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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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The other theme that came out of the film The Social Network was this: Facebook is not just an inevitable consequence of new technology; it’s a result of someone coming up with a really big and really simple idea that no-one had thought of before.

The technology was already there: the internet, the web, a few algorithms that had been used in other situations before. (What are these ‘algorithms’? They always pop up in stories about geeks taking over the world.) All it took was someone like Mark Zuckerberg to think of something new and wonderful to create with these tools.

As is so often the case, it was the cross-fertilization between two worlds that allowed the hybrid idea to emerge – or at least that’s how it was presented. When you combine the exclusivity and shared intimacy of a college ‘frat’ (a social club), with the real-time communication and computational power of the internet – you get Facebook.

The power of a Really Big Idea. This is why Dragons’ Den is such good TV. It’s not the money; it’s whether an ordinary person can convince a team of savvy investors that they really do have the germ of a decent idea.

Ever since watching the film on Friday evening, I’ve been trying to create a Zuckerberg moment for myself, to come up with that Big Idea that’s going to change the world. It hasn’t happened yet. But you will be the first to hear about it when it comes! (Unless I need to talk to my investors first…)

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I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

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Everyone thinks they are too busy. Most people admit that communications technologies and the internet have increased the pressures on them to perform and respond and race ahead. Not many people have any suggestions about how to find spiritual peace or mindfulness in this wired world.

David Gelles writes about the recent “Wisdom 2.0 Summit”, which tried to bridge the gap between our hunger for enlightenment and the frenetic reality of our working lives:

This was the first Wisdom 2.0 summit, which convened a few hundred spiritually minded technologists – everyone from Buddhist nuns to yogic computer scientists – for two days of panels and presentations on consciousness and computers. The goal: to share tips on how to stay sane amid the tweets, blips, drops and pings of modern life. The temple: the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a stone’s throw from the Googleplex. Attendees took in panels on “Living Consciously and Effectively in a Connected World” and “Awareness and Wisdom in the Age of Technology”.

“The problem with the kind of jobs we have is that there is no knob to dial down,” said Gopi Kallayil, an Indian-born marketing manager for Google who studied yoga at an ashram when he was younger. He spoke for many of the participants who professed a deep frustration with their inability to find serenity in an increasingly wired modern world. “If you get on the bandwagon you have to operate at a certain pace or not all.”

Mr Kallayil and others discussed how to squeeze a bit of quietude into the day. Suggestions included meditating before meetings.

Yet a nagging duality overshadowed every conversation. It seemed that almost everyone believed that our constant web surfing, no matter how noble its intent, is not conducive to the spiritual life. “As much as we’re connected, it seems like we’re very disconnected,” said Soren Gordhamer, the conference organiser. “These technologies are awesome, but what does it mean to use them consciously?”

Greg Pass, Twitter’s technology officer, teaches Tai Chi in the company’s office, and exhorts incoming employees to ‘pay attention’ and live in the present moment. Leah Pearlman took a 6-month sabbatical from her Facebook job and now composes all her Friday emails in haiku form:

Ms Pearlman was an example of someone who has successfully integrated a bit of wisdom into work. But a more fundamental question lingered: if spiritual success is more important than worldly gains, why toil away in offices at all? “When the time comes and we’re on our deathbed and we’re saying goodbye to our body and bank account and Facebook account and Twitter account, what’s really going to matter?” asked Mr Gordhamer. If there is an answer, it probably will not be found through a Google search.

And despite technology’s distractions, there was no sense that the crowd was set to abandon Facebook or Twitter. Even those devoted to the spiritual path were committed to keeping their status updated. “I’m extremely grateful for the world of the computer,” said Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist nun. “When I was introduced to the computer, I thought I had gone to heaven.”

Our answer here in the seminary is to have 45 minutes in the chapel each morning – of silence, personal meditation, and communal prayer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all able to maintain our inner peace throughout the next  sixteen hours, but it certainly helps.

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I still hardly use Facebook. If I remember, I copy these posts onto my homepage. And if someone sends me a message, I try to reply. But being ‘the wrong side of 40’ most of my middle-aged friends still prefer email to social networking.

Nokia e61 smartphone by Ziębol.I used to console myself with the idea that Facebook is the past, and something new will soon step over the digital horizon. It seems I was wrong, and Facebook is actually the face of the future.

It’s not just that Facebook growth is still exponential (I don’t just mean large, I mean exponential: it’s rate of growth is going up; the number of active users doubled from 200 million last summer to this month’s 400 million). It’s that our personal identity, and our commercial identity, is becoming defined not by what we consume (shopping), or watch (TV), or search for (Google), but by what we connect with in real-time.

This is why mobile Facebook and all the new smartphone applications will shape the evolution of culture and human consciousness over the next decade. Blogging, by the way, is almost prehistoric by now.

David Rowan explains the background:

What we are witnessing is the ultimate battle for control of the internet. Google, employing the world’s smartest software engineers, has dominated the desktop-internet era for a decade through its unbeatable algorithm-based computing power. But now we’re into the mobile-internet era, Facebook intends to dominate by knowing what we are thinking, doing and intending to spend — wherever we happen to be. As Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg sees it, this “social graph”, built around our friends, family and colleagues, will determine how hundreds of millions of us decide on everything from holidays to cosmetic surgeons. And with Facebook the proprietary gatekeeper — its mobile-phone applications already attracting extraordinary engagement from members — that’s a potential advertiser proposition that Google can only dream of.

It’s not that Mr Zuckerberg is still only 25 and naively arrogant that annoys Google, nor that his company has enticed swaths of senior Google talent. It’s that Facebook’s fast-growing dominance of the “social” internet threatens its rival’s entire business model. If it can sell advertisers access not just to what you’re thinking, but to where you are, who you’re with and what you plan to do, Facebook’s revenues from individually targeted “behavioural” advertising could increase exponentially. And it knows it.

“Google is not representative of the future of technology in any way,” a Facebook veteran boasted to Wired recently. “Facebook is an advanced communications network enabling myriad communication forms. It almost doesn’t make sense to compare them.”

Mr Zuckerberg’s human-powered view of the internet also taps into our yearning, as social creatures, to climb Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to attain self-actualisation: of the 400 million active Facebook users (up from 200 million last summer), half log on in any given day; they share five billion pieces of content a week and upload more than three billion photos each month. On average, they spend more than 55 minutes a day on Facebook. Those who access it via their mobile devices are “twice as active”. Now do you see why the search gurus in Google’s Mountain View headquarters are so anxious?

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