fingers to the keyboard..."

Donna Baier Stein said...

I so enjoyed reading this. I thought some years ago that maybe all this technology would lead us into recognizing our own telepathy... that one day the hardware we use will seem clunky and unnecessary.

I look forward to reading more of your posts!

Unknown said...

Wonderful! Whether we are outwardly focused or inwardly focused, we are all moving toward one destination: Convergence, also known as Oneness.

Steven said...

Julia and Donna - I hope you enjoy the earlier posts, and get a hold of my book!

Paul Zelizer said...


Great post. I wonder if you are aware of a conference coming up at the end of this month called Wisdom 2.0. The theme of the conference are exactly what you're talking about here. And, the founder has engaged big players - Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc - to the table.

Thanks for your great blog!

Steven said...

thanks Paul. Do you have any pull with the conference? As you can see from the blog, I believe that outer technology is a reflection of the light and shadow work of our inner evolution. PS - I'll be in S/F in late June!