One bright morning several weeks ago, I received a friendly e-mail message from Amazon. “Benjamin W. Howard,” it read, “Based on your recent activity, we thought you might be interested in this:” Below these words, a handsome new book was displayed: “Firewood and Ashes: New and Selected Poems, by Ben Howard.”
To be fair to Amazon, I was indeed interested in the product described, and my interest was indubitably based on my recent activity. And, all things considered, I was heartened to see Amazon actively marketing my book and targeting a plausible customer. More power to them, I might have said, and may their project flourish.
At the same time, Amazon’s little slip-up highlighted something fundamental and unnerving about life in the digital era. Like other denizens of the twenty-first century, I am aware of the ways by which mega-conglomerates monitor our purchasing histories and manipulate our predilections. Nonetheless, had the book being promoted not been my own, I might have dozily surmised that someone at Amazon was looking out for me, as old-fashioned booksellers used to do, and that the message I had just received embodied an actual human presence.
In reality, the presence on my laptop screen was virtual in every sense of the word. It was a fabrication generated, I assume, by an impersonal algorithm. More disturbingly, the deceptive resemblance to a real human presence was almost certainly no accident. In his book The Four-Dimensional Human, an engrossing reflection on “ways of being in the digital world,” Laurence Scott observes that “[c]onsumerism has traditionally thrived in the real world from our having fixed, demographically analyzable identities. For this reason its agents are understandably keen to minimize the differences between our material and digital lives, to erode the boundaries between the real and the virtual.” Amazon and its like not only monitor the preferences of our demographic selves; they also “promote a conflation of reality and virtuality.” As we have become ever more immersed in digital culture, both the term and the concept of “presence” have grown ever more problematic. “The big bold future,” Scott predicts, “will demand an evolution in how we think about what it means to be present, how we manifest bodily and virtually in the world.”
Dr. Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C., has thought long and hard about what it means to present. And in her book True Refuge, she offers this explanation of the term: “Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience. You’ve surely tasted presence, even if you didn’t call it that. Perhaps you’ve felt it lying awake in bed and listening to crickets on a summer night. . . . You might have arrived in full presence as you witnessed someone dying or being born.” By wakefulness Dr. Brach means “the intelligence that recognizes the changing flow of moment-by-moment experience,” including our thoughts and bodily sensations. By openness she means the non-judgmental “space of awareness” that allows our emotional lives to be just as they are, without interference or evaluation. And by tenderness she means the capacity to respond to our immediate experience with warmth, awe, and compassion. Together these qualities constitute what Dr. Brach calls “natural presence,” which she likens to a “sunlit sky.” Presence of this kind cannot be willfully activated, but it can be accessed and cultivated, primarily through the practice of meditation. By regularly practicing sitting and walking meditation, or merely by pausing for short periods during our daily round, we allow ourselves to “come back to presence” and to live our lives in mindful awareness.
Natural presence may seem categorically different from the virtual presences we daily encounter on our computer screens. Whatever else it might have projected, the message I received from Amazon did not embody wakefulness, openness, or warmth. Yet, in the digital age, the distinction between virtual and actual presence is not always so simple or clear. Laurence Scott notes that “if our bodies have traditionally provided the basic outline of our presence in the world, then we can’t enter a networked environment . . . without rethinking the scope and limits of embodiment.” As an example, he tells the story of a “smitten grandpa” in Pennsylvania who uses state-of-the-art technology to keep in touch with his granddaughter. “I have face time” Grandpa reports, “every week with my sixteen-month-old granddaughter while she’s eating her dinner, and when she says goodbye she hugs the iPad.” A smitten grandpa myself, I have had the very same experience, though our own, two-and-a-half- year-old granddaughter goes so far as to kiss the screen. Virtual and natural presence coalesce, in ways I appreciate but haven’t begun to fathom.
Laurence Scott, The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (Heinemann, 2015), 26, 24, 14; 4. My italics.
Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2011), 12.
Photo: Intel Free Press