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From the material to the immaterial to the ineffable
In setting out to explore the relationship between the city and the Internet in preparation for my course at the University of Fribourg, I imagined I was going to discover traces of the impact of the virtual world on the physical world. As if the virtual could leave a writing on the wall "The Internet was here". I might possibly have come across immaterial signs of that impact on the organisation of the physical world except that I began my exploration with the writings of Pierre Lévy. He pointed to four attitudes people adopt in relating the physical and the virtual world: analogies, substitution, assimilation and articulation (See Cyberculture by Pierre Lévy. For other books by Pierre see the Bibliogaphy of the Connected World). As I re-read what he wrote, I began to wonder if I hadn't set off down the wrong track in wanting to unearth the signature of the virtual on the physical world as represented by the city. Perhaps the relationship could not be constructively understood in terms of the impact of one on the other. Maybe the importance lay elsewhere. Lévy seemed to think so as he set shared knowledge at the heart of his understanding of the relationship between the two. According to him, the future lies in a new-found social bond based on the development and the sharing of collective intelligence. It is this bond that will help (re-)knit society together and make sense of relationships within the local community. As a result, from Lévy's perspective, the relationship between the city and the virtual space is much more a question of the functional and political organisation than the physical infrastructure.
Collective intelligence is the corner stone of Lévy's utopia. Note that I use the word "utopia" not to signify the unattainable with all its negative connotations, but rather that towards which we aspire as a highly positive and desirable outcome. By collective intelligence, Lévy refers to the mobilisation of competencies with the help of technology so as to enable the development and exchange of knowledge within the local community as well as the empowerment of its members in handling the daily aspects of their community.
In stressing what he sees as fundamental spatial, organisational and political differences between the physical and the virtual, Lévy argues in favour of a better articulation between the two rather than a substitution of one by the other. Amongst other things, he suggests using technologies to compensate for the inherent inertia and rigidity of physical territories so as to be able to formulate and resolve the problems of the city by those who live there.
There are many positive aspects to his perspective of the city that shifts the emphasis from the purely material and technical to the relationship and the process of developing shared knowledge. On the one hand, this perspective reflects a profound change under way in society as we pay more attention to the path rather than the goal. This doesn't mean that goals are not important, but just that the process is as important if not more so. The perspective also has the merit of introducing other values than those based on profit. These values favour the improvement of both the individual and the community in ways that are more complete than the purely material idea of prosperity. In his vision, learning is not just a strategy to secure a job or to earn more money, but also a way of holding the community together and enriching relationships. In parenthesis, if education systems were to adopt such an approch to knowledge, school might well be a totally different experience.
I feel a great affinity with the ideas and ideals expressed by Pierre, but what leaves me unsatisfied in his approach is that it stops short of an all-embracing understanding of community life by refusing the transcendent. In trying to explain this point to my students, I used an image drawn from the film "The Life of Truman". My apologies for using such a prosaic image to illustrate the appearance of the ineffable in life. Living in a world created specially for him as the unwitting star of a long-running television programme, out of which he can't escape, Truman stumbles across clues that the limits of the world as he has always known it may not be all they seem. Although I don't claim to be in such a picturesque even grotesque a situation, I frequently stumble over tangible clues that there is more than a purely material world. Lévy's utopian world vision goes beyond the material in an attempt to draw up a blueprint for a better society, but it shies away from the spiritual.
Over the threshold into spirituality
I'd like to take the risk of stepping over that threshold so as to evoke the spiritual. In doing so, I have to say that I have been inspired by re-reading James Redfield's "The Secrets of Shambhala" which for me personally is the most significant of the three books about the Celestine Prophecy (for a list of Redfield's writings see the Spiritual Bibliography). To go forward, I propose to use a parallel with Pierre Levy's approach in moving from the material to the immaterial (shared knowledge) and the associated relationship with technology. I am aware that this might well not be the shortest path to where I want to go, but such has been my starting point here.
Having material wealth is seen as being rich and is associated with well-being. In a way, Lévy is saying that such wealth is not all, and that developing knowledge is also a wealth that can greatly enhance our well-being in ways that material possessions cannot. He goes even further in suggesting that society is moving towards a state in which knowledge will (or maybe already has) surpass material possession as a source of richness. He postulates raising our knowledge and sharing it with others as a process that is not only enriching but also essential to life together in society.
Developing and sharing spiritual energy
Taking one huge step further forward, I posit that raising our "spiritual energy" and sharing it with others can be an even more embracing source of richness that neither possessions nor knowledge alone can attain. But let me back-track and try to explain what I mean by "spiritual energy". Do you ever go outside at night and look up at the myriad of stars in the sky to be filled with a profound awe that somehow transports you elsewhere? Do you ever look at Spring flowers, and feel their vivid colours so strongly in your stomach that they could bowl you over. Do you ever hear the breaking dawn-chorus of stirring birds as they chase the night away and an awakening joy takes flight inside you? Do you ever look at people's faces and see them light up with a deep-seated beauty shining out at you from behind the mask you took to be their face? Do you ever listen to music such that its heart-felt vibrations set off ripples inside you that grow rapidly into profound waves that rise up and overflow all around you? All of that is what I mean when I talk of "spiritual energy". That energy seems to flow into us as we come in contact with something that is profoundly touching. I say "flow into us" but in reality it is always within us only we've forgotten it is there until something or someone jolts our memory.
Those may seem like fleeting moments of up-lifting beauty, freshness and clarity, yet they can be prolonged and in so doing, we become more aware of the way forward and the long-forgotten reasons why we are here. That energy awakens us from our sleep and frees us to understand the messages that the world around us is constantly addressing us with. We can also use this energy, by sharing it with freely others, to raise their energy so that, should they wish to, they can also better understand where they are and what they are about (see my article "Prayer - Going beyond Emotional Intelligence"). It is in the light of that energy, that life starts to make sense in a way that doubting science still has great difficulties in grasping.
So what about technology?
So what about technology, you'll be asking me. Just like Lévy who concludes that technology should serve the shared development of knowledge, being what he sees as the height of human activities, so I pursue by suggesting that technology should be harnessed to the enhancement of our spiritual energy as the utmost of human activity. Whatever that technology will be, I cannot say. Current technology is hailed as a tool that interconnects us, which, on one level, it quite obviously does. We should not however let that apparent interconnectedness mislead us or lull us back to sleep. The fundamental connectedness that all of us secretely yearn for is spiritual and not technical. We may be fascinated by the possibility to connect with different people around the world over the Internet, but there is no comparaison between that fascination and the deep-felt awe and beatitude that comes with the flow of spiritual energy. The power of knowledge is indeed great, but with it alone we cannot accomplish our mission here in the world.
What's more, just as there is a great temptation to use technology to control knowledge so as to gain power, so there will be a temptation to use technology to control and channel spiritual energy for individual power over others and the world around them. But just like Pierre Lévy, who advocates the empowerment of the individual through knowledge, based on an unstated faith in the ability of knowledge to lead the individual to do right, so I suggest that by raising the spiritual energy of the individual and sharing that energy with others, the influx of that energy and the resulting connection with what one might call the divine source, will lead each one of us in a direction that will prove right for us all. As such, we might say that the "knowing" that springs from a renewed connectedness with the divine resulting in the flow of spiritual energy that guides us on our way through life (and death) could best be called "transcendent intelligence".
Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise
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Created: February 2nd, 2002 - Last up-dated: February 2nd, 2002