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Buddhism, relative experiences, and technology: Exploring the possibility of a virtuous approach to Social Media

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Buddhism, relative experiences, and technology: Exploring the possibility of a virtuous approach to Social Media
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Let’s start by considering this: you're scrolling through your social media feed, probably Instagram and your friends seem to be living their best lives while you feel like you're missing out. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you're not alone. I call this sensation of missing out relative destruction, and it occurs when different personal realities smash together, creating the sensation that the lives of others are more enriching than your own. Such sensations can disrupt people's well-being and develop an addiction to social media due to the need to see what others are doing by repeatedly comparing your life with theirs. 

Relative destruction is heightened by the increased use of technology in today’s societies. Generally speaking, the use of technology can be observed in several domains and scales, from the macro dimension of critical infrastructure to the micro level, using personal technology such as smartphones, computers, and other electronic devices that shape individuals’ daily activities. 

Society’s increased use of technology has raised concerns about the effects it has on our lives. This is quite a revolutionary fact. Classical approaches saw technology as a neutral object or adopted a deterministic standpoint, where technological progress followed the logic of efficiency. On the contrary, contemporary approaches recognize that the “tool” has some sort of agency. This change of approach is significant because it acknowledges the role technology plays in shaping our relations with others and our sense of personhood. 

Nevertheless, it is insufficient to acknowledge that technology, and in this case, the ones concerned with social media, such as screens and algorithms, actively influence how we perceive the world and how they shape our identities. We need to develop a possible approach that promotes a virtuous relationship grounded in a self-mastery process. 

In what follows, I will focus on how we can have a healthier relationship with social media. I will do this by taking inspiration from Buddhist philosophy and drawing a framework that considers principles like non-attachment, benevolence, and understanding. Such an approach can help us navigate our digital era with greater awareness. 

Relative destruction: The smashing of worlds 

Social media is a great place to build one's own identity and decide what to share and what not to share. This is quite interesting if you think about it: you don’t need to share what really is your life, but rather, you can carefully select what to post according to value systems that the communities in which you are part of value the most.

The spectrum is large. We can find mainstream users such as the big influencers that construct an identity based on the status quo capitalistic values where the symbolic power of material objects such as expensive cars, clothes, and holidays are shared. We can also find users that share alternative lifestyles that focus on fitness and body beauty, the environment, anti-conformists, politically active, and the young ‘crypto bros’. The point of this is that no matter which lifestyle, values, or beliefs you embody as yours, the user is framed within these circles where they carefully select what to share and what not, with the aim of constructing a particular identity of themselves towards other people.

Now, what I want to discuss is not the effects of this visibility loop on the person that is sharing but rather on the one that is viewing. It usually goes like this: you are taking a break and scrolling your phone, and the lives of others seem much more fulfilling than yours. This reaction is because the constructed life of the other that is made visible only on social media has entered into contact with you. The world of the other can have the effect of destroying these feelings of fulfillment, caused by the relativity of the other’s life appearing better. As quoted in a famous anime: “The truths in the world are as many as the people living reality,” but social media has increased the number of possible truths. There is not only our subjective one but also the constructed truth of the realities of others that profoundly shape our sense of being. 

Relative destruction embraces such an idea, and it can be defined as the sensation mediated by what social media shows, allowing us to see the lives of others as more fulfilling, prosperous, and generally better than ours. Social media can disrupt our psychological well-being through relative destruction because of the continuous sensation of missing out on something. Well-being is a matter of deep discussion. Talking about it is crucial because, in its most general sense, well-being can be viewed as how our life is going overall, over a long period. It becomes clear that the feeling of dissatisfaction that relative destruction entails affects an individual’s well-being. The emotional engagement produces a sensation of anxiety and distress. Relative destruction leads to a toxic relationship with social media and shifts our attention to what we don’t have rather than valuing what we have, the here and now. 

Given this phenomenon, how can we create a virtuous relationship with social media without allowing the reality of others to destroy our sense of fulfillment? 

Buddhism as a possible solution?

The history of Buddhism is a long one. The school of thought originated in India in the 6th century B.C. Since then, it has diffused itself, becoming deeply embedded into Asian cultures and one of the world's most popular religions, with more than 600 million followers. Despite its popularity, Buddhism has always been quite enigmatic in Western societies. Arguably, the reason for this is given by the nature of Buddhism itself; it is a philosophy focused on mastering one's emotions and inner state.

Interestingly, the basic assumption behind Buddhism is the same that relative destruction creates. Buddhism believes that life is framed in a condition of suffering. Here, suffering does not refer to physical pain such as a disease but rather a continued sense of dissatisfaction, the perpetual inability to be truly fulfilled in life. This is similar to the sensation of missing out which social media can elevate.

The idea of life as suffering in Buddhist philosophy is rooted in the concept of dukkha, which means dissatisfaction, and to overcome this condition is to engage with it through the Buddhist virtues. If this happens, Nirvana can be reached, enlightenment of the person through truly understanding one's own condition and embracing it. 

To do so, Buddhism promotes individual transcendental ethics based on the dichotomy between everything and nothing. This is to say Buddhism has a precise geometry of existing, connecting the profound experience of the local spaces with the infinity of the universe: in your being, you are everything in the meaning of existence, but nothing to the universe as a whole. 

According to Buddhism, such conditions must be embraced to overcome and accept them. The way to do so is through wisdom acquired by self-mastery, through which Nirvana can be reached. This might seem esoteric, but what is important is the framework that Buddhist ethics allows for. 

Buddhism is elegant; its moral framework shows symmetries that are often not present in classical Western ethics framed within two-dimensional Euclidean thinking. Buddhism follows the laws of Dharma, which is reality. Dharma reveals itself under contextualization; thus, humans experience it differently than other living entities. Nevertheless, what is essential is that Dharma not only regulates the laws of mechanics but is also embedded in Buddhist moral values. 

Reality starts with a condition of suffering, grounded in what Buddhists call the three roots of evil, namely greed, hatred, and delusion. These roots nourish the dissatisfaction of life. On the contrary, a process of self-mastery towards wisdom entails the Buddhist three Cardinal Virtues: non-attachment, benevolence, and understanding. The first refers to the absence of selfish desire, the second is an attitude of goodwill towards others, and the third is a deep knowledge of one’s suffering.

Buddhism and social media

By applying Buddhist teaching to our main case on social media, it is possible to build a framework for virtuous relationships with technology. Arguably, the influence of the content showing the life of others on social media, leading to the processes of relative destruction, is in line with the three roots of evil that Buddhism understands as the cause of the dissatisfaction with existence. In the effects of relative destruction caused by social media, we see greed, hatred, and delusion rising inside the viewer when scrolling through their phones.

Greed is seen as the immanent sensation of wanting more compared to the current moment in which one is. Hatred is a sentiment experienced towards oneself from not being fulfilled with one’s life, and feeling a sense of injustice that arises from seeing others enjoying life more than you. And to conclude, delusion is the sensation within oneself, from perceiving that other people’s lives are far more exciting and fulfilling than one’s own. 

On the contrary, such sensations can be overcome by following Buddhism’s three cardinal virtues. Following its philosophy, the first principle is non-attachment. There is no need to value the life of others in the very immediate condition as better than ours. Each life has its own flow, and nothing is permanent; as a river, everything passes. Flows differ in position and speed, and so do lives. 

The second is benevolence; this implies that when posting, it must be posting for the sake of oneself, wanting to communicate a moment of happiness, sadness, beauty, or dissent, but without the motivation of comparing against others. Therefore, according to Buddhism, the one sharing should share with the genuine intent of wanting to show life for itself, considering and acknowledging that it may negatively impact others. 

The last virtue is understanding, for instance embodying a sense of non-attachment, which refers to the deep condition that nothing is permanent and everything changes. The fact that one is sharing content that disrupts our sense of fulfillment or well-being, going to question our identity, is not to be taken seriously in the negative sense. Its content and action are limited in a clear space-time within a given context. It is not universal; it is local and limited, thus losing itself as a leaf in a river. This is not to say that it is not important. It is, but it is also momentary and transitory, and thus there is little to influence who you are (and how you feel about yourself). 

Conclusion 

In the age of social media, where our lives are often filtered through screens and lost into algorithmic worlds, it's easy to fall into the trap of relative destruction. Buddhism offers a profound perspective on the art of being fulfilled in a world where comparisons are abundant. By practicing non-attachment, approaching social media with benevolence, and understanding the impermanence of digital narratives, it is possible to create a virtuous relationship with the technology that enhances our well-being rather than detracting it from us. Ultimately, it's not about escaping the digital river but learning to ride its currents with grace and wisdom.

About the author

Dario A. Perfigli is a PhD Candidate in the Ethics and Philosophy of Technology research group at TU Delft. He has an interdisciplinary background, combining media studies, human geography, STS, and philosophy to explore and question the relations between society and technology. 

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