When we talk about technology these days, we tend to think of hi-tech: smartphones, bioengineering, cyborgs, space travel, AI, blockchain, and so on. There is no doubt that as designers, we have brought wondrous tools into existence. Our cleverness and our success as a species go hand in hand. Now this success has brought us to a time beyond nature. As atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen and science journalist Christian Schwägerl put it: “It’s no longer us against ‘Nature.’ It’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.” It is called the Anthropocene.
The unifying principle in technology, unlike nature, is that it is designed. Our capacity to design our world is a core aspect of our humanity, and it speaks to the plasticity of our reality. Indeed, we are rather proud of that ability, which is why design in and of itself frequently becomes the end rather than the means in our search for happiness.
Animals have, at best, very limited abilities to shape their world; we take that ability for granted. Were it not for this openness, we could not conceive of change, progress, growth, or transformation. The corollary of this openness is that, turning inward, we see ourselves as evolving, able to change and grow, to master our destiny. We are essentially unfinished, not broken.
When we look at how we consume design in the larger context of the mass production infrastructure required to deliver that design to us, we see that our individual, qualitative choices (this design versus that design) take on cumulative, quantitative consequences on a global scale. In short, to understand design, we need to take a systems approach to how design became a commodity.
To get beyond the shiny, happy surface of modern design, we need to stop thinking like narcotized consumers and follow the money. We need to dig into the dark corners of what everything really costs, as sustainability crusader Annie Leonard has done with the “Story of Stuff” movement. If design is the cause, what is the effect?
Focusing on one technology or one type of impact, to the exclusion of others, misses the point. Hi-tech is sexy, but low-tech is a much more powerful quality-of-life determinant. Similarly, to discuss technology outside the context of civil society is dealing in half-truths that omit the supply chain. Technology is not a monolith. It is not one thing, but many things, depending on how we look at it. We have to wrestle with technology like a Zen koan. It is slippery; we’re only able to see it from outside our habitual mindset with great difficulty, and we can only come to know it over time.
As seductive as cutting-edge digital and biological technologies are, they are merely a sideshow. The main event is still low-tech: fire, light, shelter, food, safety. It’s all well and good to talk about whether we can build a space elevator to assist us with interplanetary travel, but what good is it if we are unable to feed and clothe the people on Earth, or to keep them safe from rising sea levels? Hi-tech is not always high value.
Magical thinking is defined by psychologists as believing that one event happens as a result of another, without a plausible link of causation. It is the exact opposite of the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination. In order to wake up from that state, one must face the realities of cause and effect, and follow the ripples outward.
The seduction of digital technology takes us from being truly present into magical thinking. It is the opposite of authentic living. Think of it as hold music, playing a Beatles song on the panpipes, with somebody coming on occasionally to say: “We’re experiencing a higher-than-usual call volume; please continue to hold. Your call is important to us.”
Life is not a selfie. Your Twitter analytics mean nothing. You have more passwords than you can possibly remember. Self-driving cars will not result in hours of leisure. When you die in real life, you really die.
If the power went out, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. Most of the world knows that, because they are still living it. But the Gods and Titans of the developed world appear to have forgotten.
On the other hand, rejection of technology is just as magical. It’s just nostalgia for a golden age that never was. Returning to a medieval worldview is no solution. Antibiotics, vaccination, buses, and family planning really work. Living off the grid is impractical for almost everyone.
To diagnose our technology addiction, we can start with some of the symptoms: dissociation from nature, loss of social cohesion, glorification of violence, a variety of physical ailments from obesity to myopia, and so on. The list is long.
Good public health policy always looks for social causes to personal problems. In this case, we find (on one hand) a barrage of advertising messages promoting the cult of the new, heavy investment in the illusion of choice in consumer goods, and an endless assortment of diversions and entertainments. On the other hand, we have over-leveraged economies, an inability to deal with disruptive technologies in the workplace, a jobs-trump-all mantra, Kafka-esque bureaucracy, scapegoating, and a sense of lurching from one crisis to the next. No wonder we’re all experiencing cognitive dissonance!
Right about here, you are probably expecting me to reveal the answer to our dilemma, the hopeful uplift that will characterize the rest of your reading. Sorry. I am completely dis-illusioned but have no answers. All I know is: our current way of life is based on unsustainable delusion.
As Abraham Lincoln once said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In Lincoln’s time, he was talking about the northern and southern American states being friends. In our time, we are talking about humans and planet Earth, and the stakes are infinitely higher. In these dark days, it is rare and precious to find those angels.
Social discounting—the cost-benefit notion that we would give up something now for a greater good for others later—on a sliding scale representing our social distance from them, is a key concept in modern foresight and strategic planning. It is frequently considered where environmental initiatives have an impact on property, jobs, and so on. Such sanguine acceptance of human nature makes for more realistic outcomes.
In these morally ambiguous times, weighing jobs in established communities and the incomes they generate versus the need to abandon a way of living that is scientifically proven to be detrimental to our future well-being, as in the case of Canada’s gas and oil patch in Alberta, is no easy matter. Thinking we can kick the can down the road and come away unscathed is a perfect example of wishful thinking.
If Buddhist practice is predicated on seeing reality for what it is, this is one facet of reality it must see. If the Bodhisattva Vow is about saving all beings in the ten directions and the three times, the green practice path is what it must entail now. If the Dharma is to remain relevant, this is what it must focus on. Anything else is irresponsible.
Kelly, Kevin. 2010. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Press.
Klein, Naomi. 2019. On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada.
Loy, David. 2019. Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
The Story of Stuff Project
A Buddhist Concept of Nature (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
Anthropocene: On the Substance of a New Idea (Triple Pundit)
Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos (YaleEnvironment360)
Valuing the Future: the social discount rate in cost-benefit analysis (Australian Government)
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Technology, Systems Thinking, Ethics, and the Dharma
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The Path of Practice in our Digital Age
Exploring Engaged Buddhism with Professor Christopher Queen