Digital Devices and the Middle Way
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
The irony of our lives is that we have tuned out the real world by surrendering ourselves to the virtual world.
I see the signs everywhere: in parks overflowing with birdsong, visitors wearing ear buds and headphones to keep nature at bay; at street corners, in malls, movies, restaurants, board rooms and even at funerals, digital diehards snapping selfies, talking to their smartphones, checking email, posting on social media and sending out the obligatory tweet.
The digital revolution is irreversible. Its benefits are innumerable. There is no returning to the pastoral gentility of yesteryear, which we gave up anyway during the Industrial revolution over three centuries ago.
No, the real issue is one of balance. Will we constantly be in the thrall of our always-on devices, or will we also set aside meaningful time for what make us human - family, friends, community, memory, mystery, hope, love, longing?
Our gadgets are taking over our lives, shaping us in more ways than we can imagine. They do everything for us except for those things that truly matters: visiting a sick relative in the hospital, for example, or looking at people when they are talking to us, instead of reading incoming texts.
Immersed in our customized cocoons and behaving as if we are on digital-media life support, we discard our manners and trample on the feelings of those around us.
Given that tablets, smartphones and iPods (coming soon to a store near you: wearable computers in watches and glasses) will only get smarter, how do we keep them from turning life into one giant mobile app?
It will not be easy but it can be done.
There are examples of people addicted to the virtual world who gradually weaned themselves off the digital dystopia by unplugging at certain times of the day, as when they were with family and loved ones. Some unplugged during weekends, and although resisting the temptation to take “just a peek” proved painful, they were able to conquer their demons. They use their devices but in moderation, knowing that a time-sink can swallow them unless they are careful. They speak with reverence of the freedom that is now theirs and the urgency of the fleeting life that animates their waking moments.
Another way to overcome the siren song of the virtual world is to renew our acquaintance with nature.
“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth, and that was at the dawn of the 19th Century when the poet felt that people had lost their connection to nature because of their growing attachment to materialism. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours/…/For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”
It is time to tune in to what matters, to what gives life its beauty and its mystery. Next time we go for a walk in the woods or a stroll by the shore, let’s leave behind the devices with their flickering screens so we can absorb the sights and sounds of the singing sparrow or the sonorous surf, the graceful arc of a falling leaf or the hypnotic ebb and flow of tides.
George Mallory climbed Mount Everest because it was there. We browse the Internet because it is everywhere. But while the formidable challenge of the Himalayas remains undiminished, accessing the Internet gets easier by the minute. We will soon probably connect to the Cloud with a blink or a wink.
So here is a worthy resolution to consider: We will use technology but we will not allow technology to use us. We will prevent the digital deluge from drowning us. The Qur’an reminds us that we are a community of the Middle Way (2:143) and that striving for a life of balance and purpose is integral to our faith. It takes courage to resist the frivolous yet fierce pull of Facebook friends or the titillation of trending topics on Twitter but that courage is within us. We only have to find it.