I believe our habits here on our browser, on Reddit/Facebook, and on our phones and apps are directly connected with our meditation practice, our attempts to bring mindfulness into our lives, and consequentially, this tempest comes together to shape our moment-to-moment experience of being human in 2017.
I’ve attempted to explore these connections, hopefully to draw lines between our habits around technology – your habits, your meditation practice, and the fullness and clarity with which you live your life.
I suspect if you could hop into an average mind from 1950, you would notice some substantial differences from your moment-to-moment experience today.
Nearly all beings – animals and humans – have conditioning.
But we have the ability – the space – to see our conditioning and choose something different. This is the grand achievement of the prefrontal cortex… To select our own direction and make it so – when most animals don’t. An angry animal barks or bites, and changing behavior is a matter of re-conditioning. But humans? We have this unique power – the ability to reflect on our behavior and put steps into place to change ourselves over time. We have the ability to play the trainer and the puppy to ourselves.
Lately I can’t help but notice all the ways technology is undermining this aspect of our humanity- this more recently evolved hardware which seems to be our real “elevating” asset.
It seems our habits around technology undermine our prefrontal cortex quite directly: how we interact with our phones, browser tabs, news, tv, and more literally rewires our minds in a way that undermines our ability to choose how we deploy our attention.
I believe we can sense this intuitively, but to see it being backed up by research is important. Let me repeat the point:
The hardware in the brain that allows humans to be human is being undermined directly by the habitual, addictive manner that we engage with technology (information stimulation). We can see this both experientially and scientifically.
This directly impairs our ability to be self-aware, to understand ourselves, and direct our own lives. And this hugely consequential, in both big ways and small.
My favorite basic and cliche example in our culture of the difficulties the lack of awareness can cause is seen by picturing a TV archetypal High School jock:
Our imagined young guy is into “guy stuff,” but one night he’s clicking around on Youtube, finds some Taylor Swift, and begins dancing in his room. Suddenly, his sister bursts in and they both freeze. A moment of complete silence and non-motion from both family members, time seems like it may have literally just stopped. But then suddenly, like hitting play on a paused movie, the young guy and brother goes 0 to 60: “GET OUT, YOU BITCH! You never respect my privacy!” He proceeds to go to his google chat and then his phone to text, complaining to his friends about how is sister is literally the worst.
If we were to ask him about what’s going on, he would report anger. But, growing up and becoming an adult means growing our understanding of ourselves. In this context, most adults today have grown up, having built the requisite self-understanding to know EXACTLY what’s going on: he’s actually insecure and embarrassed, and using anger (as many do, especially men in our culture) to avoid feeling insecure.
This is simply a single scenario. But I believe, scenarios only slightly more sophisticated than this are being played out unnecessarily across our culture, in our homes and workplaces due to our own lack of skill and self-understanding. And – importantly, our ignorance precipitated and trained by an ever growing ubiquity of technology. We are systematically training ourselves to weaken the muscles of understanding and self-regulation… We are systematically training minds which, by habit, fall into ignorant, avoiding patterns.
This connection – outside of the scientific literature – is difficult to see unless you have personal experience with a meditation practice, with technology addiction – or both.
However, I believe (I hope) that any can look into this carefully and see … see undeniably that our relationship to technology is one of the most compelling, consequential issues of our time and for our species.
Growing Wisdom or Growing Power?
Our society can grow simply in power: bigger guns, bigger bombs, better tech, etc. We can become the “gods” that the Marvel or DC Comic depict (powerful, immature children).
Or, we can grow up. It’s possible (and actually, a common situation) to have incredibly powerful politicans, incredibly skilled athletes, intelligent scholars, and even heroes on screen who operate with complete immaturity like our High School senior.
What good is power, when it is wielded by a directionless fool?
It has been great folly of our society to conflate the two – or perhaps more accurate to say, to simply only value power (usually intellectual power) so completely and unilaterally.
As far as I’ve seen, most children are raised by children in adult bodies – never matured much past that of a High Schooler. Most of us don’t come into contact with someone we can say is truly wise, and most of us never come into contact with a living manifestation of a wisdom tradition. In fact, just reading that sentence might seem a bit “woo-wooey” to many. This, to us, seems like something reserved for the “Dumbledore” archetype characters – reserved for works of fantasy and fiction.
As far as I can tell, secular wisdom traditions are more accessible than ever. Technology in its various forms seem to be actively working against… preventing us from even recognizing (let alone integrating) this knowledge.
As one teacher said, it takes wisdom to see wisdom. One cannot understand intuitively the insecurity in our High School senior, if one had not traveled the same path path, finally understanding their own insecurities more clearly. Bring another peer to the situation and they will simply commiserate over their “awful siblings.”
A parent, feeling their anger, worry, and frustration and acting instead out of compassion, patience, and love, cannot be understood by a wining child in front of them. Instead, the parent might simply seem like a tyrant.
Sometimes, we play this compassionate parental role for each other, our peers. We choose not to act on our anger and frustration and instead put it down, trying to mend a relationship with a friend or make up from an argument. Sometimes we can see this attempt in the other, and this (mutual) recognition itself is a pathway to reconciliation.
So, we can safely say at best we are *sometimes* in a position recognize wisdom, more likely rarely.
And, as I’ll argue below, our near constant use of technology undermines both our ability to manifest and recognize wisdom.
Technology, Future Me, and Wisdom
First and more simply, we can see that technology trains our attention in a certain way – hijacking our reward systems to diminish our ability to direct and sustain attention in a intentional, conscious way. If interested, make a cursory google of “dopamine + internet” demonstrates (some books, such as the Shallows, go into more detail).
This is all very useful, but I am particularly interested in a different side, of this problem – the experiential side of always getting our way.
That is, after all, all we’re doing when we’re opening new tabs furiously, binging Netflix, or reaching down for our phone unconsciously.
Some in Zen tradition have called “picking and choosing mind.” Let me explain.
We want something when we act, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. We are looking for a feeling when we open a tab, reach for our phone, turn on Netflix. And before we do this action, craving occurs. It’s as though we get a brief taste of “it” and seek more.
When we habitually become powerless to this craving, we call it addiction. But unfortunately, our culture fails to see how our habits are all interconnected. How our habitual choices and habits with our use of tabs, Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Phone, video games, news, etc – influences our entire decision making process. Our ability to sit still on a meditation mat, our ability to hold attention on a task at work or school, our ability to do something uncomfortable to achieve our life goals is one in the same with our Reddit habits, or social media, or whatever your poison is.
Many things in my life I have wanted to do and failed – to establish a new habit, to learn about something which took effort, to grow a skill – and it has all taken effort.
In all of these cases, my failure to execute my desired change in my life can be broken down into many smaller decisions:
If I wanted to stop playing video games so much and instead dedicate more time to meditation, each failure was a simple moment:
- When the thought came to mind to go meditate (or whatever you want to do that is not yet a habit), my mind was met with an “ugghh.” It feels uncomfortable. My brain puts up a fight.
- And when the thought comes to mind to go play video games (or whatever it is you habitually do for pleasure), my mind gets an “oooh, ahh!”
My failure, then, is my inability to face this feeling, and feel it completely, and in the heart of this storm choose the thing I really want.
Have you heard of the marshmallow experiment? it’s quite popular by now:
Kids were told to wait 20 minutes with a marshmallow in front of them, and they could get two. And this test was hugely predictive of life success. And what did the Marshmallow Test require of a successful kid? The ability to feel the discomfort of “wanting” for a few minutes.
In my own life, I feel as though I am faced with this test throughout my day. When I want to get my way, when my inner brat, when my inner “picking and choosing” mind wins, I give in to not feeling bad (or seeking the good feeling) and choose something immediate, temporary, over the bigger thing. The thing I really want.
I started paying attention to this muscle as if it were a thing unto itself – across habits.
And I started noticing something: it was as though this force came up ALL over the place: It fought back against my efforts to improve my workouts, to become more productive at my projects at work, to meditate more, to cook more complex recipes, to be better via some of my own habit patterns in my interpersonal relationships – EVERYTHING.
It was as though I could see a single common thread across it all: I was – as a matter of habit – turning towards “that feels nice” and against what I knew to be what I really, actually wanted.
This has far reaching consequences – try this oatmeal experiment and see for yourself. When your mind doesn’t like something, there’s a lot of habit momentum behind that preference.
In meditation (I’m a Zen student), meditation often means seeing these preferences and impulses and… not moving. Seeing the tempest rage as the silent awareness – the clear sky holding it all. There is a tremendous, indescribable shift that occurs when we step outside of being the storm and start to see the storm. A certain ease and happiness arises, and a sense of new freedom to choose what we really want seems to manifest.
But, this seems to harshly, starkly contrast with my experience – and addiction to – information stimulation. For me, personally, that’s Reddit, email, browsing tabs, video games, and online show watching (like Netflix), and more recently political media/news.
Instead of seeing my impulse and making a CHOICE, I find myself unconsciously moving, not even noticing when “I” decided to reach for my phone, open my browser, or make the decision to put on a show. Furthermore, I’ve sensed an incredibly strong correlation, a powerful pattern across time periods in my life:
My own control over my technology habits seems to exist whenever my meditation practice is strong, my interpersonal relationships healthy, and my work productive. As if it were a single muscle, when I weaken the “getting-my-way-like-a-brat” muscle it makes making the bigger choice not just more easy, but actually enjoyable. A certain momentum starts to appear.
And when I find myself spending more and more time in the aforementioned technological time sinks? Well… I find myself confused at my inability to do the things I want to do in the other areas of my life. Everything is more difficult. It takes effort and feels so difficult – just to say, clean up the kitchen.
What Does This Mean?
I believe our habit energy of indulging our technological stimulations sit at odds with our larger aspirations. Our idiosyncratic, personal goals – the stuff we really want to achieve – the way we want to grow – at odds with how we live and how we use technology.
It sounds like a trite, overtalked about topic at this point, but we obviously know that these tech companies, video game companies, social media companies are actively working to capture our attention. Video game companies employ behavioral to perfect “Skinner Box” techniques to manipulate users. Facebook and other social media companies employ teams of people whose only deploy algorithms to do nothing but keep you on site. To trick you into spending just another second longer there.
Sam Harris interviews a former technology ethicist from Google and they talk about how Google, Facebook, and others have teams of people who design “blind” algorithms to maximize our attention at any cost. This goes even beyond an algorithm blindly maximizing media that makes us angry, outraged, and hateful in order to maximize “time on site.”
In one amazing and horrifying instance, it is said that algorithms could predict bipolar episodes in people before there were any physical or medical symptoms detectable by a doctor. And knowing this, the algorithm could serve them content because they were more susceptible to feeling lonely or sad.
This is the strategy of every major information and social media company. This is not even an open secret. It’s just accepted that this is how it is. Accepted in an obvious, nothing is wrong sort of way that companies are actively strategizing on how to best tap into the older, reactive, unconscious parts of our brains. Strengthening our unconscious selves, reactive selves.
We know from neuroplasticity research that our individual brains literally rewire. Our species is literally being changed by technology en masse, to grow the reactive parts of our brain that encourage us to deny reality, to take sides in incredibly tribalistic and angry ways, to thoughtlessly live life according to our habits and not our choices, to live easily instead of wisely.
I’ve seen this picture before, but I always took it casually and as a partial joke.
But today I see there is a serious game being played that is already creating a divergence in our species in real, meaningful ways. The very thing that made us human – different from the animal kingdom – is being systematically diminished – perhaps removed.
I think this is why I’ve just been so fascinated by it lately – where is the army of people working against this force – in favor of the force to take back our lives, our culture, our society and politics and communities?
Some of us, in our various niches and disparate communities recognize some part of this pattern in our own lives. These Reddit communities, for example, demonstrate how various communities are all sensing this encroachment and fighting back in isolated ways:
- “Get Disciplined” – 220,000 subscribers
- “No Fap” (Porn/Masturbation) – 236,000 subscribers
- “No Surf” (Internet) – 8,000 subscribers
- “Stop Gaming” – 12,000 subscribers
- “Zen Habits” – 138,000 subscribers
- “Anti Consumption” – 50,000 subscribers
- “Get Motivated” – 12 million subscribers
Nearly all of the top 50 subreddits, unlike the list above, are designed to give you a quick hit of an experience you like. Whether delivering cute puppies in “aww” or funny jokes, or controversial news. Ironically, the one subreddit that can hang with the big boys that is also thematically at least, aligned with the others above is “Get Motivated.” However, its popularity is only due to the fact that a majority of its content are gifs and memes. It’s essentially a quick hit of dopamine like the others.
This is where the masses of our species play – and only a narrow percentage recognize – let alone fight back – let alone successfully – against this momentum of habit energy (collective and personal).
These communities however give me inspiration – they are made up of people who at least recognize and are looking for a new way. Filled with people – some at least – who found success – who willingly tried something a little uncomfortable for a while and saw amazing results: more energy, more confidence, more concentration, and ease and enjoyment of life, etc.
There’s a lot at stake, and I think of it in serious, grave terms: It’s not just our social dynamics or tech habits – but the very experience of what it means to be human.
I don’t have answers and I don’t have action items. But this is where my attention is lately – within myself, and outside of myself across my peers and the rest.