Friday, June 3, 2011

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

A renowned contemporary meditation from Nicholas Carr at The Atlantic

"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research habits , conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

Also see: Living With a Computer (July 1982) "The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen..." By James Fallows

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.

The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.

When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.

The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts , its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.

More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”

Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.

Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Spiritual Activism Doc Gives Recipe For Real Change

By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on 21 May 2011
Radha Vallabha Das

With his shaved head and saffron robes, Radha-Vallabha Dasa—a brahmachari monk at New York’s Bhaktivedanta Ashram—isn’t your typical activist. But his new documentary film Today We Have The Power may just have the most powerful, and deceptively simple solution to the problems of capitalism and globalization that have bothered so many protesters for decades.

His story starts back when the one-time Christopher Timm was in his last year of college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was developing an avid interest in studying the dark underbelly of capitalism.

“A capitalist economy is based on us being able to cheaply buy the latest new gadgets every couple of years, as many new clothes as we want every season, and plenty of other stuff we don’t need,” he says. “We’re sold the idea that there’s an equal exchange going on—but in order for that system to be sustainable, one group of people are going to be getting the shorter end of the stick.”

That means a dark truth : workers, often children, in China or Bangladesh laboring in a sweatshop under extremely unhealthy conditions to create tennis shoes or cheap clothes for us. Conditions that, despite sometimes providing a slightly better life for the destitute, would still never be condoned by any sane person if they were happening in our own backyard.

And our consumerist culture doesn’t just create systems for the oppression of people. It also destroys the environment.

“Take, for example, facial tissues and toilet paper—two commodities that we use extravagantly in America, and that are actually unnecessary,” Radha-Vallabha says. “People had been using handkerchiefs and cleaning themselves with water for centuries. But now, so that we can very conviently wipe our butts and blow our noses, we’re ravaging forests. Companies go out and clear-cut a forest in South America, where there are none of the environmental protection laws that we have now in the US. Each box of Kleenex or pack of Charmin has a huge, destructive backstory that we never hear about or think about. It’s horrendous. There’s blood on our hands for the lifestyle that we live.”

Some people who made such discoveries might become political activists. Others, like most of us, might be horrified at first, but gradually forget amidst the familiar conveniences of modern life. Christopher Timm did neither. He took the spiritual path, intent on finding the root of the problem.

“I realized that this whole system of exploiting people and resources in other parts of the world was set up to benefit me—the typical white American guy,” he says. “And I was totally miserable. I was living this shallow, middle-class life in Madison, Wisconsin, just hanging out and getting drunk and talking about stuff like the latest episode of the Simpsons. I was a happy little consumer, a cog in the wheel—I was the cause of the problem. And I thought, ‘Man, how do I get out of this?’”

Christopher got out by becoming a Hare Krishna devotee in 1995. He followed a new spiritual path of simplicity, celibacy, devotion to God and cleansing his heart of the selfish desires that stoked the fires of globalization and the capitalist economy. He received the name Radha-Vallabha Dasa from his guru, Radhanath Swami.

And then, in 2001, he co-wrote and co-produced his first documentary film, “The Simple Temple,” about the Radha-Gopinath Mandir in Chowpatty founded by Radhanath Swami. It focused on a different life, a life of selflessness and devotion to God—the answer to the problem.

But what about introducing spiritual activism in a broader way, to those new to the idea? For his next documentary, Radha-Vallabha immediately looked to the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests—widely known as “the Battle in Seattle” that had happened just two years before, in 1999, as a way to explain the problems of globalization and then direct viewers to a spiritual answer.

Since then, life took him in many directions, and the film was a long time coming—it’s expected sometime next year. But today, while there are some changes to the way corporations negotiate trade agreements, the core issues are still as relevant as ever.

“The WTO protests in Seattle were a watershed event where people came to realize on a large scale that there was this whole other side to globalization they had never heard about before,” Radha-Vallabha says.

The World Trade Organization, he explains, holds meetings every couple of years wherein countries come together to negotiate trade agreements—agreements that result in globalization. One of those at stake at the 1999 meetings, for example, was the Global Free Logging agreement, which would have given American corporations access to South American forests.

“Forty thousand people, across a wide spectrum of society, gathered in Seattle to protest this and other environmental, human and animal rights violations that happen as a result of WTO agreements,” says Radha-Vallabha.

Today We Have The Power, Radha-Vallabha’s film, examines these economic and social issues that brought people to Seattle, and tells the story of how their protests turned from a peaceful street theater, singing and dancing-filled “carnival against capitalism” into a violent nightmare of police brutality.

“The story that most people remember is that a peaceful protest was disrupted by a small band of masked anarchists intent on violence and property damage, forcing the police to intervene,” Radha-Vallabha says. “What we know for sure is that for one week in 1999 the sight of Seattle police brutally attacking ordinary American citizens that had come to protest the WTO transfixed the world.”

Today We Have The Power takes a close look at the events of that week, featuring ground-breaking interviews with major players such as the anarchist philosopher behind the property damage, and the Seattle Chief of Police at the time, Norm Stamper.

In fact, according to Stamper, who today regrets his actions, the small band of anarchists were not the impetus for the police violence—rather it was simply a decision to clear the streets of a far larger amount of protestors than had been anticipated.

But it’s the spiritual thread running through all of this that most interests Radha-Vallabha.

“I talked to many people who agreed that everything that happened in Seattle boils down to spiritual issues,” he says. “Mr. Stamper, whom I didn’t even expect to get an interview with, told me, ‘You’re the first person to mention this angle in relation to the Seattle protests,’ and agreed that a lack of spirituality was at the heart of the problem. He said that even being a police chief is fundamentally a spiritual role—a responsibility to protect and care for citizens, to respect and honor life. And he had neglected that responsibility.”

As well as being the cause of the police violence, it was agreed that a lack of spirituality is the cause of the greed and exploitation inherent in the capitalist system and globalization that people were protesting in Seattle.

Activist and author David Korten hits the nail on the head in an interview in Today We Have The Power when he says, “If we want to solve this problem, we have to recognize that capitalism is built on a system of inspiring unlimited material desires and material needs. It instills the idea that happiness means acquiring more and more material things.”

“What we need is a spiritual awakening, where people realize that the way to true happiness is not through material things, but through searching within, and connecting with God,” Radha-Vallabha says. “And as my guru Radhanath Swami says in the film, if we want to change the world, we have to start by changing our own hearts.”

Radha-Vallabha doesn’t address the specific method he discovered for changing his own heart in the film, preferring to leave it up to the individual seeker. He does, however, introduce the idea of a spiritual solution.

“There’s a whole class of Americans out there who are aware of these issues, and are struggling to find answers,” he says. “And I believe this film can help them get closer to some.”

Radha-Vallabha is fundraising for Today We Have The Power himself—a difficult task—but provided he does get the funding he needs, he expects the film to be completed in August. He’ll then submit it to both smaller film festivals interested in human rights, environmental and spiritual issues, and larger events such as Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival, and New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. If it does well at these, it’s likely to get theatrical distribution at independent theaters around the US, some form of television distribution, and will of course also be available on the Internet.

Radha-Vallabha will begin a cutting edge program on religion and ecology at Yale Divinity school this fall, and hopes to continue connecting with the activist community through writing and teaching, thus offering them his unique view.

“A big issue in activism is that a lot of people feel completely overwhelmed,” he says. “It seems impossible for us to change this gargantuan system backed by multinational corporations that are economies within themselves. But my film shows how through the power of personal spiritual transformation, we can change our world, the world within us, today. And by changing our world, we have the power to change the world.”

To find out more about Today We Have The Power, or to contribute urgently needed finances towards the final stages of its production, please click here:

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The Humble Musings Of The Manhattan Monk 5/29/11

We seek the personal blessings of Krsna, in His beauty, His smile, His kindness, and His love. There is no abstraction and no doubt in His personal touch. The embrace of His blessings is the care and core of all of our actual desires, beyond the flickering embers and sparks of the small and fragile joys we stumble upon in this temporary world.

That exchange, which the deep core of our heart longs for
Heart-to-heart, nothing cheap, nothing maudlin
The original dance, falling back into our original rhythm
There is nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

So why must we close our hearts is haste to His embrace?
Why are we so cold? Why are we a wallflower of time immemorial?

We make ourselves open to His personal blessings through our dedication, determination, and joy in the simple, humble, yet dynamic service to the Vaisnavas. We become one who feeds the body-mind-soul continuum of our many-layered, many-colored friends.

We ride the crest of the wave of their mercy upon us, trying to burst through the levees of doubt and falsity. We must be real. We must be practical. We must be eager to to risk facing our fears and illusions to serve with meaning. We must step out the door to be those humble sparks, dancing and dancing, that will ignite all the other dormant sparks.

We turn our gaze towards His gaze
And He has been waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting
To give us His affection of His beauty, His smile, His movement
The kindness of His rhythm, the love of His melody
The wash of peace and clarity in His personal touch, His personal dance.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Intersection-The Unity Within

Our relativistic spheres of morality can prevent us from understanding the dichotomies that lie within the ground of our being. Our good intentions can go astray when they are mixed with the unclean and immature viewpoint in which we base them in. The ranting preacher in the Union Square subway in New York City or the Hezbollah suicide bomber in Tel Aviv may think they are on the right side of history, the right side of divine reality, but one with a thorough understanding set in the depths of the bonafide spiritual sciences will see the clear deficiencies in each approach.

Our good intentions to create a more just reality certainly are not likely to fall into these extremities, but our impact may end up being just as void. How do we know we are getting the message across in the proper way? How do we even know we have the right message? We get one idea from the results of our application, in seeing what hits people hearts and minds. Even then, we may not let go of our misconceived ideas.

Our intentions lay bare on the altar of our being, and we worship them without the slightest understanding of what they actually represent, and how we represent them. We need an inner guidance, best represented in a spiritual authority or personality interacting with us, to examine exactly what we mean and what we mean by it. Any genuine, time-tested, experience-tested spiritual discipline will give us this acute opportunity for examination.

The only question that remains is our desire to do so and our courage to make the commitment. Are we able to examine our intentions for what they are and what they create in a constant, discerning, and piercing manner. Merton writes:

One must face the fact that 'good intentions' are only as good as long as they are faithfully re-examined in the light of new knowledge, and in the light of their fruits.

More and more we see how in reality the 'good,' 'kind,' 'humane,' and 'loving' intention bears fruit in real evil, cruelty, inhumanity, and hate. The experience of each day makes this more and more clear.

The ethic of subjective 'good intentions' has been judged and found wanting. We must refocus on the objective results of our decisions!”1

This means we must learn the art of mature and exacting responsibility. This was the key motivation for my own choice to live as a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition of the Vedas. My initial experiences with devotees of this tradition showed me a deeper potential to life itself, and to the potential power of my own ability to help exact and create a solution to the suffering I saw all around me. The discovery of the depth of this experience continues on a daily basis for me, and it begins with an increasing sense of my own developing and maturing responsibility to care for myself so that I may learn to really care for others.

This care must be entirely motivated to bring myself and others closer to the love of God. Otherwise, if it remains simply in the material realms of the political, moral, economical, and altruistic it will create only a temporary relief, much like blowing air on a burn only removes the pain for a short while. The pain is our disconnection from God, which has thrown our application of reality into a whirlpool.

Responsibility is inherently a moral consideration, and moral considerations are inherently concerns originating from the loving will of God in our lives. The realm of social justice must take a step forward to meet once again the objective moral realm of God to fulfill its real purposes and desires.

Merton writes:

There is an objective moral good, a good which corresponds to the real value of being, which brings out and confirms the inner significance of our life when we obey its norms. Such an act integrates us into the whole living movement and development of the cosmos, it brings us into harmony with all the rest of the world, it situates us into our place, it helps us fulfill our task and to participate fruitfully in the whole world's work and its history. In a word, it is an act of obedience to God.”2

Where our striving for justice fails is in the lack of inner integration of our being to the will and the love of God. We become reliant on our dull, imperfect senses, on our illusory, textbook concepts of history, on our own muddled subjectivity to solve problems quite beyond us. We cannot look to the speculations of our society's so-called pundits and scholars to show us the brighter path. We have to look towards the source of morality, the source of goodness, the source of justice Himself, God Himself.

We hold tight to God's will and love, and we can become steady to fight today for what we truly believe in. Merton writes:

In times like ours, it is more than ever necessary for the individual to train himself, or be trained, according to objective norms of good, and learn to distinguish these from the purely pragmatic norms current in his society...We cannot trust our society to tell us the difference.

Everything is confused, and the men of our time blindly follow now God and now Satan, blown this way and that by every changing wind of urgency and opportunity, judging only by what seem to them to be the immediate consequences.

We must recover our inner faith not only in God but in the good, in reality, and in the power of the good to take care of itself and us as well, if only we attend to it, observe, listen, choose, and obey.”3

If we are looking for a lynchpin to unify ourselves in the face of an immense, weaponized, and demonic evil that is strangling our humanity, we cannot ignore our unity in God, and we cannot ignore the protection and empowerment that He is constantly giving us. This is a tremendous challenge to find this unity, for even amidst the sincere seekers of justice and truth, too often sectarian concerns of religious, political, and social concerns drive a deep wedge that is very difficult to remove from the consciousness.

How can love of God bring it all together? For one thing, love of God belongs to no group in particular but to each and everyone of us. The core of our being, the core of our soul, revels and thrives in the love of God. Everyone has this ability, and there are many applications to bring it out to our conscious, waking awareness.

Only if we dive deeply into our particular application, transcending all sense of distance and separation from our real self, from the real selves of others, and from God do we find this unity. Not only that, but we also find the ability to help others understand this ultimate unity in the love of God. The love of God has the power to overcome all evils, to correct all injustices. To find the love of God in ourselves and to give it to others, freeing us totally on the spiritual and material platforms, is the greatest act of social justice.

1Merton, 113-114

2Merton, 119

3Merton, 119