Some nights ago I was watching a performance of Pink Floyd from 1995. I could hardly listen to the music and was much more conscious of the spectacle. Everything was larger than life: the hall, thousands of people in the audience, a huge video screen, light shows, lasers, a flying dummy plane crashing, etcetera. It all seems so foreign now, after merely two months of Corona, but it makes me wonder if this image will ever reappear or whether it is just an echo from the past.
Reading about the situation that we are in and contemplating on the repercussions I am faced with the questions: will we ever be able to cram thousands of people inside close spaces again? will we ever be able to easily travel from one part of the world to another to listen to a performance of this or that band? And better yet – will we still wish to? Having previously tasted the bitter taste of the music industry, its assembly line dynamics where each person works on a small part and is completely alienated from the project as a whole and from the music itself, a part of me will happily let go of what wants to pass away.
Looking at notes I have written in the past I found one which simply states "Music is composing relationships of sounds". The above described a certain relationship we used to have with the world, distilled in music and presented by Pink Floyd in 1995. Now this relationship is changing, and at the core of this change lie our notions of space, of the local vs. the global. Let us explore what kind of music they make…
The New Global
For a very long time, and especially since the onslaught of the industrial revolution, we have been living in a world of accelerated globalisation. Major technological innovations in the transportation and energy sectors, accompanied by the colonial capitalist unquenchable thirst for wealth and power, spread Western influences throughout the globe. In the 20th century – with the introduction of the telephone, the television and finally the World Wide Web – this global expansion in physical space was accompanied by a parallel expansion in virtual space. The Modern Man became accustomed to having the entire world available to him at the touch of a button. While environmental and human rights activists have been warning the rest of us for decades against the implications of capitalist expansion, their voices failed to resonate with the majority of society. And then Corona happened.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic virtually all countries around the world have imposed a lockdown on their citizens in one form or another. Large gatherings are entirely prohibited and people are encouraged to stay at home. Air travel across the world has dropped by 95% and national borders are extremely tight. Some people are beginning to wake up from the dream of exponential growth and realise that, like any closed system, the earth too has its limits. But while these restrictions and limitations constrain our movement in the physical world, the same cannot be said about the virtual one.
And thus our global relationships have become inevitably restricted to the virtual world, causing this space too to grow even more rapidly than it did before. Daily users of the video conferencing service Zoom for example rose from 10 million in December to 200 million in March, and other digital content providers are also on the rise due to the crisis. And with the rise in demand for better simulation technologies the supply is sure to follow: Virtual Reality helmets, haptic feedback devices and the likes are just around the block. We are being sucked into an ever more vivid virtual world with (seemingly) none of the dangers of the physical one.
But while biological viruses are not likely to find a way to attack us in the virtual sphere, this one too presents its series of challenges. How we confront questions about user privacy, and more generally, the centralised ownership and control over all digital information by a few corporations, will largely determine the way this space will be shaped. Will the New Global resemble the old one? Will it be yet another, potentially limitless, reservoir of resources to consume and devour? Or will we find ways to redefine this space to allow for more individual freedom and the cultivation of meaningful relationships that go beyond the boundaries of our immediate surrounding?
But a still greater danger lurks within the virtual space as anyone who watched The Matrix knows. It is the danger of assimilating so completely within it and identifying so wholly with our virtual entities that we lose touch with our physical existence. More than 100 years ago Rudolf Steiner suggested this prophetic thought experiment: “Now imagine that man were to develop an organism still more powerful, solid and material than his present physical body. Then the breathing process, for instance, would gradually appear to be almost imperceptible by comparison with this more powerful experience, until finally he would no longer know anything about what is now his physical body…”
I recently watched an interview with Elon Musk, who apparently had just welcomed a new member to his family. When asked to describe the experience Musk mentioned Neural Networks, a type of so called Artificial Intelligence algorithms, and how quickly they learn. By that time the host was confused and didn’t know whether Musk was referring to the algorithm or the baby. There is a strong impulse to assimilate with the machine driving people like Musk. But while they try to make ever more intelligent machines I fear that they lose everything a human is, beyond merely a problem solving machine. Do you remember the days before the gaming consoles took over when we went outside to play? Do you remember the days when our mothers were worried sick because we didn’t come back home on time and they couldn’t reach us on our smartphones? Do you remember the days in early May feeling the sensation of breathing in air that is charged with the resonance of a million invisible trumpets announcing the beginning of spring? Do you remember? Can you still feel it?
The New Local
Unlike the new global, tendencies for a new relationship with the local are, at least for this writer, much less prevalent. But one can still see their buds springing in different places, brought to life by various seemingly independent forces. One such force is the intuition or realization of how disconnected we are from the Earth. In my home town of The Hague new neighbourhood gardens are being created that give the local residents an opportunity to grow their own food, to compost their organic waste, or just to meet for a weekly potluck dinner where each person or family bring their own food to share. And since many come from different countries this is also a wonderful opportunity to get to know people from other cultures, personally and intimately.
Another force stems from the understanding of the severe crisis that our society is facing, and the refusal to remain docile. Whether it is the climate and ecological crisis, racism and inequality, or any other form of injustice, more individuals are beginning to realize that there are no ‘adults in the room’ who will save the day when the going gets tough; that democracy is a beautiful idea but in order to make it work one must get their hands dirty; that the political sphere should not be equated to a boxing ring where you just cheer for your favourite fighter; and that the space where you can usually make the greatest contribution is within your local community. So people are becoming active and enter the ring. Increasingly movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Fridays For Future and DiEM 25 are organising on a local level, in the form of small interconnected circles, coordinated based on non-hierarchical and inclusive principles.
These local communities can be a source of empowerment and connection. In Buddhism the importance of community is beautifully captured by the term ’sangha’, as expressed in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “A sangha is a community of friends practicing the dharma (teaching) together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness.” Right now the measures against Covid-19 are forcing us to stay home and refrain from any kind of activity within our communities. From all of the different measures that have been enforced by now, it is the 'social distancing' one that points to a deeper question. As Charles Eisenstein asks in his seminal essay The Coronation: “Would I decree the end of human hugging and handshakes, if it would save my own life?” At times like these, those of us who are not willing to easily let go of our physical connections should be vigilant and fight to reclaim the New Local. We must answer every blow that is dealt to us with a hug, every enforced limitation with more openness, and every attempt at separation with acts of solidarity. For what could be more revolutionary than that?
Global vs. Local
In the old story that we have been telling ourselves there was a notion wherein global and local are two opposite ends of a single spectrum. The Corona Crisis calls us to reexamine that notion. Our global relationships have become inevitably restricted to the virtual world. This, in turn, forces our physical relationships to become more local. It follows that there is a qualitative and essential difference between our relationship to the global compared to our relationship to the local. And this difference in essence breaks the dichotomy between the two. They are no longer opposites, but fundamentally different from each other: global as virtual – local as physical.
How will we inhabit this new dual world? Will some people completely retreat to their virtual spaces, shunning any physical connection to the material world, while others disconnect from The Matrix and (re-)establish local connections? Or will we be able to live in both worlds, redefining our relationships within them in a manner that befits their new nature. Will the new dual world create two types of human beings or will this duality sculpt a new consciousness? A consciousness embodied in a person that on one night sings songs around the fire with friends from the neighbourhood garden, while enjoying the taste of beautiful vegetables that they were growing together. And on another night steps into virtual space to listen to the soothing voice of a Sufi poet from the other side of the globe praising the virtues of love.
But in order to reveal this new consciousness, the shell that was built by our predecessors must fall. The shell that is locking us inside the virtual space, disconnecting us from the people and the environment that surround us. As well as the shell that is binding us to our immediate vicinity, forcing us to look only a few meters in each direction, ignoring the suffering and hardships of our brothers and sisters in the other side of the world, as well as those of the non-human beings around us. We must let go of our apparent comfortable lifestyles if they are dependent on another's suffering and realize that we are all in this together.
Beyond the Binary
And perhaps breaking the binary conception of global vs. local is only a first step. It is after all us humans who have been telling this story all along, while countless new ones might be waiting to be redeemed by our imagination. I wonder why is it that we are so compelled to think in binary terms: global and local, male and female, subject and object, good and bad, true and false. Or as Shakespeare immortally put it: “To be, or not to be – that is the question”.
What if this question is not to be answered but to be transcended? What kind of world lies beyond the binary?
A world with no opposition?
A world where difference is celebrated as diversity in unity?
A world we are immediately transported to when looking into the eyes of a child?
A world where innocence and undying love forever reign?
And a world where questions can be left unanswered…
As I write these words I feel confused. I wonder if we need a new narrative for the great transformation to take place or whether it will happen with or without our help. I see the world changing and feel that so must we. Colonization is the shadow of our past; it is based on the misunderstanding of our relationship to the world: we do not live in the world – we are the world. And as such we have to realize a new way of Being the World, embodied by new relationships with the physical, the virtual and ultimately the spiritual – the transcendent dimension that lies beneath as well as beyond all sense perceptions. And so, we must reconnect with everything and everyone: Breathing in peace with every inhalation – Breathing out love with every exhalation. Realising that we are just one voice striving for harmony in this silent polyphony of Being.