Transformation in Cyberspace
Cyberspace is altering consciousness and the nature of human relations. Here are the results of some experiments with the transformative potential of cyberspace
posted Sep 30, 1997Is cyberspace bringing us together or further fray ing the social fabric? Is it a force for reconciliation and wholeness or for fragmentation?
Intel CEO Andrew Grove likens the Internet to an approaching tidal wave, with people paddling around in kayaks.
Futurists and technology pundits say we are undergoing a sea change at least as profound as the Industrial Revolution, but in far less time. This technological tidal wave is threatening to unravel our fundamental concepts of self and society – who we think we are as individuals and who we think we are together. It is an unprecedented challenge that calls for thoughtful and sustained inquiry.
What is the nature of this sea change? How do we learn to ride the wave? How can we influence it for the common good?
Visionary writer and consultant Peter Russell says, “Artificial satellites, fiber optics, digital coding, computerized switching, faxes, video links, and other advances in telecommunications have woven an ever-thickening web of information flowing around the world – billions of messages shuttling back and forth at the speed of light. We, the billions of minds of this huge ‘global brain,' are being linked together by the ‘fibers' of our telecommunications systems in much the same way as are the billions of cells in our own brain.”
He also speculates that this global brain might be waking up. “Perhaps the ... complex patterns of information flowing among the billions of nodes of our worldwide communication network are giving
rise to some sort of awareness at the planetary level.”
As the world population grows toward 10 billion, which is also the number of cells in the human brain, will a global consciousness emerge? And what would that be like? Can we know, or is such a consciousness beyond our individual comprehension?
Noosphere awakening or eye candy?
Virtual Reality Modeling Language co-designer Mark Pesce says the World Wide Web signifies Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere. The noosphere (from the Greek, noos, or “mind”) is de Chardin's term for the stage of evolution defined by the emergence of global consciousness and mind.
Teilhard also referred to the Omega Point, an integrated planetary consciousness, the culmination of the evolutionary process toward which we are all converging.
William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his 1984 science-fiction novel Neuromancer. Cyberspace is the “space” created within and by the network of computers, where space and time collapse, giving us the potential to connect with anyone anywhere and information everywhere, here and now.
Pesce sees cyberspace technology giving us profound experiences of ego-dissolving interiority and exteriority. He gives two examples.
The first is Osmose, an intimate virtual reality (VR) experience created by Canadian artist Char Davies. [See YES! #2.] “Immersants” ascend and descend through Osmose's compelling 3-D “Life-world” through use of the breath, rather than the usual VR method of pointing. Participants describe an altered state of consciousness: “Floating. Gently falling. Breathing. Exploring. In delight, the wonders of a green universe. Merging within another creation, but no fear, instead, breathe in, inhale a world.”
“An almost religious experience, certainly a meditation, very close to yoga...”
This is what Pesce calls proximal (near the central part of the body) unity, a compelling event that externalizes our inner experience.
Pesce's second example is T_VISION, an interactive model of the Earth at 22 different levels of focus, from a desktop, to a block, to a city, all the way up to a view of the planet from a million kilometers, available in real time over the Internet. This is his instance of distal (anatomically far away) unity, which internalizes our outer experience. It is like the profound spiritual experiences some astronauts have had seeing the Earth from space.
Are these technology experiences training wheels for the emergence of the noosphere or are they just “eye candy” or cyber-entertainment? Do these experiences help effect real changes in consciousness and in behavior?
The battle for your attention
Technology pundit Esther Dyson, quoted in Wired magazine, says that “the most important finite resource in the late 20th century is people's attention. Now the TV and PC industries are engaged in a battle for what's left of it.”
The computer industry must win the “war for the eyeballs” of consumers, says Intel's Andrew Grove. “We have to go forward with irresistible, compelling features. ... We have an economic mandate to grow the number of users or else this magical circle [of economic growth] ... will break down.”
Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly describes the next wave of cyberspace “push” technology about to crash upon us. Push media aims to capture and steer our attention.
“Consider the near future: You are driving your car, using the heads-up map display on the windshield to find your way around a strange city. It works wonderfully, helping you get to your appointment on time. Real-time display is expensive, but you're not paying for it. It's ‘free.' You pay by renting a little piece of your brain to the Krakatoa HeadsUp Advertising Corporation, which beams clever poetic messages twice an hour. They are little rhymes, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot get them out of your head. But they beat getting lost, and the maps are detailed beyond belief, including weather reports. This is ambient, low-intensity push media.
“Push media are ‘always on.' And there are human agents behind the scenes, working overtime to keep the content always on target, always on top of things, always seeking you out.”
What are we filling our minds with?
Cyberspace presents us with an exponential increase in things to which we can give our attention. Most of our colleagues increasingly complain of accelerating overload, overchoice, and overwhelm.
In 1992, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers published Beyond the Limits, an update to the earlier Club of Rome limits to growth computer models. In running the new W3 models, they found that when global collapse occurs, “the world system does not run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability, it runs out of the ability to cope. When problems arise exponentially and in multiples, even though those problems could be dealt with one by one, the ability to cope can be overwhelmed.” We can attend to only so many things at once.
Donella Meadows notes:
“I have my own wildly mixed reactions to the beginnings of global dialogue (with the understanding that most of the globe's population is excluded) in cyberspace. It's wonderful for keeping contact with my friends and partners everywhere. It's terrible for the amount of trivia it throws at me every day. On the whole, I'm way more negative than positive – mainly because the speed of communication and amount of information are not the critical missing elements in the world working better – and they distract us and confuse us, so we don't work at the real missing elements (such as acceptance of limits and sufficiency, willingness not to control, and nonmaterial ways of meeting our nonmaterial needs).”
How do we learn to consciously focus our attention where it matters when advertisers are ever more able to attract, capture, steer, and manipulate it? How do we find wholeness in this deluge?
Thriving in the Age of Chaos
Generation X writer and techno-bard Douglas Rushkoff encourages us to learn to thrive in what he calls the Age of Chaos the way kids are learning to use television. In his recent book, Playing the Future: How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos, (HarperCollins: 1996) he writes:
“Nearly every essay about kids and television cites the (relatively undocumented) fact that the attention span of our children is decreasing dangerously. [But] we are coming to understand that what we so valued as an attention span is something entirely different from what we thought. The ability to piece together meaning from a discontinuous set of images is the act of a higher intellect, not a lower one. Moreover, the child with the ability to pull himself out of a linear argument while it is in progress, re-evaluate its content and relevance, and then either recommit or move on, is a child with the ability to surf the modern mediaspace.
“The skill to be valued in the 21st century is not one's length of attention span but the ability to multitask – to do many things at once, well. Remote-control kids can keep track of 10 or more programs at once, and they instinctively switch from channel to channel just in time to catch important events on each one.”
Does television automatically teach 21st century attention skills? Does surfing the Net actually increase our ability to process information rapidly?
A transcendent meta-being
“No one would dare to picture to himself what the noosphere will be like in its final guise, no one, that is, who has glimpsed however faintly the incredible potential of unexpectedness accumulated in the spirit of the earth. ...
The still unnamed Thing which the gradual combination of individuals, peoples, and races will bring into existence, must needs be supra-physical, not infra-physical, if it is to be coherent with the rest.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
As we think about this technology (or rather the rapidly evolving, highly complex interactions of many hardware and software technologies) and some of the personal, social, and cultural impacts, we make these assumptions and follow this line of reasoning:
> Our species is creating a silicon and fiber-optic ‘global brain.'
> This technology is a carrier of change more profound than the Industrial Revolution, and in a far shorter time.
> It is fundamentally a technology of interconnection.
> It is an essential part of the body of an emerging planetary being.
> We are also an essential part of this co-evolving human-tool organism.
> This “metabeing” is smarter than we are. It is beyond our comprehension. How could a neuron ever understand the whole brain?
> Part of our common work is helping midwife the healthy birth of this being and then releasing ourselves into its life.
> Since it is beyond our understanding, we cannot create it by design, plan, or engineering. And yet our choices make a difference.
> The technology enables limitless connections by collapsing time and space through machine-created cyberspace, overwhelming us with choices, but telling us nothing about what to choose.
> The technology by itself, driven by current market forces, is rapidly accelerating the further unraveling of our social fabric.
> We need some other means for aligning with and shaping our lives to our deeper purposes.
> Contemplative and integrative practices transcend space and time, and interconnect us through the place where our individual consciousness merges with the collective, thereby aligning our actions with these depths.
> Adapted to cyberspace, such practices might inform the emergence of healthy, transpersonally grounded social connective tissue capable of supporting the profound levels of aligned and heartfelt action necessary for our collective survival.
The razor's edge
If this apparently deepening interpenetration of human and technology is real, are there ways that spiritually principled practices can help us use it more wisely, in the service of our deepest needs?
Is there a need for practice in mastering our scattered and wandering attention?
Contemplative traditions say emphatically, yes.
After two decades of research in extraordinary human abilities, Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy observed that every ability he studied is “normal.” The only difference he found is practice. This is underscored by recent research in expert performance. Geniuses and prodigies put in many more hours of practice than average performers.
In some forms of cyberspace communication, such as email and computer conferencing, people are not on line at the same time. This means there is an opportunity for reflection before responding, if we choose to take it. That reflection can be on the content of the communication, on our internal experience of it, on our response, and even on ourselves and who we are in cyberspace. We can practice more mindful conversation.
Writing about her experience in our recent on-line Community of Inquiry and Practice, dialogue consultant and writer Glenna Gerard says:
“What I learned the most from this experience was unequivocally about the degree of focused intention and sustained attention that are required for any on-line conversation that seeks to consider important and strategic issues and/or build communities of collaboration among participants.”
Consciousness researchers Greg Kramer and Terri O'Fallon are exploring bringing Vipassana meditation into dialogue as a practice they call Insight Dialogue. Some of their groups are face-to-face, and some meet on-line. Kramer writes:
“To me, such practices have become meditation, pure and simple. Communication may flow from this practice, but the practice is an end in itself; a movement towards wisdom. I am aware as I write this. I note my body, feelings, mental states, thoughts.… It is a delicate dance on the razor's edge of intellection and pure contemplation, thinking and pure knowing.”
What fosters social wholeness in cyberspace?
Virtual community personality Howard Rheingold has written enchanting cyberspace stories of the WELL, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, a computer conferencing system that's been a vibrant on-line community for over 10 years. “Grassroots Groupminds” is the enticing title of one of the chapters in Rheingold's book, The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993).
UCLA graduate student Marc Smith studied the WELL and the Internet, focusing on the concept of “collective goods.” As Rheingold puts it, “Looking for a group's collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community. The three kinds of collective goods that Smith proposes as the social glue that bind the WELL into something resembling a community are social network capital, knowledge capital, and communion.”
Douglas Rushkoff goes a step further in Playing the Future: “Rave parties, where thousands of kids dance to digital music, are planned as consciousness-altering events. The psychedelic drugs, music, and lights are designed to put everyone into a group trance. By the end of the evening, (which means dawn), the kids hope to experience themselves and one another as parts of a single metaorganism. It's both futuristic and intensely tribal, making use of technology to promote spiritual agendas.”
He goes on: “We are evolving into a new, colonial life-form. This process can be scary, especially to members of a culture who value their individuality, personal privacy, and overall stability ... just like the child who at first resists the advances of the opposite sex (Gross! Cooties!) we, too, fear the coming of global intimacy.”
Communion is a potent, spiritually loaded word touching some of our deepest yearnings. Experiencing groupmind or group trance is the embodiment of “feeling connected to something larger than yourself,” part of our working definition of spiritual practice. It seems that technology may be able to amplify and/or accelerate those experiences, but sustaining them individually and in community takes deeper intention and practice.
A few years ago, Rheingold privately shared with us some concerns about on-line communities, acknowledging that it's not as easy as we've all thought or hoped. We know from our own work that telecommunity is possible, but it takes as much clarity of intention, loving care, and hard work as any community, perhaps even more.
And virtual reality designer Mark Pesce also warns us of the danger for mind control embedded in the technology. The breath-controlled immersive virtual world of Osmose might be used “to abridge the ego as a mechanism for dominating it.” The virtual view of Earth from space of “T_VISION is at once both the evocation of a relationship to the Gaian biota [i.e., biosphere] and the ultimate panoptic mechanism [i.e., all-seeing surveillance tool]; it is Orwell's telescreen, at least in potential.”
Pesce's next cyberspace project, WORLD-SONG, is an intriguing attempt to use technology for personal and social wholeness.
“We seek to bring together two components: the sacred (unmediated and imminent) self and the collective body of the human noosphere. ... WORLDSONG uses conferencing technologies to produce a real-time spatialized environment for singing, chanting, and toning, either singly or in unison with others. Participants can register their location on the surface of the globe and can participate or just listen to the ‘group song.'
“...The interface – microphone and headphones – closes the perceptual loop for the participant/immersant, and connects them – in a particularly direct way – to the other participants. Spatialized sound provides the presence of space; voices do not emanate from a point, but appear to come from all around, creating the sensation of a chorus, rather than ‘singing into the void.'
“In WORLDSONG no participant can control the action of others. ... Thus a condition is created where the singular self can express its unmediated aspect in communion with others; the unmediated nature reifies the self, while the multilaterality reifies the community.”
Virtual practice fields
What collective contemplative and integrative practices might work in cyberspace to align us with deeper purposes?
This last question has guided our inquiry for almost two decades. In recent years, a new generation of spiritually principled group practices has emerged, drawing from ancient traditions and leading-edge science.
Some can be adapted to cyberspace. Here are a few from our personal scrapbook:
> In 1980 we created the world's first “electronic chapel” on the National Science Foundation-funded Electronic Information Exchange System, an international computer conferencing system. The ONE attunement group was an on-line blend of attunement circles inspired by the Findhorn community and a Quaker-style meeting where busy researchers from Bangkok to Paris found respite and shared inspiration.
> In 1986, we founded Awakening Technology and began a series of action research projects to explore the possibility of sacred electronic culture. We convened the world's first personal/spiritual growth seminars via computer using our virtual equivalent of talking stick circles. Participants met for 8-12 weeks entirely via computer network. Some discovered deeper purpose. Lives changed.
> Last year we convened an on-line Community of Inquiry and Practice (CIP) of over 50 people from Fortune 500 companies, research institutes, and consulting firms around the theme of “meaning and wholeness in the virtual workplace.” The community met for five months entirely via computer. Participants practiced Dialogue, Council Circles, and Open Space on line. We had Opening and Closing Ceremonies so that everyone's “voice” could be heard in the circle. Members also participated in collaborative assessments of what we were learning together. We designed the virtual meeting spaces to embody responsibility to the whole by respectfully reminding and supporting these spiritually principled group practices through a mix of visual metaphors, guidelines, behavioral modeling, spatial architecture, and software “agents” acting on our behalf as facilitators. (See www.awaken.com for a full report.)
We've learned enough from these action experiments to know we're on the right track. We've also learned enough to know these are only baby steps into our unknowable future.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.”
Edward R. Murrow on television -1958
The Great Turning
In the beginning was the matrix, the undifferentiated web of life.
Emergence – After billions of years, human culture emerged from the Earth.
Differentiation – During the scientific and industrial revolutions we differentiated ourselves from nature and developed our technological power to understand and manipulate the physical environment.
Development – The rise of the scientific method and rationalism in Western culture was fueled by the separation of our logical and spiritual lives as we learned to observe the cosmos objectively, rather than participate in it. To develop Western culture fully, we had to forget our essential relatedness to ourselves, each other, nature, and the Mystery of creation.
Now according to cultural theorists Duane Elgin and Charles Johnston, we are roughly at the halfway point in our evolution. Our technological capacity is highly developed, but our environment is stretched to its limits, and we are more alienated from each other than we will ever be.
Our collective survival depends on what Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid call the Great Turning. We are beginning to re-member our essential connection with all Life.
Reconnection and integration – Our challenge is to simultaneously awaken the participative, holistic consciousness we have forgotten and hold it in creative relationship with our vast scientific and technological powers. The process of creation involves both differentiation and integration, distinction and wholeness. We need analysis as well as awe. To navigate the Great Turning, we need both the linking/thinking power of our electronic global brain and the grace of a profound global mind change.
Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz, or P+T as they are known on line, founded Awakening Technology to help bridge the human and tool sides of on-line technology. P+T's long-range mission is to help create a create a positive and sustainable future in and through cyberspace. See their web site at http://www.awaken.com
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