THE COMING SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION
Regardless of endless debates, the Information Revolution is almost certain to raise profound spiritual issues. The relentless growth of IT seems destined to mature into human-like forms of computer intelligence, as Ray Kurzweil and many others forecast. In a decade or two when broadband networks circle the globe, when computational power has increased another million-fold, when hunching over a keyboard is replaced by talking to life-sized images on intelligent wall monitors – these far more sophisticated systems will behave with as much intelligence as people, raising profound questions about human identity.
And this may be a mere hint of the turbulence that the Information Revolution will leave in its wake. As I have argued elsewhere, knowledge is rather mysterious because it increases infinitely, and so this unlimited power incurs equally unlimited dilemmas that transcend knowledge: finding our way through this endless overflow of information, struggling to protect a fragile society from the failures of computer systems, searching for the wisdom to make difficult choices posed by these awesome new powers, figuring out who we are and what we really want, and instilling purpose and meaning in our short lives. We can’t possibly understand what turmoil lies ahead, but a wave of such challenges seems likely at the personal, social, and global levels.
One of the greatest challenges is to help people manage their increasingly complex lives. Spirituality may allow us to feel good and experience divine bliss, but it’s essential function is to provide insight, social cohesion, and the moral will needed to make tough personal choices. The evidence summarized above shows that we can guide the course of our lives more skillfully through prayer, meditation, therapeutic drugs like Prozac, Yoga and exercise, and an expanding range of other spiritual practices, including electronic devices that alter brain waves. Think of "technologies of consciousness" – spirit-shaping interventions for mastering our inner life.
This growing ability to gain control over our inner lives is urgently needed. Many claim the biggest problems today -- crime, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, conflict, etc. – stem from the stress of hectic change, an irresponsible culture of self-interest, rampant consumerism, and other failures of spirit. The columnist, William Raspberry, notes “A growing sense that America’s major failings are not political or economic but moral. The most successful social programs are those that are driven by moral or religious values.”
Allow me to illustrate the illusive way such problems can be resolved by describing a recent experience that affected me profoundly. Although my life would be considered a success by most standards, for many years I’ve agonized, prayed, meditated, and used everything else I could lay hands on to resolve nagging doubts about my work and tensions in my family.
I was in Amsterdam on business recently, and I was surprised to find that this visit brought clarity to my confusion. I can’t really explain why this happened, but it has something to do with being in a civilized, modern society that has mastered the art of living with comfort, style, and meaning. Few cities can compare with the beauty and charm of Amsterdam, with its graceful canals and streets. Cell phones and PCs are used everywhere, but inconspicuously blend into the background. And a joyous celebration of life is manifested in great art and fine restaurants, as well as tolerance for a wide diversity of lifestyles.
This visit culminated after I had completed my presentation to a large international group and went out to celebrate. There was something about being in Amsterdam that night that pulled the loose strands in my psyche together and tied them into a brightly colored bow. At one point I found myself seated at a sidewalk café where a mime had 30 or so patrons like me falling out of our chairs with laughter as he engaged passersby with his delightful antics. Events like this helped clear the sludge from my soul. I grasped the significance of the work I had labored over for decades. I found a loving place in my relationship with my family. It was liberating, glorious.
The initial excitement has faded a bit since then, but the great value of this precious gift remains clear and enduring. The interesting thing is that I don’t understand why or how it happened. Perhaps that’s the essential meaning of this experience. We may struggle to solve the problems facing us, search for personal understanding, and appeal to higher powers – but the resolution of life’s dilemmas seems to arrive in its own mysterious way, in its own time and place. That does not mean our efforts are meaningless. As the union of human and universal spirit implies, our actions are contributions to a far greater process than we can comprehend.
At the social level, the rise of spirituality could transform business, government, medicine, and other institutions. Current protests over global capitalism are likely to grow, pressuring corporations to broaden their mission to include the public welfare; will progressive CEOs summon the moral vision to create a collaborative form of business that better serves both economic and social interests? Modern governments increasingly struggle with unusual problems that resist normal solutions -- persistent pockets of poverty, environmental decay, conflicts between ethnic groups, etc; can politicians move beyond bureaucracy to help people find the courage and resources needed to form viable communities? And as health care tries to apply a growing arsenal of high-tech medicine to soaring numbers of overwhelmed people with limited success, will practitioners be forced to unify the treatment of body, mind, and soul?
The biggest challenge is presented at the global level. Globalization is tearing at the social fabric of nations, while industrialization of the developing world is increasing the load on the environment by a factor of 5 or more. Managing this fractious global order of 10 billion people demanding modern lifestyles will require a fundamental leap in our collective consciousness -- or the occasional collapse of an ecosystem and its human population will serve to prod us along.
Life seems to be evolving as it should because the same spirit driving these diverse crises is also driving the promising trends we saw earlier. Results of my GW Forecast show the Information Age will be fully developed by about 2020, and so I estimate that the crossover point to a Spiritual Age will occur at about 2010 +/- 5 years. It may be called something else, such as a “Crisis of Maturity” or an “Age of Wisdom,” but it’s coming. The great historian Toynbee observed a long-term trend toward the "increasing etherealization of life."
This approaching frontier will hardly be Utopian because spirituality is easily misused, like anything else. Religious and political zealots, for instances, have always forced civilization through endless wars, ideological conflict, and other forms of mischief. And many will remain intent on self-destructive fantasies of sexual gratification, drug abuse, and gratuitous violence. It may even be that the future will pit more intense moral differences against one another, creating biblical-like battles between good and evil.
Spirit is not necessarily “goodness,” therefore, but a higher state of being that can take almost any form. This revolution is not going to be easy, pious, or universal. But the great challenge now facing civilization is to accept this mysterious power and use it to guide our complex lives more carefully and with greater meaning. This humble but all-important task, I submit, will constitute the great new frontier beyond the Information Age. The Information Age provides unbounded knowledge, but the coming Spiritual Age promises values, wisdom, meaning, purpose, beliefs, vision, and other intangibles we use to organize knowledge, much the way an information architecture organizes the data in a computer system..
Transformations of this type abound today, but we simply do not recognize them because the concept of spirit remains somewhat taboo. The president of the United States himself, George W. Bush, is the product of a spiritual transformation, and many claim the former president, Bill Clinton, has been forced to change as well. A historic shift in ecological consciousness has appeared in the past decade, such that 90 percent of people around the world now want to protect the environment at all costs. Russia’s collective soul went through a massive upheaval when Marxist beliefs were overthrown for free markets and democracy. And what about the abrupt change in perspective caused by the puncturing of the dot.com bubble?
Such cases make it clear that sudden changes in highly abstract beliefs can dramatically alter our basic assumptions, logic, and values. In short, spirit can change the entire structure of human cognition because it transcends knowledge – rather like installing a new operating system in your computer. Spirit gives knowledge meaning and purpose by defining what we choose to do, thereby heightening the significance of our acts. By clarifying these limits to knowledge, ironically, the great unforeseen consequence of the Information Age