Zen, smart phones and the now

Humans have used tools for millions of years and throughout history, our relationship to tools has been fairly straightforward. For good or ill, we have created tools to help us accomplish whatever we’re striving to achieve. Tools are extensions of our own abilities and allow us to control the world around us. However, with mass media, computers and the internet, things are becoming more complicated by the day. It is no longer obvious what a tool is, and, more importantly, it’s no longer clear who’s in charge and what purpose these tools fulfil. For the first time in my life, I feel genuinely worried about current technological development. Why? Because I’m growing old? Because I’m averse to technology? Not at all.

Before I introduce the technology I want to discuss and what challenges it brings, I’m going to discuss briefly my theory of happiness. Heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy (mainly Zen Buddhism and Daoism), I believe that being fully aware in the present is the key to being happy. People who live in the past (meaning that they think more about what they have done than what they’re doing) are seldom happy and those who focus all their energies on what’s going to happen next hour, next week or next year seldom lead happy lives either. Also, people like this feel hollow and aren’t really there when you talk to them.

On average, I consider myself very happy and even when I’m not, it’s not actually that bad. Sure, I feel sad and dispirited sometimes, too, but I seldom feel that it’s a problem. I think the reason I’m happy is that I have the ability to focus wholly on what I’m doing at the moment. When I’m writing this article, I’m not thinking about the take-home exam I have to hand in on Friday; when I practise gymnastics, I don’t think about my best friend’s personal problems. When I talk with you over a cup of tea, I don’t think about anything else. My mind is in the present, not some other place or some other time.

Talking of technology, I might give the impression that this state of mind was easy to achieve before the modern era. This isn’t true. Something like this is what I perceive to be at the core of both Zen Buddhism and Daoism. Perhaps not exactly like that and perhaps on a deeper level, but this is what I feel is a major component of both philosophies. What is enlightenment ? When hungry eat, when tired sleep. This is what Laozi is talking about when he says that man is the only being who has strayed off the path; we complicate things for ourselves. Life ought to be simple, but we make it complicated. What do we do before enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water. And what about afterwards? Chop wood, carry water. Enlightenment (or happiness) is not a different time or place, it’s the everlasting present. It’s a matter of perspective, not a matter of actually going somewhere else.

Having briefly described my philosophical background, it’s now time to move on towards technology itself, because I think technology mostly functions as a barrier between ourselves and enlightenment. This is not because technology is intrinsically bad, technology is nothing in itself, but we somehow manage to twist it into becoming more of a hindrance than an aid. Mankind has achieved some great things with the help of technology, but in doing so, we have also paid a price. In short, technology can help us with many things, but I don’t think that becoming happier is one of them, at least not beyond providing food, shelter and other basic necessities of life.

Of all the inventions, the mobile phone is probably the one which has had the largest impact on our ability to focus on the present. Sure, there were ordinary phones, televisions, radios and so on before that, but they neither had the same impact on our lives nor were we as dependent on them. With the advent of mobile phones, it became possible to talk to anyone at any time. This is itself an incredible achievement, but if it isn’t handled correctly, it’s also one step away from mindfulness, one step farther away from Laozis path. Somewhere else is within reach, elsewhere is always in your pocket.

As you will probably have figured out, the logical terminus of this train of thought is the smart phone. After it’s introduction, related development has exploded and we’re only a few steps away from being able to bring with us most of what we’ve previously used computers for. It’s possible to read and send e-mail from anywhere on the planet, we can work regardless of the distance to our office and we can keep in touch with our friends effortlessly across space and time. Again, this is fantastic, but I still think the current development is ominous. I have two observations to support this view.

First, I have dealt with teenagers a fair amount recently, mostly because I have soon completed my teacher’s education and have taught English and Chinese to high school kids. It amazes me how bad they are at focusing on anything and how much time is spent using mobile phones in school, both during class and during breaks. Of course, this is usually not allowed, but some students become seriously distressed if they cannot use their phones for ten minutes. Some people argue that this is nothing new. These students are the same as those who stared out of the window or chatted among themselves before the arrival of the smart phone. I think there lies some truth in this, but it’s just not that simple. It is far more easy to be distracted by Facebook than an oak outside the window. It is the same phenomenon, but the incentives to let the mind escape the now is so much stronger.

Second, more and more people are beginning to use phones when it was previously socially unacceptable to focus on anything else but the social environment. Smart phones are popping up all the time: during coffee breaks at work, when chatting with a few friends or when attending a meeting. Again, I’m not categorically saying that this is wrong or bad, but it is more prevalent now than it has ever been before, at least among people I meet.

Furthermore, I suspect that this trend with increased digital connectedness will continue. Naturally, people growing up with this kind of technology will be better at handling it, but I also fear that they will be more dependant on it, too. With risk of upsetting friends, I’m going to take gaming on smart phones as a concrete example. Last week, I was meeting a few friends and there were four or five people in the room. All but one were playing games against each other on their smart phones. Being the hypocrite I am, I took the opportunity to revise some Chinese vocabulary.

Perhaps these kinds of situations will be commonplace in ten years, indeed they might become the norm, but I feel that I strongly dislike this change. I’m also guilty of it, I know, but I’m afraid that just makes me feel more pessimistic. So, is this some kind of moral hysteria? I hear some people saying that that isn’t like me. And they’d be right. I don’t think this is a case of “oh, no, this new technology is dangerous”, I think it’s a case of “I understand this development, I have thought about it carefully and I don’t like it”. This isn’t purely for personal reasons, because I’m sure I can handle the problem, but I’m worried about other people who can’t.

Going back to my theory of happiness, I think a society where the attention of all citizens keeps jumping around and is seldom focusing on the here and now cannot possibly be a very happy society. Sure, if we reach a level where we can fully interact with each other digitally, then we would have to re-evaluate the problem, but we aren’t there yet and we won’t be for quite some time. I fear that technology is slowly tearing people apart and that we are just starting to feel the tremors of something much bigger to come. What will people growing up in a society like this be like? We have no way of knowing. Perhaps, they will be able to uphold society and trundle on. They will be very good at multitasking, but very bad on focusing on any one thing for an extended of time. The problem is that some things can’t be achieved through minute-long bursts of effort.

So what should we do, blow up the world and start again? Leave civilisation and isolate ourselves in a cabin in the wilderness?  No, of course not. That would be so very not Zen and Laozi also tells us to join the dust of the world, to live in it and not seclude ourselves. I feel that I can follow this advice as I have some outlets. I do occasionally leave civilisation to walk alone in the forest. Practising gymnastics or diving allows me to escape from the dust just for a while.

Still, I can feel that other places and other times are slowly encroaching on my mindfulness and total focus on the present. I feel that the natural spaces in our lives where we simply can’t be anywhere else are diminishing in size and are inexorably becoming extinct. In other words, technology is making it gradually harder to live in the now.

I feel that I will always have such a space within myself, I am not afraid, I will prevail. Will others? It will become increasingly hard, and considering that it was already quite difficult before, I fear that fewer and fewer will realise the importance of the present. I’m not prescient, I can’t say for sure what lies ahead of us, but I have a feeling and it isn’t good.

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