Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig, has been called the biggest-selling and most widely read philosophy book ever. A fictionalized autobiography of a motorcycle road trip the author took with his son Chris across America, the book became influential thanks to its transcendent philosophical digressions. Despite the title, it’s not really about Zen Buddhism – or motorcycles – but living a good and meaningful life.
Pirsig, who died earlier this year, showed us “it might actually be possible to unify the cold, rational, numbingly systematized world of science and technology with the warm, intuitive realm of art and the spirit,” according to writer Tim Wilson, who interviewed him the year the book was released.
“If you run from technology, it will chase you,” Pirsig told Wilson, a caution that carries increased significance in a time when GPS tracks the location of our smartphones and high-bandwidth wireless internet coverage smothers much of the populated land on Earth.
Pirsig’s point wasn’t that we should run from technology, or hate it. He called out the self-defeating hypocrisy of loathing and resisting technology but lapping up the standard of living it provides. Instead, technology should be considered part of nature, and part of humanity. “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower,” he wrote.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 2017 edition
Had Pirsig taken his road trip in 2017 he’d be faced with a very different world to the one of 1974, more than 25 years before the Internet went mainstream. Given his willingness to embrace technology, we can assume he’d have taken a 4G-enabled smartphone along for the ride. The technology – the satellites, the data, the sensors – wouldn’t be chasing him; it’d be right there in his pocket.
Unlike those who retreat into nature for ‘digital detoxes’, not realizing their addiction to technology rather than technology itself is the problem, Pirsig would have seen the beauty in a connected device that made his journey through the American wilderness more enjoyable, safer and easier.
He’d have been with nature in all its glory, but also connected to the rest of humanity, dipping into the benefits that offers whenever he deemed it necessary or worthwhile. It’s unlikely he’d have felt the urge to check the latest gossip on Twitter or Facebook, but Google Maps, TripAdvisor and Airbnb sure would have come in handy.
Those more suspicious of today’s hyperconnected technology might say this fails to consider the dark side of sharing your browsing habits, your whereabouts and other aspects of your existence through your smartphone. To take advantage of the best your device can offer, you must in turn give up so much of your privacy to companies looking to make a buck off the data you’re generating.
Take ‘location-based marketing’, for example, which sends location-specific advertisements to consumer’s mobile devices. Sounds pesky and a little… dystopian, doesn’t it? It evokes the scene from the 2002 science fiction movie Minority Report in which Tom Cruise’s character is hit with a personalized ad that tells him he could “use a Guinness right about now”. Pirsig would have felt location-based marketing’s full brunt as he made his way across 2017 America, seeking food, shelter and supplies.
How would Pirsig have felt about location-based marketing?
Again, though, he likely would have taken a more pragmatic view than the dystopian Luddites. You cannot, surely, buy a 4G smartphone, blindly connect it to servers around the world, and then fly into a rage when you discover your data and location is being sold off to the highest bidder. Unless human microchip implants are written into law, we’ll always have the option to avoid that inevitability.
For those naturally more open to the idea of location-based marketing and the serendipitous moments of magic it can help create – as well as those who stand to profit from it – 2017 looks like being a good year for the technology.
Nearly a third of the world’s population will own a smartphone this year, according to Statista, and 80% of social media activity now happens on mobile devices. This gives companies a much fuller picture of what people are doing and where they’re doing it. People aren’t afraid to use their phones to buy things, either; global mobile e-commerce revenues are projected to reach $549 billion in 2017.
These trends are converging with breakthroughs in technology that are taking location-based marketing to new levels of complexity. Sensors enabling near-field communications (NFC) are not new, but they’re coming down in price. This technology was included in the last two generations of Samsung and Apple phones. Elsewhere, ‘geo-fences’ use GPS, Wi-Fi, electromagnetic fields or RFID technologies that capture data from consumers situated in specified areas – a concept Google and Apple are invested in.
Pokémon Go showed that people are ready for augmented reality; again Minority Report’s Guinness holograms offer us a vision of how that technology could translate into the world of advertising. And then there’s context, the plumbing of location-based marketing. Context, which feeds on big data, is only getting richer, giving brands a deeper understanding of where consumers are, where they’re headed and what they might want to buy. Done well, all this technological advancement is undeniably useful for consumers too.
So, next time you get out on the open road looking for a clean break from your neurosis-inducing technology habits, consider taking your smartphone with you. It will almost certainly come in handy. As Pirsig might have said (albeit more eloquently), nature and technology are friends, not enemies. Embracing both, warts and all – and embracing them wisely – is the key to living a full and happy life.