Harnessing Knowledge Technologies to Overcome Ignorance
Scientific and technical progress has developed exponentially in the last century, enabling unprecedented achievements in numerous fields, from medicine to space travel. Yet sometimes such progress has occurred at the expense of the sustainability of natural resources, human ethical values, and general common sense.
Despite the many previously unthinkable and game-changing innovations of our time—from real-time sensor networks powering our electronic devices, to high-speed transportation—current socio-economic systems and infrastructures are not adequate to satisfy the full spectrum of needs of humanity as a whole, neither our spiritual need for peace and happiness, nor, increasingly, our material needs, with food scarcity, the prospect of war, and all manner of threats looming large.
While it can be said that human systems (systems engineered by humans) are largely imperfect because humans themselves are imperfect, thus making the case for a much-needed paradigm shift in human consciousness evolution to further and perfect our technologies, it is also true that politics and economics have historically depended on “unenlightened” world views in which material power and wealth are achieved and maintained through war, abuse, injustice, lack of respect for others, and exploitation to the point of depletion of natural resources.
We now witness incredible paradoxes, for example world-class democracies such as the UK and the US lead in social innovation and human rights, yet also display ingrained institutional corruption, racism, and a willingness to sell weapons of mass destruction to dictatorships. Such dichotomies, difficult to reconcile within a Dharmic worldview, can be seen as an example of “duality.”
In this new column, Mindful Technology, I aim to explore and discuss the parallels between science and technology, cognition, and spiritual evolution through the study and practice of Buddhadharma, and to attempt their reconciliation within an integrated worldview.
On one hand, science and technology are advancing extremely rapidly—in one generation alone, modern civilization has seen hyperbolic leaps in communication technologies and enjoyed an unprecedented freedom to study, travel, and make lifestyle choices unknown to previous generations. On the other hand, too few individuals are concerned with the “big” questions, such as: Why do we live? What is the meaning of life? And understanding the roots of knowledge, cognition, and how the mind works and why. We are all “human,” sharing common challenges and concerns, yet each of us is different and individual in our personal life journeys.
The future of humanity may depend on our ability to understand and fulfill the purpose of its existence, that is, to come to grips with some level of philosophical enquiry while at the same time balancing economic stability and prosperity, in whichever way these can be defined, with sustainability and resource conservation challenges.
Despite much global turmoil, a paradigm shift towards sustainability and integrated lifestyles has already started, slowly, to take place—mostly silently, away from large urban settlements and at the grassroots level, with thousands of Westerners moving to rural areas of Europe and Asia to find relief from financial pressure, in search of healthier environments and less neurotic cultures. Scores of sustainable communities are forming and thriving worldwide as examples of alternatives to industrial and market economies, and are actually working and opening the way to new ways of thinking, while integrating old traditions.
Enlightenment—the state of spontaneously arising knowledge and awareness—may be possible within the natural human condition by applying the Noble Eightfold Path, resulting in altruistic behavior such as generosity and selflessness.
When considering individual human existence as inseparable from the vast natural sphere from which it springs forth, encompassing all other human, animal, and natural forms, then compassion and empathy for other beings inevitably arise. Compassionate values underscore ethical views and thinking in all traditions and are reflected in the law of karma, which is the basis of traditional Eastern philosophies and ways of life.
A very important factor to consider is interdependence. When studying the Dharma, we hear a lot about interdependent origination, which gives us much to think about on the nature, and the causes and conditions of the reality that surrounds us, as well as of the human experience that we call “life.”
One very clear example of interdependence can be applied to understanding climate change. No single country—except perhaps for remote Himalayan kingdoms (but for how long?)—is isolated from the rest of the world. For example, pollution generated in one country eventually affects the oceans, atmosphere, and climate in every other country. Another example is the diffusion of innovation: technology designed, implemented, and patented by a company in one country, quickly spreads commercially (as well as through the copying of intellectual property) to other companies, industries, and countries. Like a tide, internationalization, globalization, and technology adoption cannot be stopped.
Notions of the interconnectedness, interrelatedness, and interdependence of all phenomena are well understood in Buddhist philosophy, where they are referred to as “dependence arising,” and can help us understand some developments in the world today. One of the biggest challenges in bringing about the paradigm shift to a less materialistic, egocentric, and greedy worldview is the lack of true fundamental, existential, ontological knowledge that can bring understanding of the meaning of life and of happiness itself.
When people understand that their own happiness and personal fulfillment comes from one’s relatedness with all other parts of the universe, and that, ultimately, our happiness as individuals is directly related to our connectedness with the rest of the universe, a harmonious ecosystem, healthy, balanced integration with other species, the availability of natural resources, and general respect and care for everything that exists as a single continuum—altruism and kindness and mindfulness, starting from resource conservation to social relations, become inherent qualities of human life and can even become the meaning of life in itself.
In simple terms, Buddhist philosophy considers suffering the result of ignorance and happiness the result of knowledge. This notion inspired classical Greek philosophers, who liked it to the point of passing it for their own: To Socrates is attributed the quote, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance,” but this kind of thinking came originally from the Indian Vedas and was later experienced and expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha.
Today, the world is benefiting from the most valuable gift ever: the largest freely accessible repository of knowledge ever conceived, the World Wide Web. It is free to use and belongs to everyone. It is like the largest library that ever existed and is universally accessible from any connected device. Yet despite these qualities, the potential of the most powerful socio-technical medium that ever existed, capable of empowering endless learning and expanding cognitive capabilities and unlimited problem-solving, is nowhere close to being truly and fully leveraged and fulfilled. Far from it; it is more often a platform for marketing more goods and encouraging ever more consumption.
In future articles for this column, I plan to discuss the relevance and importance of open technologies such as the World Wide Web, as media for helping humanity increase its knowledge and wisdom.
Paola Di Maio is a systemist, researcher, a Fellow at the European SPES Institute in Hungary, and a resident of the Palpung Sherabling Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies in northern India.