Buddha’s Middle Way on Technology

On Monday I had a wonderful evening at an event bringing academia and the community together, featuring none other than my wonderful girlfriend, Ms. Emily Rhodes (and four other speakers). The event was called “Whose street is it, anyway?” and it brought together the Bristol Faculty of Arts and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC, check out their blog), a local neighborhood group fighting to bring control of their area back to the people.

In terms of starting a much needed conversation, the night was perfect. I didn’t jot down names or credentials, but the panel consisted of two men who worked with the PRSC, one as an artistic activist who has been transitioning into academia, and the other as a community organizer, a woman active in the Bristol/Stokes Croft arts scene with a strong anarchist background, Emily, who talked about her PhD in Theology work on Medieval Catholic female saints and her own outreach through the charity, One25, to Bristol’s street based sex workers, and a fellow academic in the History Dept working on public space in Soviet Russia, specifically in Moscow.

So we had artists, activists, a student of medieval saints, communism, anarchism, and pretty much everything in between.

While there were many important topics discussed, the one that caught my ear most prominently was that of technology. It was introduced by the historian as something negative: she spoke of students walking into lamp-posts as they text on their iPhones. Technology can not only distract us from the important things in our life: family, community, taking care of our own health, it can distract us from what is physically right in front of us:

Quite recently a  woman walked right into Lake Michigan while texting away. Another woman walked off a pier in Indiana. “While [she] was definitely embarrassed by the incident, she wants people to understand how texting while walking can be a problem. In an interview with the news affiliate, [she] stated “I couldn’t let pride stand in my way of warning other people to not drive and text or walk and text. It can be dangerous.” And just last month here in England, another woman, while texting, walked into an icy canal.

This is one extreme in technology.

At what point does technology so impact the human person that it fundamentally changes what it means to be a person? Has that point already come and gone? And when we look at what we can do, does can mean ought? Is there a point at which technology so infiltrates personhood that it actually begins to weaken the species? Has technology become fully woven into the story of how humans evolve? Is that good? Is that what we want? (via paperback theology)

In some people’s cases, as in texting while driving, it already has gone too far. It will cost lives. And while we may have a rise in Darwin awards, I’m not sure what, beyond common-sense legislation and, you know, warning other people not to do this, we can do about humanity’s hedonic drive toward constant stimulation.

Then there are the over three billion people in the world who live in less than $2.50/day, and the 5+ billion people living on under $10/day. These are people for whom access to the internet and a cell phone might be a God-send, connecting them with job opportunities, community development services, NGOs, and relatives who otherwise would have been a world away in just the next province or state searching for work of their own.

I think of that man I photographed above, just outside a Jain temple in Old Delhi, India, and I have little worry that technology will be a detriment to his life. In fact I saw this all over India, people making ‘leaps’ in technology – getting internet and a cell phone before they had proper sewage or running water, and from those I spoke with, the benefit was obvious and overwhelming. One used a computer to ensure that his son got the very best education possible, another relied on his mobile phone for rare-but-precious work opportunities. There, people make the best use they can of each bit of technology. This is where our community activists and organizers saw themselves, praising technology as a generally good thing.

This is the other extreme.

One might be tempted to say that the true ‘other extreme’ lies in luddites who oppose new technology completely, but I think that such people are in fact so rare as to not deserve mention.  Or perhaps those ‘uncontacted peoples’ who have no modern technology at all, but again this is too extreme and small a group to merit our attention here, simply because they risk much chance of truly influencing our understanding and use of technology.

The middle way between these two extremes simply involves using the technology we are privileged to have (assuming that nearly all of my readers live on $10/day or more) without losing sight of their function of serving us, vs us serving them.

No piece of technology will be intrinsically good or bad. What will matter is how we use it. It is up to us. This is the Buddha’s message.

Google Glass seems to be the latest piece of technology to elicit both fears and hopes for the future. One story begins, “Call me paranoid, but I think Google Glass is scary.” Another story worries about the power of data extrapolation in the new hardware. Here’s a look at what Google promises:

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However, there is hope.

Bodhipaksa, one of my early teachers, has recently suggested that Google Glass could be a tool for Awakening. Specifically, he has contacted Google with three proposals in the hope of getting an early trial pair:

#ifihadglass I would explore how to use it as a mindfulness tool — a way of being intensely in the moment. I would explore ways, in my capacity as a meditation teacher, to harness this new technology to create a more mindful, compassionate, and joyful world.

#ifihadglass it would be to use it as a mindfulness teaching tool, plucking moments of beauty from ordinary life, creating full-immersion audiovisual haikus to share with the world, showing how every moment is a opportunity for experiencing appreciation and wonder.

#ifihadglass I would help create a future where friends and families can be apart and yet together. I would help bring about a new kind of world where geography is overcome by the electronic telepathy of Glass.

That sounds good to me, and I hope to Google as well. It is perfectly within the spirit of harnessing technology for human development, greater wellbeing, greater awareness – all qualities promoted by the Buddha.

What do you think?

  • Bodhipaksa

    The Glass project interests me as someone who has for the last twelve years been exploring how to use modern technologies, from the web to videoconferencing, in order to teach meditation and Buddhism. In my mind is a question: if an app was designed to help us get enlightened, what would it look like? How would it function? Glass, I think offers an excellent delivery vehicle for short practice reminders, like “mindfulness bells” but with conceptual content that encourages us to engage with our experience and a deeper level, and to practice more intensely in daily life.

  • Adam

    All technology is inherently violent. From the manufacturing, to the electricity used to power them, to the toxic chemicals leaching form the land fills every step involves some form of violence. I agree that technology can be used for good education, employment, empowerment, and other things. But we should not let ourselves be deceived that technology is good or even neutral.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for the comment, Adam. I may have held similar views at one point, but I’ve given them up as too broad and extreme. The printing press is essentially an early and very transformative piece of technology. We could perhaps say it was invented out of greed or aversion, or the books printed on it were, or that it was physically made in inhumane conditions (as many computer products are today), but the piece of technology itself is not violent. We have a responsibility to ensure the ethical development of the technology and products we use, but only so far. We are not, as perhaps some Jains might be, encouraged to avoid all action (karma) which might directly or indirectly harm another being.

  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    Technology is breaking up the harmony of the village life styles in rural Asia. I have a picture of a tribal bay in SE Asia standing up against the TV watching Tom and Jerry in their house with a dirt floor. I think that TV and video games break up the mind. Great post.

  • http://atomicgeography.com atomic geography

    I think you’re painting wth too broad a brush here. What technology? You seem to focus on communcations technology. If that’s your area let me recommend http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/ as a terrific resource.

    But all this stuff has mlitary applcations, or has been develoed by the mlitary. The issues here get scary pretty quickly.

  • http://www.moralobjectivity.net Robert M Ellis

    I left a comment on here the other day and it seems to have been swallowed up by the ether. I’ll try again.

    I like the fact that you’re using the Middle Way here, but it doesn’t seem to be used with any kind of precision. This is something I find surprising for a scholar of Buddhist ethics. The Middle Way promoted by the Buddha (with capitals because it’s a specific kind of middle way) is not just any old compromise, but a navigation between two opposed metaphysical positions. If you’re going to be traditionalist, those positions would have to be eternalism and nihilism, but if, like me, you think it is legitimate to generalise what the Buddha says about these to other metaphysical dualisms, it might be other kinds of opposed positions. Either way, it’s the views behind tendencies of action that form the basis of the Middle Way. An uncritical acceptance of technology as absolutely and unconditionally good would certainly be one kind of metaphysical belief, but the positive use of technology by people in developing countries would not be its opposite. Rather its opposite would be Luddism. There are a few people, including some Buddhists, who refuse to use the internet or computers. Whether you see this as the other extreme to be avoided has nothing to do with how many people take this position: rather it’s conceptually determined.

    I do think the Middle Way can be very fruitfully applied to moral issues around the use of technology, as it can to any other moral issue, but it does need to be thought out if it’s going to make sense (and not be instantly dismissed by the traditional Buddhist rule-followers or the naturalistic secularists). Whether technology is absolutely good or absolutely evil is one possible metaphysical dualism to be avoided, but there are others. Another one is freewill and determinism: one could believe either that our use of technology is inevitable and unavoidable (thus avoiding all responsibility for it) or that we have complete control over technology because it all depends on how we use it (which would depend on a metaphysical freewill belief). Your Google Glass example also makes me think of another metaphysical pair, idealism and materialism/realism: one could either believe that Google Glass is part of one’s own mind, or that it is entirely separate from it, and thus that it is either completely transparent and integrated with our outlook or that it is alien to it. Either of these would be deluded because they are based on the projection of absolute assumptions onto the complexity of what we actually experience.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Many thanks for this very thoughtful comment, Robert. Your charge of imprecision is very fair. I began the post thinking somewhat about the two ends of the economic spectrum and the encounter with technology. The historian’s comments echoed my own philosophy professor Albert Borgmann’s worries about technology a bit, and it – in this context at least – came across as somewhat elitist. Yes, at one end of the scale, many people are taking technology to a destructive extreme – but the problem isn’t the technology, it’s the people (which can then be analysed in terms of intentions, degrees of greed/hatred/delusion, etc, causes and conditions, etc.).

      Again, I dismiss Luddites – I’ve never met one, as far as I know. (Borgmann was accused of it and defended himself, saying something to the effect that as long as technology merely mediates engagement and does not become the ‘object’ with which one engages or an obstacle/distraction from what one is bodily engaged in now, then he is okay with it.)

      So I chose to set out those for whom more technology can be a wonderful thing as the opposite extreme case (not using the Middle Way in a technically correct ‘Buddhist’ manner, I know). Most of us are somewhere in the middle, perhaps leaning toward the people falling in canals. I think we need to reflect on our own use of technology as we float in this middle area, and that reflection can profit from Buddhist teachings around intention, mind states (is my ‘wanting’ a new computer just a craving, or can it be justified on honestly compassionate grounds?), and so on.

      So yes, much imprecision here, but hopefully still worthy as a conversation starter.

  • http://www.moralobjectivity.net Robert M Ellis

    Hmm. Well, you do put in your title ‘Buddha’s Middle Way….’. I would have thought that if you’re going to invoke the Buddha’s Middle Way as explicitly as this, you should take it more seriously. If you’d just called it ‘A middle way on technology’ then we might expect something less precise and not be disappointed.

    What I find most frustrating in this area is that many Buddhists, particularly in the Triratna, do frequently use the Middle Way, implicitly or explicitly, as the basis of moral comment. So your post is another example of that. Yet at the same time, when I start trying to explore with them what the basis of that moral approach that they use in practice is, they will often then fail to connect it with ethics at all, and fall back either on the traditional staples of karma, precepts and monastic rules, or the new secularist approach that sees ethics as conventional or derives it from aesthetic experience in meditation. On the one hand people use the Middle Way as a moral criterion, and on the other they are not interested in exploring what it means as a moral criterion. Contradictory or what?

  • http://www.attendingmylife.com Rosanna Sanger

    I loved your article. For me, it is as simple as asking myself each time I use technology, “What good will come of this?” If, in any way, my use of said technology creates unease or harm on another, or feeds on my own negative mind traps, then I am not using it in a mindful way. If, on the other hand, I use it to communicate love, compassion, care, or in some way make it a means of connecting to another in a genuine way, then the technology is but a vehicle of my spiritual journey. Thanks again…

  • kalimsaki

    It is just like a man who steals a brass coin from the public treasury; he can only justify his action by agreeing to take a silver coin for each of his friends who is present. So the man who says: “I own myself,” must believe and say: “Everything owns itself.”

    Thus, while in this treacherous position, the ‘I’ is in absolute ignorance. Even if it knows thousands of branches of science, with compounded ignorance it is most ignorant. For when its senses and thoughts yield the lights of knowledge of the universe, those lights are extinguished because such an ‘I’ does not find any material within itself with which to confirm, illuminate, and perpetuate them. Whatever it encounters is dyed with the colours that are within it. Even if it encounters pure wisdom, the wisdom takes the form, within that ‘I’ , of absolute futility. For the colour of an ‘I’ that is in this condition is atheism and ascribing partners to God, it is denial of God Almighty. If the whole universe is full of shining signs, a dark point in the ‘I’ hides them from view, as though extinguished.

    The nature of man and the ‘I’ within his nature have been explained clearly and in detail in the Eleventh Word, as indicating something other than themselves. They are shown to be a most sensitive scale and accurate measure, an encompassing index and perfect map, a comprehensive mirror, and a fitting calendar and diary for the universe. Since we consider the explanation in that Word to be sufficient and it may be referred to, we curtail and conclude the introduction here. If you have understood the introduction, come, let us enter upon the truth.