The Digital Space of Phenomena

We live in digital times. Our universe is suffused with digital devices, digital communications, and global ideologies constructed from and around digital structures – physical, virtual, and intellectual. We can’t help but be permeated by this digital space in all its forms and formats, from the finest dust particles in our pockets clogging our smartphone’s power jacks to the vast and all-encompassing data clouds containing our memories, plans and projects, and current locations. Some say this pervasive presence of the digital takes us away from our true potential as human beings, destroying our jobs, scattering our attention, confusing our minds; some say it can help us to get closer to what we can be, freeing up creativity, fostering compassion, and opening our minds towards a true understanding of interdependence[1].

This is a piece about how our digital universe does one and the other – and both, and neither. For simplicity, I’m writing about four aspects only – there could be billions and billions more. The four aspects are permanence, emotional involvement, reality, and extremism[2]:

  1. On the one hand, the digital space makes our lives a lot more permanent than they used to be: Halloween kindergarten pictures posted by well-meaning parents will still be around when the pictured kids are grown up and now longer proud of having been a walking pumpkin; hot-blooded love affairs will still shine through in Email trails, Facebook memories, WhatsApp contacts, or Instagram stories when the lovers involved have long cooled towards each other’s attractions;  hypotheses staunchly defended will still make themselves heard on websites, discussion fora, and blogs’ comments’ sections when their promoters have changed their minds and joined others parties. At the same time, the very same digital space constantly reminds us of the impermanence of everything: Cherished photographs get lost in transmission between operating systems or hard disks; brilliant sentences get swallowed by hiccups of writing software and battery failure; deep insights disappear into the bottomless well of infinite emptiness as critcial system updates intervene and cut through all pre-fabritcated concepts.
  2. On the one hand, the digital space exposes us to a lot more emotional upheaval than we used to be subject to: Individual social media posts drag us into half-known strangers’ stories of love, loss, and languor as we publicly feast on our romances, mourn our dying, and struggle with procrastination, nitty-gritty decision-making, or outright depression; collective shit-storms, hypes, and post-modern myths make us drown in hysterical battle cries of aggression, excitement, and ignorance, invading our heads, hearts, and home screens; pervasive ideologies of happiness, doom, or unsurpassable truthfulness clutter our timelines and thoughts, creating a cacophony of belief systems so utterly incompatible with each other that doubt, anger, or resignation flare up at each item of breaking news hitting the headlines. At the same time, the very same digital space constantly reminds us of the poignant pointlessness of those very emotions: No celebrity marriage not followed by a messy, excruciating, and mutually aggressive divorce; no shit-storm without the offenders all too soon being found as guilty as their victims of some other (or the very same) slip-up; no crusade without some of their most prominent prophets jumping ship to vigorously swim against the tide into the very same waters they denounced as muddy before, crossing over to shores they once swore could never be reached.
  3. On the one hand, the digital space presents us with a lot more reality than we used to be able to chew: Bloody pictures being live-streamed from scenes of war, terror, or accident; intimate pictures being snapped from hideouts of longing, leisure, and lust; voice messages from across the globe hitting our inbox in the smallest hours of our morning; webcasts being transmitted from Himalayan hills right into the hearts of Hamburg, Hong Kong, Honolulu, or Houston (Texas); charitable causes from faraway places raising money from caring citizens of foreign countries who don’t even know how to spell Lumbini, Saut-d’Eau, or Pura Luhur Uluwatu; inspired seekers following otherworldly gurus treading on paths that couldn’t have been traced on old-fashioned fold-out maps or spinning 20th century globes. At the same time, the very same digital space constantly reminds us of the distortion of all that appears: No picture posted without a filter, emoji, or bitmoji added; no status typed without being translated into warbled lines of foreign languages, making no sense to noone; no journey embarked on without the GPS frantically jumping around, confusing all four directions, and sending us straight into water, thin air, or unchartered voids.
  4. One the one hand, the digital space lures us into more extreme views than we ever encountered in a carbon-based cosmos: We’ve become bootlicking minions of brand new glittery iOS devices and the best ever revolutionary iOS updates of all times; we’ve turned into co-dependent suckers of status feeds and little red circles signalling new pieces of chatter; we fall for Nigerian millionaires accidentally stumbling upon our generosity, surrender to fitness trackers telling us how many steps to walk, patiently wait for fake online lovers who make up excuses after excuses why they can’t come to see us, diligently share countless pieces of personal information in endless online forms to register for obscure sites we’ll never visit again, mull away hours and hours clicking through pictures of cute furry animals, unbelievable human feats, or meaningless gossip about people we don’t even know, we finally proclaim the futility of it all – and still stay entangled. At the same time, the very same digital space constantly reminds us of the meaninglessness of all views: No picture that’s not ultimately made of senseless patterns of 1s and 0s; no energy that’s not fundamentally driven by random currents between plus and minus; no source that’s not primordially interconnected with all other sources, dissolving all distinctions between sinks and sources.

The digital space, or so it seems, throws us right into the most tumultuous suffering imaginable, the suffering of believing in permanence, getting caught up in emotions, clinging to reality, and holding extreme views – while, at the same time, continuously offering opportunities to stop, pause, and look at all this from a different perspective where impermanence rules, emotions hurt, reality crumbles, and no view remains. Or, if this sounds too unappealing: Where everything can always change into everything, where all energies flow effortlessly and unhindered, where phenomena appear as rainbows, unicorns, and as rare species of Pokémon, and where all is possible, because nothing is ever rigged.

What perspective we choose to take, is up to us.

[1] I’ve written about some dimensions of digital before, for example about the beauty of the web, about the need to acknowledge absence in digital communications, or about becoming a person in the digital space – have fun re-reading [all retrieved Oct 28th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] My friends with some Buddhist education will immediately recognise that these four are a variation on what is commonly called “Four Seals of Dharma”. For those not familiar with Buddhist concepts, you can find further information and reading here [retrieved Oct 28th, 2016] . BACK TO TEXT

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