bell hooks and digital love

I was in my mid-twenties when I first learned to understand love "as the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth" - bell hooks, "All About Love"


American society is sick with love. Film, television, commercials, novels, poetry, magazines, music, theatre: there is no communicative medium that is not infused with the pains and ideals of love. Ranging from happiness to heartbreak, our stories of love can be deeply intimate expressions of personal experience, to cynical corporate posturing that wants to capitalize on loneliness. Wherever you look, you will find love.

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In bell hooks' book All About Love: New Visions, hooks explores the myriad of ways in which our conceptions of love are deficient. Our definitions are vague and elusive, our media perpetuates patterns of violence masquerading as love, and there is very little discussion of learning how to love. hooks prefaces her explorations by adopting the definition of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who said love is "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth". hooks does not believe that "spiritual growth" is a religious sentiment; spiritual growth is the nurturing of our "capacity to be more fully self-actualized and able to engage in communion with the world around us". hooks' idea of love can encompass a plethora of experiences of love, from the love between partners, to the love between close friends, to the love one has towards family. It also excludes the abusive connections where a person controls and hurts another, even though it's proclaimed as "love". A working definition of love provides a beautiful framework for which to understand our relationships and aspirations.

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I want a unified politics of love. Believing that love is ultimately the concern of encouraging spiritual growth, I can see no greater ambition of human endeavors than to guarantee the ability of all people, regardless of race, gender, nationality, sexuality, ability, or class, to safely grow as individuals and communities. The lens of love provides a justification for all of the needs that must be met to encourage spiritual growth: clean water, healthy food, housing, and healthcare. Going further, love can guide our perceptions of justice, education, infrastructure, and a multitude of other areas where guaranteeing people's capacity to grow is the preeminent concern. The possibilities for a politics of love are as endless as our imagination and empathy allows.

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Digital technology, more than any other medium, can offer vast opportunities for love in our day to day lives. There is no doubt that your phone, computer, or favorite website has had an immense impact on your spiritual growth. But rarely is love a defining catalyst for technological development. More frequently than not, new tools and applications are driven by tangled motivations of academia, the military, the government, or private capital. Thus the digital spaces that can afford us love are answerable only to the self-interested motivations of their developers. Love is only as valuable as the profit or power that can be captured in the process.

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As the internet has become dominated by surveillance, data mining, and the commodification of human experience, it is clear that our growth as individuals and communities pales in comparison to what a culture of love could provide. We would not be limited by how much advertising a new feature could provide, or what data metrics could be collected and inspected. Protection from trolls or political repression could be treated as a serious requirement, not a business decision. While we are bound to private technologies today, we can still fight for the values that enable love: safety, empathy, creativity. Developers can create new tools and spaces that explicitly prioritize spiritual growth over profit motive. Users can use their existing platforms and networks to promote a culture of love, while propelling the new culture forward by consciously choosing new apps, sites, and networks as they become available.

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As we create more digital spaces for love in our lives, there is no doubt in my mind that we can derive the strength and healing necessary to create a safer, more just world for everyone. All it takes is a willingness to extend yourself for the growth of others.