Staying Focused In The Modern Age: Culture & Modern Communications
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor
Consider this from the DaoDeJing Chapter 14:
Hold tightly onto way-making in the present
To manage what is happening right now
And to understand where it began in the distant past.
This is what is called the drawstring of way-making.
You have heard me mention, perhaps often, the Hua-yen Buddhist school’s discourse of ‘The Jewel Net of Indra’, or Indra’s net in short. It is a wonderful way of depicting the Buddhist principle of the Universal reality know as inter-connectedness, and inter-dependence. It also points to the more complex principles of inter-causality and inter-penetration of dharma. A significant characteristic of our human specie is our unique ability to communicate in complex ways beyond just the verbal form. Our ability to express ourselves to convey needs, desires, ideas, and emotions has become the driving force for making and managing this net of connections that binds our civilized world together in evermore complex relationships. In this 21st Century’s technological advancements, our ability to make and keep connected has emerged as one of the most important drivers for worldwide cultural change. Communication technology has become the most important element in this computer age that is now being recognized as a new anthological stage of human development. In some scientific circles, this stage is considered necessary in preparation for the next human adventure of space exploration. We can only imagine how Siddhartha would awaken to these contemporary possibilities.
This is not the first time that human ingenuity has addressed the need to advance the tools for communication. And in doing so, has driven worldwide cultural change. In the beginning of the 1500’s a young Venetian printer (Aldus Manutius) published a translation of Virgil’s works. There was nothing particularly unusual about this as several publishers offered versions of classic texts to an intellectually hungry audience. What was new about this particular volume of work was its physical dimensions, the so called octavo size, which was designed to be small enough to fit in a person’s saddlebags, so as to make important parts of his library transportable. This was a small revolution, literally and figuratively, small in the sense that the book had shrunk in size and costs, and small in that it was less significant than Gutenberg’s original innovation. Yet the octavo size mattered, because it helped spread the written word and the ideas behind them. By making books cheaper and more portable, the printer made them more desirable, which in turn meant more copies were produced and more experiments in printing where undertaken. In addition this created a market for new work, especially fiction and travel logs. Also, because a book now was less expensive, and therefore less precious, they were traded among the reading class, that enhanced social connections. A very important aspect to this particular printer, was that he was young, and had the notion that the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. I like this story because as someone born before 1980 I remember a time before any tools that supported group communication was available. For me, no matter how deeply I immerse myself in new kinds of technology, it will always have a certain fantastic quality. I really want an iPad by the way. Our considerable real-world experience usually confers an advantage relative to young people, who are comparative novices in the way the world works. Novices make mistakes from a lack of experience.
Like this Venetian printer, young people in general are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models, not because they know more useful things than I do, but because they know fewer useless things than I do. I am old enough to know a lot of things, from my own life experience mostly. I know that newspapers are were you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that music comes from stores. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that complicated things like software have to be created by professionals. In the last fifteen years though, I have had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others, because those things have stopped being true.
What does this have to do with how we are connected and dependent on self and other you might ask? How important is modern social-networking tools in understanding the vast web of Indra? What lessons can all this teach us that support our Buddhist practice and worldview? Let me address these questions with another story.
At 2:30 in the afternoon on May 12, 2008, an earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province. Hundreds of buildings collapsed, including many schools, leaving nearly 70,000 dead and another 20,000 missing, 350,000 wounded, and 5,000,000 homeless. Word of the quake spread both instantly and globally via social media. The first line of reporting was from Sichuan residents themselves, with messages appearing on QQ (China’s largest social network) and on Twitter, even as the ground was still shaking. Within minutes, photos and videos of the quake’s effects were being uploaded from mobile phones, with the links being further passed around by e-mail, instant messages, and text messages. The quake was being discussed on QQ and Twitter before it was on any news site, and one BBC reporter said they learned about the quake from Twitter. The Wikipedia page for the quake was created within forty minutes to host the now-customary response of sharing links to information about the disaster and its aftermath. Within hours, sites designed to aid the search for missing friends and relatives began popping up, and by the next day, donations from all over the world were being raised on behalf of the survivors.
The speed with which the world became aware of the quake was a function not just of global technological networks, but of its social ones. China and the United States, for example, are connected by undersea communications cables, but mere technical connectivity would not have been enough to carry news of the quake as quickly as it did. There is also something we might liken to a social cable running from China to other nations, an invisible bundle of connections between people on both continents. This bundle is made up of all the bonds between the various populations and cultures that have built up over the years: the graduate students from China who studied abroad and returned home, the branch offices of firms doing business in China; in fact every bit of human contact that makes people want to stay in touch even when they live far away emerged that day.
As always, social tools do not create new motivations so much as amplify existing ones. This social net connects people living in the various countries; when this bundle of connections is supported by social media, the spread of news like the quake is effectively instant, even without meditation by government or official media these days. Another reason word of the quake spread so quickly is that it reached a few highly connected individuals, who then passed on what they had heard to much larger groups. This is what is so interesting about how social networks functions, and brings to mind the strength of the social fabric of Indra’s net, where a few well-connected individuals provide the social glue connecting thousands. The instant and global availability of the news also seems to have pushed the normally cautions Chinese media to begin publishing news of the quake immediately. It is interesting to note that this was also the year that China was hosting the World Olympics and the leadership was experiencing the importance of being on the world stage. China was more open and receptive to a pragmatic practice of open communication in 2008.
The most remarkable aspect of the Sichuan earthquake and social media, though, is likely to be in the future. While it was heartening to see the world’s goodwill mobilized in hours, no amount of sympathy or donations could undo the awfulness of the damage. Especially upsetting was the collapse of several hundred schools, killing on the order of five thousand children. Children are very precious in China because of the one child per family policy. Being connected in this 21st Century’s social-web is more than connections for communication, it is also connections for the practice of compassion.
It is not too soon though to see that social networking tools are changing the way we view our world, and providing the opportunity for broadening our cultural perspective. Services and tools like Twitter, Facebook, and the many blogs are eroding the distinction between ‘media’ and ‘communications,’ by further fusing personal messages, interests, and publicly available forums. Mostly positive, but some very disturbing trends have surfaced too. One lesson I take away from this story, among many others, is that anyone with a camera-phone is both a private citizen and a global media outlet. The effects of that change are just beginning to unfold. I might also say that one big lesson from the Sichuan quake is that there is never just one big lesson. Truly complex events have complex causes and complex ramifications. It is the way this causal Universe works. An event like the quake and its aftermath highlights how ubiquitous, rapid, and global social networking has become, but it also accelerates the pace of that change, because when people adopt contemporary social media tools in an unusual situation, they are much likelier to integrate it into their everyday lives.
Increased options for creating new patters of connections within our personal webs and learning the value of communication in groups does not just mean we will get more of the patterns we already recognize; they also mean we will get more new kinds of patterns. More is different, even for people who understand that more is different, which explains in part our persistent difficulties in understanding the effects of our actions as we learn to connect in more useful and productive ways to a global and world wide web.
We are confronted with some interesting Buddhist challenges as we engage these new tools though. An underlying theme throughout the Eightfold Path is that we work to ensure that we remain clear-minded and focused while at the same time taking advantage of the remarkable advances in information sharing and communication availability, accessibility and usage. As conscious members of a growing global society, we are called to be keenly aware of the role INTENTION plays in everything we do, including how we use the social networking tools we have at our disposal. Also, we are called to be mindful of the principle of inter-causality, or how all the various dimensions of our actions reflect the nature of inter-penetration of dharma. This inter-penetration is how all things inter-act and depend on each other. This includes the human aspect of our actions as they are influenced by the tools we use to achieve a desired result. One way of understanding this principle of inter-penetration is looking at a simple wheat seed. The wheat seed is considered to be the main cause of the new plant, but in order to produce the plant, it needs the aid of sun, water, and soil, in addition to the farmers tools to aid in planting. The seed has its own essence or nature, while the sun has the nature of heat, the water has the nature of wetness, the soil has a nutritive and supporting nature, and the farmer has his good intentions while using the tools at his command to achieve an expected result. Thus all the elements which participate in the production of the new plant are different in their natures. But all must work together, for the seed alone lacks the natures of the other conditions and can not produce the resulting plant alone. The conditions which aid the cause in producing the result are themselves the result of the causal dharma, and these conditions result in turn with other causes. Inter-penetration results from a situation in which the cause includes the conditions within itself while at the same time being a result itself of other causes, its qualities whole while the whole includes the part. You can say this is the gestalt of the causal principle.
We must guard against unsatisfactory distraction which arises with unregulated enthusiasm for these new tools, and become aware that what we ‘do’, any activity of the body-mind, is grounded in deliberation and intent. The goal of the Buddhist life is to cultivate an aware life, one that can react responsively to the changing circumstances of our internal and external environments so that we can, above all, promote maximum harmony for self and other. Remember the Three Pure Precepts: Cease doing harm; Do only good; Do good for others. If we have this in mind, than in order to promote good in all possible circumstances, we must be aware of our actions in order to uphold the role of the INTENTIONAL LIFE. By acting with intent, we can access and utilize these social networking tools with constructive purpose. By falling for the lure of distraction, on the other hand, we can become slaves to the tool. When we introduce intention of purpose as we use these powerful social networking capabilities, we can curtail the potential harm form distraction, while benefiting from the great successes they have proven in their usefulness as demonstrated in this Chinese earthquake story, and in virtual social sites like the Buddha Center on Second Life. As pragmatic Buddhists, we can appreciate technological advancement while maintaining purpose of action. It is how we manage change and enjoy the journey.