Wise Input: Some Initial Thoughts

Today wraps up week three of the Wise Speech Course with Oren Jay Sofer — a week devoted to Listening.

Taking the course this year, I’m focusing on adapting the principles and techniques of Right Speech that are being taught to the online world. But it turns out that for listening, this gets dicey, particularly pairing listening with social media.

My overall conclusion is that for online activities, it’s critically important to first have a firm footing in another part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path — Right Effort — before you can meaningfully work on Right Speech.

I wish I’d had longer to think this through before posting, but it’s time to move on to next week’s topic. So before I shift gears, I’ll do my best to explain how I’ve come to this conclusion and what it means for those of us committed to improving our speech. If it’s as important as I think it is to online wise speech, then surely at some later date I can do a better post about it.

I/O and Listening

In the absolutely binary world of computing, which includes not just PCs but also smart phones and the like, a fundamental twosome is Input/Output (I/O).

For the most part, Right Speech goals and techniques are associated with Output. The main exception, however, is listening, which strictly speaking is Input. That said, humans are analog, not binary, and have been developing the art of face-to-face talking for perhaps even millions of years. We’ve even evolved the use of astonishing biologies such as mirror neurons. In this sophisticated, analog form of speech, listening is much richer and more complex than simple input. Thus it makes sense to include listening as a part of Right Speech without fretting over input vs. output.

Not so for computing. In its binary universe, listening is unequivocally in the Input camp. It’s literally programmed this way. For example, in one of the pivotal Web technologies, JavaScript, there’s a core input methodology called an event “listener.”

There are some Internet technologies, most notably Zoom and related software, that clumsily mimic face-to-face and it could be argued that we don’t need to worry about input and output for these. But that’s a red herring.

For Right Speech, what’s needed right now is to focus on the I/O dynamics of social media in particular. Superficially, social medias appear to connect a person with other people. But in reality the person isn’t connecting to others but to a machine that’s using an invisible, but exceedingly powerful, algorithm designed to broker the interaction.

In social media communications, using our mirror neurons is already impossible. But worse, in the background there’s a ghostly third party surreptitiously affecting everyone who participates. In this scenario, it seems hazardous to whole-heartedly use our ancient listening skills. It doesn’t matter how smart we are. We’re simply not designed to discern this kind of manipulation and how it’s affecting us.

Listen to What?

This not to say we should renounce these technologies. Rather, for those of us committed to Wise Speech, when online it’s at least prudent, if not essential, to first consider them as input. What are they putting in our minds?

We need to ask ourselves, listen to what? And why? We need to assess their impact. How does each one affect us? What are the dangers? What might we learn from our mistakes? (This will vary from person to person and from one day to another.)

In other words, on the Internet the wise, skillful approach is to first focus on “Wise Input” (or “Right Input”).

Of course, in the Eightfold Path, there’s no such thing as Right Input. However, it fits well with Right Effort. To quote from the Pali Cannon:

And what is right effort?

Here the monk arouses his will, puts forth effort, generates energy, exerts his mind, and strives to prevent the arising of evil and unwholesome mental states ….

[Italics mine]

Right Input and Joy?

Somehow this all sounds bleak, tedious, and uninspiring. But actually, one of the corollaries of Wise Input can be joy.

Think of the recently popular acronym JOMO (Joy of Missing Out). JOMO is typically defined as the opposite of FOMO (fear of missing out) and an antidote to the information overload of our digital age, but I suspect it’s a good deal more than that. I see a correlation with such things as the benefits of simplicity and even the Buddhist goal of liberation.

Also, to repeat: I’m not saying disavow social media. I’m a geek who loves the Web. And there are manifold technologies that directly support the Buddha’s Great Way. I’m saying protect your mind and use these technologies carefully, with as much wisdom as you can muster.