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Like many other people, I was first attracted to the Internet, and especially to E-mail, because it seemed to be a much more environmentally friendly way of transmitting information than the medium of print, which uses vast amounts of petroleum (the base of most kinds of ink) and trees (the base of most kinds of paper).
After sitting for two years on my university's committee for computer policy, I am much less sanguine about e-mail than I used to be. At my university, studies have shown that the cost of electricity alone for our computer network is about $50,000 per year. In my region of Canada, all electric power is generated by huge hydroelectric dams far away in the north and transmitted by massive power lines to the more heavily populated areas.
Every single phase of the generation and delivery of electrical power is damaging to animal and plant life and disruptive to the ancient patterns of life of native peoples. The ubiquitous presence of computer terminals all over campus has been responsible for a significant breakdown in the quality of air in buildings, as a result of which new air-conditioning systems are being installed, which of course require even more electricity to operate them. The fee that a university must pay for being connected to the Internet is substantial. The cost of telephone lines for modem connections is also substantial. All told, this whole Internet business is costing my university many tens of thousands of dollars a year. Despite the very real costs of connectivity, the general perception is that the Internet is free, because at my university no individual user has to pay for using it.
There is also a growing perception that the Internet is democratic (which in this culture is uncritically perceived as something good) and egalitarian (also seen as something good) and economical.
All these common perceptions about the Internet are false. It is anything but environmentally friendly, economical, democratic and egalitarian. Much delusion surrounds this toy of the rich. When I occasionally rail against the Internet, the main thing I am trying to do is to make people a little more aware of the fact that this is not a karma-free zone. Even here in cyberspace we have to think carefully about the consequences of our actions. The problem is that the very nature of the beast makes it difficult for us to be aware of the consequences of our actions. The sentient beings that suffer as a result of our using this device are far away from our sense faculties. We tend not to be aware of the things that are being neglected because an increasing percentage of educational budgets are being channeled into the Internet.
Once one becomes a little more aware of all the indirect consequences of our increasing reliance on the Internet, one can no longer think of this tool as karmically neutral. The system does cause suffering, even death. And we who use it -- even with the purest of intentions -- are contributing to that systemic damage. I therefore submit that it is not unreasonable to give serious thought to the question of whether using the Internet is consistent with the principle of Right Livelihood. As with any important issue, it would be folly to arrive too quickly at a simplistic answer. While I would by no means suggest that the Internet is by its very nature opposed to Buddhist ethical principles, it is nevertheless a tool whose use deserves much more mindfulness than many of us have given it in the past.
Richard P. Hayes, Ph.D.
Source: CyberSangha: The Buddhist Alternative Journal ; email@example.com