Modern Problems, Ancient Solutions…

Ethical Codes For a Digital Age.

Thanks to colleagues I was the recent and fortunate recipient of a couple of tickets for Breakout17, an event focusing on ethical codes in the digital age ( There were an array of speakers representing the majority of disciplines found within the digital landscape.

As an event focusing on digital ethics there was no shortage of recent news for speakers to focus on, illustrating perhaps that any sentence comprising the words digital and ethics and in the absence of negation could be considered an oxymoron. However it was reassuring to see so many with a shared perspective coming together to consider and perhaps eventually challenge the status-quo, my thanks go to the organisers and hosts.

Because of the focus on ethics there was a philosophical and psychological sub-context to the day and a want for finding a balance between the intrusion of technology in our lives and our ability to achieve human flourishing. The short, shallow, insincere satisfaction provided by swiping left, up or down recognised as the hedonic treadmill that it is, one that is affecting our social interactions daily. Anxiety, depression and loneliness are on the increase, especially in our young.

Thankfully fidget spinners aren’t the only solution for suffering thumbs and brains. The problems we face today although exacerbated by technology are the result of the same underlying emotions and thought patterns that have been pulling us out of the present moment into rumination, worry and addiction for thousands of years. The ideal of achieving human flourishing is as old as philosophy itself and in an agora or stoa in Athens a few thousand years ago was known as eudaimonia. “Know thyself” is what Socrates would teach anyone open minded enough to get caught up in his elenctic method.

Stoicism as a school of philosophy is majorly focussed on ethics and one that owes its lineage to Socrates; it offers perhaps the most practical solutions to 21st century problems resulting from millennia old biology. Indeed the modern practices of CBT and REBT on behalf of Aaron Beck & Albert Ellis owe their development to the same school. A.A. Long (1) writing about the Stoic teacher Epictetus diagnosed his definition of unhappiness as:

“subservience to persons, happenings, values, and bodily conditions, all of which involve the individual subject in surrendering autonomy and becoming a victim to debilitating emotions”.

We of course use apps and technology to intentionally or otherwise illicit emotional reactions in ourselves. We surrender our autonomy to them and in general are barely aware of the habits that bring us back to the same experiences over and over again. Until we don’t, we lack the self-awareness and self-sufficiency to know when the tail is wagging the dog or the dog is wagging the tail.

So how can Stoicism help achieve and what exactly is self-awareness and self-sufficiency? The Stoics posited that we are happiest when living in accord with our nature and premeditating our volition against a set of ethical values (e.g. phronesis & oikeiosis). To them living inline with nature meant honing our rational skills, those that differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom and in doing so they provided us with the practices to achieve a state of rational vigilance, awareness and cognitive distance to emotions.

Self-awareness comes from having a profound understanding of our emotional reactions caused by our perceptions and the ability to distance ourselves from them before accepting and acting upon them.

Self-sufficiency comes from ensuring we act against a consistent set of values, removing the need to second guess the opinions of others and reducing the impact of social anxiety through confidence in our own decision making processes.

If in any given moment we are aware of the drive created by our intuitive desires, those things that tell us to pick up the phone before we realise we have reached for it, the drive to stay glued to an app, facebook, instagram or whatever your poison is. It follows we can adjust and change our triggers to ensure more considered use and referring back to Epictetus’s view of unhappiness we can reverse the locus of control so that the digital rhetoric of social media no longer controls our volition, our volition controls it’s use. Within the realms of feasibility and considering the dichotomy of control we take back our autonomy and therefore take a step towards happiness.

To achieve this overall state of self-mastery the Stoic student (aka Prokopton) would engage in a practice known as Prosoche, the fundamental spiritual attitude necessary to practising Stoicism as a way of life. It’s possibly best described in modern terms by Daniel Kahneman (2) as system 2. It’s that feeling when you’re awake, focussed, attentive and actively processing, if someone clicked their fingers in front of you now, you would be in it. Alternatively the opposite is being in a state of cognitive ease watching tv, swiping up, down, left or right, day dreaming. It is through the former state of vigilance that we can apply our ethics effectively and control assent to perceptions deconstructing the things we see to the reality they are and in turn applying a process of reasoning.

Marcus Aurelius another famous Stoic and true philosopher king provides us with this perspective through his documented meditations (3).

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.…. latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time — all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust — to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” (6.13)

Whilst seemingly stating the obvious Marcus’s rationality here brought into our time applies equally well to the context of modern social networks, how often do we find ourselves laughing at a friends comment (someone we haven’t seen for years). What are we really laughing at (a piece of plastic and glass), who are we really laughing with (no one) and do they share the same perspective of our friendship? In the final analysis is this really a friendship shared in true connection, or is something intrinsically human missing? That being said the Stoics were all about cultivating positive emotions and engaging in philanthropy so perhaps they would have been ok with the positive side of social networks, but what about the negative?

How often do we find negative emotions elicited by what flows down the screens of our devices, jealousy and anger especially. Those with the knowhow are liberally using Aristotles pathos (4) to create division in our society, polarisation takes us far from his golden mean. More recently as recognised by Jay Heinrichs in his book “Thank You For Arguing” if you can manipulate the emotions of the audience you can turn them to your point of view. Ancient problems and ancient techniques now deployed at webscale thanks to the reach and autonomy of new technologies e.g.

Whilst we remain sheep to the messages, we will continue to be shepherded by the story tellers.

Of course staying in a constant state of mental awareness is pretty much impossible, thats one reason why the ancient greeks loved the ideal of a Sage, a symbolic personification of perfection for us to reach through continuous improvement of the self, never truly achievable. However Pierre Hadot (5) in his analysis of both Marcus and Epictetus offered us some simple framing, it is not a continuous and constant state of awareness that we need to seek, it is only attention to the current moment.

“Only the present is within our power, simply because the only thing that we live in is the present moment. Becoming aware of the present means becoming aware of our freedom. For the present is real and has value only if we become aware of it”.

Further Reading:

  1. Epictetus, A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, A.A Long
  2. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  3. Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
  4. The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle
  5. The Inner Citadel, Pierre Hadot