When I was five years old, in the summer of 1987, I decided to build a computer. Rocks seemed the most promising components, and I would gather armfuls each afternoon and haul them to the back porch where I would pile and organize and install. The power button never sparked the thing to life, exactly, but I felt a visceral thrill of possibility with each new installation of stone. It wasn't technology itself that held me rapt that summer, I realize now, but rather what I sensed was its penchant for connection, for reaching beyond the little fiefdom of my backyard to other hearts and minds. I grew up steeped in eastern mysticism, went on several trips with my parents to an ashram in India, and resonated deeply with the sentiment, "we are all one." On those solitary afternoons, I worked intuitively toward oneness through a rock pile on my back porch.
Technology marched forward. I gave up rocks for a desktop computer, internet access, a pager, a cell phone. In high school my drive for connection led to journalism, which led eventually to a feature writing gig at the Los Angeles Times covering new media, technology and culture. Reading through my stories, I see that many of them spiral toward spiritual themes almost of their own volition.
Technology or new media users and experts, when I asked them where all this is headed, often expressed religious-sounding visions of Buddhist-style interconnection -- or, in stark contrast, of loneliness and alienation. It began to seem apparent that our relationship to communications technology is saturated with religious feeling. And that our technological trajectory and momentum is all bound up with spiritual and religious trends and shifts.
The LA Times hit its peak just before I arrived in 2004, winning numerous Pulitzers and poaching staffers from the New York Times -- and then it began to flail along with the rest of the print industry. Circulation declines, ad revenue drops, and never-ending layoffs have left veteran newspapermen and women mourning the death of their craft. On the flipside looms the stratospheric climb of new media, perhaps most notably The Huffington Post. Huffpost and other online venues are still finagling their economic models, but the scent of the future is upon them.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the internet is killing newspapers. Perhaps so. But the internet is not a beast with an agenda of its own. Technology emerges from us. It stretches out before us, always reaching to achieve more than our immediate practical aims. Technology is rarely a finished project -- each new gadget or platform simply points toward the next. It bounds off into the future following the architecture of our innermost dreams. Might it be that our thirst for faster and more ubiquitous communication (snail mail, telegraph, telephone, email, text message, Facebook) strains toward some kind of mystical union?
New media is not simply old media transported online; there is an entirely different character to the experience of these worlds, both for purveyors and consumers. As a reporter for the Times, my articles went out to hundreds of thousands of people -- and yet those readers were mostly faceless and voiceless strangers, on whose behalf I felt the individual authority to gather "the facts" and discern "the truth." While most journalists these days hedge about "facts" and "truth," and admit that perspective always plays a role, the ideal of reportorial objectivity remains part of our inky DNA. This stance is aligned with rationalism and modern science, the horses to which traditional journalism long ago hitched its chariot. Traditional journalism's blunt certitude and vision of truth regardless of context harkens back to the sense of cultural and religious consensus of 1950s America.
Writing this blog post is another experience entirely. My ideas, my truth claims, are instantaneously up for grabs, awash in the democratic sea of your criticism, your praise, your collective revision (as a look below at the comments section attests). Typing these words, I no longer feel like a scientist proselytizing black-and-white truth from my laboratory or a minister from the pulpit, but rather, like a seeker engaging in a conversation with seekers. If traditional journalism reflects the consensus vibe of the 1950s, then new media reflects the spiritual effervescence and tumult of the 60s and 70s.
There is more to this lineage than the valuing of diversity and debate. That's certainly part of it -- new media gives each of us a megaphone, and the resulting cacophony is both fascinating and deafening. But we are all shouting together, honing the same tools, full-heartedly engaged in the same techno-psycho-social-spiritual transformation. This sense of unity beneath the hubbub of debate resonates with the mystical rejection of particular religious belonging (Hinduism is true, Christianity is false) in favor of lived truth without dogmatic religious affiliation. Such a message has been part of numerous religious movements throughout American history, but it gained big momentum with the influx in the U.S. of eastern spiritualities in the 60s and 70s and beyond. In other words, in the very same decades that gestated the personal computer and internet revolution.
Meher Baba, an Indian guru with an international following, put it this way: "There is no difference in the realization of the Truth either by a Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or a Christian. The difference is only in words and terms. Truth is not the monopoly of a particular race or religion." This theme has diffused broadly into American culture, contributing for instance to the rapidly growing "spiritual but not religious" demographic (more than 30 percent of the U.S. population).
Now it seems that widespread embracing of these values, and their expression in the "spirit" of technology, has impacted journalism in a major way. It has contributed to undercutting the top-down authority of the conventional press, and helped to shape new media as an alternative vision. It is due in no small part to spiritual and religious influence that journalists across the nation are tumbling from the relative safety of newsrooms into unprotected wilds such as Huffpost.
When talk among my journalist friends turns to the failing print industry, something more than layoff anxiety fills the room. There is the helpless disappointment of failed prophesy. The God of the presses has fallen asleep. How will democracy function without the Fourth Estate?
But I'll admit it, here. Sometimes I feel like that little kid again, typing away at a rock pile on the back porch. And the feeling of possibility makes my heart leap.