Social Wholeness in Cyberspace:
A Key Role for Contemplative and Integrative Practices?
This work was supported by the Fetzer Institute.
© 1997 Awakening Technology and the Fetzer Institute
Intel’s CEO Andrew Grove says:
The Internet is like a 20-foot tidal wave coming, and we are in kayaks. It’s been coming across the Pacific for thousands of miles and gaining momentum, and it’s going to lift you and drop you. We’re just a step away from the point when every computer is connected to every other computer, at least in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. It affects everybody -- the computer industry, telecommunications, the media, chipmakers, and the software world. Some are more aware of this than others. (1)
What is the nature of this tidal wave? How do we learn to ride it? 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. (2)
Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) co-designer Mark Pesce says the World Wide Web signifies Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere.(4) In fact, the VRML 1.0 specification includes a Mission Statement ending with: "Now our real work can begin -- that of rendering our noospheric space." (5) The noosphere (from the Greek, noos, "mind") is Teilhard 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.
Meanwhile, back in the economic trenches, Andy Grove says the computer industry must win the "war for the eyeballs" of consumers. "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." (6) Intel’s profits more than doubled during the first quarter of 1997.
Some venture capitalists in Silicon Valley see a five-year window of opportunity for the Internet and are willing to invest in almost anything to see what will work. Disney, Starwave, and ABC have joined forces to go head-to-head with Microsoft and NBC. Web sites of all sorts proliferate. Rumors, gossip, conspiracy theories, and millennium madness zip through the electronic ether along with everything else. During October 1996, the number one word searched for on Yahoo, one of the hot Internet search engines, was sex -- 1,553,420 searches. Six of the top ten words were sex-related. (7) Lately the two of us have been getting junk e-mail nearly every week about live sex acts on the Net, multi-level marketing "opportunities," chain letters, and other get-rich-quick schemes.
This technology amplifies and accelerates whatever goes through it -- for better or worse.
Where are the self-corrective feedback loops to ensure the market forces shaping the Net are responsible for the whole?
Virtual reality developer Mark Pesce sees this technology giving us profound experiences of ego-dissolving interiority and exteriority. He gives two examples.
The first is Osmose, an intimate immersive virtual reality (VR) experience created by Canadian artist Char Davies. "Immersants" ascend and descend through Osmose’s compelling 3D "Life-world" through use of the breath, rather than the usual VR method of pointing (Davies is a scuba diver). Erik Davis, writing in WIRED, says, "Moving through Davies’s world, I feel at once immaterial and embodied, angelic and animal. I move like I do in lucid dreams, vaporous and invisible, and yet I’m constantly returning to the root of breath and balance." (9) In the Dutch magazine Wave, Pesce called Osmose a "virtual kundalini, an expression of philosophy without any words, a state of holy being which reminds us, that indeed, we are all angels." (10) Other participant comments include: "An almost religious experience, certainly a meditation, very close to yoga..." "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." (11)
This is what Pesce calls proximal (near the central part of the body) unity, a strong experience that externalizes our inner experience, here heightened and augmented by virtual reality technology. Erik Davis notes the irony that in Osmose, Char Davies is attempting to "heal the estrangement between ourselves and ‘nature’" with the same Silicon Graphics Inc. mainframes that train fighter pilots to blow it up. (12)
Pesce’s second example is T_VISION (13), an interactive model of the Earth at different levels of focus in 22 steps, 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:
Instead of an intellectual search, there was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different. It occurred when looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there, and knowing it was orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun, seeing it set in the background of the very deep black and velvety cosmos, seeing -- rather, knowing for sure -- that there was a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time, of space in the cosmos -- that it was beyond man’s rational ability to understand, that suddenly there was a nonrational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience. (14) ...My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity. (15)
What is this technology about? And who are we inside this technology that is also inside of us?
If this apparently deepening interpenetration of human and machine is real, are there ways that spiritually principled practices can help us use it more wisely, in the service of our deepest needs?
Some pop-culture writers are describing the Internet with potent spiritual metaphors that touch our deepest yearnings. They seem to say the technology will by itself reshape society into more holistic and interconnected patterns. Yet most of their stories describe situations that lack the deeply held intention and disciplined practices at the foundation of true spiritual work. In our search we have found only a few instances, some of which we cite below, that carry aspects of the maturity of practice that we believe is needed.
As you will see, this technological tidal wave is also 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.
At best, these pages are some first steps, a loosely knitted collection of pieces drawn from the files in our electronic cottage and our favorite corners of cyberspace. This is more a patchwork than a tapestry as yet. We invite you on a connect-your-own-dots journey into the future through space, time, philosophy, human relationships, and technology. Feel free to skip sections. Meaning is not in the sequence of words. It’s in the associative network of ideas we make in our minds.
As you read, we invite you to notice and consider:
What makes you curious, concerns you, or fills you with awe?
What patterns connect? Where is there wholeness?
What is missing? What questions emerge for you?
The Great Turning
In the beginning was the matrix, the undifferentiated web of life.
Now according to cultural theorists Duane Elgin (16) and Charles Johnston (17), 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.
Reconnection and Integration
The Net, the Web, and Cyberspace
The Internet is actually a network of many computer networks, with millions of users worldwide.
Its roots go back to ARPANET, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency network. The concept was first proposed by J.C.R. Licklider in 1962, but some key components were yet to be developed. The first four host computer nodes in the network weren’t installed until 1969. Howard Rheingold includes a fascinating account of the history of the Internet in one chapter of (20) (See also the Internet Society’s "A Brief History of the Internet" by several of the key people involved in its development and evolution. (21)
According to Rheingold, "the original ARPANET community numbered around a thousand in 1969. A little over twenty years later, [in 1993] the Internet population is estimated at between five and ten million people." (22) Until 1995 the Internet was essentially non-commercial, used mainly by the general academic and research communities, with major funding by the National Science Foundation. Then it became privatized.
It’s difficult to get reliable data about Internet and Web usage. Here are (sometimes contradictory) figures gleaned from the popular press:
The World Wide Web is a global application on the Internet and its fastest growing segment. Those http://www.abc.com pointers you see in the newspaper and magazines, on television, and even on buses and UPS trucks are addresses of World Wide Web sites and pages.
Imagine a vast, evolving, open-ended, globally distributed, richly interlinked "hyperbook" containing a growing array of pages, images, graphics, text, sounds, conversations, animation, games, electronic store fronts, order forms, search engines, indexes, and more. You click your way from reference to reference, from one computer to another around the world, without having to know where you are or how to get from one to the next. That’s the Web. It’s the world’s biggest software application. We’re all writing this "hyperbook" filled with wisdom and foolishness together.
In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, in a creative burst of genius, wrote the specifications for a global hypermedia system he called the World Wide Web while he was at CERN, the European Particle Physics Lab in Switzerland. The Web was text-based at first. Then, in 1993 NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) developed Mosaic, the first graphical "browser" for the Web. Marc Andreesen from NCSA then co-founded Netscape to produce commercial software for the Web. Netscape created and dominated this new market with the unprecedented move of giving away millions of copies of its browser.
Here are more figures from the popular press:
William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his 1984 science-fiction novel (23), Cyberspace is the "space" created within and by the network of computers, where space and time collapse, allowing us to connect with anyone anywhere as if they were here and now. It has come to mean a variety of related things: the Internet or the on-line world, including the World Wide Web; virtual realities; and even the place where telephone calls actually occur. Here we use it to refer to the on-line world in its many forms.
A Line of Reasoning
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. (24)
Spiritual practice: whatever you do to feel whole and connected to something larger than yourself
Here we focus more specifically on:
The idea of a whole and healthy global brain/mind is extraordinary. So let’s practice being extraordinary together!
Cyberspace presents us with an exponential increase in things to which we can give our attention. People report that following "interesting" links on the Web can become totally absorbing, and suddenly minutes and even hours have gone by. What are we filling our minds with?
There is also concern about on-line addiction. University of Pittsburgh psychologist Kimberly Young wants to see "Internet addiction disorder" added to the diagnostic manual that therapists use. (31)
...[Young] surveyed 496 heavy Internet users and determined that 396 of them (239 female and 157 male) qualified as on-line addicts when their behavior was compared to clinical criteria used to classify pathological gambling. These users stayed on-line longer than intended; developed a tolerance so that they needed longer times on-line; called in sick to work, skipped classes, or slept less in order to use the Internet; experienced withdrawal symptoms (increased depression, moodiness, or anxiety) when off-line; gave up other activities; and continued to use the Internet even when it caused recurrent problems in their lives. (32)
In 1992 Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen 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." (34) We can attend to only so many things at once.
WIRED magazine editor Kevin Kelly describes the next wave of cyberspace "push" technology about to crash upon us, predicted to make Web browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer obsolete within the year. Push media aims to capture and steer our attention.
Consider the near future: ...You are standing on a street corner of an unfamiliar city where you are attending a convention. On your PDA [personal digital assistant], you stare at a map of a city. It looks like rain. The weather icon starts blinking. Droplets pepper your glasses. On the map, tiny umbrella icons appear showing stores within a two-block radius that sell rain gear. This carefully tailored mix of instruction and merchandising is environmental push media. Low-intensity networked media. Always-on media.
You are in your study, answering e-mail from the office when you notice something happening on the walls. Ordinarily, the large expanse in front of you features a montage generated by SCI-VIZ -- a global news feed of scientific discoveries, plus classic movie scenes and 30-second comedy routines. You picked this service because it doesn’t show any of the usual disaster crap, yet the content is very lively, a sort of huge screensaver. Which you usually ignore. But just now you noticed a scene from your hometown, something about an archaeological find. You ask for the full video. This is always-on, mildly in-your-face networked media.
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.
You are skipping through footnote links, researching the diaries of impressionistic painters, when you come across the letters of van Gogh’s brother, Theo. The next link holds the documentary film Vincent, a feature-length saga about the painter’s last years based on his accounts. You click. An hour and a half (and US$3) later, you resume surfing. This is intense networked push media -- for that 90 minutes, you did not steer at all....
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 (emphasis added). (35)
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:
Nearly every essay about kids and television cites the (relatively undocumented) fact that the attention span of our children is decreasing dangerously.... [But w]e are coming to understand that what we so valued as an attention span is something entirely different from what we thought. As practiced, an attention span is not a power of concentration or self-discipline in the least, but rather a measure of a viewer’s susceptibility to the hypnotic effects of linear programming. The "well-behaved" viewer, who listens quietly, never talks back to the screen, and never changes channels, is learning what to think and losing his own grasp on how to think....
On the contrary, 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, reevaluate its content and relevance, and then either recommit or move on, is a child with the ability to surf the modern mediaspace.
The child of the remote control may indeed have a "shorter" attention span.... But this same child also has a much broader attention range. The skill to be valued in the twenty-first century is not length of attention span but the ability to multitask -- to do many things at once, well. Remote control kids can keep track of ten or more programs at once, and they instinctually switch from channel to channel just in time to catch important events on each one....
The other key viewing skill that kids have developed, which may be linked to the so-called shortened attention span, is the ability to process visual information very rapidly. A television image that takes an adult ten seconds to absorb might be processed by a child in a second.... If we are about to enter an age of information glut, those who can wade through it will be people with the ability to inspect, evaluate, and discard a screen of data immediately. (36)
Does television automatically teach 21st century attention skills? Does surfing the Net actually increase our ability to process information rapidly?
Rushkoff speaks of multi-tasking, of doing many things at once, well. Doing things well usually requires practice and discipline.
And some kids do have real trouble focusing their attention. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, three to five percent of all children could be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder (ADD), along with its subset, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Nearly two percent of school-aged children receive medication for ADD symptoms. (37)
Is there a need for practice in mastering our scattered and wandering attention? The contemplative traditions say emphatically yes.
Sherry Turkle, MIT professor of the sociology of science, says, "We have more need than ever for disciplines of self-reflection.... The internal maps for the new psychologies of life in cyberspace will be maps that allow us to better reflect on ourselves.... Life in cyberspace makes it seem increasingly urgent...." (38)
In some forms of cyberspace communication, such as e-mail 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 as Turkle says, on ourselves and who we are in cyberspace. We’ll look more at questions of self and identity later.
In our own writings and workshops, we often suggest these skills for effective on-line participation:
Writing about her experience in our recent on-line Community of Inquiry and Practice, dialogue consultant and writer Glenna Gerard says:
... [W]hat 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.
In a physical setting visual and auditory cues [provide] a natural mechanism that helps us focus our attention on the speaker. On-line this is all missing. Words on a screen easily become nothing more than luminescent letters strung into words, strung into sentences, strung into paragraphs, and so on, until one cannot remember what one just read, nor perceive any threads from start to finish. Why? Because attention has wavered almost from the beginning, going elsewhere to consider what still remains to be accomplished on...today’s "to-do" list, or triggered by an initial word or phrase off into a memory or daydream. It is not that there is no substance to what is written. Yet, words on a computer screen actually feel less substantial, less real than words on a book that you hold in your hands.
Only by concentrating your attention, asking that your awareness please remain present and open to receive the incoming message, can transmission be completed. Without this ability you look at the words...they bounce right off, ricocheting into space. So how do we develop this capability? There are many ways, many practices..." (39)
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. If I can share only that this is a dance that exists, that all can do it if they care to and train to, and, perhaps most joyfully, that the potential results, while not measurable by most quantitative methods, are qualitatively impactful, then I will have offered something about which I care deeply. (40)
What may emerge as the most important insight of the twenty-first century is that man was not designed to live at the speed of light. Without the countervailing balance of natural and physical laws, the new video-related media will make man implode upon himself. As he sits in the informational control room, whether at home or at work, receiving data at enormous speeds -- imagistic, sound, or tactile, from all areas of the world, the results could be dangerously inflating and schizophrenic. His body will remain in one place but his mind will float out into the electronic void, being everywhere at once in the data bank. (41)
MIT’s Sherry Turkle says, "I believe that the experience of cyberspace, the experience of playing selves in various cyber-contexts, perhaps even at the same time, on multiple windows, is a concretization of another way of thinking about the self, not as unitary but as multiple." (42) She adds:
It’s not because of the Internet that we’re shaping multiple ways of thinking about identity. The Internet is taking it to a higher power; the Internet makes the issue concrete. The Internet presents a very common experience and lets you play with it, gives you a language with which to talk about it. I haven’t been at all surprised by people’s thirst for getting online. (43)
If we are multiples, what is personal wholeness? If the self is decentered, what does it mean to practice centering?
Turkle says, "The goal of healthy personality development is not to become a One, not to become a unitary core, it’s to have a flexible ability to negotiate the many -- cycle through multiple identities.... [In the future g]ood parenting will not teach somebody how to be a One, but teaching someone how to negotiate fluidly and have access to many aspects of the self. You have access to all of them: that’s the key, that’s what makes it healthy and not pathological. You learn to negotiate, to fit them together in some way." And yet she adds, "We are both single and multiple voices. I’m still struggling with this issue; many others are too. It’s central to me." (45)
Turkle seems to be reaching for something that is not a singular "One," but also not merely multiple sub-personalities. Is there a personal wholeness in this multiplicity? Can we integrate our selves without losing the healthy diversity of our multiple personality states?
Some people with multiple personality disorder (MPD) integrate their dissociated selves through the presence of an "inner self helper" (46) -- an eternal observer/witness state that is in communication with all the other personalities. "The inner self helper is an ego state which seems to have an executive function over the system. The job of the ISH is to help the person survive until the goal of wholeness can be accomplished." (47) Turkle may be thinking about something like this when she says psychological health is the "ability to make transitions among the many and to reflect on ourselves by standing in a space between states." (48)
Building on the fields of Gestalt psychology and Psychosynthesis, cultural psychiatrist Charles Johnston encourages the practice of "inner character work" (49) in which you sit in a chair embodying a "third space" which is distinct from any of your "characters." You bring your various inner characters "into the room" by moving to their chairs when those personality states inhabit you. Then you engage in conversations with your various selves, but always from the position of the "third space." At least at first, the characters do not speak to each other. Johnston says that simply getting two conflicting characters into awareness at the same time begins the process of integration. Attention is key.
After awhile, you can learn to be in a "third space" much of the time, while listening to the various inner characters that come in and out of awareness. Perhaps this is another view of Turkle’s "space between states."
Can we construct and reconstruct ourselves in cyberspace without becoming disoriented or dissociated?
How might we shape the technology to support learning integrative skills? Do we need intentional, conscious, practice fields in cyberspace?
For Turkle, the body is the ground of authenticity. "We have only one body, and for the foreseeable future will only have one body. It’s the body that brings us back to a sense of oneness, of authenticity." (50) And yet she also writes:
...[A]s human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and with each other via the technology, old distinctions about what is specifically human and specifically technological become more complex. Are we living on the screen or in the screen? Our new technologically enmeshed relationships oblige us to ask to what extent we ourselves have become cyborgs, transgressive mixtures of biology, technology, and code. The traditional distance between people and machines has become harder to maintain.... The computer is an evocative object that causes old boundaries to be renegotiated. (51)
MIT’s Dean of Architecture, William Mitchell, describes it this way:
Anticipate the moment at which all your personal electronic devices -- headphone, audio player, cellular telephone, pager, dictaphone, camcorder, personal digital assistant (PDA), electronic stylus, radiomodem, calculator, Loran positioning system, smart spectacles, VCR remote, data glove, electronic jogging shoes that count your steps and flash warning signals at oncoming cars, medical monitoring system, pacemaker (if you are so unfortunate), and anything else that you might habitually wear or occasionally carry -- can seamlessly be linked in a wireless bodynet that allows them to function as an integrated system and connects them to the worldwide digital network. You will be able to use your PDA to program your VCR, listen to pager messages through your Walkman, display coordinates from the Loran on your smart spectacles, download physiological data from an electronic exercise machine into your PDA, and transmit the output from your camcorder to remote locations via your wireless modem. As you jog in a strange city, you might record your route on your PDA, then have your Walkman give you directions back to your hotel. You get the idea.
By this point in the evolution of miniature electronic products, you will have acquired a collection of interchangeable, snap-in organs connected by exonerves. Where these electronic organs interface to your sensory receptors and your muscles, there will be continuous bit-spits across the carbon/silicon gap. And where they bridge to the external digital world, your nervous system will plug into the worldwide digital net. You will have become a modular, reconfigurable, infinitely extensible cyborg....
Once you break the bounds of your bag of skin in this way, you will also begin to blend into the architecture. In other words, some of your electronic organs may be built into your surroundings. There is no great difference, after all, between a laptop computer and a desktop model, between a wristwatch and a clock on the wall, or between a hearing aid fitted into your ear and a special public telephone for the hard-of-hearing in its little booth. It is just a matter of what the organ is physically attached to, and this is of little importance in a wireless world where every electronic device has some built-in computation and telecommunications capacity. So "inhabitation" will take on a new meaning -- one that has less to do with parking your bones in architecturally defined space and more with connecting your nervous system to nearby electronic organs. Your room and your home will become part of you, and you will become part of them....
...Think of yourself on some evening in the not-so-distant future, when wearable, fitted, and implanted electronic organs connected by bodynets are as commonplace as cotton; your intimate infrastructure connects you seamlessly to a planetful of bits, and you have software in your underwear....
For cyborgs, then, the border between interiority and exteriority is destabilized. Distinctions between self and other are open to reconstruction. Difference becomes provisional. (52)
For Donna Haraway, the realities of modern life happen to include a relationship between people and technology so intimate that it’s no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin. ..."We’re talking about whole new forms of subjectivity here. We’re talking seriously mutated worlds that never existed on this planet before. And it’s not just ideas. It’s new flesh." ...Haraway’s world is one of tangled networks -- part human, part machine; complex hybrids of meat and metal that relegate old-fashioned concepts like natural and artificial to the archives. These hybrid networks are the cyborgs, and they don’t just surround us -- they incorporate us. (53)
What does it mean to be whole when our physical world becomes part of us and we are part of it?
How do we bridge the polarity of individual freedom and the responsibility of community?
What does it take to experience 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. 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." (54)
"Grassroots Groupminds" is the enticing title of one of Rheingold’s chapters in The Virtual Community. 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." (55)
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." (56)
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. As noted 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 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. As Glenna Gerard reminds us, connecting through cyberspace requires more attention.
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." (57) 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." (58)
As Donna Haraway and others remind us, the technology is not neutral.
Intentionally designed to heal what he calls the "pathology of hegemony," Pesce’s next cyberspace project, WORLDSONG, is intriguing social artform. It is his attempt to use technology for personal and social wholeness.
WORLDSONG is a work-in-progress to design an artifact which resides between, one that takes the unity of the proximal and unifies it with the collective distal in a way that avoids hegemony.... We seek to bring together two components: the sacred (unmediated and imminent) self and the collective body of the human noosphere. The voice is by far the least mediated of all human techniques for communication.... It is...difficult to "lie" with the voice, for it betrays stresses and joys quite clearly.... 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. (59)
The pop mythologies of chaos and complexity theory say "self-organizing" order emerges from chaos. However, if we look beyond the surface, we discover that fractal mathematics actually says complexity (life) emerges at the creative boundary between chaos and order. (62) Neither order nor chaos is capable of giving life by itself. Both are needed.
Must we choose between freedom and community? Is there a more powerful creative whole that encompasses both?
Charles Johnston identifies two opposite "easy answer" fallacies or traps on the path to bridging any polarity. (63) Mistaking diversity-suppressing "groupthink" for social wholeness is what Johnson calls a unity fallacy. Community is won at the price of critical thought and individual autonomy. Mistaking the chaos of unrestrained individualism for personal wholeness is what Johnston calls a separation fallacy. Freedom to do anything you want -- "my time, my place, my way" -- is won at the price of community.
What practices might help us realize the possibility of "communities of freedom?" (64)
Duane Elgin says the universe is an elegant learning system designed to teach us to embody our wholeness by giving us feedback through the material world. Consciousness and matter push back on each other. Our universal teacher is speaking to us now through global breakdowns. After each disaster, we intend to change our ways for the better, but forget our intention after a while. "In giving birth to a sustainable species-civilization, humanity will probably move back and forth through cycles of contraction and relaxation until we utterly exhaust ourselves and burn through the barriers that separate us from our wholeness as a human family.... Numerous times we may go the very edge of ruin as a species, hopefully to pull back in time with new levels of maturity and insight." (65)
Is the Internet a natural part of this learning system?
Rushkoff reminds us this is a technology of interconnectedness: "Inventions like the telephone, television, radio, tickertape, photocopier, fax machine, modem, Internet, Cable TV, video teleconferencing, computer bulletin board, and the World Wide Web all function to increase the number of ideas and number of people with whose thoughts we come into contact. With each successive development in communications technology comes a corresponding leap in the number of ideas with which it requires us to cope." (66)
Most of our colleagues and the organizations we work with increasingly complain of accelerating overload, overchoice, and overwhelm.
Donella (Dana) Meadows says:
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 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.) (67)
Who is master of our attention?
How can we know what really matters?
How might we practice being whole together?
What collective contemplative and integrative practices might work in cyberspace?
This last question has guided our inquiry for almost two decades. In previous sections we have already identified several noteworthy "indicator projects." Here are a few from our personal scrapbook:
In 1980 we created the world’s first "electronic chapel" on the NSF-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. (80)
Some participants appreciated the safety and reflective writing in the Council Circles and Dialogue, while action-oriented members wanted more engaging conversations on business issues. Some valued the nudges from our software "agents" guiding and reminding them to follow the practices, while others found these nudges frustrating. We came away still wondering how to best shape practice fields to embrace the variety of our paths and styles.
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.
A prayer fills our hearts as we write these closing words. May they open a conversation through which we will come to know what is needed.
We invite you to join us. Please come and sit with us in a witness space. Let’s practice holding in our collective attention the Omega point of our many voices, knowing our wholeness is present, trusting its healthy body will emerge in its time.