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June 09, 2010

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Patrick S. O'Donnell

In several of the Asian religio-philosophical traditions I study, what falls under the rubric of attention, awareness, focus, concentration or medititation, is highly prized and these traditions have developed finely tuned techniques (in conjunction with philosophical analysis) used to facilitate the development of what are thereby termed altered states of awareness or consciousness to distinguish them from more common forms of "fragmented" consciousness or episodic states of awareness characterized, among other things, by an inability to concentrate on a physical or mental object for any prolonged period of time (in the Dhammapada, the Buddha compared this to a fish flitting about on dry land; it has also be christened 'monkey-consciousness' although my beloved dog has tempted me to describe it as 'canine-consciousness,' that is, that sort of consciousness present when he is NOT sleeping, at rest, eating, or gnawing on a rawhide bone).

It seems relatively uncontroversial (i.e., one need not be a technophobe) to note that several of our current communication technologies are prone to misuse such that they encourage or exacerbate prevailing forms of awareness that are conspicuous for the inability to focus one's attention on a subject for any significant length of time, say, of the sort required to think deeply or well, in other words, for the failure to attain concentrated states of awareness (with sufficient reason, therefore, one of the broader meanings of yoga in the Indic philosophical schools is the 'disciplined meditation' exhibited in the study of philosophy, art, medicine, law, ritual, language, and so on). One need not subscribe to the religious rationale of the aforementioned techniques insofar as they are designed on behalf of the aim of spiritual liberation to appreciate the perspective they provide by way of contrast to the troubling by-products of the social media cited here: "[obstructing] the formation of memories and the building of knowledge," and interfering with epistemic and psychological processes intrinsic to self-knowledge and self-understanding as well as personal identity formation.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

errratum: (...it has also been christened...')

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