The White Geek’s Burden


“Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth…Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

-Julian Assange, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ 


Bodhisattva, the iPhone and You

Recently, I was able to attend a mediation class at Spirit Rock, a famed spiritual center that teaches Buddhist mediation, mindfulness lifestyle practices, and hosts high-end spiritual retreats. During the Dharma talk, our guide mentioned the ‘points of intervention’ along the cycle of ‘dependent-arising’, or what we might call the cycle of habits (good and bad). The cycle is straightforward enough: we approach life with certain dispositions and behaviors – conscious and unconscious – which, over time, manifest into habits by being repeated over and over again, birthing new cycles of habit along the way. The cycle is unavoidable, but how we react can change the cycle from one of dependance to one of spiritual liberation. Pain is part of life, but suffering is an option: this theory of mindfulness is profound, yet simple in its resonance. Breaking the dependency cycle is a choice, and requires one to be mindful of its existence in order to change its course.

As Newton’s famous third law of motion goes, ‘every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This is true in the physical world as well as the spiritual, emotional and metaphysical worlds. Life happens, and we react to it. This law explains a lot about our internet worlds, the spaces where our identities are symbolically attached to physical forms, even if through a few letters strung together with an icon – what we call avatars. Newton’s law occurs constantly, in the ether and in ‘the cloud’. An echo-chamber-like reaction is created, birthed, and destroyed alongside every article, TV episode, tweet, text or post that is released into the world. Our mediated lives are constantly bombarded by images, texts, sounds and energy particles that are generated by these reactions: comments fuel diatribes, anger begets violence, speculation creates fear, fear shapes ideology, and so on. Wherein lies the discourse? Wherein lie the pauses, the time for reflection, meditation, and questioning? The dependency cycle of our internet age is self-perpetuating, and appears to be accelerating at an unsustainable rate. Where’s the stopping point? And more important, to what end does it benefit having rapid-fire access to information, even the most tedious and uninteresting kind? Are we pushing ourselves towards a greater purpose, or seeking to touch the darkest, most visceral parts of the human experience? Which reaction are we really aiming for, and which parts of the spectacle really matter?

Our brains are often referred to as ‘supercomputers’. We need to ‘download’ the data off our brains in order to rest our hard drive, and reboot our systems. See how easy that was to comprehend? Science likes analogies, and the public needs them in order to understand our complex and complicated world. And yet, in the endless quest to ‘optimize’ our lives and progress to a better future, we are left with a shell: the calcified outer layer of society, protecting, guarding and safekeeping our cultural mores in a solid structure resembling the simplest forms of nature. What about what lives underneath this layer? What about mindfulness, of truly understanding the impermanence of our human existence? The bodhisattva, or enlightened being, is not treated as sacred; it pales in comparison to the relationships we have with our iPhones, popular culture, and societal ideals around family, wealth, and happiness. What we call life equates to the physical and material world, and yet we ignore the spiritual and metaphysical worlds that shape our experience.

Where is the space for mindfulness, when our iPhones serve as physical and emotional extensions of our minds and bodies – a beep, chirp, buzz or swoosh elicits reactions from our brain that we, up until recently, would only associate with a whimper, cry, scream, or nervous laugh. With emerging products like Google Glass, Kinect, or brain-controlled computers, we have leapfrogged toward a new era of man and machine. The bodhisattva isn’t going anywhere, yet our failure to recognize and embrace it may result in us losing way more than we have ever thought possible.

Authority and authorship in a post-Google world

In a previous post I wrote on the difficult ways to establish trust and intimacy in the digital age. In pushing this idea out a bit laterally I have begun to ponder more about the ways that authority and authorship dictate our digital lives.

Think about trust: Google and other technology companies are in the business of making trust. They are “trust making” companies. Authority and authorship are baked into their business model. Don’t be evil is another way of saying trust us. You are viewing the physical representation of this ideology right on their search results page. The blue links are just colorized trust icons. Each link leads to a source that has authorship embedded into its very existence. Do we fail to recognize how humans are behind these texts? Sure, algorithms whip up something great and serve it on a facile platter for easy consumption, but a human being is tied to each and every bit and byte. To ignore that or to claim that the Internet is somehow neutral or neutered is naive. Their authority, and the authorship guiding each and every move on the internet, is precisely the source, fuel and engine of their power.

Corporations are commodifying trust, and this is not new – every brand is a logo-fied version of a monetized public good. Might as well take a branding iron to the forests, since that’s basically what every paper company has done. This signifies a new owner/author of the public domain. They stamp, brand and own what is effectively no one’s and everyone’s. They restrict and legitimize space and time. They create patents, aka the system of ‘search and destroy’ that targets anyone who trespasses on their sacred domain. Commodities are signifiers of a largely unnamed world, and yet those in control want to make the world into another material object. And as ‘consumers’, we have willingly bought into this myth, since we too, want a piece of the author pie. It’s ours to share, have and hold. A beautiful marriage of consumerism and empowerment.

Commodification, authority and authorship are one side of the coin; democracy is the other. We continue to view the world in this binary frame where everything post 21st century is ours/theirs, and yet the public space is still no one’s. How can we live in this mediated space where the two are incompatible? This myth will only continue to be perpetuated unless we have a larger discussion on what it truly means to be a democratic society. I’m hopeful that there are others out there who feel the same.

Our Web 2.0 Legacy

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas. Photo courtesy of my iPhone

Last year I took a trip to Peru, a visit sponsored by the volunteer organization I was working for. In addition to seeing our sites in Cusco and Urubamba, I had a full day to explore Machu Picchu. It was like everything I’ve read or seen, and more: the wonder and beauty of the lost city of the Incas – ineffable, pure, silent – was breathtaking.  It had a ‘Disney attraction’ feel as well, unsurprisingly: I arrived at 8:30 AM on a Wednesday to an entrance chock full of tourists and hikers. Student-led archaeological excavations were peppered throughout the site, alongside whispered rumors of its imminent closing due to erosion from constant foot traffic. Machu Picchu was transcendental and cliched all at once; I had seen the famed entrance so frequently in pictures that viewing it in real-life was somewhat anticlimactic. But seeing its entirety made for a wonderful, memorable experience.

I left thinking, how did 500 years go by without any knowledge of its existence?

Which brings me to this post about our legacy in the digital world. If stunning feats of stone and carvings can be hidden and preserved for half a millennium, what does that say about our digital artefacts?  What is our legacy, if it’s housed entirely within servers, algorithms, code and hard drives? Will HTML in the Web 2.0 world be what hieroglyphs were to ancient Egypt?

If millions of years of life, death and evolution can create what we know as Earth’s greatest natural resources, the blood of the earth – carbon-based gas, coal, oil – what will the data server swamps hold for life beyond the 21st century? We cannot grow or harvest life’s organisms from data housed in black sheaths of metal and plastic. How will the terabytes full of digital content compare to the physical wonders of the world – Machu Picchu, Atlantis, the Acropolis? Whose legacy are we creating, and does it matter?

Imagine if there existed a Roomba-like bottomfeeder for the Internet’s lower depths – its main task was finding and consuming the dead and rotting Web 2.0 artefacts: abandoned blogs, disposed Twitter handles, soured April fool’s jokes and decayed user profiles laying on the server’s dank floor, accumulating into hardened plaque-like layers of data sediment, adding to the polluted ecosystem every minute. At present, we view discarded data as harmless, inconsequential or irrelevant: a bi-product of what marketers taut as “our right” to produce and consume as much as we please. This ideology – that we as humans have the right to gluttonously gobble up all the data we want, blind to the consequences – is as insidious as the claim that we have ownership rights over the Earth, its natural resources and its inhabitants.

I wonder what our legacy holds if it is no longer physical, preserved or intact as in eras past: the diaries of authors, the film reels of cineastes, and the stone carvings of felled empires. When we are told that life has never been more accessible, transparent or discoverable, what lies beneath the search engine’s trough? What about that which will never be discovered?

The internet’s “either/or” complex

The internet, in its wild, macabre- and kitten-filled, twisted house of mirrors existence, is not as inclusive, or as some say “cozy“, as we believe it to be. At least that’s not how I see it nowadays. Relative to power, control and democracy, the internet has its own version of “have’s and have-not’s”: users are ping-pong’ed and bounced around from one site to the next, gated by ISPs, IPs, Google, Facebook, and other providers attempting to control and direct traffic within its slippery contours. To use a simpler analogy, the internet continues to exhibit symptoms of the “walled garden” problem – or what I call the “either/or complex“.

What is the “either/or complex“? It sounds fancy, but it’s something you’ve probably encountered if you frequent the internet often enough. Go ahead, picture yourself getting really excited about the Next Big Thing of the Internet. You arrive at its home page, only to be confronted by a smattering of messages, perhaps one or all of the ones below:

Sign up with your Facebook account!
Enter your first and last name.
Accept our revised Terms and Conditions.
Download the latest OS to use this app.

Don’t want to do that? Oh wait there buddy – you can’t go any further. The gates have closed – sorry! You are prohibited from using the Next Big Thing of the Internet. The alternative is… nothing. You have no other option. Those are the rules of the game.

There, now you’ve just experienced the “either/or” complex: either you’re in or or you’re out. Not surprisingly, this attitude is common practice in both old and new internet players, whether you’re a bank or a social network, and it’s changing our notions of participation and belonging.

This ideology plays on our perceptions of what constitutes socially acceptable, normal online behavior. Of course you must use your own name to sign up! You missed the Next Big Thing because you didn’t want to send over your credentials for a new iPhone app? How lame – I’m already gaining followers! Here in the West, where profile information data are freely given in return for delivered goods and services, this either/or binary is baked in – hell, that’s Facebook’s mission, “to make the world more open and connected” – but, why? This isn’t a zero-sum game, yet we’re being trained and coaxed into believing that it is, under the guise of choice, freedom and market capitalism (hey, if you don’t like how this company does business, go somewhere else!). I sometimes feel that this warped social contract has to do with our system of meritocracy. Sign up to play – at your own risk.*  If you do well, it’s because you worked hard, were really lucky, or are a social media guru. If you fail or get scammed, you should have known better, you idiot!

The web is complex, an ecosystem of flickering lights across an overlapping utility grid, yet the operators flip the ol’ on/off switch, effectively shutting off access for whole swaths of people (or should I say, non-consumers). News flash – unique visitors are people, metrics have eyes and ears behind them, and we cannot be discarded so flippantly. Data points aren’t incidental, they are real, flesh and blood, multicellular beings and we ought to have a say in how and why we participate. The internet is not a hammer, and we are not nails. This either/or complex needs to be shattered in order for us to not get swept up into a roiling system worthy of Orwellian proportions.

*Disclaimer: Next Big Website-App-Thing is not responsible for any loss of personal dignity or belongings while on this site, nor do we prevent trolls, spammers, marketers, ad resellers, 3rd party vendors, Catfishers or the like from mining your personal details for maximum gain. Your privacy is important to us, which is why you’re seeing this message, duh!