Personal computing

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

I have conflicted feelings about computers. As a boy, I loved nature and playing in the garden more than anything. I thought computers were sinister, inherently bad, maybe even evil. Then, around 1990, my parents bought my brother and I an Amiga 500. At first, I was disappointed. What did I want with a computer when I could climb trees? But my parents made seemingly logical arguments in favour of this plastic devil. I could do my homework on it. It would be something to play with on a rainy day. It was fully upgradeable and would go with us through life, a trusted tool and companion. The marketers made big promises.

Well, we did upgrade the machine, doubling its memory from the original 512k. It was hard to know what exactly that improved. I don’t think I ever did any homework on it, though school friends and I thought it was possible to hack into banks through the plug socket somehow. People were talking about computers being connected in a mysterious way. These were the days when, confused at news reports of a computer virus, we would disconnect our internet-free machines from the mains.

But I did play computer games on rainy days, and sunny days. I even tried to make my own computer game by arranging letters in a text document. I knew that the action on screen was esoterically connected to patterns of alphanumeric characters. I thought that maybe if I moved the letters around to resemble the scene I wanted to create, something would happen.

And I wrote things on it. Computers and consoles came and went. Essays, poems, stories, and blogposts were written. I began to earn my living writing, editing, and making things on computers. I made music. I went down social media rabbit holes. Not long ago, I was browsing Twitter in a local cafe, reading a report from an Italian hospital, and realising that coronavirus was set to explode here too. Fuelled by corona uncertainty, it became a habit to check at every lacuna in the day. “What’s happening now? What’s happening now?”

For a while I was writing short poems on Twitter, like haiku. It was great to get an immediate response to my writing. I used to write a poem and wait months if not years before it found its way into a magazine or competition placing. But the social media reward loop can also become addictive, very sticky, and that isn’t very conducive to cultivating mind states useful to a writer or a meditator. One person I followed described Twitter as a gallery of souls. How fascinating and banal to see people’s thoughts flicker into life and soon irrelevance. But a palantír is a dangerous tool. The middle way probably means not having constant, trivial access to it.

Over the past few years, I’ve loved playing Xbox with old friends. There’s something about chatting together while collaborating towards a shared goal. I think it harks back to our early days hunting and gathering on the savannah. Not that I was ever there personally. Even in the depths of lockdown, we were so fortunate to be able to crew a galleon, (try to) survive a battle royale, or frag our way through a tactical shooter. I enjoy the imagination and challenge of these games, and they can be a great laugh to boot. I wouldn’t be without it.

Even so, there’s sometimes a part of me that asks, “Do I really need computers? Would I be happier without it all?” And another part of me is hopelessly enmeshed in it: the wires, the dopamine hits, the shiny promise of productivity, the self image. Will I ever get the balance right? Have computers lived up to decades of hype? Or do the costs weigh too heavily on our attention, on our planet, and the labourers who assemble them?

The truth is that while computers promise so much, every device wants you to enter into an uneven power relationship. We may naively think that hardware and software are simply tools that we control but increasingly they are engineered to control us, to nudge us towards purchases, political candidates, eyeballs on adverts, and “time on site” metrics. So Twitter’s algorithms have learnt to serve you snippets of outrage throughout the day because—thanks to a quirk of psychological evolution—what infuriates you is an order of magnitude more effective in capturing your attention than nice stuff. The games I enjoy increasingly want to hook you in so you’ll spend money on their season pass. They do this through addictive mechanics lifted directly from the gambling industry, such as variable rewards. I even suspect that skill-based matchmaking may be manipulated to keep you hooked by throwing up a mix of easy and punishing games. Are you still having fun?

In many ways computers have isolated us, atomised our work, and made it abstract. In other ways they have connected and empowered us, democratised information, amplified our voices, unchained creativity, and made it possible to work anywhere. I have less doubt that these tools are a necessary, inevitable step in our evolution than I have about their current marriage to market capitalism. Regardless, we’re only at the beginning of a journey towards finding balance in how we use information tech, and figuring out its uncanny ethics *cough* AI *cough*.

I was ten years old when I turned on my Amiga 500. Who knows how many hours I’ve spent personally computing in the decades since. Is there still time to unplug, go outside, climb a tree?

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash.

The importance of wholesome structures

Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head, has some important lessons for maintaining clarity and sanity in a world of proliferating distractions.

In meditation circles, it’s common knowledge that prolonged stability of attention can create the conditions for deep insights to arise. However, we live in societies where attention is being monetised and manipulated by the advertising economy. Social media is engineered to foster addiction; newspapers are engaged in a clickbait race to the bottom. The river is flowing fast – away from clarity, insight, connection, and wellbeing – towards attentional degradation. There is a vicious circle in which we no longer have the willpower to do those things that nourish us and so we just scrape along the bottom: clicking, swiping, bingeing. Is there a way we can pay attention the people, things, and places we really ought to, and so become happier in the long run?

Getting jiggy with it

Fortunately, Crawford thinks he has identified something that will enable just this. He describes a process in which a skilled carpenter cuts several pieces of wood to the lengths she will require other pieces to be. This is called a “jig.” Rather than measure subsequent pieces of wood, she simply cuts the new wood by resting her saw against the jig. The jig is an improvised structure: one that it makes it easy to perform a task correctly and without cognitive effort. Crawford sees jigs everywhere: in the short-order cook’s kitchen, and in the world of information work.

For example, I’m writing this in a notebook on the train to see my parents. I have no headphones and no books with me. My phone is stowed, it’s data connection off. This set up is a kind of jig. I can think, meditate, write—or not—or watch the beautiful West Country scenery roll by. My attention is less likely to be dragged away from these pursuits as it could be were I using a computer, or could feel the bulk of a smartphone in my pocket. Later, if I type this up, working from these notes will themselves be a kind of jig. I haven’t even taken Crawford’s book with me. This is a big deal for someone who can’t usually travel for a weekend without bringing three books, one of which might be 500 pages long and impenetrably written.

What happens when mind and body are in the same place? It’s actually quite nice, often, or has the potential to be. But we need structure to make it happen. Willpower is a finite resource. There are good jigs and bad jigs, and we use them all the time. Pen and paper offer more attentional protection for writers than an iPad; meditation retreats provide seclusion in which the heart and mind settle; joining a gym provides you not only with equipment but a dedicated space – if you go. Holidays are jigs for relaxing; gambling machines are jigs for ridding yourself of money. The internet is perhaps the mother of all jigs, a chaotic uber-jig, that simply amounts to the closest thing we have to a goddess of distraction.

What kind of jigs do you use? Is there a way of arranging these structures to best support your nobler intentions?

The Moon Thief in Urthona

I’ve written a poem in response to a zen koan. The Moon Thief will be published in the forthcoming spring issue of Urthona.

‘The Moon Thief ’ came out of an encounter with the koan in the poem’s epigraph: the great Zen poet Ryokan, meditating in a mountain hermitage, offers his clothes to a thief but cannot give him a full appreciation of the moon. Mark writes: ‘I was walking home from work and suddenly thought, “there’s another side to this story.” Working in and around the silences of the koan brought many scenes and characters over time.’

This long poem relates the quest of a drifter and thief desperately seeking a treasure that will heal his inner wounds. He stumbles upon Ryokan, the Japanese hermit poet. In this version, the chance encounter changes everything for the thief – but what will he find at the summit?

Here’s the original koan that inspired the poem.

A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

From Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours

Subscribe to Urthona: Journal of Buddhism and the Arts to read The Moon Thief. The next issue’s theme is ‘the beauty of friendship’ and it looks great.

Concentration

Breath hisses like a burning log.
The cracked black wood burns red,
smouldering in a deep iron heart.
Too much air, it flares and flickers out.
Too little, it starves and we get cold ash.
But when the grate is open well enough
it breathes hot and constant.
Sometimes a blister, a spark, a crack.
Mostly nothing but silent, black heat
warming the room without display or cease.