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A Twittering of Consciousness, Part II

by Matthew Gilbert

With cautious anticipation, I attended an inaugural gathering last May of technocrats and wisdom-sowing digerati at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in Silicon Valley. My motivation was both professional education and personal curiosity. Admittedly a late adopter of anything more complicated than a transistor radio, I nevertheless felt the call of a phenomenon that, with me or without me, is moving forward at breakneck speed. And of course the irony of technology serving or even reflecting our deepest spiritual yearnings—the primary focus of this event—was not lost on me. At the intersection of faith and reality, could wisdom really be found?

After two days of rich dialogue and presentations, I came to the conclusion that the answer is…maybe. I was intrigued and even inspired at times by the authenticity of motivation behind the many new initiatives seeking to raise consciousness, inspire social action, and unearth our better selves, but still nagged by a vague sense of unease. Are we deluding ourselves into thinking that technology is the answer to the most persistent challenges of existence, or are we blessed by a tool that may only be at the cusp of its potential to help spark a global social and spiritual renaissance?

Karmic Acceleration?

Perhaps the best description of social media’s evolutionary role was given by Roshi Joan Halifax. Sharing the stage with high-level execs from Google and Twitter, the renowned Zen Abbot called it a “karmic accelerator…dharma metabolizing as social networking.” Google’s Bradley Horowitz described it as a “lubricant for human nature…with all the distractions, connections, and emotions,” while for Twitter’s Greg Pass, “It’s about making the invisible visible.”

Growth in usage rates has been charting exponentially across nearly all demographic groups, and with it an unprecedented level of transparency, accountability, and impact. “I love that I have instant contact with students worldwide,” Halifax said. “I can also sense the immediate energy of a global trauma.” But she tempers her appreciation with a warning: “I consider my most valuable gift as a human being to be my presence. You cannot replace the power of face-to-face presence with a device. How can we hold both, being fully present and hyperconnected?”

Indeed, part of the conference was oriented around how each of us can adapt to the new technology—since it isn’t going away—and numerous suggestions were made on how to stay balanced and avoid the digital abyss: texting gratefulness messages to friends, practicing one-minute yoga, watching our breath as we descend into our inboxes. The dominance of the medium has been felt in both our work and our personal lives, where it quickens the pace, fragments our awareness, and eclipses conversational traditions. Last fall a treatment facility dedicated to “pathological computer use” opened in Fall City, WA—just a few miles from Microsoft headquarters.Yes, a “lubricant for human nature,” but what parts of it? What drives our obsession?

Neuroscientist Philippe Goldin, advocating for the role of mindfulness in these chaotic times, pointed out that “feeling alone” is our “primary psychoemotional distortion” and a major driver in social media’s remarkable adoption rates. We are, by definition, social beings. Others mentioned the influence of our reality TV culture, enforcing the idea that everyone has a right to be seen and heard, to get their micro-window of fame. And of course there’s simply the appeal of distraction—doing always seems to trump being.

Conference organizer Soren Gordhamer noted an “implied intimacy” among our vast networks of friends and colleagues. “People can deceive themselves that they are connecting authentically with others while not knowing what feeling inner-connected really means.” One young audience member wondered about the relevancy of “Dunbar’s number”—a theory developed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar stating that the human brain is not cognitively organized to maintain stable social relationships with more than 150 people, including those on the periphery such as our mechanic or an old college chum. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr presents a litany of new studies showing the neurological blowback of the medium. Longtime techno-consultant Linda Stone, now specializing in the study of “continuous partial attention” (disorder?), noted the growing affliction of email apnea—the withholding of breath while processing email, which leads to health problems. She added, “The overconsumption of information leads to the overconsumption of food.”

An Era of Paradox

There is a heroic quality to the motivation behind many of the digital leviathans driving this medium. Twitter’s motto is “Be a force for good.” Google’s intent is to organize and democratize all human knowledge. It has a Department of Personal Growth, headed by “jolly good fellow” Meng Tan and featuring classes on emotional intelligence, meditation, and even “the way of tea.” Silicon Valley’s executive class devours such progressive management-book classics as Good to Great, Tribal Leadership, and Your Brain at Work.

People have certainly made meaningful connections with friends and family through their social networks, and those relationships can have a spiritual impact. There are now iPhone apps for auras, mantras, saints, and even Tibetan singing bowls. And for those in isolated locales, “leveling the playing field so that a poor Indian kid has the same access to knowledge as a Stanford graduate student” (as Google’s Gopi Kallayil reminded the audience) is surely a force for good.

Indeed, the most poignant – and hilarious – image from the conference was shared by Kallayil, who had recently returned from India’s Kumbh Mela, a colossal Hindu celebration considered the largest religious gathering in the world. While wandering the streets near the Ganges River, he saw an ascetic who had given everything away save for a single item: a cell phone.

So if turning it all off is impossible, how can social media alleviate suffering and generate more compassion in the world? Both as mirrors and drivers of our human potential, these technologies will only be as wise as those who are developing and using them. Like most everything else these days, the larger consciousness of social media remains full of contradictions. Perhaps the tension between them is enough to drive one to, or keep one on, a spiritual path.

See Part I

  • 6 Comments
  • MaAnna Sep 12, 2010

    Matthew, thank you for creating these two posts on the affects of social media. You certainly covered a broad range of angles and opinions about this topic.

    A few years ago I was introduced to the emergence of Indigo Children. One of their hallmarks is being constantly connected to a telepathic web that links them with all other (or most) Indigo Children. It occurred to me that technology could be used to help facilitate a shift from a focus on individual to one of a collective. In a way, mobile devices that allow us to text and access social media sites at all times are helping us learn how to be connected to a large group and how to filter the chatter. Perhaps using technology in this manner is a way to usher in a cultural normalcy where it is not unusual for everyone to be constantly connected. So, when more and more Indigo Children arrive, some of what they can do will not seem odd at all. Perhaps that will help ease the way for more non-Indigo folks to do the same, but without the aid of technology.

  • Anonymous Icon

    lizwizard Sep 13, 2010

    You might be interested in a book entitled Hamlet's BlackBerry by William Powers, who discusses the captivating distractions and necessary uses of "screens" and the subsequent reduction of time for quiet thought, reflection, creativity, musing, etc. He writes about how Socrates, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau and other handled the communication advances of their eras. His suggestion, of course, is a combination of the two ways of being.

  • Matthew Gilbert Sep 13, 2010

    That sounds like an interesting book. There is a lot of new research coming out on how our digital lifestyle is affecting our brains, how we learn, and how we process information in general. Check out, for example, the following NYTimes article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/technology/25brain.html?_r=1&emc=eta1), which ironically is...online. There is also this from the website Common Dreams: Screening Out the Empathy: The Impact of Screen Culture on Our Brains (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/09/03-3). I am fascinated by the topic and am slowly compiling more information. I don't think it's an either/or, as you and I have suggested, but the more we know about the impacts of the new technology, the better equipped we will be to make wise decisions on how to achieve the right balance.

  • Matthew Gilbert Oct 05, 2010

    Plans are underway for the next Wisdom 2.0 conference. It's taking place February 25th-27th, 2011, in Silicon Valley. Here's the url: http://www.wisdom2summit.com/register.

  • Joseph Smith May 25, 2013

    "Your brain at work?" I don't think so. But who am I? I became "connected" years ago in a most unusual way. I read the U.S. Constitution with the thought of using it, this nobody whose life was in ruins. I'm speaking of mind. The mind interacts with matter. We think and it manifests as something. Make this distinction, for these surely are chaotic times.

    When I read the Constitution with the thought of acting, voices of the past were speaking to me. From a life in ruins my dream came true. I give credit to voices of past but nobody believes that. Voices of the present rule the day. I can't convince the folks that present voices are wrong.

  • Joseph Smith May 25, 2013

    We read here that the Internet, doing bad things to our brains, such as, "The overconsumption of information leads to the overconsumption of food," no, the bad thing is believing without a thought whatever one reads.

    The brain takes care of our automatic functions. We are created with minds, the essence of humanity. The purpose of being human goes far beyond merely jumping through the hoops like Pavlog's dogs.

    With humans, it is a individual thing, the inalienable right to be a self, not somewhere out there but internally. There is no such thing as an objective self. We are observers and what we observe becomes our reality. Often we observe a myth and said myth becomes our truth. We prove it by what said myth caused.

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