I was having a conversation recently, which included an observation on how the propaganda of the big media corporations gets into our heads. I’ve talked a bit about letting go of the mainstream media before, but this time I had a connection jump into my mind. At a Buddhist Meditation meeting recently, we listened to a Dharma talk. The subject was about the Karmic seeds we plant. The point was made that if you plant the seeds of a Neem Tree then you get sour fruit; if you plant the seeds of Sugar Cane, you get something sweet. Now, these seeds are planted in the mind. This is important to understand, because of all the actions you can take the mental are the most important; this is because everything else, verbal or physical flows from the mind.
We can sow such seeds in the minds of others if we’re not careful, and we are often not careful. Harsh words, harsh actions, injustices all of these plant the seeds in the minds of others. I have in mind a news story I saw some time ago that said childhood bullying can negatively affect the lives of those bullied until their 40th birthday. It can affect academic performance, social ability and career prospects. For me, this shows us the importance of non-violence in both word and action.
At this point, it’s worth thinking about the incoming seeds from big media. These are planted in our minds and, they hope, will affect our future actions and words. This may not be immediate, but down the line can and will affect our views, words, actions and suchlike. Seeds of violence, hate, anger, jealousy; an unrelenting tide of negative news. It’s quite a crop. Of course, it’s an easy get out to blame the media, but we perpetuate it amongst ourselves; little by little society changes. But, we do have the choice here not to accept the seeds. We can also refuse to spread them, try to use kind words and a gentler approach where possible and be more mindful of the influences we see and the things we share via social media.
The other day, the news broke that the social network Facebook had 1 billion logins in a day. Now, we can question that figure in terms of meaningful logins; after all there are such things as bots and parody accounts on the site. Having said that, I doubt that the figure is far enough out for it to matter too much. What bothers me is that meaning of that figure for the open Internet and also for the future of privacy.
Facebook and other sites represent a walled garden of the kind that used to exist in the old days. I’ve heard people rail against Apple for having a walled garden ecosystem, Microsoft will doubtless go the same way and Google have been known to throw apps out of their app store. But all of this is a necessity if you propose to run a secure app ecosystem. You need to act as bouncer to kick out misbehaving apps. At the same time new apps need to be vetted. I suspect a better term than “walled garden” is “curated library”. There have been, and will continue to be, breaches; but this is a remarkably safe way, compared to the old “download setup and run it” method of installing things. I’ve seen too many PCs covered in random browser toolbars and other cruft to argue with a better alternative.
The walled gardens of the web are, I think, more dangerous. Understandably, they need to lock the content down as this represents their income base; to see it, you must sign up and become part of the content base. These networks do mean that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to remain well informed if you’re not part of it. The danger here is a two tier Internet. I have already seen content that’s only on Facebook, which raises the question in my mind: how long until we have official Facebook exclusives? The notion of one company gaining that kind of monopoly on the content and the conversation is frightening, suddenly “freedom of speech” becomes “complies with the Terms of Service”. People who want to communicate and stay informed shouldn’t have to be subject to the whims of one company in such a way.
I’ve mused on this blog about privacy and social network before. My concerns are based more around analysis than anything else. It’s a fair point that anything revealed on the public Internet can be analysed, and bots crawl every website. But, on a closed social networking site it’s the case that people reveal much more than they might on the pubic Internet. That data is analysed and I’m not at all sure that there’s enough awareness of that. From my Buddhist perspective, I’m thinking of the precept against taking that which is not freely given. If I encourage a person to trust me enough to give me something but I don’t make my full intentions completely obvious, then is what I’m doing ethical? I consider that the answer to this is “no”; because the thing could not have been freely given without full awareness of my intentions. Yes, these things are mentioned in the Term and Conditions, but they need to be upfront and clearer.
I’m liking this slippery slope less and less.
I was reading through a blog called The Archdruid Report recently. Whilst doing so, I happened across a post that described the principle of “Externalisation”. Now in brief, the idea is that when doing business, you can push some of the cost of what you’re doing off onto someone else. The Archdruid gives the example of a factory pushing effluent into a local river, thus pushing the cost of waste disposal onto the environment and the people downstream. Of course, our civilisation can’t afford to keep on doing that, too many birds coming home to roost; but that’s a discussion for another post.
As I thought about it, the sheer scope of externalisation became clearer and I realised that I’d touched on the subject before; albeit from a spiritual slant and I’d not known the formal name for it at the time. We do this with more than just the environment; we use insurance in many avenues of life and what is that but externalising liability? If we have an accident the insurer gets the huge bill, not us. It’s the same with the Cloud and IT outsourcing, we externalise responsibility for dealing with the complexities of various IT and business systems. But in this case, by passing the buck outwards, we hand over a large degree of power and control. We no longer control our own systems, and in time the skillset to do so will be lost. We also expose ourselves to legal frameworks we’re not familiar with. For example, US based cloud systems are subject to US law; a thing which people in Europe or Asia might not have taken into account when signing up. In some circumstances, this could lead to difficulties! I already have the understanding that some European companies will not have their data hosted in US Cloud systems for just this reason.
We externalise many things in our lives and thinking of places we do this is an interesting exercise. But I’d like to return now to old ground, the spiritual. The externalising of our spiritual lives is, in my eyes, the chief purpose of organised religion. During the spiritual journey, we’re all faced with difficult questions, things that we must resolve. The organised religions offer pre-packaged answers to these questions, “all” they require for their price is obedience and the transfer of your power over your spiritual life to them. The problem then is similar to the problem I mentioned above with IT systems. The loss of relevant skills (critical thought), the loss of power and control. The inability to go your own way.
I can’t help but think of the Kalama Sutra and that the Buddha’s last words were that his followers should be a light unto themselves. That seems to pretty much rule out this sort of Externalisation. I recall a recorded Dharma Talk by the late Rev. Jiyu Kennett, founder of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. She said quite bluntly that “Buddhism is not a religion for spiritual children”, as I reflect on her words I’m convinced that this is what she meant.