Digital Innovation, Mindfulness and Existential Angst By Nadine Andrews

I am really interested in what I am beginning to think is a growing inability to relax into just being fully present with an experience without feeling the need or giving in to the urge to be actively doing something, like record it, which then mediates the direct experience.

This article about The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s asking attenders at their live gigs not to watch their performance through iPhones and iPads kind of sums it up. The comments are also fascinating and illuminating.

Digital angst

As others (see below) have said, its something to do with wanting to cling on to experiences, to make them permanent by documenting them and then sharing them, as a way of validating and authenticating our experience, that we exist.. “I was there – look here’s the proof!” But the irony is that in the act of documenting we are no longer fully present, so we were not there! We can watch the footage afterwards but the subjectively felt body memory of the experience isn’t so strong, leaving a vague feeling of emptiness, dissatisfaction, of being unfulfilled  – which we then attempt to satisfy by doing more of the same. I say ‘we’ because I’m not immune to this urge, but I’m usually aware of it when it arises and so try to mindfully manage it.
A commentator on Google Glass says “It’s like we’re trying to validate our life experiences by obsessively documenting each moment of them as they happen.”

And Charlie Brooker: “almost every monologue consists of nothing but the words PLEASE AUTHENTICATE MY EXISTENCE, repeated over and over again, in disguise.“

It seems to reveal an existential angst that is being unhelpfully fed by innovations in digital culture – indeed it’s the angst that is driving the innovations. An attempt to ease suffering by seeking comfort in permanence rather accepting the reality of life as impermanent. These innovations are mindless designs in the sense that the designs are not addressing the issue that the desires of the ego-mind is what traps us in an endless cycle of suffering, to get all Buddhist about it.
So – existential angst, reluctance to accept the limits of mortality, fear of the void. David Noble argues that we are so obsessed with technology because it seems to offer transcendence from mortality (for more on this see my post on humans, nature & technology) Our society avoids death. ’Avoid’ is from the Old French vuide meaning empty: we avoid the void.

Photo by Priyanka Bista
Photo by Priyanka Bista

Rather than do the hard, and possibly scary, work of going into yourself, into the unknown, you can now buy a gadget that zaps your brain to trigger alpha waves to get you into a heightened state of relaxed focussed alertness. I recently met up with a mindfulness teacher at Salford University who had tried it, he said he felt really weird and trippy for hours afterwards. So you can shortcut to get increased productivity, conveniently bypassing the need to sit for hours learning how to meditate and get into that state by yourself, and do the messy uncomfortable inner psychological work that accompanies it.
It’s interesting that Google are into mindfulness. I wonder though if they are actually co-opting mindfulness meditation practice for ego-driven corporate ends. How consciously aware of this would people in the company be? They are certainly very creative and productive but don’t seem to be engaging with mindfulness on a deeper level  – not getting the fundamental point about impermanence, for one thing. Or maybe the point is, is it that they do, and that is exactly why they are so successful – they are creating products/services to sell for profit that feed people’s unconscious desire for permanence…  which would be nothing new because of course that’s where the PR industry originated in 1920s with Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays applying psychoanalytic theory to create false needs, as was excellently exposed in Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self 2002 BBC documentary.
Related to this, is a very good critical article by Jeremy Hunter (teaches mindfulness at Peter F Drucker school of management) on the potential for mindfulness to be a creative and positive disruptive technology in a company because of the way it can cultivate a greater appreciation of the interdependence and connectedness of all life, that echoes much of what I have been thinking about the importance of intention in mindfulness practice.

Come to Nadine’s talk


Read Nadine’s Blog