Alms Bowl in One Hand, iPad in the Other:
Mobile Technology & Monastics
The touch technology Apple has developed and set in motion with the iPhone is preparing the world for touch computers. Thus far, the touch computers that have been marketed have not been successful, and justifiably so. Much in the same way that previous attempts at tablet technology, prior to the iPad, have failed. They simply weren’t useful in terms of being a touch computer and didn’t have the harmonizing of technological foresight with practicality, nor did they provide a complete and well-rounded solution. They’ve always been made and designed in a way that suggests they were done simply because they could do it, without any real innovation or thought of the practical applications of using it or the user’s interactive experience. For the monastic, this touch technology potentially has far-reaching implications that can eliminate the divide that currently exists between them and the laity.
How can it be called a touch technology when the arms are lifted up one moment to touch the screen, then the next moment the momentum is broken by jumping down to a physical non-touch keyboard and then jump again over to a physical non-touch mouse? It’s absurd. That isn’t a real bona fide touch technology, it’s a hybrid — a perverted and uncreative attempt at touch technology. For sure that’s what Apple is thinking.
Yes, the industry is at the beginning stages of developing the technology seen in the movies where a person is standing in front of a big holographic-like screen using their arms and hand gestures to interact with the computer. But realistically who’s going to work like that? It would be tiresome! It is a fantastic technology to have materialize, however, it has limited applications. The general business world and home markets are not going to have a need for this technology, aside for possibly gaming consoles.
Mobile computing, specifically touch technology, that Apple has bestowed upon us is where it’s at. It is paving the way to an end result they’ve envisioned many years prior. While they’ve been developing this touch technology they have been inspiring software developers to create true touch applications. It’s as if Apple is teaching the world how to move from crawling to walking. They’re trying, and always have tried, to bring us from the techno-stone age into the modern era. Furthermore, this is a full blown 100% touch technology. Now they have the iPad. This is bringing the larger software developers like Adobe and others on board, all of whom are rumored to be producing, for example, the touch version for the iPad of Adobe Photoshop. While Apple is rumored to be making touch versions of some of their applications like iMovie. It’s a progression towards touch solutions for the robust applications we know and love.
The laptop, netbook, and desktop computer markets have been stagnant far too long in terms of innovation. Let’s face it, the laptop, though a wonderful tool, is still extremely limited in terms of demanding the user conform to it. It’s also limited to the typical computer interface we’ve grown accustomed to. The GUI was a fabulous leap forward in the computer industry, but it still provides a disconnect between the user and the computer. This becomes evident when watching a toddler sit down to a computer for the first time. They are able to eventually and gradually figure it out and get the hang of it. But contrast this to the two-year olds first encounter with the iPod Touch or iPad. They immediately are working with it and making things happen. This is because it works the way we naturally want to work. When we want to connect with someone or something we naturally want to reach out and touch it. On a computer if you want to select text and cut it, for example, you move the mouse, click the text to highlight it, then move to the appropriate menu and choose the proper menu selection. Or perform finger acrobatics, assuming you remember the key combinations, to cut the text. With touch technology when a person, a two-year old, sees text they want to interact with they reach out and touch the very text they want to alter. Voila! Up pops up the applicable functions, which again we simply touch. People complain to Apple that they haven’t made any major changes to the laptop and desktop computer markets in a very long time, and we don’t think twice about this because we’ve grown to expect innovation from companies like Apple. Not to dismiss their innovative contributions to the laptop world with the MacBook Air, but aside from those minor contributions, nothing else has really changed along the lines of how we think about interacting with computers. It’s important to remember that no other company has made any major advancements or innovations in the computer arena either. Bear in mind that since the very beginning of the iPhone, it’s certain that Apple has been working toward an end result far into the future. Meanwhile, while they’re teaching the tech-world how to walk and figure out how to develop their apps for full touch interaction, they’re developing the next-generation laptops and computers, again, aiming for this far-reaching end result.
Imagine a laptop that you open up and the bottom part, where the keyboard and touchpad usually are, is one large touchscreen and where the monitor usually is, is also one large touchscreen. Details aren’t necessary — it’s easy to imagine the world of opportunities this opens up. This is the end of the rainbow I’m confident Apple is leading us towards.
All of this has far-reaching effects for those of us who live mobile lives, like many monastics. Mobile touch computing opens up a whole new world for monastics who otherwise were hesitant to use technology. The desktop computer is too big, not portable, and therefore of limited use, if only because of the limited access. While the laptops and netbooks are technically portable they are still a bit too big and cumbersome for a monastic to be comfortable possessing and carrying around. As well as the inherent learning curve necessary for using these computers and impracticality given the fact that they must be opened up, and wait for them to turn on. Contrast this with the mobile touch technology which is simple, easy to use, compact and lightweight, always ready, and hugely multifunctional.
This is a benefit that monastics, who live light with no permanent home, will find of great use. It will give them the ability to still interact with the world and help them in teaching Buddhism. Imagine the hermit who spends most of his time in the mountains having an iPhone or an iPad. Something that adds really no weight to what he already carries around nor does it take up any extra space. He can still remain a hermit but be beneficial and accessible to others who want to learn from him and be guided by his wisdom. Now he has the capability of easily and without hassle posting a Dhamma talk or writing a Dhamma essay and posting it, or even going online and instant messaging, video chatting, or audio chatting live with students to answer their questions. Furthermore, he could do this everyday, once a week, twice a month — whatever he sees fit or feels comfortable doing. This is a situation that is sorely lacking within the Saṅgha (group of monastics). The monastics need to be brought back into being accessible to the people. This mobile touch technology, can be a spectacular way for this to be achieved. There will still be many who wish to completely abstain from technology. But for the rest of us this opens up a whole new world of possibilities and benefits to those seeking to learn about Buddhism. Far too long have monastics refrained from using technology for reasons that it bogs them down with too many possessions, or it complicates life, etc. The chasm is growing ever wider and with increasing speed between the monastics and the laity because of their unwillingness to utilize technology, among other reasons. Quite frankly, when the people we are supposed to set an example for and teach are unable to be in contact with us and learn because we are not accessible via the communication tools they use, then we are doing them a grave injustice.
I have recently come into owning an iPhone and am seriously considering an iPad. It could be any kind of smart phone, the point is I’ve resisted this technology (cell phones) in the past. Not because I resist technology, my sole possession has been a laptop, I resisted it because I didn’t see the need for a phone. I actually see phones as being more of a hindrance and bother to the lifestyle of a monastic than I do with computers. But in the short time I’ve had it, and along the lines of what I’ve been talking about here, I feel more of a sense of freedom and being connected to the laity.
I truly feel an obligation to maintain contact, and to remain in contact with those who wish to learn from me or speak with me. Now I can have the impromptu idea to go and walk up the mountain that’s next to the temple where I live and meditate without having to think ahead of time as to what time it is, or what is my schedule like today, who do I need to speak to today? I can just do it because I have my phone with me. Remember, this technology isn’t just a phone, it’s like having a mini-computer in your pocket. It’s a communications device on steroids. I can pause my meditation practice while I’m up there and use the smart phone to instant message, talk on Skype, talk on the phone, send an e-mail, whatever way is needed to communicate with the person that I promised I would be contacting that day or said that I would be available to them. Then, when I’m finished, gently press the standby button and return to my solitude. Or the ability to have my Dhamma talks (video and audio), or all of my Buddhist books that normally reside at the temple or in boxes that I have to ship and move around. These are now all in one place on one device at my fingertips that I can make use of no matter where I am without having to lug around a bunch of bulky and heavy packages. Absolutely phenomenal.
It should be clear that technology marries very well with the lifestyle and needs of monastics, those who wish to live simply and with the bare minimum of possessions. Seriously think about this before dismissing and rejecting technology because of a fear of complicating life and hindering your practice. On the contrary, I’ve found the vast majority of laity have great respect for monastics who are capable and willing to use technology. They are far more content-productive and also lead by example on how to use the technology of the day, which the laity have to contend with daily, without becoming consumed by it, something that definitely is plaguing our society these days.
Obviously technology poses some dangers to people’s practice. If you haven’t yet eradicated your clinging to technology and the addictiveness that it can have, then perhaps it’s best to remain distant from it. Otherwise it’s like having a drug addict working in a pharmacy — it’s just not a wise idea. But setting aside these pitfalls, it’s no different from using a car, bike, microphone, podium, or any number of other tools that monastics, even those who reject technology, make use of. We’re monastics of the Buddhist order, not Amish trying to forego modern technology. If it’s a tool that will streamline the work you intend on doing, or present your teaching to the masses more efficiently and even potentially reach a greater number of people, then it’s a tool that’s surely worth serious consideration.