One of the lines of argument I'm developing most strongly in the contemplative computing project is that contemplation (and more generally, any kind of sustained concentration or focus) is a skill that people learn, can refine, and need to practice. Focus isn't what's left over when you remove distractions, pop-ups, barking dogs, telemarketers calling, kids asking whether they can go the store, e-mails about funny pet costumes, etc. etc.; concentration isn't waiting to spring back up, Jack-in-the-box like, when the weight of Other Stuff is removed. Concentration is an active, skilled engagement with the world-- a purposely narrowed piece of the world, but active and skilled nonetheless.
Technology can't make you concentrate; the terms I've been using in my contemplative computing opus (which I'll soon make publicly available) are ones like "encourage" or "invite." The best we can do is create technologies that make it easier for people to learn and exercise useful skills; they have to make the choice to engage with them (and with their own abilities) in that way.
Today, my wife and another visitor to the lab took a long lunch, and walked from Cambridge to Grantchester, to visit The Orchard, the wonderful tea house on the bankls of the river. I took our good camera, and as I was snapping away pictures of cows and trees and reflections on the river, I realized: this is what I mean by an inviting technology.
clare bridge, via flickr
flowers on the backs, via flickr
Of course, taking pictures can be an intrusive, disruptive activity: my children would say that I take too many pictures, and they wouldn't mind if the camera were a little less evident in their lives.
my daughter voting for no more cameras, via flickr
But around here, where I'm not really focused on people but very much on the place, photography is really about engaging with the place-- observing it closely enough to notice reflections in the water, or the contrasts among different shades of green and brown (not a huge amount of color here in the winter!), and the seeing it clearly enough to record it.
grantchester meadow, via flickr
Now, you can argue that this sort of focused attention is partly an artifact of my engagement with the camera-- that in effect, the camera is training me to look at the world in a particular way. There's a little truth to that, but I'm not too bothered by that fact. For one thing, there's an inherent incompleteness in any perception. This is especially visible when technologies are involved, whether they're cameras or eyeglasses, but there is no perception without selection.
the cam, via flickr
But more important, I think I see more with the camera than I would without it: the camera invites me to be more mindful of my visual environment. It doesn't force me at all-- I've tried on several mornings to photograph my ride from home to work, and each time get distracted by the traffic and pedestrians and so on-- but when I can manage it, the camera rewards that attention.
After coming back from our walk, I discovered an article about Thomas Merton's "discovery of photography as a medium for his contemplative vision" by an English theologian. It turns out that Merton became an avid photographer late in life, and for him, photography was a way of "reminding me of things I have overlooked, and cooperating in the creation of new worlds:"
For the contemplative Merton, photography became a way of both nurturing a "heightened awareness of the immediate environment" and also "capturing and passing this on to others." Photography became a tool for "natural contemplation" (theoria physike)-- "the intuition of divine things in and through the reflection of God in nature and in the symbols of revelation."
The same technology can be used by paparazzi and photojournalists in an intrusive and invasive way, or to better observe and engage with the world. For Merton, photography was less about getting the great shot-- the decisive moment that Cartier-Bresson sought-- than about cultivating a sense of openness to the world, supported by the technology: Merton argued
that when photographing one should "stop looking and ... begin seeing!-- Because looking means that you already have something in mind for your eye to find; you've set out in search of your desired object and have closed off everything else presenting itself along the way. But seeing is being open and receptive to what comes to the eye." The camera in Merton's hands, was to become "a medium to reverentially contemplate what he saw and experiences in a given moment."