The Algorithm and Mindfulness: The Social Dilemma
How do we move past the algorithm and protect our children?
In a time of isolation, there are mixed blessings. With the pervasive sadness of our country’s polarization, deaths mounting, and missing our loved ones, there’s both change and awareness happening. The yin/yang feels off balance and more extreme as Panera’s mac and cheese makes its way to my mouth more often than I’d like.
I think about how our children are exposed to so much more than the virus. The ubiquitous algorithm solves a specific “problem” which directs us to the solutions by the computation of the computer. It presents them with new fancy sweaters or video games and most assuredly down a rathole of misinformation or defining how to become anorexic as being “cool” This puts us all in concrete cells of information with no opportunity for an alternate “truth” or points of view. Once the child “likes” or clicks the algorithm curates new enticements, media, products or services all for the sake of profit. It is very difficult for parents to control what children see in today at every turn. Why do we make it the children’s job to undo the mess that has put before them by the grownups? How about the adult’s doing their jobs to benefit the children first?
Using a daily meditation practice with awareness at the center, I question: How do you reconcile the manipulation of the algorithm and not take part in its feed when it presents so much ease? The information is always at our fingertips to present solutions. Is there any consciousness behind all the social posts and advertisements that create the narrow mazes of internet reality?
Often, when innovators create a solution for one problem, they create another, and more so when seeking profit. While innovative companies may see and realize the error of their ways down the line, they rarely own up to that mistake unless pushed against a legal wall. Historically, we often only see a change in companies when there is pressure from the public for them to do better after an injury. In mindfulness, we make changes from the inside out. Corporations make costly changes only from the outside in.
The companies behind social media designed their products to make money, and any business model that sells advertising wants as many eyeballs as possible, for as long possible. So they made their apps addictive — a number of the founders have admitted as much. Did the creators foresee the psychological havoc (like bullying!), the political manipulation, or the rampant spread of misinformation?
We see them now.
Social media limits our creative capacity and steers us away from our hearts and what really matters.
How can we create a more compassionate, wholehearted society? Brene Brown outlines a specific way to live in this way with her 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living, of which many align with a mindfulness or Buddhist approach. Essentially it is a cultivation of living in your truth and authenticity aligned with your best human nature. Letting go of fear, cultivating self-compassion, joy and laughter, gratitude, rest, stillness and meaningful work to name a few.
When we recognize that this is a problem in society and in ourselves, we can find a solution. Heart-centered awareness changes everything. If we reflect on what matters and redefine our values as a society to meet the evolution of technology, we can have a better world.
Incorporating the Buddhist principles of mindfulness into this situation, we can have a more balanced society.
And how do we live free, honest and creative lives when the information presented to us is controlled, and the algorithm manipulates our vulnerabilities?
Applying the Buddha’s teaching upon his enlightenment, which is The 4 Noble Truths helps us to navigate the awareness of these challenges.
- Suffering — Collectively, we are all suffering. The algorithm purports to relieve our suffering by showing us what we want to see or providing us with an unfulfilled need. But it causes just as much suffering — and even creates new ways to suffer, then happily offers to cure it for a price.
- Cause of Suffering — If we agree that social media (for all its benefits) causes suffering, then this is the attachment that we must release. Can we acknowledge our mindless attachments to apps and be more mindful online? What are we modeling for our children?
- The End of Suffering — Being more mindful, we can relate to each other with respect, compassion and understanding. We can teach our children how to be whole-hearted both online and off, and we can change the legal system to protect them and hold companies accountable.
- The Path — What is the path we need to take to get there? We can only do this together. If we practice mindfulness and live and teach the core values of our being, the path will become clear for each of us. For you, reading this, how would more mindfulness change your relationship with social media? And how would it change your relationship with your children?
When I think about the reason for this suffering, I see it as a wake-up call. We have all been hypnotized in our various micro-realities, unable to see beyond what is presented on our many screens.
“Our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence…And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives” Mr. Rogers
We all have to agree to protect children from social media harm and the mindlessness, misinformation and hate that divide us as a society. I think back to 1969, when Mr. Rogers fought for the children. The Senate agreed to avoid the massive budget cuts to save public media (NPR and PBS) mainly for children.
Mr. Rogers noted that the first thing children learn is trust. He showed how children were being bombarded with confusing information — back when there were only 4 or 5 channels on television! He understood the inner drama of the child and the collective responsibility of society to care for all children, each unique and special just by being themselves. Back then, people watched the same news, trusting sources like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. They were listening to the same music on the radio, reading the same printed books. They heard respectful intellectual conversations where people actually listened to one another.
Now, in a world where everyone works so hard to stand out — and many simply to pay for basic needs, we have lost connection with ourselves and each other. At this point, there is nothing to prove but to be kind and empathetic with one another for everyone’s sake. Sadly, Mr. Rogers’ mission is being chipped away as technology expands.
The reckless and duplicitous behavior of profit-driven companies and our government have caused unspeakable suffering. How can we move forward until enough of us agree on the plight of our current society, and that everyone should care for each other, communities and society at large with empathy and respect.
We can get there through mindfulness and living the core values of our being. The Buddhist principles of the 8-fold Path include Right Speech, Right Resolve and Right Conduct to name a few applicable. Approached mindfully, these seem to me to be a good starting point.
I suggest we meditate on what is really keeping our attention. Is it the space between the breath or is it the ones and zeros of the algorithm? I believe each of us can return again and again to the spacious awareness that connects us, and in that, dispel the systematic illusions of algorithmic mindlessness. We can apply this awareness organically to remember who we are and what we need, and to redirect ourselves to the light of humanity and love deep within. Each of us can do it for ourselves and our children, and as we do, society will and must change in response. Let’s put Pandora back in her box and look one another in the eyes again as humans.