If I were to wager a guess, I would say two things about you: the first is that you use some form of modern communication technology (such as e-mail or a cell phone) and have at least visited—and possibly regularly participate on—social networks like Facebook or Twitter. The second is that you have at times questioned your relationship to these technologies, asking, “Do I really need to check my e-mail and cell messages as much as I do? Is it beneficial for me to be on Facebook as much as I am? Is surfing the web how I want to spend my time right now? Am I using technology, or is it beginning to use me?”
Sometimes the most radical changes occur in the subtlest ways. Such is the case with modern communication technologies, which have silently but powerfully begun to impact more areas of our lives. In fact, recent studies suggest that, increasingly, people’s first act in the morning and last act at night is to check their e-mail. It’s as if we have a new master who demands our complete obedience: our communication devices.
In a Sheraton Hotels study of 6,500 business travelers, 35% said they would choose their PDAs or Blackberrys over their spouses.
The question for most of us is not whether we will use these technologies (we will), but how we are using them. Is it mindfully and effectively? Or is it addictively, living at the mercy of our devices, our attention bouncing around like a ping-pong ball from one website or one text message to the next? In other words, are we living what I call “disconnectedly connected”—in touch with others and the world through technology but largely disconnected from our own experience?
When we live disconnectedly connected, we become addicted, continually looking for satisfaction through our gadgets. Maybe that next e-mail will finally satisfy me . . . or that next news story . . . or that next text message. Since neither the technologies nor their content can ever provide us any lasting satisfaction, we continually seek new short “data hits,” like popping pills, jumping from one to the next, hoping that somehow we will at last find ease. Information has become the new drug of choice in our day and time. How many people do we see each day glued to the screens of their phone while walking down the street, consuming that next data hit, oblivious to the world around them. We may always be “connected,” but we are never at peace.
In a study by Pew Research, almost one-fourth (23%) of people said that they “always feel rushed.”
The communication drug is a particular challenge for this generation of young people, who are growing up immensely digitally connected. Will they use this technology consciously, or will they live something of a phantom life, out of touch with their direct experience, caught in the samsara of news, games and gadgets, disconnected from their inner lives, their mindfulness almost completely lost. I have had many parents say to me, “It’s hard to get my teenager’s attention. He is always on his computer or cell phone. I can’t talk to him.” They speak as if their child has been mentally abducted, and they do not know how to bring him back.
Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means antitechnology. In fact, I am a heavy user: I check my e-mail frequently, visit Facebook daily, have been on Twitter from the early days, and even write for the technology blog Mashable. But I agree with the concern I saw the Dalai Lama express at the recent peace summit in Vancouver against developing more affection for the devices in our lives than for the people; these devices, he explained, have no ability to show empathy back. (Ironically, as I was unable to physically attend the peace summit, thanks to the latest technologies of our age I was able to watch it for free online. And how did I know that I could watch it online for free? Twitter!)
“All these tools of tech waste our time if we’re not careful.”
It does not help to blame technology. After all, people have been caught in greed, hatred and delusion since long before cell phones and the Internet. We could “renounce” these tools, but we’d probably end up with some other addiction instead. As the fifteenth-century poet Kabir said, “I finally gave up anger, and now I notice that I am greedy all day. I worked hard at dissolving the greed, and now I am proud of myself.” A modern-day Kabir might say, “I finally gave up Twitter and Facebook, and now I talk on the phone all day. I worked hard to let go of my cell phone, and now I am angry at others who still use them.”
Our real work has less to do with technology and more to do with ourselves. The Buddha said that it is easier to conquer a thousand enemies in battle a thousand times than to conquer oneself. Were he alive today, he might say that it’s easier to conquer sending thousands of e-mails or gathering thousands of friends on Facebook than to conquer oneself. Conquering our technology addiction involves switching the priority from the external, or looking to a device or website for meaningful connection or satisfaction, to the internal, or cultivating the qualities of intention and attention in our connections. It is remembering, as Thich Nhat Hanh expressed, that the greatest gift we can give another is our true presence.
While we certainly need breaks from technology, bringing a true presence to our increasingly high-tech connections involves inviting awareness into all our actions: noticing our breath (and expectations) rise and fall as we check e-mail, generating and wishing lovingkindness as we text a friend, and watching our motivation as we post on Twitter or Facebook. After writing a book on this subject, I am now organizing a conference (titled “Wisdom 2.0”) that brings together staff from technology companies like Google and Twitter with those from wisdom traditions to explore how we can live not just constantly but consciously connected. Perhaps the spread of technology and the path of wisdom need not be opposed to one another.