In March 2012 the president of product at Google, Bradley Horowitz, interviewed Eckhart Tolle at Google headquarters. The overarching theme of the event was concerned with “how to live with meaning purpose and wisdom in the digital age”. While affirming the positive elements of our ever growing hyper-connected world, Tolle also warned, that “we are in danger of losing ourselves in [the] technology”. A key point that Tolle returns to throughout the interview addresses the notion that the advancement in digital technology has created an unprecedented virtual environment within which we are constantly bombarded with information to the extent that we lose ourselves in the same technology. Given that we do now operate in a hyper-connected world with increasing pace and intensity, Google claim that their intention in inviting Eckhart Tolle to talk with their employees is to assist them in addressing the urgent question: “how can we take an intelligent approach to our work and our lives with all the demands of our time and attention. Amidst this flood of information, how can we discern the signal from the noise, in order to access and act on what is most essential to each of us’’? In other words, how do we live with meaning purpose and wisdom in the digital age?
How to live with meaning purpose and wisdom are questions that, arguably, humans have asked and strived to answer since antiquity and beyond. The digital age, on the other hand, is a recent phenomenon. If our questions on meaning, purpose and wisdom are old, and our digital technology is new, then the obvious query that seems to follow is; what is the relationship of the later, to both, our inability and our potentiality, to realise the former? Both Google and Tolle seem to agree that the “flood’ of information’’ enabled by digital technology presents a challenge in ‘’discerning [the] signal from the noise’’, and, moreover, that the confusion manifested by this challenge is central to that which frustrates our ability to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom. Through technological innovation, Google claims to want to make the world a better place, but equally seems to concede, that ‘’in order to transform the world, we must first render the necessary transformation within ourselves.’’
Certain conclusions can be drawn from the above observations. In the first instance, it would appear that on the whole, we as human beings have yet to learn to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom. Secondly, the ‘flood’ of information, made possible by modern digital technology, presents a ‘potentially’ unprecedented obstacle to the realization of these goals. Moreover, while the ‘new’ obstacle to this realization is an ‘external’ one; given that we have ‘always’ struggled to strive for meaning purpose and wisdom, we cannot say that it is our digital technology that effects the lack of meaning, purpose and wisdom in our lives. Thus, if indeed human beings are presently experiencing some existential crisis that is exasperated by the rapid evolution of digital technology, the answer (or indeed the blame) lies not in our technology but rather in the consciousness that produces it.
In 1966 Jiddi Krishnamurti claimed that the ‘fundamental’ crisis at the heart of the human condition was not a political, economic, social or technological one, but rather ‘’a crisis in consciousness’’. Interestingly, Eckhart Tolle seems to present a similar argument. So, what is Tolle’s answer to Google’s apparent request to understand this ‘crisis in consciousness’, to their need to ‘discern the signal from the noise’.
As noted previously, Tolle acknowledges the benefits of the growth of the digital world, but equally, he argues that it also provides us with ever more ‘ways’ in which to distract our attention from the here and now. For Tolle the only time there is the present moment. Of course few of us would contest the fundamental reality of this statement. However, Tolle suggests that it is in fact a collective tendency of humans to get completely caught up in our ‘internal’ narratives, or as he puts if “the story in the head”. Tolle seems to suggest that we may very well understand intellectually that the present moment is the ‘only’ time there ever is, but in reality humans are almost constantly distracted by an almost incessant stream of internal dialogue, that is, “the story in the head”. Consequently, Tolle argues that this habitual pattern causes us to lose touch with the present moment. Furthermore, Tolle insists that this is a phenomenon that is largely unconscious in the majority of humans, and as such we are generally unaware that it is happening. Moreover, according to Tolle, it is in fact this habitual pattern, or lack of presence, that is the cause of our inability to “discern the signal from the noise”.
Tolle’s position is an interesting one, considering for example, the difficult encounter zone between the world of print and the realm of the digital. (At least for those of us who are insufficiently familiar with and inadequately educated in transcending the border regions between the two) Of course few of us would doubt that both the printed word and the text encoded one are equally important as we evolve further into a ‘brave new world’ of interconnectedness. However, Tolle seems to suggest (and certainly the technological wizards at Google seem to value his opinion on this) that while digital technology may present a new, and certainly more complex extension of ourselves, in our long history of striving to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom, it is not the new technology of the present (nor indeed the past) that constitutes our greatest challenge. Rather, according to Tolle, one of the biggest obstacles to living with meaning, purpose and wisdom in the digital age is our habitual tendency to distract away from the reality of the present moment ‘via’ the technology we produce.
For many of us the encounter zone between the old and the new is still a grey area, for others (like those employed at Google) it is a familiar, interesting and innovative place. However, if Tolle is correct, then most of us, the technologically aware and the technologically ignorant alike, have yet to understand, that in order to ‘really’ discern the signal from the noise, both within and without, we must learn to become present, to notice when we are distracting away from the here and now, and to adopt an attitude that enables us to notice this tendency and integrate present moment awareness into the growing pace and intensity of our daily lives. At least for Eckhart Tolle, this is the fundamental prerequisite to learning to live with meaning, purpose and wisdom in ‘any’ age.
Living with meaning purpose and wisdom: With Eckhart Tolle and Bradley Howritz.
 Jiddi Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986) was an Indian speaker on spiritual and philosophical subjects. Krishnamurti’s central doctrine was aimed at promoting a ‘revolution’ in human consciousness as a way to transcend human suffering. His doctrine was a personal one, as such he was not affiliated with nor did he promote any particular religious or philosophical tradition.