REINVENTING THE WHEEL: A BUDDHIST RESPONSE TO THE INFORMATION AGE
By Peter D. Hershock
This is a work that cuts across the boundaries of numerous fields: philosophy,
religion, sociology, economics, and various forms of cultural studies in providing
a radically new way of looking at the condition to which modern societies have
arrived in respect to their inextricable relationship with all-pervasive technology.
The author broaches his argument by defining "technologies" in contrast
to simple "tools," with technologies being "constituted by patterns
of conduct through which particular desires are made manifest." He then
shows how technologies have evolved to bring about the manifestation of our
wants in increasingly subtle degrees. Historically, technologies have played
the principal role in the perpetration of the "material" colonization
of so-called "vernacular" (indigenous) cultures, with the unvarying
aim of economic profiteering, which brings with it the inevitable destruction
of the local economies and traditional cultures of the host countries.
In modern/postmodern society, the continued development of technology has had the ostensive purpose of making our lives easier, and better. But in Hershock's analysis, modern claims for an improved condition of society in the age of technology rarely hold true. We work both harder and longer than people in vernacular societies, and suffer from disconnectedness in the fragmentation of the primal "narrative structures" of communal living. A documented fact that the author repeats in several places is that the greater the development of the speed of our modes or transportation, the more time we spend traveling. Other "time-saving" technological advances commonly have the actual effect of making us spend more engaged time in a given task. The eighty-hour workweek is the province of the modern IT entrepreneur and not that of the pre-colonial Hawai'an indigenous tribesman, who typically "worked" at for something closer to twenty hours a week.
One of the key themes of Hershock's argument is the interrogation of the myth of technology's ostensive "neutrality." The argument, for example, that the television media is neutral in quality, due to the fact that it can be used for the dissemination of both unwholesome and wholesome values, does not hold true when subjected to thorough analysis. This kind of logic can be likened to that seen in the argument that the gun is something basically of neutral value, and that its good or evil function depends on who is at the trigger. In both cases, he argues, it is an error not to recognize that the technology itself is not value-free. It is in explaining the underpinnings of this position that the author begins to unfold his overarching hermeneutic structure, the Buddhist principle of dependent origination, which plays an increasingly important role as the book moves toward its conclusion. From the perspective of dependent origination, it is impossible to see anything as value-free, since all things are comprised of conditions and contingencies that themselves contain value.
What then, is the value held by technologies, and especially the most modern technologies of the mass media and the Internet? Hershock, never precisely defines the content of this value, no doubt, because it is something in flux, a cluster of contingencies. But technology in itself, regardless of whether it is utilized for ostensibly good or evil aims, has a generic effect of adulterating the wholesome flow of our original consciousness. It engenders, and is in turn engendered by a consciousness of "control" in which we seek to manipulate our environment toward our own best interests--our wants, our comfort, the titillation of our senses, the reduction of our personal responsibility for our own well-being. The direct antithesis to this attitude of "control," in Hershock's system, is that of "appreciation," especially adaptive, virtuousic appreciation, wherein one applies ones faculties and energies to the well-being of one's environment. In the mode of attentive appreciation, one shares in larger narrative structures, and in the process of passing through direct unmediated experiences with persons and situations, one develops one's own well-rounded narrative structure. One experiences a more natural state of balance, and becomes response-able for one's own well being through caring for others. One of the types of attention most resonant with this kind of appreciation is that associated with Buddhist meditation.
In contrast to the material forms of colonization that occurred during the earlier stages of the evolution of technology, the type of colonization that we are experiencing in the present age is a "colonization of the consciousness," wherein technologies of control lead us to invest our time and attention into the maintenance of specialized forms of conduct over which we have no immediate influence. Hershock says:
We must support not just ourselves, but our mechanics and medical technicians, our air-conditioning companies, and waste disposal operators. That is, such technologies produce consumers. We are no longer qualified to grow our own food, make our own clothing, build our homes, educate our children, entertain or counsel or heal ourselves. Technologies of control advertise their role in promoting self-reliance but actually promote a breakdown of the relationships by means of which communities take meaningful care of themselves. Created instead are aggregates of ostensibly autonomous individuals who take their almost unbroken dependence on technical interventions and the expertise of largely invisible others as emblematic of their freedom and independence. (149)
Hershock devotes much space to articulating specific cases of damage caused by the belief in the technological conduct of control, such as the drug problem, problems with health care, poverty, the lack of respect for elders, the breakup of the traditional extended family, and so forth. His discussions of these areas are unabashedly spiced with anecdotal information from his own life experience--and indeed, this is in many ways a very personal book. But nothing is compromised by these personal interjections. They serve to effectively transmit the author's own life narrative into his scholarship, much enlivening the prose of this book.
Hershock's argument, at first glance, seems to hold much in common with those put forth by religious fundamentalists, naturalists, environmentalists, adherents to holistic healing--all the various segments of society who have voiced concerns over the wide range of harm already wrought by the out-of-control technological menace, and the possible harm it has yet to bring. Where Hershock radically differs from the herd of anti-technology, anti-big business, and anti-WHO activists, is in his extensive and insightful application of Buddhist interpretive methodology, both in terms of analyzing the causes of our current problems, and in offering solutions. This is because his perspective is informed throughout by the logic of Buddhist dependent origination, rather than a linear-causal type of logic. Through Hershock's analysis, we are shown how it is that those who are responsible for the controlling power of the mass media and Internet (which is by degrees ever more fully colonizing our consciousness), are not the designers of the technology; not the big business interests; not clandestine governmental committees. It is *we* who are inexorably determining, and in turn being determined--by the extent to which we continue surrendering our attentive, compassionate, adaptive and virtuosic consciousness--our world of direct personal experience--in favor of an experience wholly mediated for us by the mass media, by Play Station, by the Internet. Indeed, the ultimate, far-ranging outcome of the evolution Hershock perceives to be in progress would no doubt be that as depicted in the movie _The Matrix_ (which was released subsequent to completion of this book).
According to Hershock's analysis of the situation, even the best trained doctors, technicians, social scientists, and philosophers will never fully understand the complexities of our situation without a grasp of the workings of Buddhist karma. Without this awareness, one cannot perceive the extent to which dependently-arisen forces fully determine the continued aggravation of present conditions, and their endless re-creation. We desire screen resolutions to be finer, access speeds to be faster, audio systems to be more precise, and so they will be. We want to be able to order our books and have them tomorrow, and we want instant access to the status of our bank account, and we get them. But at the same time, although we also desire crime to disappear, disease to be eradicated, and our environment to be safe, we somehow continue to fall increasingly further from these goals. We can't see how our technologically enhanced wants lie in direct contradiction to the achievement of our holistic needs. We imagine that the solutions for these problems will be realized through yet another advancement in technology. But this has never been the case, and the model presented by Hershock shows us why it can never be the case. The solutions for such problems will not be found thorough more advanced technologies, because it is the technologically oriented conduct of control itself that has engendered these problems, and not any particular form of technology, or tool, by itself. Until this mistaken attitude is abandoned on a broad scale, things will not improve, but only continue to worsen.
Most of the book is taken up with the articulation of the history of this self-imposed technological nightmare, with only occasional suggestions as to what might be done about it. But if we are attentive to the argument, we will understand that whatever the solution(s) might eventually be, they cannot but start with a personal effort to refocus our attention and conduct, to attitudes of adaptive appreciation for the things and persons around us, rather than control of them. Hershock sees organized protests, or other forms of expressed opposition to technology to be largely counterproductive, as they inevitably bring about a situation of conflict through which the major promoters and benefactors of technology--big business, the mass media, etc. are never overcome, but instead merely taught how to become more clever. Therefore, Hershock's solution lies in the redirection of our energies at the personal level through meditative practices, the best of these being Chan meditative practices.
Dr. Hershock holds no unrealistic expectations of our suddenly reversing, or escaping from this powerful karmic flow. He is not advising us to throw away our portable phones, laptop computers, and ultrasound diagnostic equipment. To do so, he says, would be "like jumping out of a car at highway speed " (271). However, if we can follow the teachings of Hui-neng, Pai-chang and Lin-chi, we can learn to free our minds, unblock our *ch'i*, and become responsive to our situations. This reorientation of our attention is the only chance we have to make an effective start to change our situation.
_Reinventing the Wheel_ is nothing short of a watershed contribution, which will have relevance for people with background in an unusually broad range of backgrounds, including the humanistic sciences, natural sciences, and technological fields. Most impressive for me, as a student of Buddhism, is the author's superb effort of applying Buddhist principles in the analysis of living personal and societal problems. Those of us in the field of Buddhology most commonly spend the great bulk of our energies in investigating Buddhism as a rather disconnected object of research, and thus rarely have the opportunity (and perhaps not even the inclination) to attempt to apply Buddhist principles in the solution of real problems. I gained much new insight into certain aspects of the Buddhist doctrine in joining Peter Hershock as he works through his virtuosic application of the Buddhist notions of karma and dependent origination in the explication of the monstrous role of technology in our present world. Thus, while the field of Buddhist studies in itself could be greatly energized by more of this kind of direct application of Buddhist principles to real problems, I also highly recommend this book for reading by serious thinkers from any area of the human sciences, natural sciences, or IT world who seek a fresh understanding of who we are, and where we might be headed.
My summary of the contents and high evaluation of the work being duly tendered, I would nonetheless like to conclude by offering a few critical remarks on _Reinventing the Wheel_, so that potential readers may be aware of some possible pitfalls, and the author may have some food for thought in the inevitable event that he will be continuing to pursue this project in some form or other.
First, it should be pointed out that although the author espouses a logic of pratiitya-samutpaada in presenting the principle of dependent origination as an explication of the causes of how we have gotten into our current state of affairs, and wishes to use the same principle to show us the way out, I could not help but feel a strong sense of a good vs. evil duality operating throughout the work. That is to say, everything that is related to the values and conduct of "vernacular" societies, to traditional values, to non-technology is presented as good and desirable, while everything related to modern, "generic," technologically-oriented society is clearly bad. While he no doubt needs to draw clear lines to effectively empower his thesis, this dichotomous black-and-white discourse does seem a bit un-Buddhistic in character.
Hershock often relies on extreme examples from both sides of the technological spectrum, eliding much middle ground. One might be motivated to ask, for example, if the present-day, highly mediated environment of the computer and television screen colonizes our consciousness, and takes us away from direct personal experience, where do the old paper books and manuscripts, which go back much further in our history, lie in the scheme of things? For the media to control/colonize our consciousnesses to a harmful extent, need they be digital? Given the author's tendency to be extreme in his evaluation of these two types of culture, even though he does not want to be perceived as a Luddite, there are places, I think, where he goes just a bit out of the range of normal sensibilities in his critique of modern information technology. He says, on page 267:
Postmodernity interrupts the natural flow of familial time. If a child candownload a computer file through the Internet in which sex is perhaps notexplained, but graphically displayed, what incentive does he or she have forbroaching the subject with his or her parents? If it is possible to read througha myriad of histories reputed to be the finest and foremost in the world by orderingcopies from a web-bookstore, why approach grandma or grandpa fortheir personal reflections on the last six or eight decades? The disdain withwhich most teenagers now regard their elders -- even their college-aged siblingswith whom they're but a few years apart -- is not a long-standing, universallyhuman phenomenon.
In my own experience, even having been born long before the rise of the Internet, and having (happily) been raised as an "unplugged" child, I find it difficult to identify with any of these examples. I cannot recall, in growing up, having heard from any of my friends who were especially interested in asking their parents about sex. I certainly never conceived of such a thing, and I have to wonder about the extent to which we may consider this to have been a common practice in pre-modern societies. As for the matter of learning history from grandma and grandpa, I again have to have my doubts as to whether teenagers in pre-modern societies commonly ran to their grandparents asking for history instruction. And if a young person should be motivated enough to go out and get the best history book available, why should it be seen as something negative merely because it was received efficiently and quickly from Amazon.com? I also have my doubts as to the fact that young people who are a few years different in age have not always tended to sharply segregate themselves. It is quite possible that my own personal experiences are abnormal, and that I am the one off the mark on these points, but this passage is, I think, indicative of an overall prejudice toward modernity and information technology that is not helpful to the argument.
There are also a number of other minor problems related to the application of Buddhism, which as a Buddhologist, I cannot completely ignore. First, although, the author's characterization of his hermeneutic perspective as "Buddhist," is mostly appropriate, there is a noticeable dearth of background material to explain the content of the "Buddhist" position. Other than the very general explanation of dependent origination/karma and a smattering of anecdotal information from a couple of early Indian texts, the rest of the "Buddhist" position is derived from a limited range of citations from Lin-chi, Pai-chang, and Hui-neng (who is presented as the very historical, illiterate, "non-techie" woodcutter). Much of what is taught from these three Chan figures (such as "according with conditions"), is as much Daoist as it is Buddhist. In the task of explaining the mechanics of group and individual karma, and in the discussion of meditative technique, I could see the room for the application of both Theravadin and Yogacarin doctrines as contributing a great deal.
There are also a number of places where the author is apparently unsure as to whether the principle being expressed is a pan-Buddhist understanding, or distinctively Chinese-Buddhist, and so we see the repeated qualifier "at least in Chinese Buddhism" without any explanation of *why* specifically Chinese Buddhism, and not also Indian, Tibetan, or South Asian Buddhism. Finally, in the author's suggestion of meditation as a personal solution to mediated colonization of the consciousness, Chan meditation is recommended as being the most appropriate. But the reasons for the privileging of Chan meditation are not adequately explained. Nor is there an articulation of the actual content of Chan meditation, or an acknowledgement of the fact that there are numerous types of Chan meditation; nor is there an explanation as to why these would be superior to any other form of Buddhist meditation.
Nonetheless, these criticisms, even if seen as valid, do not extend to the level of seriously impairing the basic arguments of the book. I strongly recommend reading it.
Toyo Gakuen University
Nagareyama-shi 270-0161 Japan