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Monday, June 25, 2012

From the Web to the Cloud

The coupling of electricity with our nervous system over a century-and-a half ago started the process of what the prescient media sage Marshal McLuhan’s called, “the outering our nervous system.” From the one-to-one communications technologies of the telegraph and telephone, to the inter-personal one-to-many forms of broadcast radio and television, and the all-to-all global grids of the internet and the emerging distributed intelligence of peer-to-peer and social networks, we continue to grow more connected, more accessible, more stimulated. Each technological stretching of our communications matrix has an impact on our emotional and spiritual life, on our language, and on the myths we live by.

Our technologies are the products of our evolving consciousness, and they also change our consciousness. Yet, it is from the deep well of consciousness -- myth and metaphor -- that we may draw the wisdom to guide us through this transformative shift. Our communications structures are moving from interconnected networks to entire environments of distributed intelligence. With that change comes the challenge of moving from focusing on “how do I relate to the other beings in this world”, to the transpersonal question of “what is it that we are all co-creating in every moment of that connection?” 

In the Internet world we are all connected. Boundaries mean little when all knowledge, both public and private, is available to anyone. On the internet nothing is protected from our eyes and ears: from leaked reports of government and corporate malfeasance, to all levels of violence and pornography. Once-hidden religious doctrines, mystical texts, and secret practices from Scientology to staged wrestling matches, are now available to all to see. Every person with a cellphone camera is a threat to the old order of secrecy and control. Even online bookies are finding that their clients now know more about the odds than they do!
Our Internet-connected computers have opened every "closet," short-circuited old modes of denial - for wayward spouses and for Presidents and Presidential candidates. We have become “data naked” -- 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.

In this hyper-connected environment, “boundary control” becomes a full-time job. We are all conscious of our vulnerability, and the weakness of our carefully maintained public self. “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?” Our networks are interconnected across the old boundaries of public and private, nation to nation, time and space, no one processor stands alone. With this new vulnerability has come fears of “information infection” and contagion. Is it no wonder that in our physical world we use the same metaphors? We fear viruses and foreign terrorist infiltrators, and we worry about the modification of our core operating systems, our food and our very DNA.

In the recent years we’ve seen the image of the internet morph from a two-dimensional ““grid” to three-dimensional pervasive “cloud.”  What Wired contributing editor Steven Johnson has called "long-zoom consciousness"- reflected by our digital capability to "zoom out" from the scale of DNA up through “Google Earth” photos and on satellite images of the earth and beyond to deep-space imaging of the enormity of the cosmos - is emerging as contemporary culture's defining way of seeing. According to Johnson, this has created a new view of information space - interconnected and multi-layered - that is as disruptive to our old ways of thinking as the earlier revolutions of Newton and Einstein.

Today, our computers are no longer discreet systems sitting at the desktop, but are all around us in “smart handheld devices” that combine mobile phones, music and game players, GPS locators, and dozens of other applications. Networked processors  are everywhere: in our appliances, on the street, at the market, and soon in our clothing and eyeglasses. Our technologies are even empowering physical locations to tell their stories: one New York artist has recruited his neighbors to record stories about the love life in their building, while another tells the stories of a grove of trees in an urban park.

But, beyond personal awareness of place, the web has metaphorically 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 and deep in the forest; from stress sensors embedded deep in the earth and 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 (internet protocol) address, each adding its own signal to our collective nervous system. Each aware of its location, each reacting to new data, monitoring its internal processes, receiving updates from, and sharing new information with, its peers.

Distributed processing technology allows for data storage, software and computing technology to reside out on the network in large interconnected data centers far removed from the local user. “Grid” computing distributes these resources not in central locations, but in small pieces across all the computers sharing the same network. Using these networks and remote data centers, extremely large-scale computing projects can now be shared across millions of independent loosely-coupled smaller processors worldwide, each "donating" its spare computing cycles to the functioning of the whole. Cloud-based shared computing networks are already tackling the modeling of new cancer-fighting drugs, the mapping of the universe, and the tracking of the smallest quantum interactions. In its shadow form, computer criminals have captured thousands of computers (by infecting them with “botnet” viruses and malware) turning them into giant “spamming engines” -- all without the knowledge of the computer’s owners!

On the net, our social challenge is to negotiate with all the “others“ out in the universe, conscious of our need for appropriate boundaries, but understanding that like it or not, we are now all connected. In the cloud, we assume this connection and our shared use of common resources and intelligence, and are challenged to take what we need and use it to create value for the whole community -- whether by offering spare computing cycles in a grid project, uploading environmental observations to a shared database, forwarding cellphone videos and tweets of street protesters fighting repressive regimes, contributing dollars to an online social cause, or engaging in other acts of “digital generosity.” New forms of collaboration are emerging as people engage in multi-user gaming, music and visual arts creation, creating new “mashups” from these aggregated offerings.

On the net, our content is locally-stored (on our personal hard drives); in the cloud, we store our files and programs across the network (in remote data centers), with only snippets of code (apps) residing on the local machines. We draw from these external repositories as needed, downloading content to our lighter, streamlined tablets and smart devices.  Indeed, the cloud is now the "place" where we store more and more of our cumulative human intelligence. In addition to shared processing cycles and web applications, eventually every book written, every recording, every webpage, every film and television program -- the entire works of humankind, will find its way to the cloud, while we rely on ever-more-powerful search engines, "data mining" algorithms and crowd-sourcing to make sense of this overflowing abundance -- the unleashed outpouring of the new, and the taking from and recreating of the old: the mash-ups, meshes, mixes and remixes of our evolving culture, that populates the "long-tail" graph of network destinations.

This scenario has of course, 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. But when seen through the lens of metaphor, the very structure of the cloud offers us a path to a very different outcome. Cloud technologies show how people can be more than individual transmitters and receivers, not the infinite but separate reflecting jewels on Indra’s web, but part of a joyously, noisily communicating, system. And with that system awareness, comes the chance to see in the Cloud beginnings of the paradigm shift in human consciousness: the modeling of a world where we connect not only with every other being, but through that interconnection, simultaneously with something greater then ourselves.

Archetypes of the Cloud: Adventures in Cyberspace” was first published in the June 2012 issue of Noetic Now, the online journal of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, located at With permission from the publisher. ©2012

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