Review: The Digitally Divided Self by Ivo Quartiroli

This book begins with blurbs from some very heavy hitters, and some of my favorite writers, on the subject of new media – writers like Douglas Rushkoff and Erik Davis.  Erik Davis, in particular, writes on the more-esoteric take on the rise of technology, in books like Techgnosis.  It could help to have some familiarity with esoteric spirituality before approaching this book.  It would also help to keep a very open mind. The basic premise is that by having our heads lodged in the materialist world of the web and the tech we use to navigate the web, we are becoming increasingly led astray from true human and spiritual connection. If you’re an atheist, you might stop right there – but you shouldn’t. Because the implications of our attachment to the web is a vital subject, even if you’re not particularly spiritual.

If people are being honest, they’ll admit just how dependent on the web they’ve become.  People may joke about being Facebook addicts or, in the old days, the Crackberry, but it’s an important issue. I speak from experience.  There is something dangerously pleasant about that red “like” or new message on Facebook.  It has the slight feeling of accomplishment – it really does hit the pleasure center of the brain in a particular way.  So to think that the web doesn’t distract us from more important things (never mind spiritual fulfillment) would be totally inaccurate.

The trouble with The Digitally Divided Self – and other books along these lines – is that its advocacy goes almost totally in the other direction.  Instead of advocating moderation, it advocates a divorce from technology.  That doesn’t seem entirely like the answer. Though you can waste an inordinate amount of time on Facebook, it is has also helped facilitate political uprisings and the spread of information. The book makes the argument that 20 years after the web, we don’t yet live in a Democratic paradise. Maybe if we did away with all technology then people would be more focused on issues that matter, but that is doubtful. It’s more likely that progress would be even slower.

In a strange way, the book seems to disprove its own premise. On the one hand, it says that technology is steering us away from real human interaction (which it is), but on the other, it limits the potential of people as well:

“Like a fascinating psychedelic vision, the digital realm can amaze us forever, but basically it goes no further than the mental level which originally created the technology.”

If humans are stuck at one “mental level” then we’re doomed no matter what we do.  That’s not the message he’s trying to send in the book – he’s actually saying the opposite: the human mind is awesome and it’s being stifled by the web. There’s an argument to be made that technology is as organic as the human mind. If the human mind has limitless capability, then so should the inventions made by that mind.

Regarding spiritual connection, the book’s more effective.  He wonders if it’s possible to meditate when you’re being inundated with information. If a way to connect to the soul (or God, or just inner peace for the atheist) is to shut out all information, then the web is precisely designed to accomplish the opposite.   At the same time, there are those who say that the connected consciousness of the web is very much the technological equivalent of the connected consciousness described in Eastern traditions. It might even be priming us to get used to the idea.  Maybe this is the tech-addict in me talking, but I’d much rather see where technology is taking us then cut ourselves off from this powerful tool. The answer is to take some time to meditate – not to divorce yourself from the machine.

I’m not a singularity proponent myself – the idea that technology will reach such a superhuman capacity that we’ll become superhuman in the process.  It is a kind of technology fundamentalism. There is no doubt that technology can be counterproductive and that real human contact is vitally important. The world of zombies who always have their faces in a smartphone is by no means progress. But the web is no different than any drug.  Hard drugs have absolutely destroyed people. But to not also recognize that drugs have been instrumental in the creation of a lot of great works of art (see: The Beatles) or other intellectual – and spiritual – discoveries is really only telling half the story. The web is no different: massively useful with the potential to also be destructive.

This is a lot to say about the book’s content without reporting on the book itself. It certainly sparked some serious internal discussion on this issue, which makes the book very valuable.  The book is incredibly well-written, erudite, and thought-provoking, I just don’t entirely agree with its thesis. But these are issues that need to be discussed as tech becomes more and more a central part of our lives, so the book deserves to be read, even if you disagree with the premise.


Author’s Site – Indranet.org (much to read here)


Barnes & Noble

  • From what you’ve said about it, I don’t see why anyone with any sense would bother to read it, much less that it “deserves” to be read. It’s nothing but the same old neo-luddite, new age nonsense, dressed up for a new technological generation. There are whole shelves of books along the same lines, and they had just as much practical impact as this one will have.

    • Well, because it’s well done. There are some seriously flaky New Age books out there, and this is at least well-argued and comprehensive. Here’s his bio, he’s not a snake-oil salesman:

      Ivo Quartiroli has been a software programmer, publisher of Italian technology and spirituality books, and computer science book author. Complementing his professional accomplishments in information processing, his interest in consciousness processing has led him to spiritual explorations. He shares his perspective on the intersection of media studies, psychology and spirituality on his blog at http://www.indranet.org and writes for Italian magazines about technology and society. He sits on the Italian Club of Budapest’s science committee.

  • drstupid

    On ninty-something, Ivo published Kevin Kelly and some other cyber bibles, for the first time, in Italy. It was very Mondo 2000 but, no way, Ivo is a serious and indipendent guy.