Computers are Fundamentally Depressing.

10 mins // 23HEX18

There's something about sitting in front of a computer for a few hours working on a task that leaves me feeling worn out. I haven't gone anywhere, or done anything intensive, but after writing or editing or doing any long-form work on a computer, I have to step away.

This is something we feel, something implicit in our nature and the nature of the machines, and yet we can't divorce ourselves from computers. For most, computers are their gateway to work, to learning, to communication, to fun, and more. In the last fifty years and less, computers have taken an outsize role in our lives. This is even more true among my friends online and off, who are computer programmers, designers, artists, etc...

For those of us who use a computer for work, and even those who don't the computer can be a stressful place. It's unnatural to sit in front of box with flashing lights and sounds, in a high tension environment like while working. Even just navigating the social sphere can be stressful. We know this, inherently, yet rarely choose to talk about it or address it. Computers are depressing. There are ways to deal with this.

Jonathan Blow is a game designer and developer, making games like Braid and The Witness and working on a new programming language called Jai. He's somewhat of a controversial figure in the industry, and known for making opinionated and "harsh" statements. It's not uncommon for me to come across a statement of his I disagree with at a fundamental level. Yet, I think a lot of people would say the same about me. I have a similar reputation for opinionated hard-line stances, and a coarse demeanor. So, in a way I empathize with him. We're all learning to be human.

I found a lecture of his on YouTube the other day on meditation techniques for curing malaise, and I watched it and took notes. There's some very valuable information in here, especially to those who aren't meditators or are at odds with the practice. My goal is to help connect some of his concepts to more traditional Buddhist terminology, and explain the reasoning behind the language.

He starts by talking about his history with computers, learning BASIC programming as a student in elementary school, and now having spent the better part of a few decades in front of the screen. It's in this preamble he says that computers are fundamentally depressing, a claim that resonated with me. When I write, I sit in front of a computer for three or four hours straight. When working in film editing, this is even longer. And of course, many of my "unwind" processes are also linked to a screen.

One of the flaws of his lecture is claiming it will help address depression and malaise. This is an issue of linguistics, and it's not Blow's fault outright. We often use the words "depressed", "depression", and "depressing" to describe feelings of sadness, malaise, melancholy, ennui, etc. The term "depression" is also used to describe a "major depression" in psychology terms, a disease that is an epidemic.

When someone says they are suffering from depression, they usually mean they are inflicted with the biological and psychological disease of depression, which is very different from feeling melancholy. This video from Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky on Major Depression can help explain the difference.

The reason I'm making such a big deal about this is to say that psychological techniques like this and even full meditation practice are not going to cure Major Depression, any more than switching your diet is going to cure cancer. It's a disease, and needs to be treated by medical professionals and therapy, though everyone's path is unique. It might help with some feelings of melancholy or malaise, as Jon says it has for him, and it has for me too. This is only a small part of the neurological disorder that is a major depression, so act accordingly.

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Now, on to the techniques. Jon later notes that these are not meditation in themselves, but techniques that could be employed in meditation. I think they're ones that will be familiar to any Buddhist or someone who has spent time with a meditation practice. His idea is that it's easier to bear negative stimulus when you break it down into it's component parts and address them individually. He identifies these three parts as thoughts, the physical component of emotions, and the non-physical or feeling component of emotions.

A lot of these techniques center around inquisitive exploration of your mind, in ways the West often takes for-granted as inherent to our experience. If you've done any reading on Buddhism, you're probably familiar with the concept of the "no-self". The point is that there is nothing unchanging in you that could be considered a self. In the West, we often think of our thoughts or our internal monologue as our "selves". Yet, if you stop thinking for a moment, you don't simply vanish, do you?

In concentration meditation, the focus is placed on the breath, a mantra, or even on the sitting position itself, and a viewpoint to help analyze thoughts and feelings as they pass. If you try and focus on one thing, it makes seeing the fleeting nature of thoughts and feelings easier. These are inquiries into those experiences to help deal with them. I've written about more traditional meditation before, though all these techniques can be used in conjunction.

Jon starts with thoughts, as he says we often conflated our thoughts and our being as fundamentally linked. He suggests being in a safe environment, like your home, and taking some time to analyze an emotionally uncharged thought. This could be something simple like, 'What will I have for dinner?'. Then, explore deeper. The point he says is not in intellectual "answers", but in observational experience, which is a cornerstone of meditative inquiry.

He asks further, can you stop a thought? How does the beginning of a thought feel? Can you feel it drift into your awareness? How heavy is it? Can you hold it, grab, it feel it, draw it? Remember, this is about observing your own mind, and not about coming to a thought-out answer. Be aware of having a thought, the process of it, the flow, and not of the thought itself.

He then moves on to the physical component of emotion. This goes a more traditional meditation route, focusing here on the feeling of contact your body has with its surroundings. This starts with the feeling of your butt on a chair, or on the ground or wherever. Jon talks about how with practice, he's become able to "drop into" a feeling to analyze it, and prompts us to do the same.

He notes how he in thinking about his butt in contact with the chair, he thinks about some butt-shaped object making contact with the chair, yet his experience of it is far more amorphous. He finds that analyzing his contact with the chair, he feels something more loosely defined, almost fuzzy, which would be difficult to draw the boundaries of.

This doesn't have to be applied to feeling of sitting though. He talks about playing a sort of game with himself where he puts his hand on a surface and sees how long it takes for him to drop into the sensation. The same techniques can be applied to feelings of discomfort and even pain, and it's through this usage that many will find the most utility.

This goes back to a meditation idea, that sitting in a full or half lotus position is perhaps uncomfortable. When a student raises this idea with the master, they are told to "Stop holding it, and just sit with it." The point is not to block discomfort, but to analyze it and better manage it.

If the last exercise helps illustrate that you are not your thoughts, there are two conclusions Jon draws from this physical exercise. One is that sensations are not good or bad in themselves, but neutral, and our mind applies and interprets them in a way to help us understand. We know this to be true, intellectually, as well: say you scrape your palm, and your nerve endings send a message to your brain that you're in pain. This is meant to educate yourself that the experience is to be avoided, but if it's not life-threatening, and you understand that message, than what value does the continued pain provide?

The other idea here is showing exactly the boundary between what are your mind's interpretations of an experience, and what are not.

The final technique he talks about is a bit more difficult to practice in a neutral environment. Here, he's dealing with the non-physical aspects of emotion, which awe often consider the emotion themselves. This can be something like feeling sad, or angry, or happy. He describes these as the color of the light in his mind; they're an environmental detail that effects the rest of his mind.

He notes that when he goes into an emotion, more often than not he finds it fades into nothing. This is not about thinking about an emotion, but a more base inquiry into the feeling itself. Jon talks about how we often play into these feelings, seeking out an emotional state we associate with being negative. He talks about a time he felt himself becoming more angry thinking about an argument he had, even though rationally he didn't want to be angry. When he noticed the fallacy, he found he was able to make himself feel calm.

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For many these exercises and the ideas they might lead to seem obvious; for just as many, they may seem ludicrous. The point is not to take these ideas or their lessons at face value, but to experience them for yourself. It's a skill-set few of us have spent time honing, and can be very effective if your goal is simply to mitigate negative feelings or a more broad meditation practice. Both work towards an understanding of your own mind, and creating a distance between you and your thoughts and feelings to make them more manageable.

For these to work, we have to engage a different way of thinking than we're used to in the West. This is a method of inquiry into your own mind, to better understand how it works. I've tried to distill a few of the points, but these can't be understood with words. Language and words are just thoughts, describing an object or experience or sensation. These might work for you, or they might not; all you can do it try them for yourself, with an open mind.


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