Caught in the Web

I am increasingly aware of how different my twenty-first century life is from the world I grew up in, and in fact from the life led by anyone more than a very few years ago. When I was a young boy, color televisions were a big deal. I remember the introduction of push-button telephones, audio cassettes, digital watches, and hand-held calculators. But the real revolution, of course, is the Internet.

I work as a software developer for a company that does Web search, so perhaps my immersion is deeper than some people’s, but I am noticing that it feels more and more odd to be “offline”. My life consists more and more of being seated at a computer, managing simultaneous streams of information – email, blog posts, online chess games, instant messages, Skype calls, PubSub alerts, news bulletins, desktop weather data, and so forth. Many times a day I wish to know something or other, and immediately retrieve the datum in question from some or other online source. I can swoop down on any part of the world with Google Earth.

Although this is a natural evolution – our success as a species is due above all to our gift for communication, and the Internet might well, I think, be on its way to being the wellspring of an emergent, collective human intelligence that will begin a new chapter in the history of mankind – we have also increased our risk of losing touch with the very real world around us and inside us.

I realize I am not exactly the first to point this out. And I am no Luddite, either – I’m thrilled by the potential that all of this offers, and am very eager to see where it all leads. What I am talking about is something very simple, but very important: We must not forget ourselves.

Here’s what I mean. You are sitting at your computer, engrossed as usual. Your body is seated. Your attention, that most precious resource, is drawn forward into the glowing screen before you. Now, just for a moment, STOP. Pull your attention back. Look away from the screen. Sense your backside upon the chair. Feel your feet on the floor. Become aware of your neck, your back, your shoulders. Examine your posture; see the awkwardnesses, the tensions, that you were unaware of a moment earlier. Let the breath settle into your abdomen. Now, return to whatever it was you were working on, but try at the same time to hold onto the sense of yourself that you have just acquired. It will be difficult. Before long, you will be drawn out of yourself again, back into the screen. STOP again, if you can remember. Do it all again. Do it as often as you can. Notice the difference.

When we fail to remember ourselves, as we are so prone to do – and as we are so much more prone to do as we are drawn from the real world to the virtual – we lose something very important indeed. We lose our connection to our existence now, in this body, in this moment. It is like being pulled into a dream.

This effort of marshaling the attention, of coming back to mindful self-awareness out of the distracted state of our ordinary way of being, is central to all esoteric teachings, and is profoundly challenging. There are many, many practical ways of working at this, and I will return to this topic often.

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  1. Andrew says

    An interesting and thought provoking post as usual Malcolm.

    My thoughts went in a number of directions while reading it yesterday. One angle I was still mulling over on my drive into work this morning was the contrast between our physical sense of self while performing tasks on a computer and this same sense while performing similar tasks by hand. An example, last night I sat down with a triangular scale ruler, a protractor and set of pens to plan out a new woodworking project. I could buy a CAD program and do it on a computer, but I do it by hand because it is a part of the process I enjoy almost as much as working with the wood. This project engrossed me for several hours and I completely lost track of time. Physically this type of activity is different from banging away at a computer keyboard, but I definitely lost myself.

    Re-read the last three paragraphs of the post and replace the computer references with references to work on a drafting table, or with one focusing on the action on a chessboard and you’ll see what I mean.

    I agree that the loss of self we can accomplish in front of a computer is extreme (for lack of a better word) but I’d argue that it is not unique to computers and merely represents one end of a continuum. Even within computer work there are different levels, with more creative activities being ‘better’ than the many passive activities for which we use computers these days. Something like chopping wood would be at the other end of my continuum, where losing ones physical sense of self could quickly result in the loss of a limb.

    I guess my primary observation is that we have been on this road to loss of self awareness for quite a while and computers and the internet just represent the latest step in that direction.


    Posted January 22, 2006 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Absolutely right, Andrew. We love to sleep, and take every opportunity. The awareness of this problem, and of the need to struggle for self-awakening through mastery of our attention, are very ancient, and are, at least as far as I know, central issues in all mystical teachings. Certainly they are given top priority in the ones I have studied and practiced.

    My point was about how powerfully seductive this new medium is, as is easy to verify for oneself.

    Posted January 22, 2006 at 3:45 pm | Permalink