Saturday, June 26, 2010

fear of technology

Trevor Maloney, one of not-very-many Zen priests in Houston, was bothered by a piece in the New York Times about the Singularity, the idea (with variations) that eventually we'll all upload ourselves into computers and, to quote the Heart Sutra, be "freed from all suffering and distress". Whatever.

The article and comments have a flavor of anti-technology-ism that I've always found strange, and grounded in a lack of understanding of what "technology" is and how it fits in the human experience, and underneath it all, some amount of fear that comes from the lack of understanding. My little brother felt the same way during his hippie phase, and I get it sometimes from the less-technical people in my sangha back home.

"Technology" is a catch-all term for the tools we humans make. Computers are technology, and so are steam engines, irrigation ditches, and the wheel. Not only do we make stuff, but we make stuff to help us make stuff. It's a big part of what we are as a species.

When I worked Tech Support in college, I learned that a lot of people view computers as some kind of alien artifact, and they abandon all common sense as though there were no point in trying. I wonder if it's similar to math anxiety, because I watched otherwise intelligent people behave as though they didn't understand that computers require electricity.

(I'm not joking. The first question on the phone is always "Is it plugged in and turned on?", and that comes from experience, not because we're trying to insult you. Any tech support story that you hear, where a user acts with a seemingly impossible stupidity? I guarantee it's real.)

Here is the deep, dark secret about computers:
They are exactly like your toaster.
They obey the same laws of physics, require electricity to operate, and have the same level of human consciousness and volition. They're not out to get you. They are not the source of the world's problems.

I'm particularly startled and saddened to see serious students of Buddhism indulge their technophobia, because a big part of the Buddhist premise is precisely that dukkha (dissatisfaction/discomfort/suffering) is a universal human experience, throughout time and across cultures: I think that once you understand what dukkha is, you can quickly find it wherever and whenever you have people. Furthermore, the responsibility for creating and ending our dukkha is ours alone. Saying that technology somehow makes it worse takes away some of our responsibility, and plays into our ever-present desire to imagine that our dukkha comes from external circumstances, and we can't possibly change it.

Now that I think of it, that temptation to dodge responsibility is so strong that I'll probably be ranting about this until I die.

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