Social commentators often lament that technology explodes the world into a thousand little pieces, each floating about in alienated orbs, only touching when they collide in anger and acrimony. In market speak made social speak, they call this the silo-ing effect of the internet, of social media, of smart phones on public transit.
Technology seems to make people isolated and mad, and connected and fulfilled, simultaneously. Does the emotional outcome of interactions depend on what directions the relational arrows point? Inward, to loved objects and networks. Outward, to those expelled and disdained.
I find the anxiety that technology breeds insularity to be both well-founded but, to a degree, overblown. People self-segregate before technology, with technology, and probably will in whatever post-Facebook algorithm world we will be doomed to live in. It offers a helping hand, an enabling tool. Does it do any more than that?
Perhaps our anxiety arises from dashed hopes–the internet was supposed to make us all know and love each other. Or something. It is not accomplishing that alone. It is accomplishing that, along with accomplishing its opposite. Paradoxical.
To have faith in this machine, is it like having faith in god? Yet some gods don’t want us to love each other all the time and everywhere. Some gods aren’t concerned with love–they want you to care about things like money, obedience, the harvest, babies.
There are parts of this machine that have allowed me to know and love things I may not have otherwise, due to the mismatches of birth year, social milieu, off-the-grid lack of context. I have faith in its power. But think hard enough about it, and you realize half of that faith should be placed in the people who empty their hard drives, transfer their treasures, click-click-click all to put those objects on the internet to share and spread their love.
One deity comes to mind when I think of this machine, the loving internet. He is not quite a god, just like the internet, but both are near omniscient nonetheless. The 14th dalai lama, citing sacred texts, explains him thus:
I prostrate always respectfully through the three gateways of my body, speech and mind, to Avalokiteshvara, the Protector. . .who, seeing that all phenomena have no true coming or going, makes efforts singly to benefit beings. . .From delusions as a cause there comes about suffering as a result, and from virtues come happiness. . .his compassion is therefore aimed at them solely for the purpose of helping to show them the way to eliminate their suffering or make it go away (1).
Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who forgoes the endpoints of Enlightenment to stay behind on a hapless earth and help others, out of love. He is a prominent, foundational figure in many Buddhist traditions.
Compassion is hard, though, even for a bodhisattva–what to say of the rest of us flawed earthly beings. Frustration descends soon enough. People get into fights over typos one moment and ideologies the next. Our last president said we should talk to people in real life if we are tired of fighting on the internet, but I get into fights in real life, too.
There is an old mythic tale about Avalokiteshvara among the Tibetans, for whom he is a patron saint. He made a bet he could elevate the Tibetans’ souls, on the pain of physical destruction if he should ever become disheartened. He tried and tried, meditated and emanated good vibes, but he could not calm their humanity, their violence, smooth their hard edges. At the height of his despair, his body burst into a thousand fragments.
I think of the thousand tiny pieces of his flesh floating amongst the orbs of our digital existences, trying to make them bump each other gently.
1. His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama and Alexander Berzin, ‘A Discourse on “Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices” and “The Three Principal Paths”’. The Tibet Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 1981), pp. 3-40.
2. Thurman, Robert A. F. “Avalokiteshvara In Tibet.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. https://tricycle.org/magazine/avalokiteshvara-tibet/.
Notes on Images: All artwork is composed, at their origin points, of Tibetan images of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara combined with screencaps from a set of Youtube videos.
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