Wisdom for the DIGITAL AGE

  • By Swami Atmarupananda
  • January 29, 2022
  • 3049 views
  • Digital Technology is a powerful tool. It all depends how we use it. Author outlines the positives and negatives and offers Ideas on how we make the best use of digital technology without addiction and experiencing its downsides. This longish read is worth it.

When I was a new brahmacharin, full of the green enthusiasm of a neophyte, nothing was too spiritual for me. I loved to read about the austerities of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna -stories of renunciation, grand realisations, Sri Ramakrishna’s own world-forgetting absorption in the search for God and his extraordinary experiences. Everything that seemed to be a compromise with the world seemed despicable. Now, with the wisdom of age, I realise just how green that enthusiasm was, and understand that much of it sprang from a fear of the pains and difficulties of ordinary life. But at that time, it was what propelled me into a dedicated spiritual life, and so it had its purpose.

Like many enthusiastic newcomers, I devoured the literature of the Ramakrishna Movement. The more radical it was, the more I loved it. Then one day in 1970, as I was reading a book entitled The Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, I came across some teachings of Swami Vijnanananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. There he said: ‘Real welfare lies in using things properly; wrong use of things brings misfortune.’ 1

That shocked me. How could a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna equate wisdom with such pragmatic, everyday advice? What did that have to do with the realisation of God, the renunciation of the world, samadhi, ecstasy, or jivanmukti (freedom while living)? That advice could have been given by an ordinary carpenter or auto mechanic or housekeeper. I thought, well, he had been an engineer before he renounced the world, so maybe it was the engineer in him that was speaking, but I had no use for it. I hadn’t left home and friends to join a monastery for learning housekeeping lessons.

Now I realise how wrong my reaction was, how much wisdom lay in that teaching, how much I have gained from that simple statement over the succeeding decades. Substituting ‘tool’ for the word ‘thing’ in the quote above, I now understand that real welfare does indeed lie in using tools properly, because everything is a tool—absolutely everything except for the Atman or God. Prakriti itself is a tool; as Swami Vivekananda said: ‘Remember! … “Not the soul for nature, but nature for the soul!”’2  The mind, the body, the senses, external objects—everything is a tool. And wisdom lies in using tools properly.

‘Proper use’ includes understanding what the true, higher purpose of everything is. It also includes respect for the tool, care in its use—focus and attention while using it.

Referring to the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China (1966–76), Swami Ashokananda once said that during that dark period, great professors, scientists, artists-the best minds of China-were removed from their positions and sent to re-education camps where they were made to do hard menial labour such as shovelling pig manure all day. Yes, the Swami said, one can make the greatest minds of a country shovel manure all day every day, but is that the best use of such people? 

Then he made his intended point: that’s what we are doing with the buddhi-the higher, intuitive mind or intellect: we make it shovel the manure of the senses all day every day. Proper use of the buddhi is to train it, purify it, direct it towards God, and then give it its autonomy to shine with the light of pure consciousness, whereby it becomes the light on our path and the instrument of spiritual experience. ‘Real welfare lies in using things properly.’

As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, Maya has two aspects: vidya maya and avidya maya, or the maya of wisdom and the maya of delusion-the maya that leads us towards liberation and the maya that leads us into bondage. The proper use of tools.

The senses bring us experience from the outer world-good and bad, uplifting and demeaning, inspiring and depressing. Hence, we chant the Vedic Shanti mantra: ‘May we hear with our ears that which is noble; O ye worshipful ones, may we see with our eyes that which is uplifting.’ The proper use of tools.

The voice can be used to educate and uplift others, or it can be used to spread malicious gossip. It can be used to repeat the mantra, or used to curse others. The mind can be used to think of God, or it can be used to devise schemes for defrauding others. ‘May my speech be established in my mind; may my mind be established in my speech.’ The proper use of tools.

The hands can be used to serve the poor, or they can be used to hurt a child. A pen can be used to write a letter of consolation to someone overcome by sorrow, or it can be used to forge a check. Gunpowder can be used to blast a path through solid rock, providing access roads to remote villages; or it can be used in a terror attack to kill innocent people. Electricity can be used to provide light, or it can be used to electrocute [injure or kill (someone) by electric shock]. The proper use of tools.

Modern Technology

Modern technology is a term covering the tools developed through the application of modern scientific knowledge, together with the engineering know-how enabling that development. As with all human-made tools, modern technology is used to enhance and extend the organs of sense and action. The telescope and microscope extend the power of the eyes. A bulldozer extends the power of our arms and legs. A sound system amplifies the voice, and a hearing aid extends the reach of the ear. The same with gunpowder, nuclear power, the digital world— all tools for extending the reach and power of our ten organs of sense and action. And as with all tools, they can be used for good and for ill.

The printing press was developed to spread knowledge, but it is also used to spread propaganda and idle gossip about movie stars. The cinematography was developed as a grand new way to spread ideas and also to entertain, but it is used as well for degradation. Radiation was first discovered through scientific curiosity and the love for knowledge; then it was developed into technology for medical purposes; but soon its close relative—nuclear power—was developed for massively destructive purposes. 

The study of human genetics promises many extraordinary possibilities for humanity, but it also opens frightful paths of abuse. Virtual reality is a powerful tool, with possibilities for greater good, but as much energy is spent on developing it for evil purposes as for human betterment. The field of robotics is an extraordinary development, but it can be used for war and human enslavement; in itself, it is not beneficial.

The more powerful the tool, the greater the good it offers, and equally the greater the evil it can inflict. Tools are neutral, power is neutral. We use tools according to our character. A tool in itself offers greater power, not greater good for humanity. The most powerful tools may bring the destruction of the world. A tool offers good if the use is good, and the use depends on the heart of man.

But neither science nor education is presently guided by concern over the human heart. Neither is preoccupied with the development of virtue; neither sees the character as the essential requisite for human betterment. The love for knowledge is a noble thing, but only when supported by an ennobled heart.

The Internet and the Digital Age

As with most new technologies—new tools—the internet was born with great hope. It promised the democratising of information, making it available to all. And it has gone far towards fulfilling that promise, in spite of efforts to privatise and control access. It has also gone far in democratising opportunities for the disabled, the poor, the disadvantaged, by providing effective tools for communication, for creativity, and for entrepreneurship. It has made it possible to contact people all over the world, wherever others have access, and has thus facilitated communication more than any previous technology, bringing the world together in a way unimaginable fifty years ago. The miniaturisation involved in cell-phone or mobile technology allows one to carry a powerful computer in one’s pocket, and it allows a villager in India or Africa to communicate with people in the Americas. Video technology allows the villager even to see the people on the other end of the connection in real-time.

My own first realisation of the internet’s power came in 1996 after I had bought two tokay geckos [nocturnal lizards] as pets to release in the ashram in San Diego. After releasing them, I noticed that they suffered from diarrhea. What in the world is one to do with a sick tokay gecko? The pet store clerks said: ‘We just sell them; we don’t know anything about them.’ Then I thought, let me search on the internet; surely it’s an idle thought, but let me try. Note that this was when web browsers were still new, web pages were new, searches were new. I did a search on ‘tokay gecko diarrhoea’; and, sure enough, I found several pages of helpful information on the problem and how to cure them of it. (It turns out, the diarrhoea was caused by a lack of calcium in their diet.) How wonderful!

That, of course, is a surprise to no one now. Whenever we want to know anything today we simply ‘google’ it. A person who has grown up with Google would find my surprise over the tokay gecko discovery surprising. But there was no such thing as an internet search just three decades ago.

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when travel became inadvisable, people began to use Zoom and other video conferencing services. Our Vedanta Societies also began to use such services to broadcast their classes and lectures and seminars, since in-person activities were closed. This has allowed a new surge in interest: people anywhere in the world with the interest can tune in: the audience is no longer limited to those who can drive to the temple. As some centres begin to reopen now, there is pressure to keep the live broadcasts as well so that people can continue to join from afar.

As schools closed in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, education has continued in many instances through the internet.

A surgeon sitting in Kolkata can—through video technology and the internet—direct medical technicians in remote villages in real-time, allowing the technicians to perform complex medical procedures safely. Skilled medical help is thus made available in areas where it never existed before.

I personally know several people with varying disabilities who have found social and creative liberation through computers and the internet: new digital tools have allowed them to write, to compose, to draw, to communicate in ways they could never have dreamed of doing before.

Virtual reality can be used to train police and the military, teach pilots how to fly, train surgeons. What a saving in money and in resources! And the entertainment possibilities are immense.

Now with 3D printing, houses can be ‘printed’, allowing for cheaper and more flexible and more creative construction. Prosthetic limbs are being printed, making them cheaper and therefore more accessible, more colourful, more personalised.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is another wondrous development, whereby previously insensitive, inert implements have been given artificial sentience by embedding computer chips, which then connect them to the artificial sentience of the internet. Anything from the soil in a farmer’s field to a space station can be connected, can share information.

All of these technologies have revolutionised modern life, arguably more than any single invention in history. And we are only beginning to realise the potential of the technologies.

A Tool is Just a Tool

And yet, a tool is just a tool. In that, the internet is no different from a shovel or a pry bar: ‘Real welfare lies in using things properly; wrong use of things brings misfortune.’ And we have already seen the widespread misuse of digital technology and the resulting harm.

Just as we have not here catalogued all of the uses of modern digital technology, so we will not catalogue all of the problems caused by the technology, and the possible misuses. What we will try to do is to point out some of the widespread problems and potential solutions.

First, it is important to recognise that we can’t stop human progress, even if we want to: there is an inherent will to know in the human heart, and also an inherent will to control nature. Fighting against those human tendencies, as some conservative religious forces have tried to do, doesn’t work. If humanity finds a closed door in the universe, it will find a way to open it in order to see what is inside. As Swami Vivekananda said, ‘The whole history of humanity is a continuous fight against the so-called laws of nature,’ 3 that is, a fight against the limitations set by nature. What we can do is to refine the human heart so that it seeks the good, the beneficent.

A tool is a tool: it has its uses and its abuses. It is the human heart that can choose the proper use and eschew the abuse. 4 Here the ancient Vedanta tradition is helpful in developing a new sense of morality.

According to Vedanta, morality is not an external command from God and it is the sages who decided how they wanted humanity to behave for their own inscrutable reasons. They don’t say: ‘Don’t steal, because I don’t want you to steal; don’t kill because I don’t like that.’ They say, it is in the nature of things, it is part of the structure of the universe, that if you harm others or harm yourself, you will suffer, because there is an underlying unity to the universe. Do good to your brother and sister beings because that will uplift you: you will be a better person, you will benefit. And so, the proper use of tools will bring you well-being. Morality isn’t punitive, it isn’t directed from without; it is based on the nature of the universe. Being in tune with that cosmic nature brings inner harmony and clarity because it is truth—the cosmic order of truth called rtam in the Vedas, based on the underlying unity of existence.

Thus the digital world can be used for human betterment, or it can be abused and lead to harm. So what are some of the harms of the digital world? (I’ll restrict myself to some of the direct harms to us, the common users of digital technology.)

For one thing, many cell phone apps—no matter how helpful—are designed to keep us engaged. We thus lose our independence, our attention becomes trapped by the app. That’s not accidental, it is the intended effect. Cellphone addiction is a serious problem. Many people feel insecure without their cell-phones. It’s no longer a tool we use; it uses us, it possesses us.

A common joke is of the family sitting at the table for supper, all looking at their cell phones: they are texting each other rather than talking. It’s funny because it’s so sadly close to true. This is another problem: people, particularly young people who have grown up with cell phones, are substituting digital communication for face-to-face communication. What’s the harm? The harm is great. We lose the ability to communicate person to person. The cell phone or computer screen is impersonal: we can’t read the emotions through the screen. We try to work around that by using emoticons, but that’s not the same thing. There are many instances where someone posts the most insulting things about another, and then adds a smiley face as if to say, ‘I am just joking’. No, they aren’t. The smiley face is simply there to say: ‘Yes, I know I just insulted you, but let’s just pretend it’s all in good humour; so if you get mad that’s your problem.’

This loss of personal contact and communication leads further to isolation, to the loss of the power of communication, and to the loss of emotional maturity.

When I have spoken to students about the need for developing their memory power, they argue that it’s no longer needed, because the information is at our fingertips: if we need it, we can google it and have it in seconds. This argument is given even in India, where memory used to be cultivated as part of ordinary education. And this is another problem, because the development of memory enhances intelligence. The knowledge present in the memory is very different from knowledge accessible on a cell phone, or even in a book. The knowledge that is internalised is processed and organised in the mind and related to other knowledge in the mind and has become a part of our thinking. Also, the power of memory is very important in spiritual life: it is tied to the power to keep what is important in front of the mind, to ‘remember’ the essentials of the path, to remember God.

Connected to the disvaluing of memory is the loss of the ability to follow a complicated train of thought. The internet is great for getting quick facts and overviews. But reading books forces us to follow a complicated train of thought, which develops the power of sustained attention.

Furthermore, there is a difference between reading a book and watching a video. Reading a book demands proactive attention and participation in the reading matter, while watching a video does not. That is because a video provides the words and the visuals, and so we passively sit back and watch, simply absorbing what is presented. A book requires us to use our imaginations, to picture what we are reading. Yes, video is a powerful technology that can make a deep impression on the mind and it, therefore, has its important place, but it doesn’t do for us what reading does. Each is needed.

There is also the problem that the digital world is always available; we need never be bored because we can just pull out our phones and watch TikTok or play a game. But the healthy mind must be able to confront boredom, not avoid it by filling the void with useless entertainment. That’s especially true when we come to the spiritual life: we have to learn to turn the mind towards God whenever there is a moment of disengagement. If we turn instead to our cell phones, spiritual life becomes impossible. There are no more periods of disengagement. This is very evident in young people, East and West: today they are accustomed to having their attention engaged all the time: if their cell phones are taken away, many have no idea as to what to do.

The Solution

These are by no means all of the problems, but enough for this discussion. The solution is simple, and it consists of the following elements:

Learn to see the cell phone and computer as tools, nothing more and nothing less. They exist to facilitate certain activities. They aren’t a substitute for life.

Strictly limit cell phone and computer use. Don’t forbid it: that won’t work. People need to learn how to use digital devices and information well to succeed in the modern world. But set limits for oneself and, if one has children, for them as well.

Spend time outdoors, away from devices, directly contacting the physical world and the physical presence of actual people.

Regularly spend time doing manual work. This is especially needed for India, where for centuries the upper classes have considered manual work beneath them, resulting in highly educated people with no common, practical sense, people who have vast engineering knowledge but can hardly perform a straightforward physical task. And this is especially important in the modern digital world where the nature of the technology is non-physical, non-analogical.

Don’t multitask. The modern world asks us to multitask, but research has shown that all tasks suffer when we multitask. Do one thing at a time with full concentration.

Read books. Use the internet only to help gather information, but that is not education nor does it ennoble the user. Reading, as said above, does something which browsing the internet can’t do. Browsing is wonderful for gathering information for research; use it where it excels.

Seek silence every day, disengagement of the mind from the world and all its tools, so that it can be redirected towards God.

Seek wisdom more than information. Information has its use, but it isn’t wisdom.

‘Real welfare lies in using things properly; wrong use of things brings misfortune.’ That is as true in the digital age as it was for the caveman.

Author was a former Assistant Editor of Prabuddha Bharata. Currently Swami Atmarupananda is the In-Charge of the Vedanta Society of Greater Houston, Texas, USA.

The January 2022 issue of the Prabuddha Bharata was titled, Living a Meaningful Life in a Digital World. Excellent issue covering a large variety of issues. This article was first published in the January 2022 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

References

1. The Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, ed. Swami Gambhirananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2010), 379.

2.  The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), ‘Sayings and Utterances’, 8.261.

3. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, ‘Maya and Illusion’, 2.112.

4.  See Katha Upanishad, 2.1.2.

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