The Age of Technological Suffering

A young White woman outside in nature at night, absorbed in her iPhonne.

Whether you had words for it or not, you’ve felt it: Technological Suffering.

Technological Suffering is any form of distress that arises from our interactions with digital worlds.

It can be very subtle.

Or very severe.

But it’s happening, because our brains weren’t built for the digital reality we’re living in. And as a result, our human-technology interactions are causing harm — for ourselves and for society.

A crowd of people at a concert holding up their phones to film the concert

On an everyday level, Technological Suffering can be so subtle that we don’t even notice it.

For instance, we check LinkedIn and find a feed filled with celebrations and clapping emojis…and a stray thought pops up: Am I good enough?

That may not sound so harmful.

But when we zoom out, we can see the collective and cumulative effects of Technological Suffering are enormous.

Text on a page describing the biggest buckets of Technological Suffering

When you consider the state of the world today, it’s clear that technology is affecting our inner and outer worlds.

Of course it’s not all bad.

You’re reading this article thanks to cloud computing, liquid crystal displays, computer chips, Medium.com, ISPs, and a bunch of stuff I don’t understand.

Technology is useful. And it’s pretty magical.

But while technology is not inherently problematic, it is contributing to harms that would be wiser to avoid.

To figure out how to unwind technological harm, it helps to understand the origin of suffering.

Most suffering arises from an interplay of perceptual distortions and problematic conditions.

Let’s take an example.

Imagine that someone we’ll call Sami is having a heated discussion with their mom. Sami and Mom are not seeing eye-to-eye on “A Very Important Topic.”

Sami and Mom love each other. But in the disagreement, Sami snaps back with harsh words, belittling Mom. It doesn’t feel good for either of them.

The perceptual distortion is Sami tying their self-worth to being “right” and seeing retaliation as a helpful response. The problematic conditions include Mom raising her voice and Sami feeling tired.

The suffering is how they both feel afterwards: disconnected and upset.

This type of suffering isn’t new. In fact, it’s at least 70,000 years old.

A visual depiction of 70,000 years of human history on one page, showing that our recent history is very very recent.
70,000 years of human history on one page! Each box represents 10 years.

While heated debates have surely been around since the beginning of language 70,000 years ago, much of how we live and process the world today have been around less than 250 years.

Let’s look at how some of the social elements of our lives are different.

A table outlining different types of social dimensions 250 years ago vs more recently.

And then there are perceptual differences in how we relate to geography, time, visual and auditory representations, and sensory stimulation.

A table outlining different types of perceptual dimensions 250 years ago vs more recently.

These are some fundamentally big differences.

Fortunately, our minds are malleable. Yet only to a degree. Our basic hardwiring and impulses have not changed that much in 70,000 years.

What does that mean?

While there have always been perceptual distortions and problematic conditions, our relatively recent environments amplify them.

Our brains are not built for the Industrial Age nor the Information Age.

We weren’t made for 1780 let alone 2021.

So what do we do?

We start with laying a foundation to understand both perceptual distortions and problematic conditions. This foundation is awareness.

Awareness vs. Autopilot

Awareness is what allows us to make skillful choices and to take wise action in the face of problematic conditions.

If our awareness is contracted, our mind goes into autopilot mode. Which is great if our autopilot mode is well calibrated.

Unfortunately, our basic autopilot mode starts with 70,000+ year old programming, and then layers in everything we have ever experienced on top of it.

Everything is conditioned

Have you ever had the experience where you learned something new and then started noticing it everywhere?

For example, you’re researching plants to start a garden, and suddenly “plants” transform into ornamental grasses, geraniums, and wooly thyme?

Your input changed your attention and perception.

This is nice when it’s all geraniums and wooly thyme, but what about when it’s more problematic?

What about when our inputs are fake headlines, highly edited photos, and harmful speech?

Seeing fake headlines — even when we know they are fake — become part of our unconscious experiences. Comparing ourselves to curated distortions of other people, distorts our sense of self. And, encountering harmful speech reconditions our notion of healthy discourse.

Our sensory inputs condition our future.

And what we experience, affects others.

Technological Suffering perpetuates more Technological Suffering. Uh oh!

If we return to [Suffering = Perceptual Distortions *Problematic Conditions], we can see that technology has the potential to:

  1. Exacerbate Perceptual Distortions
  2. Increase Problematic Conditions
  3. Spread suffering exponentially

This is the difficult news. There is Technological Suffering, and unchecked and unmitigated it will continue to grow.

The good news is that there is a path out.

The path is not straightforward, and it’s not linear, and it’s not quick. But it is possible.

Where do we go from here?

There are societal changes that can take place, and regulatory changes that would certainly help, and many complex solutions to navigate.

But all of them require the same basic improvement: cultivating greater awareness of what is happening.

A flow chart diagram, showing how awareness helps us to have veto power over unconscious intentions.

With expanded awareness, we have the potential to override autopilot modes, more effectively navigate problematic conditions, and choose skillful action.

Individual and societal

Skillful action includes individually beneficial actions. Like choosing to go to bed when tired instead of doom-scrolling, or opting out of social media usage on the weekends.

If we revisit Sami and Mom from earlier, skillful action might include Sami taking a breath and realizing they’re feeling frustrated. Then sharing with Mom: ”I’m feeling frustrated at the moment, because you’re one of the most important people in my life, and we’re not seeing eye-to-eye.”

Mom is much more likely to respond skillfully now, too.

Skillful action can also include societally beneficial actions. Like becoming more informed about the systems of Technological Suffering, or getting involved as an advocate for skillful change.

This might not sound like much, but what if you’re Mark Zuckerberg?

And even if you’re (most likely) not him, some human will influence some other human who will eventually influence Mark Zuckerberg.

Our awareness and our actions affect others.

How to build awareness

To cultivate greater moment-to-moment awareness, we need applied mindfulness.

Mindfulness occurs when 1) we bring our full attention into what’s happening right now across our thoughts and five senses, and 2) we do that in a kind, non-judgmental way that enables us to see clearly.

Applied mindfulness is when we deliberately undertake mindfulness as a skillful action itself.

How applied mindfulness and meditation (optionally) support awareness.

Unfortunately, our autopilot program is the antithesis of mindfulness. When we’re on autopilot, we are not applying mindfulness, and we are not aware.

That’s where meditation is useful. Meditation is dedicated practice time for mindfulness, in more optimal conditions. By practicing in more optimal conditions, we increase our ability to apply mindfulness in more problematic conditions.

Over time this enables us to be more and more aware, until one day it’s our default way of being.

Simple but not easy

If the solution seems simple, it is. We individually expand our awareness through applied mindfulness, moment-to-moment. This empowers us to reduce perceptual distortions, reduce problematic conditions, and take more skillful microactions.

These moment-to-moment actions condition the future for more applied mindful moments, better conditions, and more skillful action. And as we take more skillful actions, that cascades out to others’ lives.

Yet, while the solution is simple, it is not easy. Coming back to mindful awareness over and over again is difficult. Seeing Technological Suffering in our lives and in our society is painful.

Course-correcting widespread Technological Suffering will be challenging, complex, and slow.

This is how it is.

There is great possibility for the future of technology. And it starts with real individuals, like you, me, and Sami, applying more moment-to-moment mindfulness in our own lives. Together we take small skillful actions, which ripple outwards in unpredictably beneficial ways.

Our minds and our world can be cultivated. We can change the Technological Suffering equation. And we don’t even have to give up technology! We just need to start practicing.

Right…. now :)

With gratitude to Alex Sarkissian and Reuben Weiss who contributed their wisdom and energy to this work. For more writings and resources, check the links below to be in touch.

▪️▪️▪️ RadicalLivingProject.org | twitter @marialambert | newsletter ▪️▪️▪️

Writing on meditation, behavioral psychology, and applied ethics. Stanford MBA, Bain alum, certified Koru Mindfulness teacher.

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