The world we inhabit — and create as we go — isn’t some pristine place of untouched natural wonders.
Rather, it’s a complex web of relationships, exchanges, failed experiments, nonlinear systems … life.
This web connects us all the time: to one another, and all together to the balance of the environment.
Today we’ve created other webs that sometimes complement these patterns, yet also impinge on them.
Being connected isn’t a choice; it’s reality. The challenge is to do so mindfully, with our humanity intact.
Let’s start at the beginning — or is it the end? Perspective aside, it’s obvious that we’re all connected by the vast network of “teh interweb” (also known in actual form as “the internet”). Although it’s not a physical space per se, the web has numerous hardware components that transmit and store information, and that allow us to interface with the network — and through that, with one another. These interfaces are omnipresent, as with laptops and smartphones, and are also increasingly embedded within myriad devices that serve other functions apart from being computer/phone terminals that we access directly (i.e., all of the “smart” tech in our homes and cars). This expanding web of connections comprises what is sometimes called the “internet of things” (or IoT for short), and it’s coming soon to an everything near you.
Okay, so that was really basic. But it’s worth considering that despite how widespread this web is and how many of its interfaces we engage with, for most people the actual workings of this system are not well understood. If we step back and think of it, “the internet can seem like magic” — which aligns with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous insight that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yet on some level, it kind of is like magic: teleportation of ideas and energy, instantaneous exchanges, quantum entanglements, and more. Data is digitized, broken into innumerable bits, reassembled in remote locations, and received seamlessly by others. And most of this is accomplished without any specific central authority or locus of power, yielding a “distributed network” that is always evolving and is resilient by design.
This web connects not only our devices and hardware, but our ideas and minds as well. This software domain is sometimes harder to see since it’s not as tangible and can be difficult to quantify. Yet we can easily see how the social, political, and cultural realms are being remade through the advent of this web of connections. In just a few short years, the concept of a “friend” has fundamentally changed, elections are potentially tipped by “bots,” and new media modes have created phenomena such as “binge watching.” The wiring of our world (literal and figurative) connects all of us in fundamental ways, pointing toward what H.G. Wells speculated (in 1937) would someday be a “World Brain” — which might even potentially become “a way to world peace” as cultural divides and other antagonisms are mitigated through regular and robust interactions with others.
While it hasn’t exactly worked out that way yet (think of all the online flameouts, trolling, cyberbullying, tweetstorms, and more), we’ve also been introduced to a world in which news is shared in real time, cross-cultural exchanges and educational opportunities are made possible, and networked mobilizations can be galvanized to address critical social and environmental issues. When we connect to this web, we become part of its potential to do good — even as we need to be cautious about fostering its negative capacities. The best way to do this is to be intentional about our interactions in the digital realm, to use its tools with integrity, and to balance its distractive qualities with ones that serve to nourish and enrich us. In this vision, the aim isn’t to detach but rather to connect with intention, even aspiring to that elusive peace that H.G. Wells foresaw in his mind’s eye.
If we’re going to be enmeshed in this web, we might even be able to do some good with its tools in the process. Here are some resources to help us connect to the network with intention and possibility:
Service Space: founded by volunteers from the tech industry, they seek to cultivate “inner and outer transformation” through projects like Karma Kitchen, Daily Good, and the “gift economy ecosystem”
Tech for Good: a forum that highlights how we can “use technology to create social change,” showcasing the “human side” of our electronic interactions, and aimed at “building a better world”
Urbanscale: promoting the concept of “design for networked cities and citizens,” and applying “the toolkit and mindset of user-centered interaction” to help make cities more functional and desirable places
Mindful Technology: somewhere at the nexus of style, mindfulness, technology, and IRL meetups! (launching Fall 2017)
Mindful Cyborgs: aims to create dialogue “focusing on contemplative technology,” offering resources for “creating mindful spaces where practitioners can use technology in safe and kind environments”
There’s a lot more out there, and we’ll keep adding resources for conscious connections. Meanwhile, consider this cogent memo:
So here we arrive at the cusp of transformation, standing on the edge of tomorrow, facing a limitless horizon where the aspirations of science fiction meet the experiences of everyday life. This is the place to talk about potential “best case scenarios” of a world in which the advent of technology — from nanotech to biotech, in both the physical and virtual realms — yields cures for diseases, ameliorates poverty and injustice, relieves humankind of tedious work, resolves ecological crises, and brings us limitless forms of entertainment and pleasure. Here we get to wonder about the cosmos, immortality, transcendence, and all the ways in which our emergent connections can bring us closer, someday, to the salvation of technotopia. *** Are you convinced yet? We’re not trying to, but neither do we want to deny that it could look like this in some manner. If the arc of technology possesses an air of inevitability to it, and if our inclination is to lean in closer and become more connected rather than unplugging (which is advisable every now and then, regardless), we can certainly feel justified in letting our minds fix on the wondrous — indeed, nearly magical — possibilities ahead. Maybe it’s a Star Trek sort of vision, where humankind is immersed in technology yet still guided by a moral compass and our inherent inquisitiveness. Perhaps it’s something more radical, tapping into a longstanding utopian tradition, even beyond the limits of time and space. Or at least: