Does Social Technology allow for a new kind of Mindfulness?

It has been noted that networked technology has produced perhaps the greatest reach for empathy humanity has ever known. In an instant, we can be whisked away to a distant corner of the world to witness a protest, the fallout of an attack in a battle, or a community in mourning. This sort of interconnectedness is in so many ways human. We are social animals and most of our instincts can be explained by collective activities and communication. At the same time technology is seen as a tool of distancing, but is this isolation always a negative?

When we are online we are inherently disconnected from the world around us. One of the main complaints about technology is its effect of distancing us from those in our immediate environment. The social norms and expectations around being in a globally connected world 24 hours a day have shifted to address this sort of isolation. It’s not uncommon for groups in the offline world to set boundaries around when use of their devices are appropriate.

We’ve come to expect the signage and announcements at events to please silence our devices. Some parties and dinners have a voluntary prohibition on devices in order to enjoy time together in real space. The siren’s call of notifications constantly triggering your pocket has even been classified as a commonly occurring psychological phenomenon. But is prohibition the only humanist reaction to technology or are there other ways we can react to it?

When we think about technology we often discuss it as isolating but isolation isn’t always a bad thing. Focusing on oneself outside of one’s relationship to others is often the drive behind practices of mindfulness like meditation and yoga. Both seek to recenter one’s relationship to the body and mind as a way from disconnecting from the day to day. Both can have social and solitary practices. Ascribing particular goals to either practice seems antithetical to the practice itself. You don’t do these things for a particular outcome but you accept that practicing might have a beneficial outcome.

What if we thought of social technology and the Internet in similar ways? The strength of the Internet is in its ability to be prosocial and empathic in ways that wouldn’t be available without it. From the early days of the Internet it has been noted that one of the facets of this online space is anonymity. Stepping out of one’s everyday self can be empowering for self-reflection and exploring one’s identity. Whereas traditionally one might travel to a new country or wander in the countryside to explore stepping out of their identity (many still do), the Internet presents a prosocial, introspective type of experimenting of self through anonymity. (It’s worth noting anonymity can mean the ability to act in negative ways without consequence. Trolling is a natural outcome of a connected culture, though not necessarily the only possibility.) The freeing ability to traverse the world from an almost omniscient perspective can have a powerful effect of allowing access to worlds outside of one’s direct influence. The ability to reach communities much larger (and more disparately spread) than one’s immediate physical community is a feature unlike any other made available to humanity since the printing press.

The Internet is the global village with each tribe forming across National borders and people organizing outside of traditional physical constraints. Whether through the Arab spring, the Occupy movement, or the recent spotlight on policing in the U.S., we are starting to see the tip of the iceberg of the very real consequences of being globally connected. These nascent abilities and strategies must inevitably have a consequence on our identity and ourselves. Just as technology pulls us away from the immediacy of those around us, it can just as easily direct our attention towards others we might not have been connected to in the past. This is a highly social activity, but it is experienced solitarily. We project our empathy onto the screen and in doing so we meditate on the grief, suffering, hope, and happiness of others some of whom may be worlds apart from ourselves.

…the ability to traverse the world from an almost omniscient perspective has a powerful counter effect of allowing access to worlds outside of one’s direct influence.

We also see that collective actions of individuals in small communities are not isolated but common occurrences. The activity of small group organizing is now a matter of public record. The meditation on our screens becomes a window for observing but also projecting our anonymous identity into virtual space in ways that weren’t possible in the past. This opens up avenues of personal experience previously inaccessible even a decade ago. This is exciting but also can be incredibly draining if left unchecked.

Just as with meditation and yoga I think it would be wrong to look only for the goal in such activities. Instead just as with those practices, we might instead turn towards trying to understanding the effects of such practices taken in doses in our lives. This requires, of course, first recognizing our engagement with media as a practice and not merely a distraction. As we internalize the experiences of our online selves and start to recognize that they help shape our identity, we must remember we live in a physical world. The steps we take within our immediate surrounding have real material effects that are quite different from the often times ephemeral ones we take online.

We project our empathy onto the screen and in doing so we meditate on the grief, suffering, hope, and happiness of others some of whom may be worlds apart from ourselves.

Participating (whether through consumption, production, or conversation) in online social activity is an incredibly powerful, productive, and identity-forming practice. But just as we’d consider it detrimental to do yoga or meditation 24/7, so too must we find the balance of the influence of social technology on our lives. Unlike these other practices, with notifications, social tech can draw us into this empathic state at any moment. This inherently pulls us away from regular human interaction. In these moments we relent our actionable effects in our immediate community. We must see this as a practice for which there is a time and a place. For the time being there has to be a balance. But that balance has to respect both the power and limitations of this new platform of identity formation.