In Answer to Olivia Jeffers’, “Thoughts on Technology after 100 Hours of Meditation”

Some quick comments to an interesting article published by Olivia Jeffers, titled, Thoughts on Technology after 100 Hours of Meditation. Well worth the read if you care about the human-technology equation, and believe, as I do, that we are entering a new era where the fundamentals about how we relate to, think about, and live with technology are all about get into a brand new territory.

(1) I am a baby boomer and among the very first generation of folks who pursued a degree in the spanking newly established discipline of “Computer Science.” Before that (1983), there was not such a thing as “Computer Science” as a discipline in its own right in Academia (perhaps the splitting off as its own discipline was a grave mistake — on par with the separation of “Science” and “Philosophy”?). At the time, there was no Internet, no cell phones, let alone social media and smartphones, etc. VCRs and Audio Cassettes (K7 as we Algerians and the French used to refer to them) were just making their debut, and the programming that I had done before starting college was confined to programming calculators (5 of us math nerds formed a club) and the feeling of being able to methodically convert thought into action that was executed by a machine without any push back from the machine, other than stubbornly refusing to put up with bad thinking — bugs — was exhilarating, to say the least), and programming my Atari 400 (8K of RAM — no hard drive or storage). In college, I used to spend my breaks quietly reading stacks and stacks of novels (Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Kafka, Tolstoy, Orwell, etc.). AND YET: My mind was in a state of constant restless agitation. The “silence” that I was able to get — the stillness of mind that did bring my restlessness to a level that I felt was healthy — was when I was reading. During those breaks, I could feel the mind healing, the way one feels the body has done some healing after a good, long night of sleep. Otherwise, the “Mind was King,” as you put it.

(2) Given that I have sentiently and reflectively lived the pre-computer age, the emergence of the computer age, the emergence of the Internet age, and now the age of post-human intelligence (won’t call it “super human”), I can say with a level of comfortable certitude that children have always been in a state of agitation. I was an agitated child, and so were those around me — and we grew up in Algeria: we got our first TV in the Mid Seventies, and it was One solitary, national channel, and programming started at 5:00 pm and ended (with the national anthem, of course), before midnight. And the programs they offered had like 30 minutes for kids. And yet, we were restless: curious, seeking, questioning, bouncing around, etc. I say this, because I believe that “stillness” was and continues to be a state that is not natural for a mind that is going through the crucial phase of learning. The question then becomes: which of the two is the natural state: agitation or stillness. And is there such a thing as “the natural state” that we should be re-discovering? I provoke, I know — but it’s something I myself have wrestled with for a long time.

(3) I do believe that we are now living in an age where we are putting ourselves in peril by becoming addicted to mind slicing, fragmenting, provably addictive technologies: I recommend reading the book: Hooked, by Nir Eval, where he breaks down what it takes to build products that purposefully create addiction (like Facebook, Instagram. etc.). The book is not meant as a critique or an analysis as such (although he does provide analysis), but as an actionable handbook for those who want to create such products (and make millions of dollars in the process). He does spend a few pages wringing his hands a bit about “The Morality of Manipulation.” But then he quickly lapses, not surprisingly, to pulling out that trusted Technology champion chestnut: Technology (in this case, The Science of Manipulation) is “neutral” and can be used as a force for good or for bad. A Handy/Neat Matrix is then offered up to help us understand this, and then a few pages are spent on each quadrant. The “ethics” having been taken care of, he then proceeds with in a few more chapters further helping us sharpen our manipulation knives.

(4) Last: I recommend A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel — the bottom line premise and conclusion of the book is that we are wired in such a way that it is not reasonable to expect us to change our behavior by being aware of how destructive we are (e.g., not looking at our cell phones when we get a text while driving). The book is about the redemption that an otherwise normal and moral kid goes through after his texting and driving causes a major multiple human tragedies. I refer to the book because I think it both challenges your stand and at the same time supports it. I think, of the two, that it supports it in a fundamental way is the more interesting point: active and conscious human agency is needed to figure out a way to parse our condition and tease out what we need to do that is mindful of some human nature constants (I do believe in such a quaint thing as “human nature”), but at the same time we are not tempted to be cheerleading fan boys and girls…..