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Saturday, July 22, 2017


In Chapter Five of Digital Dharma, I wrote about the impending “crisis of contagion” as our Internet connections collapsed every wall and barrier to the Other. “Television,” I wrote, “prods us to open our hearts to the world; the Internet reflects the challenge of dealing with the consequences of such openness… a sea of memes – idea fragments that flow from brain to brain, reproducing like viruses” (DD, 90). Reflected in the Internet are all the symptoms of a dangerously over-active Fifth Chakra: self-righteous speech that is often arrogant, over-reactive, dogmatic or fanatical. This unfiltered network gives equal voice to hate-mongers, liars, and unscrupulous profiteers and purveyors of pornography and rapidly-spreading viruses. For every online Utopian community, there’s another full of seduction and anger. (DD, 95)

I balanced this dark portrayal with the hope that we would find a way to truly see the gift in this technology that has pushed us into direct contact with all the truths – about our constructed false selves, our secrets and lies, and all the dark places – that we repress, suppress and deny. As we are forced to see the Other in every blog post, tweet or news-feed, we often respond by building stronger defenses and boundary walls to keep the “foreign contagion” out of our system, or countering with even more of the same – excessive “presentation of the self” that takes the form of nonstop talking, poor listening, or outright lying. As our world gets more complex and integrated, where former “outsiders” no longer keep their mouths shut, it is no surprise that for many frightened folks, the answer is to build higher walls and ban outsiders, challenge the idea of “truth itself,” making all values transient figments of fleeting clashing subcultures, and dropping down to safer forms of one-way discourse such as Twitter (DD, 88-9).

Ten years ago I warned that in a communications environment where everyone has a voice, and multiple “truths” run free, “being connected to everyone all the time” can easily overwhelm our brain’s defense systems. In a world of what William Gibson described as “deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness” (DD, 100), I suggested that simply building bigger firewalls and loading our computers with more and more anti-virus software, would not protect us. We needed to both turn inwards and outwards: participating in smaller, intimate communities, where we could drop our masks and ego posturing; and also begin to build links to “trusted sources” that could validate and verify the swirl of conflicting “truths” coming our way.

These conflicting responses – more walls and more “hyper-curated pretend-selves” on one hand, and the pull of staying in safe communities, have only increased in the intervening decade. We’ve seen the continued proliferation of special-interest sharing and support forums, “the private spaces where people gather to share information they might not be willing to broadcast publicly, or behave in ways they might not want their friends to know about.” Facebook itself, whose entire business model has been focused on getting users to “share as much information as they could, as publicly as possible” in its electronic town square, recently turned to promoting, as New York Times’ business writer Kevin Roose wrote, “its gated subdivisions” [Behind the Velvet Ropes of Facebook’s Private Groups (7/16/17)].

While these groups are a healthy response to media overexposure, and reflect our human hunger for the safety and intimacy of trusted small group connection, trusting only one’s friends at the expense of respected experts, seems to be a new cultural fault line. In some communities, science itself is under attack, and more and more people prefer to communicate from safely within their “thought silos,” taking their cue from their Twitter feeds and online “taste buddies.” Finding a way to step outside of our comfortable though environments without being overwhelmed remains a core challenge.

Our “digital dharma work” is to make a jump in consciousness – in Ken Wilber’s words, “from relativism to holism, or from pluralism to integralism” (DD, 88), simultaneously living in multiple overlapping hyperlinked networks, where everything and everyone are connected, where the true face of the Other cannot be avoided, all while maintaining one’s unique, but permeable, center.

One way to strengthen our ability to live in these multiple worlds is to strengthen our core Self through meditation practice: clearing the memory buffers and brain chatter that confuse and distract. These moments of silence are the “inner firewalls” against the waves of electronic stimuli that surround us all. From this place of deep quiet we can begin to perceive the whole web of illusion, beyond appearances and habitual concepts, to the true state of non-duality which modulates all reality. As media scholar Marshall McLuhan told us 60-years-ago, pay attention to the underlying medium, not the message.

Mindfulness meditation is, in effect, a process of observing the instruction codes of our consensual reality come and go, without actually downloading them and running their embedded programs of thoughts, emotions and attachments. From this place of unity consciousness, we can be both a “node on the network” and an observer of the network cloud, with all of its lightning and data storms. In earlier posts I suggested some “cyber-mediations” and offered “ambient awareness” as one way to help us with “Twitter overload.” They seem as timely today as when I first wrote them in 2007, and in my follow-up blog posts.

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