Virtual Presence: Where do we go when we go online?

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

I spent most of Sunday morning staring into the eyes of spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle. I was in my garden in London and he was at home in Vancouver giving a SoundsTrue webinar on The Power of Presence. Tolle was demonstrating to me and the other 100,000+ people on the webinar that it can be useful to connect with another human being who is free of mind, even on a screen.

Tolle’s demonstration of thought-less presence was a continuation of The Power of Now in which he discusses that we only have the now. Nothing happens in the past or future, our senses, perceptions, feelings and thoughts all make up the now. He extended this on Sunday by defining presence as being aware of ourselves as a perceiving consciousness deep in the essence of now.

And this, reminded me of a question I have been pondering for some time now: Where do we go when we go online?

As Tolle talked about the surface of now whilst I was staring into the screen at him, I was conscious of the external world outside of me and my focus on him on a screen, that is to say I was peripherally aware of the garden I was in, I could hear the birds tweet, the traffic go by and what he was saying all at once. Then, when he was telling me to feel my breath and my inner body aliveness I focused completely on my presence whilst Tolle said that I was entering the now, the external or surface now, and then the internal or deep now of my unseen thoughts and feelings.

And, this was all working until I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet at which point I missed what he was saying, I was off wondering:

Where do we go in the space? Is it a connection to our own thoughts and inner fire as I discussed in Lighting the Fire and The Space Between Us? Is it a connection to a collective consciousness as Jung believed and as Deepak Chopra believes? Or, is the Internet an external world of ideas as Plato postulated?

Tolle during his webinar mentioned that when he introduces language to describe presence as consciousness it creates a duality which reminded me of Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body as separate. But, some scientists and artists don’t feel this way and think that our embodiment needs an upgrade as our bodies don’t keep up with our ever expanding technology which expands our minds.

The Internet is a medium which expands our capacity for thought, for ideas, for information and it demonstrates perfectly how the medium is the message. This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship.

We talk about going online or being online. And when we talk about the Internet, which after all is just a network of computers, we talk about it as a space which we navigate, we surf, we go back or forward in. Is it a mental space for us? If so what happens to our physical? Where is our presence?

I have been online and had access to the Internet for over two decades now and I have often gotten lost online – not so much in hyperspace – but lost myself completely, lost all sense of time and space, or specifically an idea of where I was, during say a unix talk which would split the screen in two and you could see both sides of the conversation, or during chats on Facebook Messenger, or DM on Twitter, when both parties have treated this asynchronous feature as a chat in real time. According to Tolle this is because I have identified with, in this case, the chat, I’ve let them/it take me over and I am longer in the now. I have been drawn into unconsciousness to which I would add I have been drawn into the collective unconsciousness. But then most of us have had this experience when reading a book or in the cinema well before we all went online.

Research into literary realism – a 19th century art movement which we might call sociology nowadays – has established that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding which comes from our experiences and senses in the now, but most of what we understand is largely based in concepts, or mental representations.

So, since we are limited by our senses, perceptions and feelings which make up the now, it makes sense that we are easily led and go elsewhere, we fall into the collective unconsciousness. A while back I talked about flow, and the gap and falling into other people or into an online video, or argument in the Moments in modern technology blog as I couldn’t quite figure out if technology was causing us to miss moments or not – were we absent or present? Tolle says that being conscious of our presence in a moment is the way we feel super alive. Being taken over by thoughts and triggers is being absent.

In the field of literary theory, absence and presence has long been debated and understood that people can be made to believe that they are somewhere they are not, or in the presence of people and objects that do not actually exist. Our suspension of disbelief as Coleridge put it whilst reading text on a page, allows us to go online and enter virtual spaces.

Virtual architecture and design creates social norms in virtual spaces which affects how people use and communicate in a given space for they follow the cues offered. So, if an online group meet in a virtual lecture with a lecturer at the front they will behave quite differently to say if they meet in a virtual coffee shop, and it will impact how a student learns.

As I said in Games,Storytelling and Ludology, the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels. And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not.

Sculpted virtual environments aside, even in text-only chats, we still lose ourselves online. I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out. We are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. As Tolle says: When you are really present you are not looking past or future or comparing you are no longer a person… you and the now are one and the same… you can understand experientially or conceptually.

The yogis says that experience can be Nirguna (formless) and Saguna (with form), and I see now that this means, if we give it form, we break it down conceptually and then it is just a partial understanding. A formless experiential experience expands us and influences us.

I think that is what we do online, we experience experientially in the now, and when we come back from online, like on TV after an ad break, a presenter will say: Welcome back, as if we’d been somewhere, perhaps it is then when we interpret conceptually.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned.

However, if you are like me, I lose myself everywhere and anywhere and yet I am often told by people that I have great presence, just be reassured I’ve gotten lost a million times online, but I always find my way home.

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