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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Lytro Camera and "deep Seeing"

In the same issue of the Atlantic, Rob Walker describes the "Lytro Camera." This device incorporates hundreds of sensors and micro-lenses, and captures a scene in all of its depth. "The upshot is a photograph that's less a slice of visual information than a cube... a light-field visual object."

This seems to me to be another technological representation of the spiritual work of the 6th Chakra: that of "deep seeing." This camera reminds us once again that the reality we take so much for granted is really just "one slice of the hologram," that our brain is always choosing a more limited view of reality. Our spiritual challenge at this level of awareness is to see, as Sri Aurobindo challenged us, with "the eye of complete union."

Oprah and the Heart of Television

In this month's Atlantic magazine, Caitlin Flanagan writes about Oprah Winfrey's rise out of the hell of racism, poverty, and sexual abuse, and links it to the heart-centered power of television itself. "Because," Flanagan writes, "into every household in America, no matter how low or mean or outright evil, into each squalid nest and decent place pours the great, pure light of television."

Oprah invented herself, created her own dream of entering into that safe magical place, as a young child watching television when "every story had a happy ending."

I believe that Oprah indeed embodies and fully understands the feminine, embracing, emotion opening, power of this medium. Its light -- its ability to bring us into face-to-face relationship with "the others" in our interconnected family, and its shadow -- its ability to open the heart and then fill it with consumer goods and addictive longing.

This is the theme of Chapter Four of Digital Dharma.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Trans-personal Metaphors of the Cloud

If texting challenges us at the personal identity level, and the Internet and social media offer us an opportunity to examine our inter-personal boundaries, then our move to “the cloud” can be seen as a technological reflection of the metaphors of the transpersonal.

As we move more and more of our memory and our intelligence into the shared space of the cloud, we confront a set of metaphors based on drawing from a common source of Being.Distributed processing technology allows for data storage, software and computing processors to reside out on the network "grid" and be called forth only when needed. Extremely large-scale computing projects can be shared across millions of smaller processors worldwide, each "donating" its spare computing cycles to the functioning of the whole. In addition to connecting data sensors and data processors, the cloud is also becoming the "place" where we store more and more of our cumulative human intelligence, relying on ever-more-powerful search engines and "data mining" algorithms, crowd-sourcing and the "long-tail", to make sense of this overflowing abundance - the unleashed outpouring of the new and the taking from and recreating of the old, the collages and mash-ups, meshes, mixes, remixes of our popular culture - to our computers, MP3 players, and smart phones.

This scenario has a frightening side - in the service of our "lower selves" these technologies can lead us to a beehive-like world devoid of quiet personal space; where global corporations extend their control to the most remote corners of the planet; where the smallest personal action is tracked in giant marketing databases; a world where physical nature and even human love are replaced by computer simulations. The spiritual metaphor is the blasted open “Crown Chakra” – connecting unfiltered to all the gins and tricksters of the astral plane; lost in the psychic hall of mirrors, caught in never-ending attention deficit.

But when seen through the lens of metaphor, the very structure of the cloud offers us a path to a very different outcome: what mystics have understood as "unity consciousness," the simultaneous knowledge of the knower and the known, of individual identity and cosmic oneness. Beyond the communicating appliances, the mash-ups and the long tails, is the vision of an interconnected creative culture. And beyond this cultural vision is a spiritual teaching, the modeling of a world where consciousness connects with every other being, and simultaneously with something greater then itself.

On the net we negotiate with the other, protective of our boundaries, but understanding that, like it or not, we are all connected; in the cloud we begin to see how our intelligence has always been connected in every action, past, present and future – the we and the other are individual processors sharing the same memory and power source. On the net we share some of our localized content; in the cloud we download what we need from the Divine Treasury and return it to the greater good. On the net we process our own data, drawing from external repositories as needed; in the cloud we hold all the repositories in common, maintaining our foreground processing, but intentionally making room for seed programs to use our spare computing cycles for a higher purpose: our bodies and our life experiences, vessels of Divine Curiosity; our prayers of gratitude, the uploading technology that refreshes and heals the great web of consciousness.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Internet Mindfulness

In the Internet world we are all connected. Boundaries mean little, when all knowledge, both public and private is available to anyone. Our inter-personal relationships are being challenged at every level of intimacy. Infection and contagion, border control and foreign infiltrators, modification of our very DNA, are the metaphors of the day. On the web nothing is protected from our eyes and ears.

It seems that we are becoming “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, are now are routinely digitized.

Pushed into the Infosphere -- all of our secrets revealed, our every thought accessible, connected to the planet's very intelligence -- we are being forced to redefine 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?

This is a core existential challenge, and has brought us a great deal of pain. Yet, from a spiritual point of view, maybe being mutually naked isn’t such a terrible thing. The Internet has allowed us to see beyond the masks of the ego-self, corporate and government posturing, and build our own “peer networks.” Yes, social networking allows for addictive connection, personal posturing and closed-minded self-referential “friends circles.” But, 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.

As we struggle to define our multiple overlapping circles of “close friends, friends, or acquaintances” on Facebook, we are reminded that social connection to a small group of trusted souls (in support group, recovery meeting or sangha), has always been how we found the safety to explore the dreams and the shadows of our own souls. 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 skill. The core tool is mindful awareness without reaction to every new message. 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 ofdiscernment, that allows her to know what signals require action, and which ones are part of the background.

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, watching the codes go by, “indifferent” to one story over another, but still very much connected to the experience of life – processing the reality of the outer world in full consciousness that one is in fact,data processing.

Signals of Aliveness: Staying Grounded in a World of Electronic Alerts

In Digital Dharma I discussed the impact of electronic media on each of the body’s seven psycho-energetic centers, the chakras. This approach be too “new age” for many potential readers, who might be interested in the social, psychological, and indeed spiritual, challenges of the Infosphere. So, in my next three posts I will summarize the core impacts of our new always-on, always-connected, information environment on our (a) personal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) transpersonal relationships. This posting is about the "personal" domain.

I believe that the explosion of text messaging among the world’s youth (many send hundreds of messages a day), the constant email alerts on our PDAs, and the never-ending roll of “tweets,” are primal cries for acknowledgement – for recognition of existence and individual ego identities, in a time when everyone and everything is calling out their unique location and update status. The danger of this explosion is a crisis of ego need and electronically amplified narcissism: everyone has a voice, and everyone is afraid of not being heard.

On a positive note, giving everything a “voice” is a deep immersion in what we too often chose to ignore or deny: the voices of the disempowered and marginalized, the voices of objects we take for granted, the voices of Gaia herself, the voices of our own body’s cellular broadcasters. Our challenge is to learn to listen with discernment, to create systems to recognize threatening changes in our ambient data environment, and to both figuratively and literally, keep ourselves “grounded.” Walks in nature, and quiet time listening to our own breath and heartbeat, are important centering strategies, and so is dancing and drumming, making vibrant tweets that arise from our physical being.

For more discussion of "everything has an [IP] voice" see my earlier essay on "Ambient Awareness."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reflections on James Gleick's "The Information"

In Digital Dharma I argued that as we moved into the Internet Age, our spiritual work would shift to the light and shadow of the core metaphors associated with the “second tier” technologies of the Internet (truth versus falsehood, contagion and connection, firewalls and other rigid “boundaries” versus “smart filtering”), digital compression (coding schemes, consensual reality, mindfulness), and the “cloud” (the universe as intelligent processor and humans as part of a large “grid computing” experiment with the Divine).

These are the same metaphors explored in great detail, and without their spiritual associations, in James Gleick’s book, The Information. He writes about the shift from metaphors of “energy” to “information” in describing the vastness of the universe [as a “cosmic information processing machine… the universe computes its own destiny”] and the microscopic world of our cells [where genes “encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out… Life spreads by networking”]. I described these functions – and the fascination with the metaphor of “the codes” – in Chapter Six, a look at the spiritual challenges of the technologies of digital representation, and their metaphoric association with the opening of the esoteric “third eye.”

I described the value of “attention” (when information becomes cheap), and the importance of “smart filtering” in dealing with the glut of data connections made possible by the Internet in my discussion of spiritual impact of “actually being connected to ‘the other’ versus the earlier moral crisis of seeing the other’s face brought by television into our living room in the 1960’s and 70’s. And finally, in Chapter Seven, I too found hope in the evolution of the cloud, where our true work is that of tikun olam, repairing the world.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Technology as Toilet Paper: Reflections from the SEED Conference

I just returned from a fascinating SEED Institute conference in Albuquerque – a structured hybrid of “Bohmian Dialog” and Native American talking circle, with 24 invited wisdom teachers (elders, teachers, and shamans) discussing the spiritual implications of science, technology and creativity. In a pre-discussion talk, I had a chance to present my vision of telecommunications technologies as external metaphors for the inner spiritual work of evolving consciousness. During the dialog itself, I mostly listened, and when I did contribute to the flow, it was from a place of deep metaphor: looking at technology as extensions of the body, reflecting our flight from limits of embodiment and at the same time, our hunger to connect more fully with the Divine as embodied vessels of Divine curiosity.

This contradiction ran throughout our discussions. Technology as an alienating force, removing us from contact with community, with Nature, and our Mother Earth; and yet, at the same time, we heard of communications technology as something that was preserving native languages, allowing native communities to reach out to each other and to supporters around the world, empowering youth and providing new ways for Elders to tell their stories.

In native communities, one way to resolve these tensions is through storytelling and humor. And one of the most powerful characters in Native stories is the Trickster, the one who forces us to look at our denied and repressed qualities, including our “shitty” attachments to symbols of power and prestige. One the last day of our meeting, Dan Longboat, a Canadian Mohawk environmental educator, told a joke about “technology as trickster artifice” that encapsulated all the themes of the conference. I’ve paraphrased it below:

This morning, Shawn Secatero (Canoncito Navajo), Leroy Little Bear (Blackfoot) and I, met for breakfast. Leroy, as befitting his elder status, was on “Indian time,” and hadn’t yet shown up. Shawn and I, as befitting male Indians showing off their ceremonial jewelry, soon got into a competition as to who had the coolest cellphone.

Shawn had a silver and turquoise Bluetooth-powered wristwatch phone. He could send messages and talk just by waving his arm, and putting his hand to his face. [Dan demonstrated by talking into his wrist, “hello, can you hear me.”] I brought out my I-Phone and showed him the latest “find a Pow-Wow” GPS app. We were going at it fast and furious, when Leroy interrupted us. We turned to him for his opinion. Each of us wanted him to know that we had the best communications technology device.

But while he was thinking about our request, we couldn’t help but notice that he had a long tail of toilet paper sticking out of his clothes. He obviously had just come from the bathroom, and didn’t do a good job of pulling up his pants. We couldn’t help but tease him. “Grandfather, what’s that trail of paper following you around? Were you in such a hurry to get here that you rushed out of the bathroom without noticing?”

Leroy looked at us, and at our flashy cellphones, and said, “That’s not toilet paper. I’m receiving a fax.”

This story has made the rounds in a number of forms before Dan adapted it for a Native American audience. I found a pretty funny version that begins, “A man walks into a bar,” on the web. But I really found the toilet paper metaphor powerful and appropriate when trying to understand the spiritual challenges of telecomm. Our media tools, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, are external facsimiles of our body organs. And, as Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (a powerful treatise on the “psychoanalytic meaning of history”) showed us, when technology is disconnected from our flesh and blood bodies, it becomes alienated containers of our fear of death, mentalized and transformed excrement.

As I learned from Brown (and the Trickster), the repressed always has a way of returning to bite us. I do believe that each of our technologies has a shadow side – externalized parts that we want to hide, repress or deny. Television has made over-consumption a way of life, stuffing ourselves to avoid the pain of really “seeing the other.” The Internet has pushed into our faces all the lies of humanity. Virtual reality has trapped us in a world of phantoms and information hypnosis. While our embrace of “the cloud” can be seen as the final step in disconnection from Mother Earth, from our bodies to the mental astral planes.

But buried within each of these “facsimiles” is a mirror pointing back to our selves, back to our physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. In Digital Dharma, I proposed that each external technology is a portal into a specific chakra, and that by returning to full awareness of the emotional light and shadow of each chakra, we could begin to heal our alienated selves. Looking at our technological toilet paper, shit and all, could be part of our reintegration process.

Our technologies are putting sensors in every corner of the planet. Our job is to learn to monitor Gaia’s health, and our own inner states through mindful ambient awareness. Twitter can take us out of our bodies, or into the thick of political protest, or playful dance. If the universe, as many cosmologists now think [1], is one big information processing project could it be that we are all part of a great “grid computing” effort - where consciousness, in its desire to know itself, created billions upon billions of small processors called humans, each thinking its own thoughts and living and dying its own dreams and desires, but each running way in the background, a small virus program dedicated to solving some small unrecognizable fragment of this great puzzle?

From this perspective, our technologies must in the end, point us back into the body. Two other stories from the SEED Dialog reminded me of this truth.

A native mother spoke of her fear of technology. How she had banned television and the Internet from her home, and how she was constantly fighting her twelve-year-old’s desire for a cell phone. Then she admitted that if she could, she would put an RF-ID chip and GPS locator into each of her children. She told her grandfather of this desire. “My dear one,” he responded, “you can always ask the eagle to see your children. Have your forgotten your shaman’s sight?”

Two elders from different pueblos had agreed to meet and conduct a healing ceremony. However, a fierce storm had closed the roads. Their grandchildren volunteered to use their cell phones to connect them. The old men greeted each other over these devices, and started their prayers. All was going well, until it was time for the blessing of the corn. “I can’t feel it, blow harder,” called out one of the pair. “No, I still can’t feel it,” he repeated, holding the kernels closer to the phone. Finally, he called out, “don’t worry, I’ll blow for you,” and he breathed into his hand, and smiled.

Is not the first story a reminder that we already have all of the powers of the network within our physical selves, that we can “visit the cloud” and return. The second seems to be telling us that in the end, it is our spiritual connection with one another that really counts. That our breath is most holy, and that while it cannot be sent via fiber optics or radio waves, it can be aligned with the breath of any person, anywhere on the planet.

[1] James Gleick, The Information (2011), Chapter 13.