Somewhere between the mid-sixties’ time of inner growth and transformation to the technological development of the early seventies, Alan Watts, a beat philosopher whose book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, inspired millions, coined the phrase, “double-bind,” to describe a trap that the Free Love generation was about to fall into, and did. To this day, his prophetic warning and insight are valid. In fact the double-bind is only increasing in intensity, with no end in sight.
So, what is a double-bind? As Mr. Watts described it as the inescapable consequence of technological development, which allows us to do more in less time. Now the ability to be more efficient would be fine if it allowed us to give more time to ourselves, our inner dreams and ambitions, but we don’t do that. Instead, we cram more into our day. We do what the technology allows us to do and get caught in a hopeless entanglement until we are enslaved rather than liberated by the technology at our disposal.
There was a time when helicopters were too expensive for anyone but governments to own. But, in the 1970s prices dropped as manufacturing became more automated. Wealthy executives began soaring far above traffic arriving for work in Manhattan. Direct they went from the helipad to the appointment. No more being late appointments, at least for a while.
But, as the helicopter gained popularity amongst executives, more timely arrival to appointments became not only possible but expected. The consequence is easy to guess: in a very few years having a helicopter offered little edge over the car. The phenomena that occur when technology originally intended to facilitate an advantage actually entrap us in a rat race is a double-bind. Alan Watts died in 1973, but the truth of his prediction is more astounding today than ever.
Although we are all surely aware of the “rat race,” many don’t understand that its causes are so-called, “liberating technologies.” Alan Watts explained the double-bind in hopes of enabling us to recognize the danger signs brewing for technology to enslave rather than liberate.
Many of us have probably not given the double-bind much thought. This is particularly true for a generation younger than myself who never knew the relatively craw-like pace of the technology of an earlier time. We may know we are in a rat race, but not know how to escape it, or even that escape is possible. Understanding how the double-bind works and contemplating how it affects us can be therapeutic because it reveals the root cause of the rat race and how to side-step it.
The technology that “serves” us continually entices us to place greater demands upon ourselves. We want to use the technology at our disposal to get more done. Instead of thinking of using technology to get what need be done so that we will have more time for “leisure” (self-development,) we tend to try to use technology to cram more activity into our day. Since we can take our helicopter to 10 appointments in a day, we do. The former limit of one or two appointments a day becomes ten. Why do we do this? Because we can.
What can be done and what need be done are two different things. If we stick to what need be done, we can avoid the double-bind. Quality of life does not necessarily increase with productivity any more than happiness increases with wealth.
There are many ways to be productive. Apparent success often disguises inner discontent, while inner strength is often hidden beneath ordinary appearances. The idea of striving to have “something to show for yourself” is a very poor model and one which the double-bind thrives on. It is a model which makes the world go around, and one reason why we have such a crazy world. Getting away from this model is the aim of much of Alan Watts’ lifelong work.
Whenever we use technology, we should see it as a way to free time. If our time is already free, we should not think of filling it up simply because we can. Or, because we can’t sit still.
Learning how to value space, unoccupied holes in our day is a primary aim of understanding the double-bind. It is seeing that cramming our time with things to do is running away from ourselves. If we can learn to use technology to liberate time, we are using it well; but this will create gaps in our day that we won’t know what to do with, and this is precisely what Alan Watts suggests we learn.