A Conversation on Digital Enlightenment


This text is the beginning of chapter 2 of our book „Digital Enlightenment Now!“ written by Ossi Urchs and me in 2013, shortly before his untimely death by cancer. I was reminded of it by a conversation I had with Dr. Winfried Felser, who sent me the first draft of a paper he plans to publish entitled „#BeyondDigital – a new holistic logic and the ROI of the #NextEconomy = Collaborative Network Economy!“ which I found fascinating.

In it he quotes Nathanial Hawthore’s 1851 masterpiece, „House of the Seven Gables„:

Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?
Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence: or shall we say it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we dreamed it.

Talking about early adapters…

Anyway, this is Ossi’s and my attempt to describe the world of mind and matter in our own subjective, breathless point in time.

Networking without networks

The history of networking is apparently more closely related to the history of ideas than it is to the development of technology. And in fact the inventor of the Word Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, was acutely aware of this. His choice of the word “web” is certainly a deliberate attempt to liken the electronic networked he imagined with the intricate, interconnected pattern of threads constructed by arachnids. In fact, he was thinking even further to include the many implications and the potential of his brainchild when he wrote in “Weaving the Web”:

„The Web brings the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.“

The similarity between societal and neurological networks is indeed striking, and we are surrounded by numerous proofs. Take globalization, for instance, which would be impossible in its modern form without the parallel development of worldwide communication networks, premier among which is of course the aptly named “World Wide Web”. The same goes for the global financial crises or for stock market speculation in nanoseconds with the assistance of “superfast” trading systems. The Arab Spring uprisings would have been over before they started without the help of Facebook and Twitter. In each of these instances the increasing complexity of social structures in modern society are moving even closer to the structure of the human brain – and the Web is becoming the catalyst, allowing us to develop social structures that closely mimic our thought processes.

The phenomenal growth of the Web itself is of course the best piece of evidence for the connection between brain structure and social networks. Never before did a mass medium need less time to grow from its inception to full maturity as a “medium for the masses”, namely just five years. In fact the Web has become a kind of conduit for other media which use it as their delivery platform and communication channel. Users are not required to have even the slightest inkling of how the platform works; we use it intuitively because it resembles the way we ourselves think.

Things become slightly more complex if we allow the question: How did Berners-Lee himself envision human thought processes and the way they work? Like many from the Internet’s “founder generation”, Berners-Lee himself was the product of the psychedelic “counter-culture” movement that sprang up in the 60ies and 70ies in places like California. In this hotbed of cultural change, popular icons combined with romance ideals, Art Deco and the drug culture originally developed in Europe. But it also had strong root in Indian mysticism, or at least a watered-down understanding of Indian spirituality. We can therefore safely assume that Tim Berners-Lee, along with most members of the early Internet scene, was strongly influenced by this cultural environment.

The ”zeitgeist” that shaped Berners-Lee and his counterparts was a wildly exciting mix of psychedelic rock from artists like Jimi Hendrix and Scot Joplin, mingled with elements of Indian yoga and meditation techniques, a dash of math and science leavened with the perhaps naïve yearning for a better world (or at least for a better society). If you look closely you can still discover traces of these cultural forces at work in the Internet today, as well as in the many different “network cultures” that evolved from it. At the same time, this shows how essentially primitive our concepts of spirit, brain and self-awareness still are despite recent progress in the realm of cognitive science.

 Networking without networks

There are numerous fables and sagas, notions and ideas from many cultures and traditions that testify to mankind’s ongoing fascination with the concept of networking, from the Teotihuacan „Spider Woman” in pre-columbian Mexico to the Aboriginal “Dreaming Paths” of Australia and the philosophical, ethical, and religious tradition of Chinese Taoism. For the PC and Internet pioneers of the 1960ies, however, two traditional sources were especially significant: As scientist and mathematicians they were heavily influenced by European schools of thought and especially by Greek logic and mathematics. And as members of the counter culture movement many of them shared an interest in Indian culture, in yoga and the philosophy of the Vedanta, one of the orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (the term “veda” means „knowledge“ and “anta” means „end“). Both traditions were important for the development of the personal computer as well as for the early Internet.

Many of the young Internet builders were drawn to the ancient Indian philosophy of the Tantra – and not only because of the obvious erotic and sexual connotations. “Tantra”, of course, means “tissue” or “web” and can be loosely translated as “coherence” or “context”. Mankind as well as the Cosmos itself are seen as part of one coherent fabric that connects the “chakras”, which are energy points or knots in the subtle body, the psycho-spiritual constituents of living beings, through which the life force, or “prana” flows through everything and is responsible for the body’s life, heat and maintenance. This network is invisible to “normal” consciousness and can only be revealed to purified and enlightened individuals through the process of meditation. In the course of this experience the individual achieves the ability to see the world with other eyes, or as is related in one of the ancient tantric texts, the Tripura Rahasya:

“Only by changing our perspective can we hope to eliminate error. This is because the world for everyone is what we are used to imagining.”

This quote, not surprisingly, is attributed to the mythical original “guru of gurus”, Dattatreya. “Guru” in Sanskrit means “teacher”, but it is actually much more complicated. The syllable “gu” (गु) stands for darkness, “ru” (रु) for light. The guru therefore is one who brings light into the darkness of our everyday ignorance – in other word the “enlightener”, a term that ties in neatly with the modern European concept of enlightenment!

In order to avoid falling into this fundamental error the Dattatreya warns that we must change our own perspective by reminding ourselves that the first question to ask about the act of thinking, even before describing its content, is: Who is it that is thinking? This is to inquire about the subject, the ego behind the thought.

The “Atman” or true self and the “Brahman”, the universal, transpersonal being, are described in the oldest Indian holy texts, the Veda, as well as the Upanishads, and they form the basis of the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy founded by the great Indian thinker and reformer Shankaracharya.

According to this school, the Atman is the essence of an individual that is constantly being filled (from “within” as well as from “without”) with (self-)knowledge, thus creating the ego, a phenomenon that the contemporary German cognitive scientist and philosopher Thomas Metzinger calls the “self-model of subjectivity” (SMT), an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and explaining the phenomenology of consciousness and the self.

According to the Advaita Vedanta, the Atman is the universal life-principle that is separated from the Brahman by “nothingness” (i.e. the thought process), while the ego and the material world are separated by the “Maya” or illusion (sometimes referred to as the “lack of knowledge”) that is typical for the world at large. The goal of mankind is to restore the original connections between these pairs of opposites, thus essentially (re)creating an interconnected world in which Atman and Brahman become one and the individual obtains liberation, or “Moksha”, through unity with the “One Supreme Self” – in effect becoming part of the ultimate network.

Echoing the ontology of the Upanishads and their appealingly formal logic, Pythagoras of Samos ( c. 500 BC) defined the “self” as a numerical ratio. It seems almost too much of a coincidence that the great Greek philosopher and mathematician would base his “Mystery School” on the logic of numbers, and that at roughly the same time the Upanishads were first setting down their own theories in writing.

In his “tetractys“ a mystical triangular figure of four rows adds up to the perfect number, ten. The number one (also called the “Monad”) has a special relevance since it represents the first being, or the totality of all beings which is indivisible. The number two (the “Dyad”) represents the principle of „twoness“ or „otherness“, an essential precondition for the creation (or better: incarnation) of man and the universe. Three, the “Triad”, is the noblest of all numbers as it is the only number whose sum with those below equals the product of them and itself, thus representing awareness of the world around us. This is represented by the number four, the “Tetrad” – the number associated with the four seasons, the four elements, the planetary motions and thus with the Cosmos itself. Together, these mystical numbers lead from singularity to a plurality characterized by numeric ratios – recognition that, two millennia later, led the German poet-philosopher Heinrich von Kleist to ask in his play “Amphitrion”: “Me? Which me?“

Like the Upanishad philosophers and Pythagoras of Samos, we too today face a new phase in the development of mankind, a new epoch that calls for a new way of thinking, this time driven by globalization and communication. The Internet has already altered the way many of us live, learn, work and play, as well as the way we communicate among ourselves, and this is just the beginning!

And as if that isn’t enough, the “digitalization of the world” (or at least of our image of and reflection on the world around us) is fundamentally changing us as individuals, as well, turning us into “others”. In the process, we have been moved from the center of our individual universes to the periphery of a global network, thus forcing us to change our perspective just as described in the Tripura Rahasya. Our view of ourselves and even more our view of others is becoming radically different: Instead of as single being separated and insulated from others we are becoming “one of many”, elements of fractals that exhibit a repeating pattern displayed at every scale. Ever since the rise of mass media and mass production, humans no longer exist as complete individuals but instead can be seen as parts of a whole. “We are many”, as the Viennese artist Egon Schiele once said; not just the many out there in the world and in our virtual networks, but multiples within ourselves, constantly being filled from within and without with the knowledge of the world.

What once seemed like different aspects on one personality (at least we could image ourselves that way) today form in the eyes and ears of the digital “others” simply different aspects of independent digital identities. These can take on an autonomous existence in the Net or at least appear relatively independent from their originators, and this despite the fact that they are dependent on (and determined by) an hitherto unheard of degree of interconnection.

It is interesting to speculate whether the angry debates about infringed copyright and stolen intellectual property in the digital age are due to bruised egos on the part of authors miffed by this disconnect between originators and, in this case, readers. Whatever the case may be, the growing technical interconnectedness and interdependence just serves to demonstrate clearly that we have always been, in our own eyes, the “many”.

The more we become part of the network, the more we replicate ourselves. And in the process we discover new, additional “networks”; an “inner” neural network, and “external“ networks on the atomic and molecular level, as well as technical networks, just to name a few.

This is hardly a coincidence. The success and dynamic growth of the Internet can be traced to the fact that we are finally realizing that our inner selves correspond directly to the world at large, a fact that we often intuitively felt but never could experience. And that is actually a rather comforting and cozy notion.

But what has really happened? And more to the point: What has happened to us on this round trip from the early development of human thought processes to their externalization, the „Technicum“ described by former WIRED editor Kevin Kelley in his book “What Technology Wants”, and back again? A kind of mental triple jump through the history of media may suffice to illustrate what this means, taking us from Gutenberg’s “invention” of the printing press through the “electrification” of Media (and other communications technologies) we finally reach their digitalization.

In their pre-technical form, media simply acted as the intermediary between otherwise unconnected worlds and unreachable spheres. Marshall McLuhan may have coined the phrase “magical channel”, but that is what media always were; a way to connect with the gods, the ancestors and the natural spirits. This opened up a semantic space in which shamans and spiritualists, hypnotists and psychedelics could ply their trade, even after Freud and his followers began to challenge them with psychoanalytical explanations.

Of the many spheres once occupied by media, only the technical remain today, and in fact with the coming of “mass” media nothing else is conceivable. McLuhan argued that mass media, in order to be understood by the masses, must be abstractions of spheres they deal with and therefore are robbed of all their magic.

Until, that is, the Internet came along and together with other digital media gave new life to the idea of intermediation within the context of a global network. This leads incidentally to a democratization of the role of the intermediary which once was reserved for specialists and “professionals” and now has become a shared experience in the new perceived reality of “many to many” communication. We must thank Tim Berners-Lee for pointing this out to us, showing us that the Web is (in an abstract sense) simply an image of the human thought process.


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