The Net and the Bodhi Tree (pt. 4).
This is another in a series of posts pleading and playing for a closer look at how being online affects being mindful. The series used to be “Because The Net’s No Bodhi Tree” but has been rebranded to show fewer cards (though you might see some tells here, here, and here).
I just Googled “Kill Your Television” and found
a site full of images like
and quotations like
“You watch television to turn your brain off and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.” ~ Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer and Pixar, in Macworld Magazine, February 2004.
The quote caught my eye because I had only searched “Kill Your Television” as a roundabout way to see if a similar set of stickers existed for “Kill Your Internet”. I wanted to see if sites devoted to the death of television would link me to sites devoted to the ills of the internet. Seeing the Jobs quote, I realized turnoffyourtv.com was at least one site that criticized the television but was not going to link me to similar critiques of the internet. So I Googled “Kill Your Internet”. The phrase did not drop down as a popular search. Nor did it bring up a single site about why we should kill the internet. In fact, most of the sites were about how to troubleshoot internet connection problems. None of them sold stickers. So it seems the “Kill Your Television” meme has no 2.0 version for my water bottle (or MacBook).
I still had the “Kill Your Television” site open in a different tab. So I looked around for a bit and saw something else that caught my eye: an essay called “Television vs. Computers“. The essay, by Ron Kaufman, the author of turnoffyourtv.com, argues that television is passive (so bad) but computers are interactive (so good). It’s a response to readers who write in with emails like:
Computers are televisions too! Staring into a CRT, be it television shows or otherwise has a similar effect upon the mind. Granted, one interacts with the computer, none the less, it is the same basic medium which involves staring into a flickering light, creating the same addictive illusion that something is continually happening of entertainment value…I do not subscribe to the idea that it is the content that is the problem, but rather that it is the medium and the voyeuristic attitude it elicits…Television is a drug. So are computers. ~ Roland
I’m with Roland.
I think that, in the case of both television and the internet, we have become addicted to a stream of “happenings” that involves both
(1) the experience of each happening as only a link to the next happening, which we experience only as a link to the happening after it and
(2) the illusion that our desire to follow the stream is sustainable and satisfying.
I also think our desire to follow the stream is
(3) similar to our desire for a drug and
(4) increasingly voyeuristic.
And I definitely think our time in the stream distances us from some roughly Buddhist/yogic/”mindful” good. For if it is true that we tend to experience the Net as a rush of unsatisfying desires not for the “now” but for the “next” (next page next link next ping next clip of a hamster eating a pop of corn on a piano) and if it is true that our tendency is not simply our tendency but rather a tendency encouraged by the medium itself, then I think the Net is no Bodhi Tree. For what is the Bodhi Tree if not a technology that encourages our (hard won, ever elusive) ability to forget the “next” for the “now” and, in the now, touch some good we could not find before because we kept seeing it as only a link to something else.
It’s odd I use Kaufman’s site to talk about how both television and the internet oppose a Buddhist good. Because Kaufman himself criticizes television (but not the internet) as opposing the Buddha. In an essay called “The Zen Of Television“, he writes:
The Buddha says: “Learn to let go. That is the key to happiness.” Letting go means ridding oneself from desire and want. The television shows all the things we don’t have and tries to light the fire of consumerism. The TV says, “Buy a new car”, “Buy microwave french fries”, “Buy Pepsi”, and “Buy Coca-Cola”. The Zen of Television does not want to let go. It wants you to hold tight…to keep watching…and to desire the things you don’t have.
Kaufman’s account of the Bodhi Tree is correct: Zen is about letting go of our desire for the “next” we never have. And Kaufman is right to characterize television as not so Zen. But I think he is wrong to say television’s distance from Zen belongs to its passivity. Rather, television is a violent, active grasping for the “next”, a constant clicking of the remote, a constant quickening forward from boredom’s painful spurs. It’s movement, not rest, that makes television no Bodhi Tree.
So, too, with the Net. It’s the constant activity, the constant clicking, the constant sense of “this isn’t the best page, there must be something better, only the next link will sate me” that I find so contrary to what the Buddha says.
Oh. And as for my claim that television and the internet is like a drug, the first premise is that the internet is relevantly like television (a premise I hope some comments will take on) and the second premise is this Heroes Of Hiphoprisy video “Television: The Drug Of A Nation”…
Dan Slanger wants to want what he has. (and then some. eh. he’ll die someday.)