The quote, “the purpose of technology is to improve the quality of human life so that life may fulfill its higher purpose”, is from a book I read many years ago, although I don’t remember the title of the book, or who wrote it. But it has stuck in my mind for all these years, because it rang true for me then, and it does so even more now. I believe it is highly relevant in today’s world, with our society’s disproportionate relationship with technology. I want to share my interpretation of these words. I don’t know if this is the same context in which the writer intended them, but if it is, I give full credit to the author. There are many social and environmental impacts of an obsession with technology that we must acknowledge, and need to change.
I believe the purpose of technology was to make our lives easier so that we would have more time and energy to channel into:
- Pursuing activities and experiences that would enable us to grow emotionally and spiritually, including meditation, contemplation and self-reflection
- Experiencing the world and engaging with others, to fully develop our hearts, our souls, our minds and our potential as human beings
- Dedicating a portion of our time and efforts to helping others, and to healing the Earth.
In Buddhist philosophy, every human life is important, and our lifetimes are a wonderful opportunity to grow spiritually, and develop our higher emotions, including love, patience, generosity and kindness. I don’t believe life intended for us to be endless consumers and slaves to technology, spending our free time glued to screens and being obsessed with the lives and dramas of other people, but instead to create our own wondrous, beautiful and meaningful lives. We were not meant to isolate ourselves from others by immersing ourselves in virtual reality, but to embrace real relationships and real connections, and true, raw, flesh-and-blood reality. We worship at the altar of technology, and we waste our lives and our valuable energy. Is this really our higher purpose in life? We need to ask ourselves, how do we want to spend our limited time here on this glorious Earth? As poet Mary Oliver so beautifully puts it: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Technology does have its place in our lives. Think of all the incredible advances in science and medicine that have been made because of technology, and how life has been made easier for many people on this Earth. But technology has not made life easier for everyone, with indigenous communities in poorer countries suffering terribly because of Western society’s obsession with technology. It makes me incredibly sad and angry whenever I hear or read about how we are inventing cars that drive themselves, and appliances that ‘talk’ to each other, when so many people in the world don’t have access to decent food, clothing, clean water and adequate housing. We have this need to constantly upgrade, update and upsize, always wanting the latest gadget, gizmo or model. When will enough be enough?
From a social and environmental perspective, this obsession is destroying the Earth:
- Planned Obsolescence – manufacturers deliberately design products to break down, shortening their life cycle, so consumers need to keep purchasing the same product because the existing product cannot be repaired, creating a constant demand for a continual supply of products, necessitating the extraction of more raw materials from the environment.
- Conflict Minerals – electronic devices contain rare-earth minerals mined in countries where profits from the extraction and sale of those minerals are used to finance ongoing wars in those regions. There is a growing urgency for major corporations to invest in the development, manufacture and marketing of conflict-free technology.
- Toxic E-Waste – the illegal disposal or dumping of millions of discarded electronic devices by developed countries into developing countries, creating a toxic waste stream (that will increase if we continue our current patterns of consumption), contaminating the environment, polluting the air and water, and adversely affecting the health of many indigenous communities.
- Environmental Impacts – the negative effects on the environment from mining include deforestation, soil erosion, destruction of natural landscapes, removal of habitat for wildlife, loss of biodiversity and contamination of waterways.
- Exploitation of Children – young children are forced to work in mines that extract rare-earth minerals, exposing them to highly toxic gases, dust and chemicals that potentially cause serious, life-threatening diseases, place them at a high risk of injury and death, and in physically and mentally demanding conditions.
- The Industrialization of Tibet – the Tibetan Plateau is globally significant in an environmental context, and its rivers provide the water supply for many Asian countries downstream. The Himalayas are extremely rich in valuable minerals (including lithium required to power electric cars), but potential over-exploitation of these mineral deposits is already destroying this beautiful landscape.
I’m not anti-technology. I do think we give far too much power to technology at the expense of more important aspects of our lives. Let’s keep it in perspective. We need to find a balance between our use of technology and the way we spend our time, and we need to address our patterns of over-consumption and the way we use the Earth’s resources. Use technology as a tool and your time online more constructively. Spend a specified amount of time every day online to do what you need to do, and then turn off the computer and mobile phone and go outside and live your life. Discover the wonder of the natural world and the world within your own heart.
Keep the idea of technology in its proper perspective. Aim to strike a balance between your use of technology and the way you spend your available free time. Develop yourself, your mind and your heart and give something back to the Earth from which so much has been taken already. Spend more time in meditation, contemplation, self-reflection and prayer. Work at becoming an incredible human being instead.