ABOVE THE MIST, Eagle Valley, view Southwest, last light (XII.31.2007) [click photo for next . . . ]
Northeast Oregon . . .
On the road in the Northwest of America.
HI-TECH / NO-TECH
The simplest and most powerful of all
possible tests is the test of doing without.
As far as I can see, there is only one way to understand the relationship
between myself and the technology upon which I depend: do without
it for a while. In the quiet interval in which the machines are turned off,
I can observe both what they give, and what they take away, both how
they empower, and how they disempower.
I think of this as a kind of high-tech fasting.
(see my FASTING AS PRINCIPLE) This is fasting in a very
much more general sense than we usually think of it. It is fasting in the
spirit of asking a question: What will happen if I stop doing this? In
questions of diet, for example, it is easy to see how this works. What
will happen if I stop eating overly sweet, or salty, or fatty foods? I simply
stop eating these, and within a week or two, my body comes back
with an answer.
With technology like cellphones and wireless laptops, this fasting
works in essentially the same way. I stop using them for an extended
period of time and see what happens. Leaving the problem of the
potentially harmful constant immersion in electromagnetic fields of varying
strengths aside, what is interesting about these digital tools is not
just how they work in and of themselves, but also the fact that they are
now connected to an unprecedented non-stop world-wide web of po315
tential, not just information, but also distraction. Now that the Internet
and the Web are for many people “always on,” even when on the move,
the problem of the mind wandering off to read and send messages or
read news reports, watch videos, etc., has become nearly universal. In
other words, the contemporary mind, whereas it has been tremendously
amplified in its creative power by all these new technologies, has at the
same time become a mind which is essentially in a permanent state of
It’s interesting I think that the sound of the word “distraction” itself
reveals that it is closely related to other states of psychological concern
like “disturb,” or “fracture.” We have in the Latin root of distraction two
parts, dis = “apart”+ trahere = “draw or drag.” So the image is one of
one’s self being dragged apart, as it were, like the two horses of a chariot
taking off in different directions. But what precisely is being drawn
apart? In the most basic sense, it is my awareness or my attention.
Attention we might think of here, following Krishnamurti, as an unforced
state of mind which is unique for this very reason of being undivided,
and is altogether different from mere concentration, which always has
something forced about it because of a division of some kind.
I discovered for myself something about the nature of distraction some
time ago in my troubled relationship with telephones. For me, the problem
is straight forward: I don’t like them. I noticed that I do not want
to be interrupted, especially not at random intervals, and even more
especially interrupted by sharp, loud, sounds of any kind. So, for better
or worse, I got rid of phones in my life. Already twenty years before
the introduction of the now-dominant cellphone. The question everyone
must ask themselves now is: which is more important, a kind of background
which encourages a calm, steady, focused state of awareness,
or one which is constantly connected to random bursts of mostly
nonrelevant, i.e., disturbing information.
The more subtle and less obvious aspect of this problem is that, as I
like to say to friends, if you think you can be interrupted, you already
are. In other words, at a deeper level of our psyche—the part of us,
say, that will without the slightest bit of training sit straight up in the
tent with a shock of fear upon hearing what one thinks is a bear walking
around a camp in the middle of the night—this deeper level of
the psyche constantly monitors in a wonderfully unconscious way
the potential for disturbance. It does this evidently so we can give our
attention to other, more important matters. So my theory is that we
are by immersing ourselves in this chaotic sea of potential high-tech
interruptions overloading this inner circuitry to the point of abuse and
near break down or collapse. In other words, just the mere possibility
of interruption is simply still more interruption in a yet more insidious,
subtle form. Such thoughts do a lot more mischief at deeper levels of
the psyche— both public and private—than I think we realize or are
willing to admit.
Let me illustrate this idea with a little anecdote. One of my passions is
teaching, especially the performance of classical music. Well, once not
that long ago, I was working with a string quartet made up of North
American young people. The cellist was late to the rehearsal. She then
walked in, sat down, and even before tuning up, put her cellphone on
the floor in front of her. I was new to this, so I thought I would not say
a word and simply observe how things progressed from there. The first
thing I noticed is how the three other slightly younger musicians were
magically drawn into this contemporary digital object of desire. They
could not keep their eyes off of it. Now meaning, especially musical
meaning, is a mysterious thing. What the cellphone-as-hip-consummer-
artifact did and does is in a way not just disrupt or break apart the focus
of the rehearsal space; it totally usurps meaning and attention. I could
before my very eyes see this wonderful élan vital that great music gives
young people go straight down a dark, dank hole into some demonic
So, the two great dangers of high-tech distraction in the view being
sketched here are: First, this break up of awareness to the point that it
cannot focus creatively on much of anything. And second, as people
become more aware of the first tendency, there is a very real danger that
they will simply react mechanically without understanding and reject
all new technology altogether. My feeling is that we are already seeing a
radical increase of both.
The whole purpose of this kind of philosophical discourse is here
simply not to be swept away by a growing wave of irrational sentiment
concerning very real problems. I would argue for a more measured
approach. As I’ve outlined elsewhere (see The Liberation Triangle below),
as far as children are concerned, the first thing to try doing without is
television. Why? Because commercial television, in dramatic contrast
to the computer, is distraction not because of abuse or misuse, but rather
distraction by design.
But don’t take my word for it. You can easily test the theory for yourself.
Experiment. Pull out the plug. And best of all, get in the habit of
walking, going on treks, immersing yourself for an hour, a day, or a
whole week or two in wild nature. And because you can only take so
much with you, you must go through the ritual of deciding what. What
are the essentials; what can be left behind. It is a life-long discipline
that reveals more than I can say.
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Eagle & Powder
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