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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gaia's Voice

In my 2008 book, Digital Dharma, I wrote about tiny digital chips becoming embedded in our physical environment – from our houses to shopping malls, to our appliances, clothing and body parts – and how soon these devices would evolve from simple one-way signaling beacons to fully-interactive and addressable nodes, monitoring their internal processes and sharing their status with every other device on the net.

In this world, office machines call in service technicians before their owners are aware of any problems. Tiny sensors monitor soil and water conditions, alerting farmers when to irrigate and harvest. Similar devices embedded in bridges send wind, wave, and traffic data to the highway department… and Coke machines adjust their prices depending on supply and the current weather and traffic conditions… calling nearby delivery drivers when they need restocking. (p. 150)

In our emerging Infosphere (of what we now call “the cloud”), we are beginning to give a voice to Gaia herself. 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 dairy cows that tweet that their udders are full, to stress sensors embedded deep in the earth and in roads and bridges, data about the earth’s health now pours in from all around our environment: each adding its own small signal to our collective nervous system.

We are even giving threatened species a chance to be heard. Last Monday’s (2/4/13) New York Times had an opinion piece about how the internet has allowed us to vicariously participate in the naturalist’s work of monitoring and tracking wild animals. Writer Emily Anthes told of how thousands of people had become friends of 832F, an alpha-female grey wolf who left her protected environment in Yellowstone National Park and was shot by a hunter. She describes how wireless “tracking collars,” connected to the Internet by satellite and cellular frequencies, are being used “to track everything from tiny tropical orchid bees to blubbery, deep-diving elephant seals.”  

As we learn to monitor our physical and social environments through such digital intermediaries, we will be challenged to pick 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? Not just status updates from “friends” we hardly know, but reports from our “adopted” whales, eagles, foxes, sea turtles, giant redwoods or the tiny mushrooms living in the soil deep in the Amazon rainforest?

I believe that 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 beings competing for resources, power or status, and more as one node in a joyously, noisily communicating, system. And with that system awareness, comes the chance to see in the Cloud beginnings of a paradigm shift in human consciousness: the modeling of a world where we connect not only with every other being, but through awareness of that interconnection, with the network itself: what the mystics have understood as "unity consciousness," the simultaneous knowledge of individual identity and cosmic oneness.

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