To reshape our relationship with technology we must first reshape the relationship that we have with ourselves
John Mack is an American artist, photographer, author, and founder of Life Calling, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help us all live fulfilled lives in the Digital Age while retaining our humanity and personal autonomy.
A frequent speaker at conferences and universities on the subjects of technology, awareness, and consciousness, Mack’s examination of these topics recently culminated in A Species Between Worlds: Our Nature, Our Screens, an interactive visual art experience and month-long Forum exploring humanity’s current migration from the natural world to the virtual world. It was live in New York through September 2022.
Mack was born in 1976 in New York City. Under Life Calling, Mack recently published Notes to Selfie: Bits of Truth in a Phoney World, a volume of thoughts and aphorisms, and a collection of poetry, A Land Between Worlds: The Shifting Poetry of the Great American Landscape. He was an honoree of The Explorer’s Club 50: Fifty people changing the world who the world needs to know about. Mack has also served as an adjunct lecturer for the Graduate program at IADE in Lisbon, Portugal.
For years John has expressed concern over the effects on humanity in the wake of the rapid proliferation of smart devices. A vanguard in advocating research, activism, and awareness around their unmitigated use, John founded Life Calling, which aims to empower humanity through a dynamic series of activations, campaigns, exhibitions, and public programming, to help generate a more balanced, nuanced, and thoughtful perspective for us all in the Digital Age.
In this episode, Mack argues that the only way to reshape our relationship with technology is to first reshape the relationship that we have with ourselves so that we can live fully, uninhabited by the preconceptions of our mind.
- “A Species Between Worlds” and the moral lessons that it shares
- The role of technology tools in our lives, and how it distorts our relationship with nature
- How our psyche is also a tool, which shapes our lived experience
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
John: People talk a lot about the balance between our devices and ourselves or our devices and nature. I don’t think that the discussion should be about a balance. I don’t think it’s about a balance. It’s about a ground and then a turning up or a turning down.
So, we are grounded in who we are, and then we can turn the device use up a lot or we can turn it down a lot, but not a balance. Because when there’s a balance, in order for something to balance, it’s a compromise. See, we don’t want to compromise ourselves in this.
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.
This week, we speak with John Mack. John is an American artist, photographer, author and founder of Life Calling. A frequent speaker at conferences and universities on the subjects of technology, awareness and consciousness, Mack’s examination of the topics recently culminated in A Species Between Worlds: Our Nature, Our Screens, an interactive visual art experience and month-long Forum exploring humanity’s current migration from the natural world to the virtual world.
In this discussion, we explore our digital tools and the tools of our mind in equal light. John argues that in order to improve our relationship with technology, we have to first get to know ourselves better, and we have to find our ground. This is a thought-provoking episode worthy of sharing widely, and we hope you enjoy it.
John, thank you so much for joining us on the Freedom Matters podcast today, we are really grateful to have you here as a guest.
John: Thank you so much for having me. I always look forward to opportunities to see if I can land abstract thoughts. It’s always a challenge. Glad to be here.
Georgie: So, the reason we came across you is because I saw the exhibition that you’ve recently done, A Species Between Worlds, that was in New York. Most of the people who are listening to this probably won’t have had the chance to go and see that exhibition.
So, for someone who wasn’t able to be there in person, and I’m having now seen also the full programme of talks and everything that happened around the exhibition, I’m really sorry that I don’t live in New York and wasn’t able to be there in person. But could you just give us a walkthrough?
So, from the moment that you arrived, what’s the experience like? What are you looking at? Describe to us what we would feel and see if we were in there in person?
John: So, the — Okay, this is a — it’s a big question. I’ll try and keep it as basic as possible. The exhibition is really a journey from virtuality back to nature. When you walk into the door, it opens up to a big room and there are actually photographs on the walls, maybe 10 or 11 photographs in this first section.
And these are all images of national parks in the United States. So, you’ve got 11 National Parks up there from Zion National Park to Isle Royale National Park, Arches National Park, but something’s off. And what’s off is the following. All of the images on the walls, the photographs are digital. You do not see the natural landscape. They are virtual versions of the natural landscape.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the augmented reality app, Pokemon Go. But I’ll explain very briefly, it works with geolocation technology. So, when you travel in the world, if you have data connection, Pokemon Go will actually show you a digital version of where you’re standing in the natural environment.
When I travel to these national parks, I actually find a beautiful landscape in Arches, for example, and I load up Pokemon Go and I see what the digital image looks like at that location. And it’s a very flat primitive rendering. And I take a screenshot of that on my iPad and I blow that image up and I hang it on the wall and I’m saying this is Arches National Park.
I’m saying that we now live in a time where the digital has replaced the physical that all for technology has replaced all for nature. And this first section is where I had full cell signal in these national parks.
So, what I’m saying is that if you’re in a national park, you’re standing in front of nature and you have cell service your go-to is your phone, is the connection to the device, not the connection to nature.
The exhibition then goes, in this one venue, it goes down the stairs into section two and these are national parks where I had spotty service. And what you’re seeing on the wall here is a hybrid. You see this virtual landscape dissolving because it can’t fully concretize, it can’t fully manifest because the signals in and out.
So, you’re seeing a bit of the virtual, but then you’re seeing another landscape that you didn’t see in the first section. So, when the virtual image is sort of retreating, a new landscape is appearing.
And the landscape that you see that’s appearing, it looks like a black and white photo of the natural landscape where I’m standing. But in a way, it looks like a coloring book without coloring it. So, its life drained, color drained lack of vitality. And what I’m saying is that the colors, the virtual awe and wonder of this novelty, this virtual candy is filling in a landscape that is void of color that is lifeless.
And at this point, you’re not really sure what that lifeless landscape represents. But then when you move into section three, which are national parks, where I had no data connection, all you’re left with there is this black and white color drained landscape. And this is the landscape of despair, of loneliness, of boredom, of meaninglessness.
And so a species between worlds is really about how the human is constantly operating and navigating between the landscape of our pain and the distraction from it. And the question is, if neither the landscape of our pain which is black and white and colorless, nor the landscape of virtuality, if neither of those are actually the true colors of the nature that’s in front of us, then how do we arrive to that nature?
And we know that if we distract ourselves from our pain, we are running directly toward virtuality, toward consumption, towards the candy, towards the entertainment, the virtual purpose, the virtual happiness. And if in the other direction is just pain, or meaninglessness, the question is, how do we arrive to the true colors of our nature?
And what I pose in the exhibition is that there’s really only one way to go to realize that and that is, by facing the landscape of our pain without flinching. That’s the gist of it.
Georgie: This has brought up a point, which I didn’t think we’d come to today. But it’s so interesting, we did a series on self, and how technology mediates our relationships with ourselves. And this theme came up again and again, how we’re becoming increasingly bad at turning towards pain in whatever form it might take; boredom being a kind of difficult, painful emotion to sit with, or conflict or just the difficulties of nuanced relationships, or struggling, concentrating.
It’s interesting that you base your whole exhibition on this premise that there is this pain in our natural, in inverted commas, like current state. It’s quite a sad take on humanity. Do you really feel that’s really where we are? Is there not — Is it not that there is light and shade? Or are we really in this point where pain is the defining characteristic of society and humanity?
John: So, really great question. And so let me see if I can land this. I mean, I think that the human has always tried to run away from its pain. The thing with technology now is that it’s much easier to run away from the pain. It’s become so easy that we’ve created this generation of entitlement where I — this pain thing that I probably need to go through, I don’t want to go through it.
So, I want you out there to do it for me. I want you out there to take me away from my pain. And that’s when we really begin to abdicate our power to things that can then control us. And the problem with technology that I see I mean, among a whole laundry list is that the more efficiently we’re fed, the more difficult the withdrawal.
And I think the sort of attention deficit that we have these days of not being able to read a book or to get through a New Yorker article or — I think a lot of it has to do with this easy satiation that is being provided through the digital device.
Georgie: Yeah, yeah. I completely agree.
John: And Georgie, if I could, I’m not saying that the human is constantly in a state of pain. I do — We do shine. But it’s, you know what it’s like? It’s like an eclipse when the moon passes in front of the sun, and there’s this darkness, right? But around it, there is some light.
And so I do think there’s a sense light is there and I don’t even think, I know we operate from that place quite often. The question is, have we realized it yet in its fullness? And until we move that moon over, and realize the completion of that light, technology will always be a bait.
Georgie: Yeah, to this kind of false artificial light that seems so shiny and sparkly. But it just distracts us from what we need to get done as people.
John: That’s right. And I think that artificial light is as artificial as the darkness. Boredom itself, which is a very sort of colorless landscape that we try to run away from, that in itself is a program of the mind. Boredom is a man-made construct. It comes from experience, the repetition of experience.
So, on the one hand, you have the program of the device, of the digital device, and on the other, you have the program of the psychological device. And so what we’re actually running away from, is an artificial program of the mind that we’re projecting over our true colors. And if we could get off that program, not change the program, but actually get off that program, what then would be the reality that presents itself to us?
Georgie: And that shows up in things like, I’m just reading about the more contextual examples. So, I think in your book, like “Notes to Selfie”, ego is a really good example of that, right, because that’s the sort of psychological like manifestation, which is just pushed through devices so easily.
John: Ego. So, I often say ego is to the psyche device what the avatar is to the digital device.
John: Right. So, the ego operates within the land of thought of the psyche, and the avatar operates within the land of the virtual world. The reality created by the psyche and the reality created by the digital device, those are both virtual realities. And the question is, how do we take the virtual out of it?
Georgie: So, I can keep up with how our use of devices might be distorting our experience of understanding life. But getting to grips with how my psyche is doing the same is much harder. How can we distance ourselves from the world that’s being constructed by our own minds?
John: So, two things on that. So, we’ll go to the first thing about the psyche. So, I teach a class, it’s a Master’s class and I’m not teaching it anymore. But what I — The first thing that I would do in this workshop, the students would sit in front of me and I would say, I’m going to give you five minutes right now. You need to draw a rectangle with only three lines in it, and I’ll give you five minutes to do it.
And they’re all sitting there and they’re drawing and can’t quite figure it out. And they want to ask questions, and I say no, no questions. I said exactly what I wanted you to do, and no one can do it. And so they all give up, five minutes is done. And then I hold up my picture, which is a rectangle and I’ve drawn three lines in it. See, it’s funny, but that is exactly what I asked them to do.
The question is, why couldn’t they do it? Because they all said, oh, God, that’s so obvious. When I showed my image they’re like, oh, that’s so obvious. But when the ques– if it’s so obvious, why couldn’t all of you within five minutes do it?
And the reasoning is that there are so many subtle programs going on in our head of how to see and how to interpret the world that the obvious doesn’t reveal itself. So, as complicated as, like you said, oh, it’s just so difficult or so complex. In some respects, yes, it is. But in another respect, it’s actually the most obvious thing in the world. So, that’s one side of what you just brought up there.
The other thing that you just brought up there are these devices and how it’s much easier to think about how to get off the device than it is to how to get off the program of the mind. The device I often say and I write about it in “Notes to Selfie”, the device is like a parasite. It’s an artificial parasite.
And in order for a parasite to have any kind of life, it needs a host. And so the artificial host is the psyche device. And so in order to truly get off this spell of the digital device, the only way to do that is to get rid of its life supply. And that is to get rid of the artificial host to really come to our true nature. So, I think there’s really only one way out of this.
Georgie: And that’s why you have to turn towards the pain. You have to turn towards the — turn away from the distraction. Nir Eyal talks about this a lot, recognize distraction will always be that we need to turn away from it and turn back. And all the negative elements of technology are actually just magnifications of weaknesses within ourself, really.
John: True. But they could also be magnification of the greatness in ourselves. It all depends on what you bring to the device, right? If you bring conflict to the device, it’s going to exponentially pass the conflict around. If you’re going to bring union and community into the device, it’s going to promote that. So, there are great ways to amplify a lot of the great things that we carry in ourselves, they can be really great tools.
Georgie: So, I want to talk about that. Before we do, let’s get a bit more back to the nuts and bolts. So, you started this journey when you saw a stampede in Taipei of people chasing after Pokemon and that was 2016. And obviously, in that time, putting together this incredible exhibition. Technology’s changed a lot.
But I’m also really interested to understand what did you learn along the way that you didn’t expect to learn? Like, I imagine you went into that project with a set of hypotheses around how the digital environment was portraying something that was very different to what the natural environment was. But what surprised you in your journey?
John: Hmm, sit with that for a second. I didn’t — I knew what I wanted to do from the get go, so none of — I’m going to say philosophy, but it’s not philosophy. But none of the philosophy changed. I mean, I was dealing with a landscape of illusion, and a landscape of non-illusion throughout the whole thing.
And none of my process in the realization of the exhibition changed where the boundary between those two dimensions lies. So, that remained constant. I think probably what surprised me most is — Yeah, I think this is fair enough.
I think what surprised me most is given my dedication to the project, and how important the message is for me to share. I found that amazing how often I found myself falling into that trap, the trap of technology, the sort of the being bored and reaching for my phone. I actually found that really surprising. I have a 15 year old daughter, and I see it with her all the time.
We have rules about device use, and oftentimes I find myself breaking my own, and it’s candy in your pocket. And it’s really hard to to use it when you need it, to use it as a tool and not as a replacement for something else. It’s really difficult.
But I can tell you that our relationship to our devices is directly related to the relationship with ourselves, period. And when you realize the shift in dimension from the shift of duality into the dimension of union. In other words, when you land on the original no simulation can come close to what’s in front of you.
And you would never want to contaminate it with a simulation. And by simulation, I don’t just mean digital worlds, social media, which is a simulation of connection. But I also mean, the Ayahuasca ceremony, the hallucinogenics, these are all simulations and abstraction of a way of seeing things that is actually no way of seeing things. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Georgie: It does make sense. It’s those moments in your life, which, yeah, that are so real. And they don’t necessarily have to be happy actually. Sometimes they can be really sad. It’s just those moments where there is no other simulation that you could create that would ever come close to how it felt in reality of that moment. And you wouldn’t want it to because it’s just, there’s like a purity to it.
Georgie: Or even something simpler, I love that point that there are these really key moments in your life. And I think they can be happy and I think they can be sad, but that are pure and you cannot replicate them in any way.
John: Definitely. I love what you’re saying, George. Now if we could just take that one step further. In a sense, what you’ve done is you’ve selected certain moments in your life that have had a type of direct experience that are irreplaceable. Okay.
Can we make the totality of life that moment? Because in the moment when we’re not having that direct experience, which is so moving in the interim, then what? Is it about devices, is it about distraction, is it — because if every moment isn’t 100% meaningful, then we’re going to try and find meaning elsewhere.
Georgie: Yeah, I just — I wonder if we do. I just wonder if maybe like we’re okay, being a bit bored, or just letting some time pass.
John: Sure. Letting time pass is much different than being bored, I think.
Georgie: Yeah, maybe. Yeah. I don’t know. [crosstalk]
John: We can play around with that a little bit.
Georgie: No, I don’t know. I’m going to — I think I’m going to spend my day, and this is where mindfulness is so valuable, right, because you’re able to reflect back in on how you are in any one particular moment, and what state you’re in. Because I don’t think anyone would really think about what portion of their day they are truly in the moment, versus… And that’s obviously just [inaudible 00:21:52] part of it. But yeah, I don’t know. I have to think about that, I think.
John: Look, I think I do think that we can allow ourselves the — I mean, we’re human beings, at the end of the day. We’re not striving for perfection here. But I think what’s needed and this gets back into our device conversation is, okay, it’s okay to be bored once in a while.
Or it’s okay to, you know, wake up and you feel like, oh, you lack purpose, or you lack meaning or… But as long as we have our feet on the ground, then it’s much less difficult to lose ourselves in those experiences.
And I often say, if you’re at a beach there are three positionings you can take at the ocean. One, you can be floating in the water on a raft and the current is taking you wherever it wants to take you and you’re not even aware of it, because you are the current, you’re floating on.
The next position is your feet are on the sand and the water is, I don’t know, knee deep, waist deep, neck deep, I don’t know. But with feet on the ground, you feel the current. You feel where it’s trying to take you. But you have a ground.
And then the next place you can be standing is actually out of the water completely standing on the sand and just observing everything, not being a part of any current not being pulled by anything.
Now, I don’t think that is like the state that we should be striving for. But I do feel that a bit of ground is really what we need. Because people talk a lot about the balance between our devices and ourselves or our devices and nature. I don’t think that the discussion should be about a balance. I don’t think it’s about a balance. It’s about a ground and then a turning up or a turning down.
So, we are grounded in who we are, and then we can turn the device use up a lot or we can turn it down a lot, but not a balance. Because when there’s a balance, in order for something to balance, it’s a compromise. See, we don’t want to compromise ourselves in this.
Georgie: And it also implies that there’s like equitable power between the individual and the device. It’s like they’re equal weights in the same way.
John: Just think of a hammer. There’s no question that’s a tool. Do we have to balance the use of a hammer with our humanity? Or is there a balance between the hammer and the person using it? No, there’s never a compromise there. When we’re done hammering nails, we put the hammer away.
The digital device, these mobile phones are supposed to be tools. And yet, what we’ve done is we’ve abdicated so much of our power to the tool, that the tool has become our reality, and we’ve become its tool. So, there’s been a shift of power that has happened. And the question is, how do we realize that power back so that we become the masters of our reality, and the device gets put back into its tool function.
Now, we always have to remember that as far as I’m delivering the project “A Species Between Worlds”, and also in my book “Notes to Selfie”, what I’m doing is I’m using the digital device as an analogy for the psyche device, so we can speak to the psyche device in the same way.
Thought is a tool. Have we abdicated so much power to thought that thought has become our reality? And if so, how do we reclaim that power so that our reality is reality and thought is just the tool?
See, this isn’t about getting rid of technology and it’s not about getting rid of thought. It’s about finding you so that everything else goes back into its tool function.
Georgie: Yeah, I’m recognizing what is a tool versus what is you. And that’s — [crosstalk]
John: That’s the thing. That’s the thing. And that’s where finding that ground in the ocean, like I say, is so important. Because once you find ground, there’s really — there’s no ambiguity what the tool is and what you are. It is as clear as night and day.
Georgie: It’s golden. Okay, moving on. You had some amazing conversations in the month that the exhibition was live in New York, what did you glean? What did you learn? How did you — if you were to wrap up how you felt at the end of that month; what are some of the highlights for you?
John: Yeah. It was a wonderful month, such rich — The great thing about it was the topic itself, the way that the exhibition presents it with these symbols of nature as symbols of our inner nature. And there were just so many ways to go at this exhibition. And so the dialogue was extremely rich, and I’m really grateful for everybody who showed up. It was wonderful.
I think that — I’d like to just speak to one thing that actually bothered me, if bother’s even the right word. There are often moments where people speak of artificial intelligence and digital worlds and what’s ethical and almost as it’s some intellectual exercise, like some philosophy, like an intellectual game. And I don’t want to be too intense here. I’ve been criticized for being too intense. So, I’m going to try and say this without being intense.
Okay, so here it goes. This is not a game. This is not an intellectual exercise. And, for example, I was on a panel and we were speaking about — it’s a great panel panel and they were speaking about is it ethical in the metaverse for avatars to be able to walk through each other?
And I just sat back there and listened to this and I interrupted, and I said something along the lines of I just want to remind the audience that this Metaverse thing that we’re speaking about, which is so vast, it has so much potential. And it’s almost like, it’s like a digital eternity what’s possible in this Metaverse.
I just want to remind everybody that this vast eternity is taking place within the confines of a microchip. So, what we’re really speaking of here are the ethics within a prison. What interests me are the ethics of if the prison itself is even ethical. And here’s a different way to put it. Until the limitations, until the limitations of the mind are realized, then talk about freedom is within those confines.
Georgie: Yeah, yeah.
John: And so what, a lot of times in the talks, the exhibition, there were times where I wanted to just slice through the or open up, just open up the conversation to just a different dimension of seeing things. And it’s a struggle that I always have, actually.
Georgie: But it’s also — it’s like the foundation of ethics, right? Because their ethics are still up for debate in humanity. And so as you say, like how can you apply these frameworks to a virtual world when we haven’t yet decided what they should be in our real world, because we don’t yet fully understand ourselves.
But what you’re basically then saying, John, what you’re basically saying, put a halt on all technology. Because until we, as a species, understand ourselves better, we just should not continue to create these tools, which only magnify our weaknesses.
John: So, two things there. One, the first thing you said about if we can’t even get ethics right in the real world, like, how do you think we’re going to get ethics right in the virtual world. Just that one comment, I wish you were on that panel, because that would have been much better than my contribution.
So, it’s a great point that you make. It’s a great point. And as far as the technology thing, I’m not saying put a halt on technology because I’m a realist. Technology is not going anywhere, and nothing is going to halt it unless government can really pick up the pace and start putting some better legislation down and really protecting us. But until that happens, at the end of the day, this is about life quality.
John: And if it’s about life quality no one should want to wait for big tech or government to put a halt on anything. And look, it’s hard to say what’s — I mean, in some sense, it’s wonderful that we’re struggling with these problems, that technology has gotten this far. Because there’s really never been a greater time to assess the — sort of our psychological constitution, what these devices are showing, what they’re revealing about ourselves it’s slapstick comedy.
Georgie: It’s terrifying.
John: If you can, really, if you can just take a slight step back and look at what’s going on here and the things we’re talking about, is it ethical to walk through someone else’s avatar? It’s incredible to me. If you just take a little bit of a step back and look at it from a distance, it’s like whoa.
Georgie: Or even just like looking at how we use social media. Yeah. There’s light, there’s light, there is good. There are good things in there. There’s lots of good stuff in there. But it’s also like, really, is that who we’ve become? Do we really care about this stuff? Do we really talk like that to each other? Are we really so polarized?
John: Yes, definitely. So, Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology was also at the forum. And he gave a wonderful talk. And he speaks about how the device was this magic mirror, how it distorts. It doesn’t just amplify but it distorts. It makes us look like we’re worse than we really are. And I don’t know, maybe the picture isn’t as bad as it really is. I certainly don’t think so. I don’t think — [crosstalk]
Georgie: It’s just an amplification in some ways.
John: Yeah. I don’t think this is doomsday. I don’t think it’s doomsday. And if I did think it was doomsday and it was over, I wouldn’t be speaking with you today on the podcast now. And I wouldn’t have done the exhibition at all either. I have a lot of hope. And I think we’re right there. This could take two seconds. Yeah.
Georgie: Okay. In the meantime, what is your recommendation to listeners in terms of how they think about technology, the role of technology in their lives? What would you say as a parting comment for them to consider?
John: Okay. Let’s see if I can land this one. Okay. I would say if the digital device runs analogous to the psychological device, then that means that there is an inner technology within you. When that inner technology is separated from compassion, empathy, community, then you become as robotic as the digital device.
And so from there I would say what can you do, put the digital device aside, what can you do in your everyday life where you remind yourself that, you’re still human. Never said that before. I don’t even know how that came out. So, I guess if you put that in the podcast, I can review it, too late.
Georgie: Beautiful. It’s really beautiful. Thank you very much.
John: Thank you.
Georgie: I think — Yeah. On that note, John, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really wonderful to talk to you. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
John: I appreciate it, Georgie. Thanks so much for the invitation.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.