How different is the smart phone age from centuries past? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. All knowledge at our fingertips? Constant contact with people around the world? An on-demand economy bringing you whatever you want, wherever you are? Those are big differences.
One thing hasn’t changed, though: The human mind is still the scattered, anxious, easily distracted ball of nerves it has been since before anyone could imagine such a thing as an Internet. That’s a tough problem, and the frenetic pace of online life isn’t helping. But is the oft-bemoaned distraction, interruption, and alienation of the digital age a new problem? Hardly. It’s a familiar symptom of an age-old challenge posed by our minds, and merely restricting “screen time” or taking “digital detoxes” won’t solve it.
Technology amplifies our own nature. It only knows what we know. When we have a problem, we search our knowledge for solutions and experiment until something works. Whether or not technology works depends on our own understanding of the problem. If we don’t know what’s wrong, our technology can’t fix it.
Smart phones were invented to solve many problems. But now that they’re here to stay, many people feel like smart phones have created new problems even while solving old ones. Smart phones alienate us from each other, some say, because they tempt us into virtual environments, even when we’re physically present with others. Smart phones distract us, they say, because they buzz and beep and blink in ways designed to lure us back into their clutches. Smart phones destroy our attention span, it’s said, because they let us multitask constantly, pushing us into a frantic state that feels productive but actually makes us worse at everything we’re doing. Texting and driving is one dangerous example.
Do you see the common thread running through those so-called “new” problems? It’s us! We’re taking the bait! Devices present opportunities to distract ourselves and scramble our attention spans, but they don’t do it for us. We let them! Smart phones address many problems, but our lack of willpower was not among them. Technology companies consider that our problem, not theirs. Tempting, anti-social media alienation was not invented by Facebook. Remember television? The attentional black hole of mass media isn’t new, it’s just shifting to more convenient technologies, as it has been for generations.
Media technologies take advantage of basic facts of human nature: We’re easily distracted, novelty-seeking creatures. Smart phone and software companies profit off these facts, but they didn’t invent them. Maybe the case can be made that these technologies worsen our problems with attention and willpower, but regardless, merely restricting or abstaining from them will not cure us. We’ll still be distracted, bounced around by our impulses, often dissatisfied, seeking novelty. We’ll just miss out on the social activity that now exists online, alienating us further. Fortunately, there are technologies designed to improve attention, willpower, and connectedness. In fact, they’re thousands of years old. They’re internal, spiritual technologies, gradually gaining popularity in high-tech societies under the banner of mindfulness, the latest translation of the Pali term sati, a lexical technology that changed the world.
Sati is the underlying principle of the meditation practices in Indian religion, which gave us Buddhism, which then spread across Asia and, later, the world. But Western religions have analogous concepts — for me, as a Jew, the Hebrew word kavanah, usually translated as “intention,” comes to mind. By now, mindfulness is a testable, scientifically rigorous concept employed in secular psychology and neuroscience.
What does it mean? Mindfulness is stable, clear awareness, which we can practice and improve. Just like regular exercise makes your body stronger, regular meditation makes mindfulness stronger. All mindfulness traditions prescribe more or less exactly that. Mindfulness is a necessary precursor for right action in the world, our relationships, and our work.
Mindfulness addresses our own suffering, helping us see what ails us, letting us unclench from our problems and be present with others. The Buddhist tradition, arguably the world’s leading innovator in mindfulness technologies, sees the source of suffering in a familiar set of ills: distraction, alienation, and dissatisfaction. Mindfulness practices pick up where smart phones and social media leave off.
Mindfulness practice should lead us to less screen time as an outcome, not merely a stopgap measure. Mindful technology use should result in smarter, more empathetic habits. Today, technology companies take advantage of how easy we are to distract. In a more mindful, self-aware future, they’ll have to do better if they want us to use their tools for our life’s work.