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Chapter 7: The Internet as a Cathedral

". . . the sacred is equivalent to a power
, and, in the last analysis, to reality."

Mircea Eliade (1)

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

     Without intending to seem sacrilegious, another way to visualize the Internet is to see it as a great gothic cathedral. Picture spires stretching skyward. See the massive stained glass windows, some with images of saints, some with scenes of hell, and others filled with beautiful fractal designs. Hear the chanting as it floats in from unseen places. Smell the incense. Now visualize a single ray of light shining on where you are sitting.

     Is this too fanciful? Perhaps, but consider for a moment the original purpose of these great churches and of the purposes served by other sacred places of antiquity. They are there to provide a sanctuary, a place for spiritual renewal, a place where one can go to experience a sense of wonder and joy and beauty. A place for transformation.

      Today, many people are searching for a better way to live and a better way to run this planet. We are searching for a sense of purpose-a sense of meaning and belonging in a world that often seems out of control. For those of us who long to return to a simpler way of life, the Internet, paradoxically, may be our equivalent of a cathedral.

     I was raised in a Christian tradition, which taught that love of one's neighbor was second only to a love of God. As children, we would hear this preached from the pulpit every Sunday. But during the rest of the week I would observe many of the congregation actively engaged in getting all they could for themselves, and I read about crime and wars in the newspapers. This caused me to wonder whether the human race actually possessed the ability to progress much above the level of savages. A turning point in my thinking occurred when I saw the first complete images of Earth, which were beamed back from a spacecraft as it circled the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968. In an instant, both the fragility and the interconnectedness of all life on this little planet became clear to me. Along with millions of other people, I experienced a deep understanding of the fact that we are simply crewmembers on Spaceship Earth.

     Of course, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math required to see the effect population growth is having on our crew. We are using our natural resources at an alarming rate, and we continue to pollute our living areas, even as we carve new ones out of virgin forests. Where I see hope for the future, however, is in the fact that the nations most responsible for these problems are also the ones with the highest percentage of Internet connectivity per capita. It is up to those of us fortunate enough to live in these more technologically developed countries to rein in our excessive use of natural resources. It is up to us to begin setting a better example for the less technologically developed countries, as they continue to improve their own standards of living. Unless we make some drastic changes, by the time the entire world reaches the level of technological development found in Western nations today, this planet will surely strangle on its own waste and become uninhabitable for most forms of life.

     Keep in mind, it isn't the Earth we are destroying; the Earth will survive just fine without our species, as it has during most of its existence. It is the plant and animal environments, including our own, that we have placed in danger. We seem to keep forgetting that we are an integral part of the biosphere. We are the biosphere, and it is us.

     It is with thoughts like this in mind, I suggest we view the Internet as today's version of a great cathedral. We can meet there to learn and reflect on new insights we gain. It is not always necessary that one have a specific end-purpose in mind when using the Net. Why not take a little time each day just thinking about things that interest you? Many creative ideas can spring from thoughts that are not necessarily results-oriented. Why must such a lofty avocation as thinking be confined only to results-oriented thinking? Try coming to the Internet occasionally just to experience the pure joy of unbounded thought.

     For many of its inhabitants, cyberspace is a sacred space. Therefore, as in any other sacred place, it is essential that we be respectful and not attempt to force our beliefs and ideas on others, just as we expect others to respect our ideas and beliefs. Collectively, our minds are all part of the same unity, this growing noosphere where thought is sovereign. In cyberspace, ideas are a form of power. There, they patiently wait for us to inquire about and then to either accept, reject, modify, or build upon. In cyberspace people cannot physically capture and control you, but their ideas can. In turn, your ideas have the potential of capturing other minds. It is imperative, therefore, that we be very careful about the ideas we propagate in cyberspace. With the freedom to create anything one can imagine comes the admonition to act responsibly in this sacred place.

The Awakening of the Noosphere

"I believe that the World Wide Web is, as a matter of fact, the noogenesis of the noosphere."
Ralph Abraham
The Evolutionary Mind (1988)

     Shortly after the conclusion of World War II, Teilhard de Chardin wrote:

No one can deny that a network (a world network) of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at ever increasing speed which envelops and constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us. With every day that passes it becomes a little more impossible for us to act or think otherwise than collectively. (2)

     As you know, Chardin was a Catholic priest first and a scientist working in the field of evolution second. While his thinking and writing about the noosphere was indeed ground breaking, much of Chardin's thought has been rejected because of his insistence on forcing his ideas into the narrow confines of Catholic dogma. In fact, The Phenomenon of Man concludes with an epilogue in which Chardin attempts to placate the Fathers of the Church, but which has a hollow ring for many of us. These apologetics are the great flaw of his work. Freed from the shackles of Catholic thinking, Chardin's theory about the evolution of the noosphere is a perfect fit with the reality of the Internet. We will never know how he would view the situation today, but I imagine he would find it hard to contain his enthusiasm for the direction the evolution of consciousness has taken.

     Of course, we are faced with the possibility that consciousness may eventually reach a pinnacle of its ability to evolve solely within the biological structure of a single human organism. In the terminology of chaos theory, this potential evolutionary dead end can be described as what happens when human consciousness becomes stuck in a less-than-optimal basin of attraction. The time may be close at hand, however, when the gift of self-reflection becomes embedded in a larger structure, one that embraces the entire human species. How else are we to rise above the narrow-minded thinking that results in wars and massive ecological destruction? Viewed from a planetary perspective, it appears that the natural evolution of the human species has run into some kind of invisible barrier, unable to overcome the demands of our individual egos. It is now up to consciousness itself to take control of the evolution of our species and oversee our transition from toolmaker, Homo faber, into a form of being that becomes virtually inseparable from the technology it creates, Homo cyber.

The Mental Life of Homo Cyber

     Recall our earlier definition of Gaian mind as being a meta-collective consciousness composed of all the collective consciousnesses that exist on this planet. In that discussion I explained my belief that our species-consciousness, the noosphere, has not yet been fully integrated into a permanent state of Gaian awareness, as is illustrated in the figure on the next page.

     In my utopian view of the mental life of Homo cyber, I see the possibility for our species to reach a constant state of expanded awareness to such a degree that a fully integrated Gaian awareness is the natural state of our being. I should point out here that what I understand to be fully integrated Gaian awareness includes significantly more than a fine-tuned sense of ecological awareness. As shamans and psychonauts the world over will tell you, the realm of existence in which Gaian consciousness operates contains measureless treasures of mind. A deep love for the Earth and concern for its biosphere are actually the result of entering into the state of full Gaian awareness that is to be found in entheospace.

     In Homo cyber's utopia, the possibility exists for a transformation of the consciousness of the entire human species to take place over an incredibly small amount of time. Here, the phrase "an incredibly small amount of time" carries two meanings. From the perspective of cosmic time, if such a massive transformation of consciousness takes place in less than a million years, this would be considered an incredibly small amount of time. The second meaning of this phrase, as I use it here, is that I see a possibility for an almost overnight transformation of consciousness taking place at some point in time, once the global transformation of our species into Homo cyber is complete.

     Such a transformation may not be as far in the future as one might think. Consider the fact that soon there will be over one billion people who have some form of access to the Net. We are not talking only about affluent Westerners here. As the number of people using the Internet passes the one billion mark, the majority of these people will be living in countries that we today think of as being somewhat technologically disadvantaged. Inexpensive and pervasive wireless Internet connections are going to change the nature of the World Wide Web every bit as much as the Web itself changed the nature of the Internet. Listen to what respected futurist Nicolas Negroponte (3) predicts:

Within three years, the developing world will represent more than 50% of the Web. Three years after that, the most widely used language on the Internet will be Chinese. (4)

     Picture a world in which the distinctions between cyberspace and what we now consider to be consensual reality begin to blur. No longer would it be fashionable to say one is in cyberspace. Instead, each of us will bring a part of cyberspace into the material world. Over time, our cognitive distinctions between these worlds will dissolve, as devices such as the ones described in the following section become commonplace. If such an incredibly complex environment, packed with cybernetically enhanced human consciousness, follows the patterns discovered by Stuart Kauffman in his work on self-organizing complex systems, it follows that the possibility exists for some form of spontaneous new order to arise out of this densely complex soup of consciousness. One of the more fascinating experiments Kauffman and his associates conducted involved a series of computer simulations of large scale networks of lights, each of which can be either on or off. This work uncovered an amazing phenomenon. As each light flickered on and off, its state being influenced by the on or off state of its immediate neighbors, spontaneous order appeared. As Kauffman tells it:

But at the edge of chaos, the twinkling unfrozen islands are in tendrils of contact. Flipping any single light bulb may send signals in small or large cascades of changes across the system to distant sites, so the behaviors in time and across the webbed network might become coordinated. Yet since the system is at the edge of chaos, but not actually chaotic, the system will not veer into uncoordinated twitchings. Perhaps, just perhaps, such systems might be able to coordinate the kinds of complex behavior we associate with life. (5)

     Kauffman then sums up this part of his thesis in At Home in the Universe by saying, ". . . the reason complex systems exist on, or in the ordered regime near the edge of chaos is because evolution takes them there." (6) Could evolution be taking our complex world of people and machines in the direction of Homo cyber?

The Material World of Homo Cyber

     In the chapter titled "The Chaotic Attraction of the Internet" we saw what the long range future of ubiquitous computing might bring. Such a world in which powerful computer chips will be as small as a spec of dust and every bit as omnipresent is still decades away. (7) However, Homo faber will not become Homo cyber overnight, and the transitioning stages may not always be clearly defined. In fact, we are already approaching what may later be seen as a pivotal moment in our symbiosis with the machines we have created.

     It is now commonplace to see business travelers pull out a wireless device and retrieve information from the Internet. With these handy little machines one can not only look up prodigious amounts of information but also send and receive e-mail. As sophisticated as these devices already are, they are only the tip of the iceberg of connectivity that lies just below us. Before long, it will be commonplace to see affluent teenagers carrying personal "electronic companions." An order of magnitude greater in function than the personal digital assistants used in today's world of business, these small devices are going to create a new wave of personal communications unlike anything we have yet experienced.

     Small enough to easily fit in a student backpack, these new "companions" will be able to access specifically formatted information on the Internet, send and receive e-mail, and support chat sessions. (8) They will also know where they are because included in the device will be a Global Positioning System, which constantly calculates the handheld device's current position. Over time, these devices will become electronic clones of their owners, remembering what books are purchased, which movies are seen, where regular stops are made during the day, and so on. These devices will remember where one goes, what one does, and even what one thinks about the quality and importance of the advertisements that are constantly being streamed through them.

     As Orwellian as this may sound, such devices will be quite common within five years. Evolution encourages their growth. Now that human consciousness is directly involved in the processes of evolution, however, there is always the promise that this brave new world of pervasive computing will lead to more freedom and not to a world of Big Brother.

     The kind of world we are about to bring into existence is being shaped each day by thousands of little decisions being made in companies all around the globe. This is why it is so important for all of us become more involved in discussions about how this powerful technology is to be deployed. Many of the people participating in these online debates are the same ones who go to work each day and make these important decisions. Of prime importance in all of these decisions is the issue of privacy. If we do not clearly establish one's personal privacy as an absolute and inalienable human right, our grandchildren may never know what it is like to have a private moment.

     Even the U.S. Supreme Court has jumped on the "no privacy allowed" bandwagon. As Jeffrey Rosen, associate professor at George Washington University Law School, reports:

In an entirely circular legal test, the Supreme Court has held that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches depend on whether citizens have subjective expectations of privacy that society is prepared to accept as reasonable. This means that as technologies of surveillance and data collection have become ever more intrusive, expectations of privacy have naturally diminished, with a corresponding reduction in constitutional protections. More recently, courts have held that merely by adopting a written policy that warns employees that their e-mail may be monitored, employers will lower expectations of privacy in a way that gives them virtually unlimited discretion to monitor whatever they please. (9) [Emphasis added]

     The issue of personal privacy is of such immense importance as we continue our headlong rush into a world of ubiquitous computing, that the issue of whether privacy is a fundamental human right cannot be left for our technical people to solve on their own. Fortunately, the people who are developing the ubiquitous computing technology of the immediate future seem, for the most part, to hold personal privacy in extremely high regard. We should encourage these sentiments by closely questioning the ways in which our personal information, and the personal information about our children, is collected, stored, and shared by these seemingly innocuous little machines. Although these devices will likely first become popular among teenagers, it will not take long for their parents to find them useful as well. At a very minimum, it seems there should be no central repository for the very sensitive information these machines record. I believe each device should maintain its data offline, and that a high level of network security be mandated to prevent unauthorized disclosure of this extremely personal information. I am sure you have other points of view, issues, and concerns this new technology brings to mind. If you are not already doing so, why not exchange thoughts with some others who may share or dispute your views. (10)

     It will take several generations before our evolution into Homo cyber is complete. As this transformation begins, however, it is extremely important that those who lead the way into this uncertain future be firmly grounded in well established principles of privacy and autonomy. Before we know what hit us, teenagers around the world will be always online, always able to chat with a friend, no matter where either of them may be at the moment. This constant sense of always being connected will bring with it a definitive change in the way they experience this world.

     In addition to always being connected, many, if not most, of these pre-cyborgs will also be spending some of their time in one or more of the richly textured and densely populated Inhabited Virtual Worlds that will be springing up by the thousands in deep cyberspace, one of the portals to entheospace. As the number of people enjoying this close a union with technology gets larger, we can expect to see significant changes in the way many of them relate to each other and to this planet. For purposes of this discussion, I am going to make the very large assumption that within three generations everyone on Earth will be always connected, and that spending time in virtual worlds will be a common experience. At such a point, the stage would be set for the awakening of the noosphere.

The Enlightenment of Homo Cyber

     The day will come (and many of us now alive will see that day) when only historians will be talking about "the Internet." As you know, the Internet is only a convenient way of describing the ever growing and ever interconnecting network of networks that carry our voice, video, and data communications. Without even noticing it, we will quit thinking about how our machines and ourselves are all interconnected, and instead we will focus on the content of our communications.

     The day will also come when the expanded sense of awareness shamans and psychonauts seek in entheospace will be more widely experienced, for people will be using the portal of deep cyberspace-cyberdelic space-to launch their minds into the unlimited realm of entheospace where Gaian consciousness exists. As more and more minds constantly jump in and out of entheospace, the possibility arises for order to spring from this chaos of mind, and it is this new order I see as the awakening of the noosphere. It is anyone's guess as to what form this new order will take. It might become manifest in a kind of super-psychic awareness we all share, in essence, a true global consciousness. Should ever such a moment occur, it would be fair to say that moment is also when the evolution of global consciousness actually begins.

     What could trigger such an awakening? Perhaps a resonant event of some sort. It could be on a cosmic scale, such as the celestial alignment that is to take place in 2012, or it could be something as fundamental as the Internet reaching a critical mass of complexity. When this resonance (or singularity?) occurs, it could precipitate a crystallization of consciousness. I see this crystallization of our species-consciousness occurring in much the same way as what happens in one of Ilya Prigogine's complex chemical soups. As you may recall, the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry went to Ilya Prigogine for his discovery that transition to a higher order is universally accompanied by turbulence. According to one commentator on Prigogine's theory:

. . . everything alive is surprisingly alive-and on a twitchy, searching, self-aware, self-organizing, upward journey. Such living systems periodically break into a severe twitchiness (i.e., fluctuation or perturbation) and appear to fall apart. They ain't [sic]: it is actually at such vibrating times that living systems (humans, chemical solutions, whole societies) are shaking themselves to higher ground. . . .

What [Prigogine] is saying is this: living things, always unstable even in good times, will occasionally go into extreme fluctuation and perturbation and appear to be falling apart. Take heart: this is an even better time! The apparent disharmony is the way that every living thing re-jiggles itself into new combinations and permutations for ever-higher, ever-newer levels of development. (11)

     If Prigogine's theory holds true for the Internet/noosphere, the chaos of billions of interconnected consciousnesses may at some point, quite suddenly, crystallize into a state of organized complexity not yet seen in this little corner of the universe. At that point in the space/time continuum the hyper-consciousness of the human species will come into being, and our cognitive world will be forever changed.

     Whether such a change will be for the better or the worse is yet to be determined. I can think of countless dark scenarios such a transformation could precipitate. However, I prefer to add my voice to the more positive chorus. My reason for being optimistic about the future is quite simple: It has been my personal experience that there are significantly more good-intentioned people in this world than there are bad-intentioned people. All of my optimism about life is based on that simple observation. I think our species will ultimately survive long beyond this new millennium because we deserve to. As more minds make their way via cyberdelic space to the tranquil ocean of Gaian consciousness, our destiny as a species may become more apparent.

     Perhaps we will come to a universal understanding of our foundational values as human beings. As John Major Jenkins says in Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, "The real pole shift may thus be about a shift in our fundamental orientation to each other and to the world, stimulated by our recommitment to life-affirming values." (12) What such a change of consciousness would lead to, I believe, would be much like the utopian world of irreducible mysteries Terence McKenna describes in his lyrical essay, "Psychedelic Society." (13)

     It does not matter that many people may hold different views, for ultimately the future we create will be a synthesis of many different points of view. What does matter is the part we each play in shaping the immediate future; for we are not just in a period of rapid change, we are in a period of rapid evolution. Cyberspace has revealed itself to be a great attractor, drawing our minds together into a cocoon of intelligence, knowledge, and light-filled fibers encasing the Earth. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the noosphere will shed its chrysalises, spread its beautiful wings, and take its proper place in the dance of the cosmos. (14)

     As you may recall, I prefaced this section with "the very large assumption that within three generations everyone on Earth will be always connected." What if this transformation takes thirty generations instead of only three? Is this any less reason to lay the proper foundation for such a future? At this pivotal moment in the evolution of our species, we are all butterflies on the edge of chaos.

The Spirit of the Internet

"It is not required that we understand what is happening.
It only matters that we do our part."

Terence McKenna

     From the perspective of cosmic time, our species has been in existence for what would be the human equivalent of the blink of an eye. Yet we have already evolved to the point where we are beginning the colonization of space. By the time we have established permanent bases on other planets we may have completed our mutation into a new branch of our species, Homo cyber. What do you suppose those highly advanced people will think about us, the ones who began their branch? Some, I suspect, will wonder if we truly groked the significance of what we were doing when we built the first of the great Internets. (15)

     With all of the commercial excitement caused by this new technology, we sometimes overlook the fact that a powerful new means of inter-human communication is evolving at an incredibly rapid pace. Like the clatter of souvenir vendors outside our historic cathedrals, the clatter of e-commerce can draw your attention away from the spirit-filled space you are about to enter. A deep layer of spirit is building within the Internet. Consciousness itself has taken hold and is beginning to expand inside of this great cathedral that is part human and part machine. Before our very eyes, the noosphere is taking root in the mechanical infrastructure we call the Internet.

     Which means, in the final analysis, that you are the spirit of the Internet, for the spirit of the Internet is the spirit of humanity. The spirit of the Internet is your spirit, it is my spirit, it is human spirit in all its forms.

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