The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.
Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
To see what is in front of one’s nose, George Orwell put it, is a constant struggle, and perhaps the hardest part of that struggle, the hardest thing to see, is technology. Why? Because it is more and more provides glasses through which we see. As Heidegger put it, the essence of technology is nothing technological: instead, it’s a way of understanding reality, a way that we are typically blind to.
If we consider how dramatically the printing press changed the course of world history over a few centuries, and how early we are in the days of what is probably an even more transformative shift in our information ecology, we can slip through the grasp of our current social imaginary, confident that it too shall pass. Where the early days of the world wide web were utopian, the second act of the internet has been characterized as the “techlash,” a bevy of concerns about the harmful psychological, political, cultural, and economic effects of Big Tech. Both stories were apocalpytic: where Web 1.0 was seen as ushering in a kind of libertarian socialist [sic] paradise, Web 2.0 is seen as leading us toward, alternatively, an idiocracy and/or an authoritarian surveillance superstate, or what Jaron Lanier calls “Digital Maoism.” The former story has been reincarnated as the Singularity, aka the Rapture for Geeks, while the latter story has been variously depicted in the series Black Mirror.
What would Web 3.0 look like? As with any technology, over time the internet will become more and more integrated into the lifeworld; indeed, that process is already proceeding apace, as we see in the so-called Internet of Things. Right now, we are still adjusting ourselves psychologically and culturally to the new tech, and are beginning to realize we must adjust the new tech to accommodate the neurobiological limits of our organisms. But when our self-conceptions and social norms and political and legal systems are still running the old software that codes the human being as a separate, solitary, sovereign individual—the anthropology of classical liberalism—the internet will present as, alternatively, deliverance from isolation or a threat to freedom.
Seen properly, the internet encodes the same big idea as ecology: that reality is a fabric of relationships, not a collection of atoms. Nature and technology—and we must not forget that nature produced technological beings—are guiding toward an understanding of our place in the universe captured not just by the Dao, but the image of “Indra’s Net” from Hinduism: a vision of the universe as a web, with each node a jewel that reflects the whole. Each is a part of the whole, but the whole is contained in each part.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”