Tech: Is the answer to our problems another app?

Juan told us that they call us ‘younger brothers’, as their ancestors inhabited this world long before the ‘modern’ man emerged. Juan, a member of the Colombian indigenous Koguis tribe (also spelt Kogi), explained why they see us as their younger siblings as he described their different way of life. Then he came to the topic of technology; and to my surprise said his tribe aren’t against technology — it is about how we use it.

He said the problem was that the modern man has the technological and industrial prowess to destroy huge swathes of the rainforest, but little understanding how to nurture the forest or live in harmony with nature.

I was surprised to hear him speak fairly positively about technology. The Koguis were the only Colombian tribe not to be conquered by the Spanish and have lived in relative seclusion in untouched nature until the modern era. Until, that is, the arrival of tractors, chainsaws and (forest-clearing) fires which destroyed much of the forest and jungle in which they live. Even more heartbreaking is in the last 20 years the widespread use of chemical pesticides to combat coca leaf cultivation has left much of the earth in the area infertile. And then consider the impact of the guerrilla, paramilitary and narco guns and bombs that have caused the displacement of many indigenous peoples. So for Juan, to have such a measured response to the merits of technology showed me he’d given this question some calm reflection.

His view is also interesting because it is very similar to how most people would view technology, despite his indigenous background. Most would agree that technology is a neutral tool, whether it’s good or bad depends on the intent and application. The internet can be used to spread information and knowledge, and hold those in power to account; and also a tool for increasing corporate surveillance totalitarianism and revenge porn. Electricity — it is allowing you to read this post and allow us to be productive past sunset but also messes with our sleeping patterns… and can also power the electric chair. Batteries have facilitated the renewable energy revolution but throwaway batteries that are not recycled are an under-appreciated environmental disaster.

But isn’t there something deeper at play? If we end up answering the question whether tech is good or bad with the simple assertion ‘it depends on the use’ then we are really missing the wider picture.

Let’s explore this further by heading back to that night with the Koguis indigenous man, deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Colombia, surrounded by thick darkness and jungle sounds. As he was talking about their way of life, he explained that in the same way we have Passports and/or ID cards, the Koguis have the Poporo which is the object that identifies them as being apart of the Koguis tribe (which means Jaguar in their language). Indeed, every man (not women — unfortunately this is another example of sexism in this world) from the age of 15 carries the Poporo with him and cannot enter formal gatherings without it.

The Poporo is is a small, hollow gourd with a long spout made from a pumpkin like-plant. It’s filled with “lima,” a white powder (looking suspiciously like cocaine) that is made by heating and crushing shells to produce lime. The men also continuously chew coca leaves, a tradition followed by many indigenous tribes to connect them to the natural world. As they chew the coca leaves, they suck on the lime powder in their Poporos which they scoop up with a long wooden spoon.

The interesting part is that every time they put the calcified seashell powder in their mouths they rub the spoon against the top of the Poporo. Over time it allows them to mould it to form shapes. The image above is of a virgin Poporo, and the image below is one that has been shaped over the years.

They believe the thoughts the man is having at the time get imprinted on/in the Poporo — whether it be happiness and joy or fear, jealousy and anguish. So the Poporo acts like a diary for an indigenous community that hitherto had no form of written means of recording and documenting.

It’s customary for the Koguis to visit a Mammas (a shaman/priest) frequently for advice. Juan explained that the Mammas just needs to hold the visiting Koguis’ Poporo to know what they’ve been going through and can then thereby counsel and advise them. Fascinating. The Poporo has been used in this way for thousands of years — as a community ID card, container for the calcified sea shells and an emotional diary. This last purpose of recording of emotional states on a plant-based gourd may not be consistent with mainstream the Western perspective but it obviously works for the Koguis!

If this is hitting your big fat red internal nonsense button then maybe skip the rest of the blog, or maybe be open to ideas that may not fit into your pre-existing thought modalities born out of conditioning, experiences and learning. On the other hand, if you’re thinking WOW, this is incredible! Then welcome comrade; let’s explore together how ancient wisdom relates to the value of tech to society.

I don’t know about you but the default reaction of my western mind when learning of the diary recording ‘powers’ of the Poporo is — but how does this work? I don’t want to deep-dive now into the ‘whether this is possible and how it’s possible’ (largely because I’m unqualified to answer). Let us just assume for this enquiry that the Poporo works as an emotional diary. For what it’s worth, I genuinely believe it does. Not because I’ve seen proof or experienced it working for me, but I’ve known enough about indigenous peoples to know they have access to knowledge and wisdom that the western mind has long forgotten.

So the next question is — why don’t we (the modern person) have emotional plant diaries that we can present to our doctors or even spiritual healers to obtain advice? Perhaps, to caricature our healing/medical system unfavorably, we do have an emotional diary. It is worn on our faces, our waistlines and livers… and when we go to doctors to complain about insomnia, depression, anxiety or back pain — the best these intelligent and well-educated (but over-worked and under-resourced) professionals can often do is prescribe a pill! I know this is an unfair oversimplified caricature, but I trust the underlying point has been made about the limits of our mainstream medical approach.

The Koguis have a non-tech, non-language and natural diary system that they can share with their shaman allowing them to foster a culture of living a more emotionally balanced, spiritually aligned and natural life. (This is one of many generalisations in this blog. Thanks for forgiving this one and others — I’m trying to keep it succinct). This begs the question: we have all these means of assessing and documenting medical/emotional information, from the basic notepad to apps/fitbits that record vital signs, cat scans, basel thermometers etc., but why have we developed all this tech, when a plant and ‘nature-based’ way of being would serve us better?

Now, coming back to the overarching debate about the merits of tech. This makes me realise that the key question to ask is not: ’is tech good or bad?’ It is: ‘what do we not know we are gaining and losing by adopting new technology?’ When are forefathers discovered modern agriculture and the technology to build ancient towns and cities, did they consciously know they were disconnecting themselves from nature and all that that entails? No, they did so because it seemed like a step forward at the time. (This, of course, is completely understandable. Given the choice between foraging and farming, I’d choose farming. Between the hard labour of farming and a supermarket — I choose the choice of a full aisle of food).

But what has been lost? This reminds me of well recorded fact that trained members of pre-literate societies could recite 1000s of lines of verse by heart but that ability was lost once the village became literate. Even if the child of the trained reciter underwent the same intense training as the father/mother, once the child was learning how to read, s/he lost the ability to learn copious verses by heart. Some might say: Who needs people who can recite the Bhagavad Gita when we can download it on our Kindles in seconds?

But what are the unknown unknowns? What are the cognitive faculties and societal benefits we have lost with the advent of modernity? And looking forward, what are we going to lose in the AI-assisted world of the future with biotech implants and ubiquitous AR/VR? That question gives me the shivers! Studies already show our attention spans dropping, how else are we and our communities lessened by seeking more and more, faster and faster?

My hope is we’re going to take a collective step back and see what good and harm the smartphone and web 2.0 revolutions have brought us, and then be more conscious as we choose how to embrace the next wave of technological innovations. Because at the moment the only driving force is the hockey stick growth demanded by the VC companies powering digital capitalism and hapless consumers making either the uninformed choices about their tech use or an ‘informed’ choice akin to eating that donut when we know we should be eating healthy. It’s proven that new information is like sugar short-cutting our self-discipline circuitry, hence why we keep scrolling down our Instagram feeds late at night. If you have a practice of mindfulness, meditation or yoga — it’s up to us to be looking deeply into this and being strong in our intentions to approach tech consciously. And resolved to have the inner-transformation required to have that insight and discipline.

To wrap this up. Western civilisation has achieved a lot of progress by its own yardstick and much of this is due to the technology from the plow and the spinning wheel, to the locomotive, penicillin and the computer. It depends on one’s perspective but most would agree that this technological improvement has, overall, had a positive impact on our lives, especially in the West. We have more food security, material abundance and a more educated populace than before… but the technology that has brought these improvements has also contributed to deforestation, erosion of top-soil, plastification of our seas, to a society suffering from a rise of anxiety and depression… and alas, to a narcissistic trumpet having the nuclear codes (yes, we can thank Twitter and TV for that one! I joke).

But crucially, weighing the good vs. bad of tech is too shallow a viewpoint. This enquiry only gets interesting when we delve into the unknown unknown impacts of technology. We are largely unaware of what we have lost, both in the extreme de-wilding that occurred with the march towards modernity and now, what we are losing with the current acceleration of tech adoption. And here is the crux of it: We cannot solve that lack of knowledge, insight and wisdom with an app. It takes deep self-enquiry and self-reflection untethered to the very technology devices that unwittingly frame our perspective.

I’d like us to dwell on the touching final words of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. After exploring the highs and lows of asceticism and hedonism, he finally finds peace just being able to listen to nature and finds the Truth he has been looking for.

“Siddhartha listened. He was now nothing but a listener, completely concentrated on listening, completely empty, he felt, that he had now finished learning to listen. Often before, he had heard all this, these many voices in the river, today it sounded new. Already, he could no longer tell the many voices apart, not the happy ones from the weeping ones, not the ones of children from those of men, they all belonged together, the lamentation of yearning and the laughter of the knowledgeable one, the scream of rage and the moaning of the dying ones, everything was one, everything was intertwined and connected, entangled a thousand times. And everything together, all voices, all goals, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all that was good and evil, all of this together was the world. All of it together was the flow of events, was the music of life. And when Siddhartha was listening attentively to this river, this song of a thousand voices, when he neither listened to the suffering nor the laughter, when he did not tie his soul to any particular voice and submerged his self into it, but when he heard them all, perceived the whole, the oneness, then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was Om: the perfection.”

Earlier this year I did a water-only fast in a cabin for a week and then a month later joined a 10 day solitary retreat in a tent in the Costa Rican jungle. Through both of these experiences I felt my consciousness really open up to listening to nature in a way I have never listened before. I realized that this ability had lain dormant in me, in us all… and the only way to tap into the ability is the off button. Though I started this blog on pen and paper in the jungle in and finished it on my Mac. This blog is not about going off-grid. Maybe that’s the answer for some, but it is certainly not a solution that will allow us to share our gifts with the world and advocate effectively for protecting our planet and humanity in these times of transition.

At a personal level, whether tech is good or bad does depend on our intention and how we use it — but we also cannot know the water is too salty if we don’t know we are swimming in the sea. This is a call for people to be online less and look within themselves for answers more. To ask the question how technology is influencing them before downloading another app telling them how much time they are spending online.

At a collective level, this is also a call to wake up. As long as we are so deep in the system we won’t realise we are in the matrix. We won’t see what digital capitalism really for what it is: A system where the direction of tech is now governed purely by profit-maximisation, where the most brilliant minds in Silicon Valley are scheming for our attention to maximise user growth, engagement and ad-revenue. Unless we see this we will not realise what we have lost and what we are going to lose if we don’t start asking big questions of our collective purpose and how tech can serve that purpose. The longer we are in the matrix the harder it will be to see the larger transformations required, both within ourselves and at a structural level. Thus technology occupies its rightful place in society and is set up differently in a way designed to benefit humanity.

There is an alternative to digital capitalism — and the most compelling answer I’ve seen is an Open World enabled by remuneration rights. We have to realise that we’ve lost something before realising there is something much bigger at play than downloading a new app.

Let us remember why we came here. And remember that life is sacred.

By Esteban Ruseler.