Is Technology Eroding Away Our ‘Conscious Self’?
21st Century Wire says…
[Dec 1, 2014]
The esoteric side to technology is a discussion which is boiling to surface like never before.
In the 21st century, what was previously classed as ‘science fiction’ is now science fact, and with this comes some of the most horrific realizations of Frankenstein technologies – like ‘The Singularity’ – an integral concept of what some liberal progressives and atheists enthusiastically refer to as transhumanism.
When Mary Shelley’s early 19th century character, Dr. Frankenstein said, “I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind – and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me”, he was really speaking to us.
So it’s interesting when theologians and monks enter the debate, helping to stretch the debate from technological, through to the esoteric, and back to the spiritual, and finally giving way to a genuine examination of the self. If technology is merely an extension of our human endowment, then where does that technological extension end?
This raises an yet another essential question for those who still consider themselves as holistic humans:
Are we really ‘present’ when we immerse ourselves into our virtual world of convenience and technology?
Here’s one monk’s introspective contribution to the technology discussion…
Gadgets, Distractions, and the Art of Presence
Though I’ve long been curious about him, I have not yet read the works of the Canadian philosopher, technology theorist, and Catholic convert Marshall McLuhan.
But my interest was piqued by an Internet discussion regarding McLuhan’s idea of technologies as “extensions of man.” An online acquaintance of mine, the electronic musician and author Alex Reed, outlined McLuhan’s view that our inventions are really ways of extending our bodies and minds: “the wheel externalizes the foot, writing externalizes speech … electricity externalizes the nervous system,” and so on, in Reed’s words. Our tools, on this account, enhance and extend the reach of our organic human functions.
This intriguing view of technology dovetails with a practical consideration of mine: namely, my own relationship to technology and media. Since I intend to become a monastic postulant in a matter of weeks, I am trying – though not always hard enough – to rein in my use of online social media. Things like Facebook are not entirely off-limits in our monastery, and they can sometimes serve good purposes in the life of the Church; but in general, the Internet, and social media in particular, are not conducive to contemplative solitude and interior silence.
It can be hard to change our habits if we do not know what drives them. So I have been trying to understand why I – who have criticized many facets of modern culture, including its aversion to silence – find it hard to break away from the parade of online news and commentary. If our technologies “externalize” some preexisting aspect of ourselves, what is one externalizing through his fixation on a real-time stream of news and discussion?
One of the answers to that question is obvious (though for that reason, not very deep or helpful): clearly, the Internet is a great “extension,” in McLuhan’s sense, of our nature as interconnected social beings. Digging deeper, however – and bearing in mind the idea of electronic media as an extended and enhanced “nervous system” – there is another way in which the Internet externalizes our mental abilities, for good or ill.
One defining features of human nature is that our minds are not bound by time and space as our bodies are. Physically, we can only be in one time and place at once; but the mind can – and often does – go elsewhere on a regular basis. The mind is often at work sorting through the data of various places and times, going over all kinds of facts, memories, and ideas in its ongoing (and not always fully conscious) search for the greater meaning and purpose of what it meets in the realm of experience.
This ability to be “elsewhere” – to go outside the bounds of our circumstances; to imagine, explore, and theorize – is a great strength of the mind, a strength the Internet can bolster. Nonetheless, the ability to be “elsewhere,” mentally stepping outside the present moment, is not always a strength. Anyone who has suffered distractions in prayer, or found it hard to focus on any other task, knows the downside of the mind’s freedom to roam and ruminate.
When we extend our minds, in McLuhan’s sense, through the use of electronic media, we externalize both the mind’s strengths and its weaknesses. The Internet enables our curiosity and speculative capacities (our abilities to “be elsewhere” in at least potentially good ways), but it also empowers our pre-existing inner capacity for distraction – the ability to be elsewhere when we ought to be present here and now. Without such technology, the mind “goes elsewhere” on its own: surfing through its inner realm of facts, commentary, and possibilities. With the Internet, it does so externally and visibly.
McLuhan’s idea of externalization suggests that our deepest problem is not our relationship to technology, but something more ingrained. Long before “smartphone” entered the dictionary, each of us carried around a resource with amazing powers of access and connection, as well as vast potential for distraction and self-indulgence. That resource is our own mind. Today, we have simply externalized and boosted its abilities and habits.
We may cringe at the sight of two people sitting across a restaurant table, both absorbed in their smartphones. But how often have we met with a friend or loved one, and ended up absorbed in our own inner thoughts and concerns, of one kind or another? It is the same tendency: unsatisfied with present reality – for trivial or serious reasons, or no reason at all – we look for ways to be elsewhere, ways of escape that become habitual and start feeling necessary.
Our dependence on technology turns out to be a symptom, more than a cause. Fundamentally, we lack training in the art of presence. It is not easy, as the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Thomas Hopko put it, to “be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.”
Yet our problem with technology is also an opportunity. In a world of ever-multiplying distractions and mental getaways, we can take another path by learning the art of presence.
I began to think about technology, and its relationship to the declining art of presence, when I recently made a series of trips to the post office near closing time. Some days the line moves quickly, but at other times, there is a lot of lag. It is the kind of familiar, everyday tedium that prompts many people to reach for their mobile device, fire up the Internet, and seek out something else: something new to think about, react to, appreciate, or criticize.
It makes sense that we want this: the mind craves stimulation and escape in the midst of seemingly dull experiences. But if we habitually use technology to give the restless mind what it wants, we will never become skilled in engaging fully with life as it is. And this inability will become a long-term problem: weakening our relationships with other people, and our connection to God – who is completely present in life’s ordinary details, just as much as in its peak experiences. It is only a question of our awareness.
The inability to stand in a long line without checking Facebook, or endure rush-hour traffic without the radio, turns out to be related to the more serious disconnections in our lives. We find it hard to give full, dedicated attention to someone whose interests differ from ours; or we meet with great difficulty when it is time to focus directly on God in worship or personal prayer. In some ways, the problem is not so mysterious: if we have not trained ourselves to be present, awake, and attentive in the small matters of daily life, we cannot expect the skill to materialize suddenly in more important moments.
“Appreciate your life!” – this was the refrain of the Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi; and while there is more to life than this, the practice of appreciation is crucial. It makes us more fully present to God, to the people around us, and to the amazing fact of our very existence.
Among other things, appreciation means not doing things simply in order to get them over with and move on to the next thing (to be discharged, most likely, in the same spirit!). To engage fully, even with life’s basic tasks – brushing our teeth, taking out the trash, washing dishes – is worthwhile in itself, and also prepares us for those moments in which our full attention is more important. Our life is full of chances to practice not “going elsewhere.” We learn to engage with what is before us, instead of surfing the mental web of memories, speculations, and commentary…
READ MORE TRANSHUMANISM NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Transhumanist Files
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