I’ve been tuning into our theme for the current session at the Shrewsbury Triratna Buddhist Centre. We are exploring the ’21st Century Bodhisattva’, a course module written by Dharmacari Akuppa. Alongside this module I’ve been reading a thought provoking book by the historian Yuval Noah Harari entitled ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’. Having been given the title for our Sangha evening ‘Ethical Challenges in the Modern World’ I’ve been drawing from the book.
The first thing to think about has been algorithms. I’m still not quite sure I know what one is! Abstract concepts are not an easy thing for my brain to wrap itself around. So, a couple of examples: it’s when it’s no longer the friendly bank manager who decides if you get a loan, but a computer based algorithm that works out whether you are a good bet or not.
I suspect it is also the reason why my partner and I were refused house insurance by a lot of insurance companies despite the on-line Government flood tables that told us our risk (from the nearby River Severn) is officially ‘low’. When I phoned one of the companies the young guy didn’t know why we’d been refused. He didn’t know how the decisions were made.
Algorithms, as far as I can tell, are computer programmes that put in a lot of information from a variety of sources and spit out results: don’t insure her, no loan for him, send them these sorts of adverts, sell them this type of holiday. In some ways this is not new, but the degree of sophistication of the programmes is, and the amount of info held online about each and every one of us is too.
The irony is that a lot of the information algorithms use is given freely and unthinkingly by us whenever we use our computers, ipads or smart phones online. A day or so after I mention ‘mindfulness’ on Facebook my feed is full of ads for courses, classes, books – about mindfulness! After I’ve ‘liked’ a little video I might start getting emails from the company or political group. The most invasive was after I’d signed a petition on social media wanting to decrease waiting times for the treatment of pancreatic cancer; a few days later I got a phone call asking me to donate to the charity. I was almost certain I hadn’t given my number to that individual site, but somehow the dots were joined on some bit of programme somewhere.
There’s loads to say about algorithms; they can be used for very dark purposes (manipulating our democratic electoral processes) as well as some very creative ones such as the current exhibition in London ‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’ demonstrating, within a virtual world, the invisible connections between human and plant life fostering a sense of connectedness with our physical world.
Whether algorithms are used for good or ill depends whose hands they are in. Given the capitalist nature of our global economy it is fair enough to assume that information will be the new currency, and untold riches are there for those who control it. These are immensely strong motivating factors. Perhaps this is the stuff of the future, but the building blocks are in place, and the financial investment to date is huge.
Bio technology, where medical research and technology come together, will soon be able to monitor physical processes on an almost cellular level. Biometric sensors that gather and analyse data from our bodies. But do we want to know that we have the beginnings of arthritis when we have no symptoms, or that a tickle in the throat has a 10% chance of turning into laryngitis when our bodies are often capable of fighting off potential infection without drugs that may well weaken our systems in the long term?
Monitoring heart rate, sleep patterns and sweat responses via our Smart Phones not only allows physical data to be collected and analysed, but also reveals how we feel when we look at or listen to particular adverts or scenes in movies, or on a work conference call. Do you really want your boss to know how you feel about her latest ideas or how you bristle each times she cackles with laughter?
We will no longer truly have a private life. It will all become public knowledge, or at least, available to those who are prepared to pay for it, and in part it will be because we’ve given away the information ourselves.
Through allowing computer algorithms to make more of our choices they learn to anticipate what we like, how we think and who we are. When we take the easy way out we let them finish our sentences not quite the way we would have done so ourselves (with predictive text), lose vital skills such as map reading, basic arithmetic or remembering facts rather than constantly looking them up on Google. We fail to recognise the news item we’re being directed to is biased specifically to keep us on the site for longer, or that it appeals to our less than best self seeking a bit of distraction.
The simplest and most important thing I picked up from Yuval Noah Harari is that we have a choice. If we doing nothing, if we passively go along with the status quo, we will ‘lose’ our minds, dumbing down and de-skilling. Alternately we can choose to develop and enrich our minds and hearts.
This is where spiritual practice comes in. It is something of a surprise that YNH’s final chapter lays out the benefits of meditation, and even more encouraging, that he is speaking from his own experience.
When we meditate we learn to take responsibility for our own minds, we aim to keep the initiative by touching into an inner reality. We tune in with an almost indefinable quality of experience that acts as a touchstone for us. In a world where virtual reality becomes more the norm, again and again, we can take the time to notice what is actually happening. From the simplest experience – the sun is shining, my feet are touching the ground, breath is moving through the body – to the subtlest knowing of movements of mind, we are less hoodwinked through the simple power of presence.
This is not to say we can protect ourselves completely against the manipulations of algorithms, but armed with information about our changing world we can chose to act with discernment and integrity in line with our values.
The mind has extraordinary untapped power and potential; it is up to us what we do with it.