Whenever I mention ‘Buddhism and Computing’ as a title, the response is almost invariably the same: surprise followed by curiosity. Google seems a bit taken aback too, for typing that phrase (in quotation marks) into its search box initially indicates hundreds of thousands of matches, but barely two pages of actual results. So it’s official: ‘Buddhism and Computing’ is a rare pairing because Google says so! Well, not necessarily, but it is worthy of special interest.
I originally set out to write only about the phenomenon of social media, which, despite its vocal advocates, I’ve long felt is deeply flawed. It fosters a dwindling quality of attention, an impoverished sense of friendship and a growing sense of bewilderment – yes, there are good uses, but in many ways it’s anti-social. I’ve been trying to understand how we come to be in this situation since 2007, when I was persuaded to register for a Facebook account. It has meant carrying out historical detective work and delving into the nature of the human mind, often facilitated by walks in Wytham Woods, fortified by refreshments at the village shop. Many ideas occur to me in the midst of nature, away from computers.
Digital technology is increasingly tied to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms. The implications of this trend often get lost in complexity, jargon and mind-boggling sums invested in futurology. There’s always plenty of potential and room for speculation. But what of the here and now? How come so many people’s subjective experience in the present moment is a growing sense of dis-ease and unsatisfactoriness?
For the Buddha the problem was not technology per se; it was dukkha. Human flourishing could come about only with the eradication of dukkha, and in order to achieve that we need to follow a clear and balanced path. Nearly all of today’s online ‘journeys’ involve digital technology of some kind or another, so understanding what that path entails means exploring fundamental questions about mind, machines and intelligence. That’s basically how this book began. I found myself writing a series of thought-pieces about computing as seen through the lens of Buddhist ethics, each chapter somewhat self-contained, but leading by degrees from the past to the present, and from first principles to application. This particular Mud Pie ‘Slice’ is, therefore, made up of several smaller slices.
What about the growing body of literature on cultivating ‘digital wisdom’ by drawing on various philosophical and religious traditions? The reflections may be profound, but I fear they are having little effect on the juggernauts of ‘Big Tech’. That’s because the ancient teachings are rarely applied to the specification and design of software systems. Instead, they are mainly used to adapt to and accommodate them. The tech companies, meanwhile, under pressure from financial interests, continue to massage and manipulate the ‘attention economy’. More dukkha.
The Buddha’s teachings were delivered over two thousand years ago, but they have never been more relevant. In this book I show how they can readily be applied and incorporated into systems architecture and user interactions. Yes, we can indeed enhance our cognitive abilities and thrive – but only so long as we are vigilant and everyone actively participates in these developments. This is how to flourish in the Age of Algorithms.