What is contemplative computing?

  • Contemplative computing may sound like an oxymoron, but it's really quite simple. It's about how to use information technologies and social media so they're not endlessly distracting and demanding, but instead help us be more mindful, focused and creative.

    My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Co. in 2013, and is available in bookstores and online. This 2011 talk is a good introduction to the project and its big ideas.

About Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

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Is it addiction, or more precisely, compulsion? Remember- the 'c' of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder') is compulsive- a mental stuck spot- a tic, almost.

The differences are subtle, but important. If you are truly 'addicted' to something, there are physiological and psychological consequences to being cut off from your 'drug'- be it an actual drug or something else. A compulsion, on the other hand, seems more like an imbalance, an illness etched into the psyche- but redirectable with the right kind of attention.

I love my tech- I have computers and a BlackBerry- but I am not addicted to them. I do sometimes feel compelled to see who 'dinged' me on my message queue- but I keep access to that queue limited, so that the traffic on it is important, not distracting.

When I find myself being sucked in by tech, I step back and remind myself that I did without it for a good chunk of my life, and I could do so again if I were to lose access. I do have a much broader horizon and scope of friends- real friends- because of the Internet- and it has greatly enriched my life. But I remind myself that it is a part of my life- not the entirety of it. And perhaps therein lies the key to freedom: Perspective.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Sure, its likely that these addictions are really forms of OCDs (though Nick Carr, I think, would make the case that theres neuroscientific evidence that nudges our activities closer to real addictions). The thing that interests me more, though, is why we THAT about digital technology uses as addictions, and why thats not unambiguously bad. Product designers at Apple or IDEO get props for creating something addictive, while pharma and tobacco companies dont. It seems to me another thing affecting how we make sense of our interactions with technology. And more generally, these kinds of metaphor have significant impacts on the way we think about problems, analyze evidence (metaphors have some interesting effects on selection and confirmation biases), and formulate solutions.

Kathy Sierra

In the past, I have supported thinking of tech as "addictive" because I convinced myself that it's not *harmful* as, say, nicotine or gambling is. But lately I have had to rethink that, in the face of the new "gamification" frenzy. When it is now common to see tech execs and the media discuss operant conditioning and the "neuroscience of motivation"... when marketers post on the neurochemistry of reward structures in the brain, when the word "dopamine" appears in the same sentence as "customer loyalty", I think something has shifted.

I can no longer talk about "good addiction vs. bad" in the context of today's marketing-driven use of persuasive technology based on consumers-as-Skinner-pigeons. Still, as one who used to build games meant for advertising, I understand how easy it can be to justify our work by saying it's about entertainment and enjoyment and what right do we have to tell people what should and should not be "fun"? Those are the arguments we make when we are unwilling or unable to make critical distinctions.

I believe there are ways out of this, though, and I hope contemplative computing gains widespread attention. On a loosely-related note, I gave a talk a while back about the trend among technologists to take up hobbies we would least expect... specifically rock-climbing (or the urban version, "buildeering"). My wildly unscientific theory was that the very folks most connected/affected by always-on tech were seeking activities that forced you to abandon continous partial attention. In rock climbing, if you stop to check your tweet stream, you could die. And on that rock, you've given yourself an iron-clad excuse to turn everything off but focus on the present moment.

Rehab ranch

A physical hurt may require a doctor; an emotional pain may call for a therapist or friend, and spiritual distress may indicate the need for more prayer and meditation, closer contact with a Higher Power. We can accept responsibility for our feelings, become willing to go to any lengths to get well, and choose not to be miserable.

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