Scientists are now inventing the “ultimate intelligent machine”, a computer which will beat man in every way. If the machine can outstrip man, then what is man? What are you? What is the future of man? If the machine can take over all the operations that thought does now, and do it far swifter, if it can learn much more quickly, if it can compete and, in fact, do everything that man can — except of course look at the beautiful evening star alone in the sky, and see and feel the extraordinary quietness, steadiness, immensity and beauty of it—then what is going to happen to the mind, to the brain of man? Our brains have lived so far by struggling to survive through knowledge, and when the machine takes all that over, what is going to happen? There are only two possibilities: either man will commit himself totally to entertainment — football, sports, every form of demonstration, going to the temple, and playing with all that stuff — or he will turn inward. – J Krishnamurti (A Timeless Spring)
So predicted Krishnamurti a decade-and-a-half before the emergence of the Internet. I have previously written about technology’s ability to disconnect us from ourselves. Today, I would like to explore this a bit further.
We Are Rats in a Technological Labyrinth
After performing a series of experiments with hungry rats locked in a box with a lever, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner coined a term known as “Schedules of Reinforcement” or “Intermittent Reinforcement”.
The experimented went as follows; The rats were divided into two groups The first group was the Fixed Schedule group who received a food pellet after pressing the lever a fixed amount of times, say 20. In the second group, known as the Variable Schedule group, the rat earned the food pellet after it pressed the lever a random number of times. Sometimes it would receive the food after pressing 10 times, and sometimes after pressing 200 times.
To the second group, the arrival of food was unpredictable. This made the addiction or reinforcement to the lever a lot more stronger. Skinner found that the first group of rats stopped pressing the lever almost immediately after the food stopped being supplied. The second group however was a lot more motivated, and they kept on pressing the lever for a very long time afterwards.
After returning from our holiday in Europe where I spent 3 months with no smartphone at all, I’ve become noticeably more aware of the tendency in myself and others of checking our phone constantly like rats waiting for that stimulating fix; that latest Facebook message, status or photo, email, or latest shocking news headline.
Most of the emails and Facebook updates are junk, but every now and again you will get that one little pellet that makes checking your phone once every 10 minutes worthwhile.
The Heart of the Technological Labyrinth
One of the feelings that stood out the most from my technological minimalist experience (a candle lit house with no televisions in a 2 km radius), is that I found it a lot easier to center myself.
My mind felt a lot more clear and inspired; I found it a lot easier to be mindful, to find the heart, the center of myself.
I’ve experienced something very similar when researching information. When I Google something, as you expect, I get a ‘Googol’ of results. Although I have more information at my disposal, I feel I am retaining a lot less than I do when I solely focus all my attention on a single book of that particular topic.
Linda Stone, a former employee of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. And it is this “continuous partial attention” that I feel exactly reflects my own dilemma.
Whenever I immerse myself into an activity, I must do it with the fullest of my heart, with all of my focus and attention encapsulating that action. It is here that spiritual mindfulness comes into play.
Escape From the Technological Labyrinth
Can externally focused technology and internally focused mindfulness co-exist? I think they not only can, but they must.
Technology is a tool, an instrument to make our lives easier and better. But it has its limitations. Technology cannot fulfill us spiritually, it cannot makes us feel more connected with ourselves – only with the external world.
For spiritual mindfulness to become relevant to our modern day lives, we first have to separate them from the supernatural and mystical baggage that makes them so difficult for us to accept.
The moment will come when, as technology simplifies our work and our lives, we will realize that just like in the Pixar movie ‘WALL-E’ – physical comfort and mental stimulation isn’t enough. That we want to feel more meaningful experiences in life than having someone “Like” our witty status updates every few hours.
That moment will see technology reach the point where computers will be able to outperform us, and humans will scratch their heads and ask themselves … What now?
Technology will never be able to write beautiful poetry like Blake, it will never be able to compose musical pieces like Bach. That is our purpose with inner work, to focus our attention on our inner world, our emotions, our thoughts and passionate desire to express them, that is what we will have left. That is all that we will have left.
To live with greater presence, meaning, and mindfulness in the technology age is what we must strive for.
A few years ago a neighbor asked me why I cut my lawn with a push-mower. I told him that motor-operated lawn mowers are corrupting society; that life is an infinite lawn, a composition of unexciting simple moments with a few ‘spikes’ of stimulation here and there.
Cutting the lawn this way has taught me to cultivate patience, to enjoy a task that is found a chore by most. Trying to get it over and done with as quickly as possible steals you of the opportunity to engage in the feelings of falling in love with the smells, the textures, the light formations, sounds and everything that simply existing offers.
The paradox is that the more you accept the unexciting aspects of life, the more exciting they become.
Unless we learn to embrace these mundane moments, without avoidance or frustration, without trying to escape the lack of stimulation that this very moment presents, we will never find peace and will insatiably hit that smartphone lever chasing after that food pellet.
Here, I’ll throw you one last pellet in the shape of a video to illustrate all of this. I hope you enjoy:
Mindfulness can not only coexist with technology, but it can enhance the experience itself. How often do you sit down on the computer, surf the internet and think “wow, I have infinite information at my fingertips. I have hundreds of thousands of people from all across planet earth to connect to, if I wish. I can share my thoughts with thousands of faces from Afghanistan to Albania, and can befriend anyone from any culture from Belarus to Brazil.” Try it. You may like it.