Virtual, Augmented, Extended? What is Real?

The impact of technology on emotional intelligence

Recent developments in the Real(?) world

Latest developments in the world of technology suggest and predict a future where MMI (Man-Machine-Interfaces) become increasingly integrated. From massive investments into virtual connectivity (the Metaverse) to Artificial Intelligence enabled implants (Neuralink), there seems to a mad race to develop technologies that allow human beings to stay connected with various components of their relational life. Virtual workspaces and meetings, shopping experiences, gaming and entertainment to even social interactions, these are the areas that are on the verge of seemingly breathtaking breakthroughs. The excitement generated by “reality engineering” is possibly reminiscent of the heady days of early breakthroughs in industrial technologies that occurred a hundred-odd years ago. Times are a-changing! 

The fall of man and the rise of machines
When human purpose is activated, it is seems unstoppable, and is often motivated by intense optimism. And while this certainly has its advantages (think of all the convenience), like most things in this world, there is also a dark flipside. The pursuit of excellence and material progress is one thing, but the dangers of dehumanization are altogether another. In early industrial periods when humanity was just as caught up with the steam engine, and later electric power, telephones and assembly lines, what was not given much thought were the massive problems these leaps caused at the individual level. The main thrust behind any new technology is always the same – progress, and convenience. During the industrial era, the motivation behind the innovation was not too different from what they are today – technology will make our job easier and give us more leisure it was thought, a well deserved break from the back-breaking and soul-crushing nine-to-five grind. But let’s take a pause and think for a moment – did that really happen?
Some may argue, and justifiably so, that the effect has been entirely the opposite. Years ago, a person worked a certain number of hours a day and then left work to spend time with family and friends, followed by a nightly sleep routine that many today would envy. Now however, it is quite different. Technology has enabled us to keep up late into the night (times when we should be asleep or so we are told by well-meaning doctors), it has also ensured that we can now take our work at home. A sixty-hour work week in pre-industrial times was probably the result of a need for survival or some sort of social indenture. Now however, we do it voluntarily! Taking one’s office home is a common occurrence in the working person’s lifestyle. There is also the impact of technological innovation on diet and health. Who can deny the convenience of frozen, processed meals and fast food? But then again, who can deny the impact of the Standard American Diet (or SAD-based nutrition) on our health? 
And then there is the entire issue of the impact of technology on mental health. Numerous studies have shown that instead of increased leisure (the original motivation for technological innovation), the human condition is increasingly marred by a myriad mix of mental health issues – from increased stress, a lack of work-life balance, poor levels of satisfaction, emotional apathy to depression and attention deficit disorders. 


An abundance of information results in a dearth of connection? 

This brings us to the question – what impact might a virtual world, increasingly removed from the world of physical and emotional interactions, have on human health – emotional and relational. Daniel Goleman, the eminent Harvard Psychologist quotes Herbert Simon in pointing to the emotional debilitation caused by the information age: a wealth of information creates a scarcity of attention. Attention, and the ability to focus it, says Goleman is the key to proper self-awareness, relational awareness, self-management, and relational management the four components of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). In other words, without paying attention, we can’t really listen to ourselves – let alone others. Without this ability to pay attention to others or oneself, how can one possibly be empathic to each others’ needs? Will the increased consumption of information via ultra-modern devices (such as smartphones) and soon to come, VR-enabled gadgets further reduce this deeply human need and ability? Will we become mere passive consumers of meaningless data in an increasingly alienated social space?
Unfortunately, an increasing body of research suggests exactly this. Relational intelligence can be pretty significantly impacted by internet and smartphone usage (Lachman, 2018; Misra, 2016). With the proliferation of profoundly more high-bandwidth and rich media gadgets that engage our senses more fully, it is quite likely that we lose touch with each other, the environment around us, and our own selves. While EssentialSpirituality shies away from pessimistic scenarios, one is troubled from a scene from The Matrix in the context of this situation – in the movie, we find that human beings are plugged into an extremely alluring and engaging “Reality” while in truth they have become mere vegetables – a fuel source for machines. 

A Spiritual Solution – Moderation

All spiritual traditions encourage us to explore the Reality within ourselves. Serious spiritual aspirants were discouraged to even engage in our normal, physical reality (which has often been described as mired in falsehood), what to speak of a “virtual reality” that makes this material world seem more authentic! The tendency to turn inwards is considered a strong point of great seekers as opposed to those who are constantly engaged outside. Introversion as opposed to extraversion is the quality that is redeeming from a spiritual perspective. Counterintuitively such inward focus is diametrically opposed to the self-absorption provided by modern devices like the smartphone. The ancients were quick to realize that a genuine inward focus quickly materialized into greater feelings of universality, connectedness, and empathy. 

Does this mean that we recommend a reactionary approach that shuns technology in favor of a utopian, and agrarian lifestyle? Were this even possible, there is no guarantee that such a lifestyle will automatically bring the spiritual aspirant any closer to his goal. What is needed is a holistic and balanced perspective so that we can use modern technology and not let it use us. There is little doubt that our gadgets if used correctly, can enrich our lives – from connecting us to distant relatives, to disseminating information and education to the far corners of the world. So long as we use these in a deliberate and controlled manner, they do have the potential to enable a better world. But this is possible only with development and the ability to focus and center ourselves. To do this we recommend the following practical steps: 


1. Take up a simple and powerful spiritual practice that can keep you centered 

2. Learn Meditation¹

3. Take regular breaks from gadget use by utilizing app blockers that make this easy and manageable

4. Electronic Fasts (i.e. taking a prolonged 24-36 hour break from electronic gadgets)

5. Read Digitial Minimalism by Cal Newport or listen to it on audio

So, in a nutshell – our suggestions are simple – take a pause from your screens and devices. Lest we sacrifice our emotional intelligence at the altar of an artificial one

¹ If you are wondering what spirituality and spiritual practices can offer, we recommend the following resources for more information: 

Lachmann, B., Sindermann, C., Sariyska, R. Y., Luo, R., Melchers, M. C., Becker, B., Cooper, A. J., & Montag, C. (2018). The Role of Empathy and Life Satisfaction in Internet and Smartphone Use Disorder. Frontiers in psychology9, 398.

Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., & Yuan, M. (2016). The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices. Environment and Behavior48(2), 275–298.