The internet has created a hyperlinked and hyperefficient world. It is a world where you can access the sum total of Western knowledge with a few keystrokes; it’s a world where is a world in which all physical needs of all people can, through technology, soon be met. In fact, it looks as if poverty in the material sense could be alleviated globally. There are many upsides to the the digital networking that characterizes our world.
But there is a major downsides, and most these trade offs are psychological in nature, imho. Online activity, especially using social media, likely decreases our attention span and increases our anxiety. The virtual world is a more immediately gratifying and entertaining substitute for real interaction. Socialization, in the form of social media feeds full of highlights, and the ease of swiping comparatively ordinary people away on Tinder puts an idealized and simplistic spin on real people and real life. Also, social media is addictive, as platforms like Facebook are formulated to be so, relying on the dopamine “kicks” of instant gratification and validation…and more ominously, it appears that the flow of information we are getting from the media can program our opinions.
Conspiracy? Not exactly. Much of the media, forced into click-baity, polarizing sensationalism by i-economics has become far removed from impartial journalistic integrity it once possessed. Algorithms detecting our clicks operate in microseconds with A-B testing; tracking what we click on versus what we don’t and bolstering more of what we do click on, which becomes a microcosm or “bubble”. News is fake and facts don’t matter. The narrative is so customized and reinforced by the assent of our friends, that it is almost impossible to understand we are in the bubble.
However, I believe there is an antidote. And it’s one you’ve heard frequently – a regular meditation practice of some kind. Why? This is a practice that, by virtue of its nature, forces you into the moment. As each thought carries us off, we redirect and that redirection teaches us, ultimately on a neurobiological level, to stay focused – a boon for navigating the internet and not being carried away by clickbait! But more importantly, the actual being in the moment is what allows us to evaluate our experience as it happens. This is a state of mind that, if cultivated through regular practice, allows us to evaluate information with what Zen Buddhists call the “beginners mind” – fresh, and not fraught with associations and biases.
Robert Pirsig, who wrote the very influential “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in a classic interview in 1974, suggested that we need to practice non-doing (meditation) as well as doing, and be good at both and use whichever one as appropriate. “When you get both of them in a mixture back and forth, you live a much fuller life”. Analyzing, clicking and reacting is doing; sometimes we need to step back and notice, non-judgmentally, this influx of information. That is non-doing.
Dr. Eric Dodson, a professor of psychology and practicing Zen Buddhist, sees meditation as being able to connect to the basis of intelligence – the receptivity of the present moment – can handle incoming information more “harmoniously”, as opposed to our standard cognitive intelligence, which analyzes and judges reactively. Says Dodson, “A mind that is always whirring frenetically is not likely to perceive the reality of the present moment clearly and accurately”. And is more prone to suggestion..
It’s all the more important in the post-internet world to be able to look at the world through the beginner’s mind, through the Zen state of receptivity. I fear if we don’t have access to this state of non-doing, to this alternative intelligence, to this beginners mind, we are going to be continued to be bobbing helplessly on waves of addictive digital constructs.
It’s also all the more important for us to be able to harness this meditative state. From a non-reactive “intelligence”, we can step back an see what’s really going on. As Pirsig said in the interview, “All that garbage in our head” has to “float away” with the purification of regular meditation and the transformation of consciousness from reactive to responsive that it encourages. In that way, you have half a chance of making up your OWN mind, and not letting some algorithm do it for you!