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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Tom Friedman's Warning that Everything is Going Deep"

I just finished reading an essay by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman [Warning! Everything is Going Deep,” January 29] that aligns fully with the core thesis of Digital Dharma. “Technology moves up in steps,” he writes, and each step is “biased toward a new set of capabilities.” And right now, our society is experiencing the change from the technology metaphors of “connectivity” driven by the Internet and social media, to those associated with “deep knowledge.” According to Friedman, we’re all being driven by the explosion in complex systems-learning, AI, and huge database analysis, “to the deep end of the pool” where the forces of surveillance capitalism swim like sharks, and the regulatory lifeguard (government, social institutions, business and religious leaders) “doesn’t know how to swim!”

Readers of my 2007 book Digital Dharma (and this “teleconsciousness” blog), are already familiar with the idea that communications technology impacts all aspects of social, spiritual and cultural life, and that most importantly, this impact is a two-way street: our technology is both a product of the evolution of consciousness, and a mirror of this evolution; and it also reveals the light and shadow facing us at each stage of that evolutionary process.i Our shift from the issues of “connectivity” to those associated with “deep pattern processing” is indeed momentous, as the technologies of social media, smart devices, predictive algorithms, virtual reality and the all-encompassing Cloud, envelope, seduce and enrapture us, impacting our social, political and spiritual lives.

In this short essay I will expand on Friedman’s thesis of technology-driven metaphors. Using the 2012 election as an anchor, I will start a bit earlier: looking at the shift from a world dominated by television to that of the Internet. I will also go deeper into exploring the impacts of these shifts on our political and social life, and most importantly, look at how each shift brought forth a new set of spiritual challenges reflecting both our highest aspirations and lowest fears. Finally, I will look ahead, suggesting that Friedman’s “deep processing” metaphor can be split into two memes: our current “crisis of truth” reflected in the work deep seeing, and the emerging challenge of deep mind, brought about by AI, smart devices and the cloud.

2012: From Television to Twitter to Trump

Back in the late 1950’s, media scholar Marshall McLuhan watched as television swept across Canada, ending the dominance of radio and print media, but more importantly, changing family life, social norms, and even political beliefs. He coined the phrase, “the medium is the message,” to get us to look at the impacts of a communications technology form that had nothing to do with the programming delivered on it. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have analyzed television through McLuhan’s lens, looking at the deep changes wrought by this flickering “electronic hearth.” In Digital Dharma, I proposed that television was an extension of our emotional Heart: a medium of expression and feelings, stimulating both sympathy for those different than us, and an addictive hunger to suppress those new feelings by stuffing ourselves with food, material objects and distractions.ii

Television’s gift to the “boomer” generation was its face-to-face close-up view of the world’s diverse community. Despite its menu of cowboys and Indians, crime-fighters and often violent cartoons, TV also introduced us to the humanity of outsiders of different colors, tribe and nation. It connected us, along with the Space Program, for the first time to our entire planet as one Spaceship Earth. It was the medium of human and animal rights, the environment and holistic thinking. Balancing its diet of “hard news” and glorified sports violence, it was also a medium of the feminine: of the intimate family narrative and soap operas of personal disclosure, bringing the carnage of the Vietnam War into every living room. And, at the same time TV was bringing the world to the developed west, it was exporting these values, and the images of consumer wealth, to the rest of the world, destabilizing the old regimes, and stimulating migratory dreams.

In its reflection of the “shadow” aspect of the heart, television gave us addictive emotionalism: the glorification of desire, and its fulfillment at bargain-basement prices. Instead of true compassion, it offered a chance to feel pity or disdain for the parade of the world’s “losers” brought to our screens (or faux corporate boardrooms), a half-response that only deepened a sense of spiritual depression and disconnection. As consciousness evolved, television’s world-view of naive optimism, self-pity and addictive consumerism, became easier and easier to mock. Donald Trump’s network producers understood this, and brazenly used television itself to belittle its soft emotional (feminine) side, offering in opposition, a parody television masculinity: a loud-mouthed, unfeeling, so-called self-made millionaire, beauty-pageant and wrestling promoter.

At the same time The Donald was being introduced to the nation’s viewers, the Internet was moving from a carrier of email and a place to “surf the web,” to the home of Facebook, blogging, podcasts and all forms “social media.” If television was an extension of the heart, then the all-connected, all-present online world, was an extension of our skin.iii Over-connection, not over-emotion, would become the new challenge.

While television offered an opportunity to look at the multicultural world, the Internet brought us the gift and the challenge of actually connecting with it. As Friedman writes, “Suddenly connectivity became so fast, cheap, easy for you and ubiquitous that it felt like you could touch someone whom you could never touch before and that you could be touched by someone who could never touch you before.” In this world, the “other” is not just a face on a screen out there, but someone, invited or not, inside our personal space. This is the multi-cultural, globally-cosmopolitan, knowledge-based, world of today. It is a place where we can no longer ignore the multiple overlapping voices of minority peoples and cultures; a place where everyone is speaking all at once, and everything about us is revealed. At its best, a place for organizing decentralized online communities, and the creativity that comes from rubbing against new peoples and new ideas. Its metaphor of “we’re all connected,” offers an opportunity to embrace “holistic awareness,” an understanding of the true interconnection of all life, and the possibility of new tools to better integrate humanity into the biosphere.

Yet at the same time, the deep anxiety that comes from this realization leaves on feeling “data naked,” unprotected and overwhelmed by incoming signals. From the pandemics of AIDS, SARS and Ebola, to the waves of global migrants at the door of the developed world, to the data thefts, and cyber-attacks on the technological pillars of the information economy, the Internet has made us vulnerable to the darker side of being part of one web-linked world.

This was the world that Barack Obama symbolized. His campaign was based on data-driven Internet organizing, and his Presidency was based on the “cool management” of a less self-inflated nation in a multi-polar world. It is no surprise that this move into network-style governance would generate unease and push-back from those hurt by all this “connectivity.” All those left out of the capital flows of the information economy, those whose jobs were outsourced to internet-linked factories overseas, those frightened by the real or imagined appearance of the “the other” at the door, and those who felt that their (formally unquestioned and dominant) voices were now being drowned out by those they couldn’t shut down due to the new codes of “political correctness.”

In the 2016 campaign, at a time of deep social division and growing distrust of the new networked global financial corporations and financial institutions, the Democrats offered a candidate steeped in television’s aspirational memes (fairness and multicultural “rights”), coupled with an unpleasant air of boomer entitlement (“its my turn”). Donald Trump, who rose to fame manipulating television’s shadow as the exemplar of me-first materialism, crass cynicism and melodrama, easily embraced the role of anti-Internet metaphor avatar. Like many of the “strong man nationalists” coming to power today, he ran as the anti-connectionist (anti-diversity, anti-politically-correct speech, anti-feminist, anti-immigration) candidate. Trump effectively channeled his attacks against the metaphors of the multi-polar, all-connected internet (“America First,” “Build the Wall”), using not just his television persona, but even more radically, by mastering a regressive communications medium whose operative metaphor (“Here I Am”) is most aligned with the older values of security, survival, and fight or flight: the command and control, one-way 280-character mini-telegram solar-plexus broadcasts of the Twitter feed.iv In its declarative pronouncements, free of nuance (without even the perfunctory hellos and goodbyes, let alone the empathetic responses of telephone talk), Twitter communication is a throwback to the Victorian Internet, a rejection of holism and its complexities – the perfect medium of competitive narcissism.

Trump’s attacks on the “deep state” tap the very unease that Friedman calls “swimming in the deep end” – the sense that our interconnected databases and complex pattern-recognition software, while “abstracting complexity at a speed, scope and scale we’d never experienced before,” are leaving us “on the outside,” blind to what’s happening inside the algorithms that have begun to control our lives, while at the same time the surveillance state and the corporations of surveillance capitalism could see everything about us, including our decision-making processes that we hardly knew existed. Is it any wonder that one response to this sense of “not seeing” is the creation of a social media world of curated presentation – where everything is artifice and falsehood, where nothing can be believed, a place full of bots, scammers, poseurs and grifters, where everything is “fake news.”

How to manage the ethical challenge of deep seeing is our present dilemma and opportunity. Faced with the dark shadow of our smart technologies, and a President who is leading the charge away from even discussing its implications, Friedman sees great peril. He calls for trusted seers and navigators that can “offer the public deep truths, deep privacy protections, and deep trust.” Perhaps these attributes will be the focus of our next presidential race, as a number of candidates have embraced a return to complex policy analysis and are touting their “inner nerd.” We can hope that the rejection of science won’t continue in the face of global ecological catastrophe.

From an integral perspective, the spiritual “third eye” metaphor of deep-seeing offers a way out of the deep waters of false alarms, false friends and false truths. Recognizing that every sound and image we perceive might be manipulated, that every “solid physical truth” is really only a set of quantum probabilities, can lead us to a deeply cynical disconnected stance: to immersion in virtual reality escapism, or the passions of tribal regression. But it can also lead us to a more holistic understanding of our place in this complex universe.v Many spiritual traditions urge to recognize the bigger picture of creation: to see ourselves as part of an evolving whole, where no one is separate, and the face of the Other is a reflection of our shared divinity. Could it be that the metaphor of deep-seeing is an invitation to mindfully “watch the codes” of our own thought processes?

The second set of “deep processes” identified by Friedman are those associated with thought itself – artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, and predictive algorithms. In a future blog post I will look at these technologies as reflections of consciousness itself: are we separate thinking beings or part of one larger global brain?vi Are we stand-alone processors, or nodes on a giant network? Is our work to protect our ego-selves, or Tikun Olum – to repair the grid of Creation? To dance and sing together in community rituals and share in small face-to-face healing circles? Or to embrace the libertarian fantasy of preserving one’s separate self by fleeing to a bunker in New Zealand, a colony on Mars, or worst case, into a liquid-nitrogen-cooled brain-storage unit!
i Of course, I didn’t invent this idea! It is drawn from the field of media ecology pioneered by Marshal McLuhan, the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber, and the consciousness evolution model of Spiral Dynamics.

ii Philosopher Ken Wilber has called this response “boomeritis” – utopian dreaming and multicultural sympathies bordering on collective guilt for all the world’s victims, mixed with unacknowledged attachment to material luxuries and high drama. 

iii In Digital Dharma (DD), I linked it to the Fifth Chakra: the Throat Center, the place of our voice and all communications.

iv In Chapter One of DD, I called texting “the telegraph of Aliveness,” and suggested that this medium was the perfect voice of adolescence: the time when kids start to push away and declare their individuality, announcing and reinforcing their ‘Beingness’ to their peers, calling attention to their cleverness. Adults usually grow out of this narcissism. When they don’t, in Maureen Dowd’s words, “its as if your id had a typewriter.” Twitter combines this First Chakra hunger to announce oneself with the broadcast power of radio, the Third Chakra medium.

v I looked at the impact of digital audio and video compression on our sense that “not everything we see is real,” and the resulting response of the “curated-self” in DD Chapter Five.

vi This is the work of the Crown Center, discussed in DD Chapter Seven.