Last night I went to a presentation on calming technologies at Stanford's d.school. Neema Moraveji, who I interviewed last year for my contemplative computing book, is teaching at the d.school now, and with a couple friends offered a course on the subject this spring.
d.compress, via flickr
The event was in the d.school building, which I confess I have mixed feelings about: it's like a perfect distillation of every architectural trick and tic that announces "INNOVATIVE SPACE HERE." Lots of whiteboards? Check. Movable writing surfaces? Check. Cool things that are furniture height but you're not sure if you can sit on them? Check. Walls meeting at odd angles? Check. And yet, for all its self-awareness and self-promotion, it's a space I quite like. If there was one place other than the library where I'd want to sit and write, it's there.
the d.school, via flickr
It was a fascinating evening, a great bunch of students, and a really good crowd-- lots of design people, of course, but also folks from the Medical School, some entrepreneurs, and other sorts-- a nice indication that this package of ideas is developing some momentum. The students were all quite thoughtful and even after three months' constant work still enthusiastic about their projects, and yet also willing to hear criticism or suggestions for improvement. As Neema said, "You can't fake calm."
neema's opening remarks, via flickr
Most software aims to help you do things, as Neema explains; calming technology is more helping you be-- specifically, be calmer. Many of the presentations were specifically aimed at changing behaviors or mood, while others took a more indirect approach of helping people do things more calmly-- in effect, at changing being by changing doing. I'm not going to talk about all the projects, though it's worth saying that all of the projects were intriguing, smart, and even inspiring. Rather, the evening as a whole brought to light a couple issues around the whole enterprise of calm computing and designing for calm that deserve some reflection.
student presentation, via flickr
First, there's a tendency to assume that everything will be good if it's made social, and have a gamification element. Sharing your efforts to be calm provides encouragement to others, and allows them to encourage you, while gamification injects a useful element of friendly competition into the mix.
However, I came away from the evening not sure of the general situations under which sociability can be good for calm, and when it's not; but at the very least, it seems to me that these applications should work well both in public and private. Sunita Mohanty, the creator of an app called Snuggle, reported that one of her users liked the app, but didn't feel the need to share her use of it with others, and already told her fiance everything she told the app.
student presentation, via flickr
This points to something important: that there's an introspective, reflective quality to the use of these applications, and I think that's something we want to encourage as much as possible.
There's another element of sharing, around the question of just what we should share, and how automatic it should be. We're a long way from a point where tweets from my meditation app, my calming app, my focus app, etc. become so numerous that they interfere with other people's calm; but we're probably closer than we think.
But is a 140 character notification the way to share your efforts to become calmer? Or would it be better to encourage a longer, more thoughtful, more introspective reflection-- in effect, to encourage the sharing to be a moment for the user to think about why they're doing what they're doing, how a specific app or trigger fits in their lives, how it works or doesn't?
Of course, as a writer I think of communication-- of writing-- as a form of reflection. But I've also been trying to reduce communication that doesn't have that reflective dimension. For example, I didn't tweet last night's event, because I've taken the Twitter app off my iPhone and iPad. I've done that because I think if the world needs anything from me, it's more books not more tweets, and the latter can get in the way of the former. And arguably even if I don't write another book, having fewer but more thoughtful tweets would be better for everyone.)
space, via flickr
Another big question that the evening raised was, how much can we tweak the tools of social media or behavioral manipulation to encourage greater calm and mindfulness? Many of the prototypes were designed for use on smartphones, or used Facebook or Twitter or SMS in some way. There are obvious virtues of this approach from a developers' point of view-- these SDKs for these platforms are pretty good-- and from a marketing point of view-- these platforms are where the people are.
But can you really flip a bit in systems designed as choice architectures, crafted to nudge people to more mindless behavior, or that seek to redirect behavior in ways that benefit companies and investors at the possible expense of users, and have them promote more thoughtful behavior and very different outcomes?
I would like to think that this is so, but I came away from the evening thinking that it remains to be seen how we can make it happen.
The last big question the evening raised was, when should these applications aim to cultivate skills that you learn to exercise independent of the app, versus promoting calm only through their use?
The question was driven home by an app called Fairfox, which sought to take some of the stress out of negotiating by helping parties find win-win positions. I think this is great, and there are times I could definitely use help in building a negotiating strategy.
But it's a very different thing if you want the app to teach users how to be better negotiators on their own-- how to recognize others' signals, how to understand your own position, how to find endpoints that are mutually satisfactory-- versus expecting them to always turn to the app every time you have to negotiate anything.
make space, via flickr
The first builds a skill; the second risks creating a dependency. Both may create a form of calm, but they have very different sources, and I think that the first is a far more valuable and enduring than the second.
Now, the situation is different for things like Zenware. I'm never going to write a book without a computer (or iPad, or more likely some unholy combination of devices, cloud storage, and the occasional but critical appearance of paper), so in this case it's okay to create tools that promote my calm as a writer, but don't necessarily make me a calmer writer when I'm using other tools.
It's all right for a word processor to help me be while helping me do. Something like a negotiating tool, or a tool that helps prepare me for a medical emergency, might be best designed to ultimately make itself obsolete-- to let me internalize the tools and build the skills necessary to do it for myself.
contemplative computing drafts, via flickr
You might think of it this way. Are you in the hammer business, or the karate business? No matter how good I get with a hammer, I'm never going to have hands solid enough to drive nails. However, if I become a black belt at karate, I have skills that reside within me.
One last minor point. There's a tendency to think of efforts like these as really new. Contrast the desire for calm with the addiction of buzz, the interest in people with the desire to maximize productivity, and it's easy to built an oppositional narrative. But Silicon Valley is a product of a counterculture that was into Zen, yoga, and meditation long before they went mainstream. (This is something that was first argued by Theodore Roszak argued in From Satori to Silicon Valley, and many others have since picked up the thread.)
In other words, we can argue over how to design software or devices or use experiences that promote calm-- it's an argument very much worth having-- but I don't think the idea of creating devices that promote calm would have seemed weird to Douglas Engelbart or Steve Jobs.