A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?
Neil Postman’s trenchant question was inspired a generation ago by alarm at the ways in which the medium and subtly corrosive messages of television had infiltrated every nook and cranny of the collective American consciousness. Unfortunately, by the time Postman and others questioned the spiritual and social impacts of new communications technologies, television had already laid waste to American culture. It was too late to do anything but throw insults in the general direction of prime time, which many have been doing ever since.
Maybe it’s similarly pointless today to question the impacts of the Internet and its gargantuan offspring, the World Wide Web. But fortunately, lots of people disillusioned by the disproportion of pornographic, crassly commercial and otherwise useless information and mindless chatter that flows from the Internet are asking questions anyway (albeit mostly in online forums, since even Luddites have websites today).
Who’s profiting, at whose expense? How is my time in cyberspace affecting my relationships with people I care about? How is it affecting my view of the world, of my place in the universe? Is it enhancing my emotional and spiritual well-being, or dulling my senses and sapping my faith? How does this tool serve me and others as an instrument of compassion? Is it liberating, or is it enslaving me?
These are urgent, vital questions, and they really are not confined to the neo-Luddites among us. They are the legitimate questions of people who must and want to take responsibility for their actions and their creations, of people who know that everything they do (and every tool they use to do it) has consequences that reach beyond themselves. These are the kinds of questions produced by the critical thinking and awareness that comes with a Buddhist outlook.
As Postman suggested, the insidious thing about major new communications technologies is that they impact not merely the speed and reach of our words (the intended object) but their very meaning. Hence, everything changes, including the nature of human communities that are bound together by meaning.
Other writers have credited Plato as the first “critical friend” of technology (a term borrowed from Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day’s wonderfully insightful book Information Ecologies), for recognizing the truth of unintended consequences. In Phaedrus, Plato relates the myth of Thoth, the Egyptian god who invented writing, the latest communications technology of the day, and implores the king to provide it to the people. But the king argues cogently, in language that almost could apply to the Internet, that “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it because they will not need to exercise their memories—using [instead] the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves, rather than, from within, their own unaided powers to call things to mind. And as for wisdom, you are equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth.” (Or, in Internet terms, with information rather than knowledge and wisdom.) The new invention, he argues, means that the very meaning of knowledge, especially its vital communal dimension, will be transformed forever.
And so it was. Humankind gained much of value from written language, but we got more than we bargained for. As Marshall McLuhan noted, the ability to translate the environment into “phonetic, literate terms” provided humanity with a weapon with which it could conquer the world. “The empires of Alexander and the Caesars were essentially built by paper routes,” concluded McLuhan—much as the empires of Microsoft and America Online have been built on the binary alphabet of cyberspace.
Throughout history, these fundamental changes in communications technology have served the interests of imaginative new empire builders, even as they have brought ruin to the ossified empires of old—witness the ongoing collapse of the Chinese Communist superstate amidst the rise of the stateless universe of cyberspace, built around the possibilities of political and personal liberation. But even as it has undermined the dictators of Tiananmen, cyberspace has also proven wonderfully enabling and full of possibilities to the imaginative and ambitious builders of the new global capitalist empire, which has no use for states or ideologies other than mass consumerism.
So it has always been with technological change: the changes we get are vastly more complex and pervasive than those we seek or anticipate. The Internet itself was developed not as a communications tool but as a military experiment in computer-to-computer interfaces aimed at building a decentralized, indestructible system of command and control for the nuclear age. Its transformation into the fastest-growing social communications medium of the twenty-first century—a medium that makes a virtual mockery of command and control—was entirely unanticipated.
No doubt it is this double-edged nature of technological change that drives the fierce debates about efforts to control or regulate change. “There does not seem to be much middle ground or room for nuanced debate over technology,” observes technology writer Howard Rheingold. “Technophiles tout the latest gadgetry, while technophobes proclaim impending doom.”
The problem, one suspects, is not so much the change in technologies per se as the way that fundamental new technologies always force us to reinterpret ourselves—to re-create a secure sense of self on the wreckage of the old identities left behind. We will either cling desperately to the old way of seeing or, with equal desperation, embrace the new. Because being in the middle, or in transition, is being nowhere—having no firm sense of who we are or where we belong in the world.
It may be that Buddhists, of all people, should be able to experience the infinite possibilities rather than the constant threats of this transitory place—the place at the heart of change, where the self is destroyed and reborn and everything is possible. Shakyamuni Buddha might have been perfectly at home there, but most Buddhists I know live about twenty-three hours a day in the phenomenal world, where change still has deeply emotional positive or negative meaning, and we will continue to struggle for or against it.
For all its resonance with earlier cases of fundamental technological change, the blinding speed at which the Internet has grown sets it apart historically. Changes so full of possibilities and threats have never occurred at this pace and scale in the history of technology, and at least part of our common anxiety about it is surely because we are literally blind to the ultimate meaning of it. Seven years ago, when former Vice President Gore (who would later claim to have invented the Internet) hosted the first information superhighway conference, the claims for the Internet’s capacity for commercial, cultural, educational and spiritual transformation struck many knowledgeable computer users as slightly hyperbolic. Five years later, 100 million Americans were online. By the spring of the year 2000, 55,000 Americans were joining the on-line world every day—2,289 new users every hour. At that rate of growth, the Internet will reach virtually every individual on Earth around the middle of this decade—though no one believes such a rate is sustainable.
Even more stunning is the viruslike growth of the Internet’s underlying technology. Its information-carrying capacity is said to double every 100 days. Last year, the number of online searchable documents passed the one billion mark. Some 3.2 million new “pages” of information and 715,000 new images are added to the content of the World Wide Web every day.
In the face of this tidal wave of information and connectivity, Americans, for the most part, remain overwhelmingly positive about the impacts of the Internet on their lives. And why should this be surprising? After all, for good or ill, a positive view of the power of technology is genetically ingrained in the American psyche. And in any case, the Internet and the Web offer exciting, wonderful new ways to create and stay in touch with widening circles of family and friends—a way of broadening, if not deepening, our communities. My thirteen-year-old daughter goes online almost every night at about the same time to exchange e-mail and/or instant messages with a circle of about thirty friends, including geographically distant cousins she rarely sees in person. I use e-mail almost daily to participate in a lively activist group that is successfully opposing a local development—a kind of nightly town hall meeting of the neighborhood. I’ve also found and established bonds with distant relatives online who have provided me with long-lost links to my grandparents’ ancestral village in Scotland—sharing, as well, some wonderful family stories about ancestors I never knew I had. I’ve read hundreds of inspiring, insightful online dharma talks and translations of the sutras by teachers from all over the world, including self-proclaimed cyber-monks in Thai forest monasteries. Other Buddhist friends and teachers participate in global cyber-sanghas dedicated to everything from translating Pali texts to serving the homeless in New York City.
For providing us with access to hitherto unobtainable information, and for giving us the means of connection to new, globally dispersed communities of shared interest and activism, the Internet has been a godsend, and I, for one, am a fan. I genuinely believe that the Internet eventually will make the world a better place. But I’m an increasingly critical fan, for it’s becoming ever clearer that more and more of us have confused information with knowledge or experience, and virtual worlds and communities with the real thing—the classical blind spot of Thoth. In our uncritical enthusiasms, we have blurred the important distinctions between the useful illusion of a cyberspace and the here-and-now. As John Perry Barlow, another good critical thinker on technology, said in a recent interview, “We are becoming removed from all of the intuitive realities because we’re trying to experience them through this mediating and separating agency” of TV and the Internet.
Barlow asks for “a cyberspace that has prana in it”—referring to the Hindu word for breath and spirit. Prana, he says, is the fundamental element missing from cyberspace, and “it is at the heart of the profound difference between information and experience.” He quotes another writer on the point: “Information is alienated experience.”
I doubt that prana will ever come to cyberspace, but I don’t doubt for a moment that a powerful illusion of it will appear there soon. Similarly (the Matrix films aside), I doubt that death, weather, sex, the smell of a baby or the dampness of human tears will ever find their way into the regions behind my computer screen. But powerful illusions of life in the real world will grow ever more seductive and hard to resist (AT&T last week promised to deliver soon a voice-simulation technology that will enable Elvis Presley and John Lennon to return to the recording studio to produce new songs). The key survival skill of the future will be the ability to discern reality from illusion and then choose reality. That demands being awake and aware of our actions during every moment we spend in a space where we are asked to suspend disbelief and allow words to pose as things, experiences and even personal identities—in other words, a place where we grant to mere digitized symbols—ones and zeroes—the creative power of the “word of God.” Such a skill has been demanded by every important change in the technology of communication since Thoth, but it becomes harder and harder to maintain as the technology of illusion becomes more powerful and seductive.
So here we are: By collapsing time and space, the Internet has increased the ability of millions of people to participate in some form of community, no matter how superficially, thereby alleviating the human suffering of separation and division. It has also provided ubiquitous access for most of us Internet users to untold gigabytes of previously unavailable information that, properly processed and understood as knowledge, is both empowering and ennobling.
So what’s all the fuss? Just this: By collapsing time and space, the Internet has increased the isolation and alienation of millions of people from any form of true, meaningful, flesh-and-blood community, thus increasing the toll of human suffering. It has also provided a torrent of isolated bits and scraps of largely useless information that they did not want and did not need and that serves only to overwhelm and enfeeble.
The difference—the fulcrum—between those two visions is simply that of the discerning, awake, questioning, critical mind. Unfortunately, I fear, that fulcrum is almost invisible in a culture that has traditionally and unabashedly worshipped the technological fix, even when it produces little more than illusions of progress and the fuzzy comforts of an unreal “place.”
No group seems immune to this great American deficit of righteous skepticism. One might expect that Buddhists taught to value experiential over conceptual learning might demand a tougher standard of such a powerful learning technology. And while there certainly are hundreds, even thousands, of informative, sober-minded, genuinely useful Buddhist websites on the Internet—possibly more than any other “religion” has produced—Buddhist sites are also prominent among the most flagrant examples of uncritical, cyber-utopian boosterism. One needn’t surf very far across the Internet’s ocean of cyber-sanghas to find someone proclaiming that “the multidimensional link-up we are undergoing amounts to nothing less than the next step in the evolution of human consciousness and the emerging self-awareness of the Planetary Mind.” One popular site argues that increases in bandwidth and new three-dimensional applications could obviate the need for actual student-teacher encounters for transmission of the dharma. Hey, who needs the Buddha at all when we can have the illusion of one? Wasn’t Shakyamuni himself nothing more than an illusion of his ego?
This sort of cyber-mysticism may get a lot worse, fast. Scientists at research labs and scores of universities are already busy building the so-called Internet2, a bigger, better, faster version of the current system, with 3-D capabilities that will provide a genuinely immersive experience of virtual reality. One of the capabilities of Internet2 that has been specifically targeted is something called tele-immersion, which, according to the Internet2 consortium, will enable “users at geographically distributed sites to collaborate in real time in a shared, simulated, hybrid environment as if they were in the same physical room.”
It gets even better: “In a tele-immersive environment, computers will . . . facilitate not only interaction between users themselves, but also between users and computer-generated models and simulations.” In other words, tomorrow’s human explorers in cyberspace will not only engage with compelling and realistic simulations of objects and experiences but will also become integral components in the cybernetic systems—crossing the increasingly blurry boundary between humans and machines. But will they ever find their way back?
Of course, those engaged in Buddhist practice might be more comfortable than most in these metaphorical regions, given the dharma’s emphasis on the ephemeral, unreal nature of the phenomenal world. Cyberspace, after all, is no more real or unreal than any other realm. (It’s just busier! The Void still doesn’t have e-mail.)
I suppose none of what goes on in cyberspace—the suffering, the silliness, the loneliness, the ugliness and the beauty—should be all that surprising to serious, practiced, practicing meditators who understand and accept that all human qualities are present in all beings and in all human realms. Why should we expect cyberspace to be free of the human tragicomedy? Mitch Kapor, one of the most thoughtful of all commentators on cyberspace, calls this the First Noble Truth of cyberspace—that we carry our all-too-human baggage everywhere we go, including our ventures into the great Nowhere.
The human adventure in cyberspace is going to be a dangerous one only to the extent that we forget where we are at this very moment. But if we can discipline ourselves to always touch the Earth while reaching into the void, as the Buddha did, then surely we can shape this tool, like other extensions of ourselves, to serve our ends, rather than become the end itself. Above all, we must not bury our heads in the sand to the “inevitability” of the “technological imperative.” That is fatally disempowering, for it leaves us unable to act, or even to think.
In the end, we cannot reject this technology. That’s not even a choice. The only choice we have is to engage with it wisely or blindly. If we embrace it with a critical, awake mind, cyberspace will lose its mystical mystique, along with its power to frighten or to mesmerize. And unfrightened and undazzled, we will be free to explore the boundless possibilities—for personal liberation, for right, compassionate action, and for spiritual awe—that live at the heart of fundamental change.