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Awareness in our technological world

monk with laptopTechnology brings a world of spiritual knowledge to our fingertips. But immersing ourselves in a world of gadgets may also distance us from more authentic connections with teachers, family, and friends. Guest blogger Justin Whitaker takes a look at the double-edged sword of our hyper-connected world.

Since you are reading this, presumably on a computer or other high-tech device, you owe a thing or two to technology. Nearly all of us in the Western world and a fast-growing number in the East live in a world molded and directed by technology. We have lived amidst changes that could scarcely be imagined just fifty years ago. We wake up, push a button or two for coffee, assemble our morning meal from plastic containers in the refrigerator, and flip open the laptop to start our day. Whether we are aware of it or not – and our goal is to be aware – technology shapes our life. Thus in practice, we need to recognize not only how we individually use or do not use technology, but also how technology affects whole communities and future generations.

 Today we face countless distractions, a ‘hedonic treadmill’ of chasing the next newest thing, and a virtual black hole for time spent waiting for computers to boot up, web pages to load, etc  

What exactly is technology? It is any human creation that has been put out into the world, thus affecting our lives, from the ancient technologies of iron tools and grain bins to the cutting edge world of nano-gadgets and skyscrapers. On the one hand all of this has allowed humanity to grow and flourish as it has. Today we enjoy extraordinary efficiency, easy travel, and abundant leisure. On the other hand we face countless distractions, a “hedonic treadmill” of chasing the next newest thing, and a virtual black hole for time spent waiting for computers to boot up, web pages to load or files to download, and so on.

Modern technology has brought countless pages of ancient texts to our computer screen and untold hours of audio and video to download to our iPods and MP3 players. It might seem that there is no need to leave one’s home to find great teachings, and, when one does have to venture out, one can have those teachings pumped into their ears the whole time. Not only do we not need to find a teacher or a community of practice, but we don’t have to sit down to read texts or set aside time devoted solely to hearing great teachings. This is great, right?

Not so fast. How do we grow in awareness at the grocery store when we’re trying to pick out the best apples, remember the three other things we need, and listen to a discourse on the Four Noble Truths at the same time? When we’re in the grocery store, shouldn’t we just be in the grocery store. Shouldn’t our full awareness be with the sights and sounds around us? When we’re driving, hiking, etc, shouldn’t we just be in that activity?

Many observers our culture describe a rise in narcissism, a decline in attention span, the disappearance of traditions, and even a loss of basic civility, all at the hands of our modern conveniences. Many people are losing touch with friends and loved ones in real life and substituting them with virtual networks and television. One study recently showed that the relationship centers of peoples brains, those that become active when we enjoy time with friends and family, were also stimulated when regular TV watchers put on their favorite sitcom. With a touch of irony, the sitcom used in the study was “Friends.” What is going on?

 I can only guess what the Buddha would say if he wandered into my cluttered house today, let alone if he used his ‘higher knowledges’ to wander into my equally cluttered mind.  

It is said that Socrates lamented the advent of the book, the cutting edge technology in his day. To him it signaled a shift from wisdom, which was a virtue that could only be embodied in a person, to knowledge: facts about the world that could be recorded and studied in books. He worried that people would stop deeply learning things and instead rely on external hard drives, as it were. At that time, roughly the same time that the Buddha was teaching in India, one had to go find a teacher with whom to study. This was often difficult, but it forged the virtues of resolution and dedication. Years and often lifetimes were spent under a single teacher perfecting one’s understanding and practice, the key ingredients for wisdom.

Simplicity, too, was a virtue of years gone by. The Buddha often scorned household life as stifled and filled with impurity and praised the monastic life for its peace, quiet, and lack of possessions. I can only guess what the Buddha would say if he wandered into my cluttered house today, let alone if he used his “higher knowledges” to wander into my equally cluttered mind. The simple pace and simple activities of the past, albeit usually much more physically demanding than today, have all but disappeared.

It is too simplistic to see technology as simply a tool, one that we can use skillfully or unskillfully, or not use it at all. The technology of the last fifty years has radically changed the way that most of us interact with the world. We need to become aware of the broader societal impacts of technology itself. As material wealth has grown, levels of life-satisfaction have not. What is missing? Or, rather, what have we lost?

With our mind on these questions it is helpful to study the lives of men and women of the past. They have accomplished our goal of happiness or awakening without the aid of computers, cell phones, and even basic conveniences like books and MP3 players. There’s little chance for many of us actually living as they did, but we can wonder what it might be like to go without our favorite gadget now and then, to consciously cultivate more face-to-face time with people as well as more simplicity and silence when we are alone.

These little things help form the very foundation for our practice. They have been taken for granted for so much of human history and have clearly been eroded in recent years. But, with awareness and determination, it is well within our power to bring them back to the center of our lives.

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About Justin Whitaker

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Justin Whitaker holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University, England and is currently a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics at the University of London. He has practiced in several Buddhist traditions including the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, Montana and Bristol, England. He currently lives in Bristol, where he is writing up his thesis, meditates from time to time, runs, and drinks good coffee. His personal blog is American Buddhist @ Patheos. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from hazel colditz
Time: September 25, 2009, 2:08 pm

this hits home for me…i wrote about this very issue, mainly because it is a true source of distraction this darn computer of mine!
thanks for the reminder(s)….
hazel

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Comment from Justin Whitaker
Time: October 2, 2009, 11:42 am

Hia Hazel, and thank you! I have to pass this on (from you via Twitter!) – http://bit.ly/k2qQ8

Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. Worth thinking about, for sure :)

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