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.
Last Monday was the third Family Day Unplugged in Alberta, Canada, a chance to "unplug from technology & electronics for the day, and spend time connecting with yourself, friends, family and your community on Family Day."
While the event sounds like a mix between Arianna Huffington and Leslie Knope, I genuinely love it.
It's one thing when Silicon Valley CEOs and globetrotting spiritual figures talk from a stage at Davos about how great it is to eat a meal without checking their iPhones; but it's something else when unplugged events become something that counties can organize-- or compete with one another over, as one local paper explained,
Twenty-two municipalities in the Capital Region are encouraging residents to unplug from technology and connect with family and friends on Family Day, February 17. Participating municipalities are competing to see which community accumulates the most time unplugged from technology.
It's also a measure of hust how pervasive the problems of-- or at least the anxiety over-- digital distraction have become. When you can hold a competition in towns that feature free "family puck 'n' stick shinny" events, an afternoon of "outdoor skating and fire pit" (sounds deadly), hay rides and kick sleds, or recommend that residents use their non-digital time to "See if the local hospital has a ‘read to the elderly’ program or similar" and "Shovel some sidewalks of people who need help," you know you've shot past the world of Google Bus protests and ironic videos about digital detoxes, and into the North American heartland.
This event-- and other non-Valley digital Sabbath events, like the Foresters Tech Timeout-- is another challenge to the idea that digital detoxes are the latest elite fad, or a way to redirect the blame for our digital woes back onto ourselves.
The results will be announced here. I don't want to play favorites, but it looks like Bellevue School will be hard to beat:
Way to go Bellevue families! We were unplugged for 7051 hours on Family Day. Thanks to all who took the time to log their unplugged hours.— Bellevue School (@Bellevue_School) February 19, 2014
Evgeny Morozov has a short critical piece in The New Republic about digital detoxes, mindfulness and technology. I think the swipe at mindfulness is on the shallow side, but his argument that the digital detox movement is problematic-- or rather, that it runs the risk of solving one problem by directing our attention away from a bigger problem-- is worth engaging.
Morozov sees two problems with the movement. First, digital detoxes aim to help people recharge their mental batteries so they'll have more energy to spend on social media-- in effect, it encourages people to live more interesting lives so they won't bore their friends on Facebook, not to rethink how they live.
Second, and more important, the movement makes the individual responsible for overconnection, and implicitly absolves companies of trying to commoditize and resell their user's attention.
In this formulation, the problem with digital distraction is that you spend too much time on it, you allow yourself to be distracted-- not that Facebook and Twitter and Netflix spend enormous amounts of money and energy testing design tweaks to get you to spend more time on their services, so they have more of your attention and information about you. As Morozov says:
our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call “the attention economy.”
But what if this economy is not as autonomous and self-regulating as we are lead [sic] to believe? Twitter, for instance, nudges us to check how many people have interacted with our tweets. That nagging temptation to trace the destiny of our every tweet, in perpetuity and with the most comprehensive analytics, is anything but self-evident....
In reality, he concludes, "With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural."
If this seems a little abstract, let me give an example. Recently I loaded Facebook Messenger, a stand-alone app that gives you access to Facebook's instant messaging service, onto my iPhone. Every time I open the app, I get this screen:
Messenger really really wants me and my friends to "see messages instantly on your phones." Why? Because they know that many users look at Messenger more often if we have notifications turned on (if only to stop the damn thing from ringing), and that this is their best shot at competing with ordinary SMS. It's not a very subtle nudge.
You might argue that this kind of thing is harmless, and besides that technologies are neutral. But both those arguments are wrong. Built into Messenger's "Turn on Notifications" screen is an assumption that instantaneous communication is always best; that you should always be willing to direct your attention to messages and Messenger; and that when talking to people, speed trumps things like deliberation or thoughtfulness. It reflects the desires of its makers to commoditize our attention, to gather information about where we are and what we're doing, both to do ostensibly good things (improve the service) and not so great things (sharpen locative advertising).
This is a perfect little example of what users face today: a near-constant exposure to efforts to shape their behavior in ways that might serve them (at some times), but definitely serve the interests of companies and advertisers.
Ironically, critics who see the digital detox movement as one that fetishizes analog authenticity enable this (or as it were, distract us from the real issue):
in their efforts to reveal the upper-class biases of the "digital detox" crowd—by arguing, for example, that the act of unplugging falls somewhere between wearing vintage clothes and consuming artisanal cheese—critics like [Alexis] Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.
I think Morozov is exactly right that there's a danger that practices like a digital detox or digital Sabbath can be shallow, and that we can miss the opportunity they offer us to rethink how we use our information technologies. But any good thing can be practiced in a shallow way (this is why we have the words humility and sanctimony), and any good opportunity can be wasted.
But it's not inevitable that they're shallow. It's important to note that there are people for whom digital detoxes actually work the way Morozov advocates. When I wrote The Distraction Addiction, I made a point to talk about people for whom disconnection isn't a fad or a quick fix. The people who get the most out of it are the people who practice it regularly. They often discover that they don't need to be frantically connected, and they become a little more aware of how companies try to capture their attention. And they realize that the challenge isn't to disconnect completely or get back to "real life," but to lead a richer life. They're still going IRL, but going for a different "R."
It's easy to treat digital detoxes as a one-time solution, or to apply the vitamin theory of interaction to them. We often talk about technologies as having a clear, linear impact on us (e.g, more video games = BAD), but they don't work on us that way. Likewise, detoxes and sabbaths don't operate (or fail) in straightforward ways.
I understand why Morozov wants us to be aware of how companies try to capture and commodify our attention, and I think it's a valuable thing; but I'm skeptical that social media companies will change their strategy. The idea that users are lizard-brained consumers who can be nudged to play or watch or like a little longer is just too appealing. This is why I aimed my book at ordinary users: I can't change Facebook or Google, but I can help people change themselves. The challenge is to encourage users without excusing the strategy.
Author and education researcher Julianne Wurm writes about what she learned from giving up her phone during a 6-week trip in Asia. She had her laptop and iPad (both? really?), checked in a couple times a day, but had long stretches (up to a week) of being intentionally and happily offline.
My biggest lesson? People will wait. I used to check my email right when I came out of a yoga class or the second I stepped out of the subway—trying to walk down 7th Avenue and answer messages right away....
[Second,] there are few things in life that are truly urgent. We get caught up in the belief that everything needs to happen asap—the immediacy of our connected world. The reality is, if there is no blood, it can likely wait.
Her story is very consistent with what I found listening to digital sabbatarians for my book (shown with a cat taking a digital sabbath):
People who take successful digital sabbaths don't eliminate absolutely everything with a screen, but give some thought to what they need to get away from (no one unplugs the microwave, even though it has a screen).
They all report how amazing it is that they don't miss critical messages, that their lives don't proceed with the urgency that Vodafone or Samsung or their bosses encourage them to think it does.
They all talk about discovering a richer sense of time, and a repaired sense of attention and presence.
And most of them find it unnecessary to reconnect the firehose when they return: that they can stay in touch and on top of everything without being always-on.
Faraday Zones... will become a ubiquity in 2014. From these dodgy origins, they will find mainstream acceptance on trains, planes, and automobiles, as well as certain public spaces such as libraries and cinemas. Back-to-nature resorts and vacation spots will pile on, offering the opportunity to be "beyond reach."
We're definitely seeing the last, and let's hope that we see more Faraday Zones.
Hugh Macleod writes about the rise of an "Antidote Economy" in response to the "*brave* new world of stimulus oversupply.... It’s an increasingly huge cultural phenomenon, simply because we need more and more antidotes to balance out our increasingly expensive yet frazzled quality of life."
I can only hope. What are some examples?
Bed & breakfast weekends in Vermont, Zen meditation retreats in New Mexico, farmer’s markets, specialist coffee and tea shops, Shaker furniture, yoga classed, art galleries in Laguna Beach, artisanal pickles, hand made scented candles, and of course, Brooklyn.
Sounds great. Is there a downside?
To make a living in The Antidote Economy, you also need a fairly large, affluent chunk of the population to still remain on the outside looking in. You need enough stressed out, overprogrammed yuppy-scumbag types in boring, 80-hour-week office jobs that they hate, to ensure that there’s enough disposable income swishing around to fund your alternative, post-capitalist lifestyle experiment.
Brooklyn is only possible because Manhattan is never very far away. Authentic living needs lots of fake people in order to pay for it.
Well, it's still good news for my book sales.
Update. Okay, so I think I get where the piece is coming from: it's a bit like the "there's no longer any such thing as offline any more because even when you're walking on the beach you're thinking about what Instagram filter would rock the view" argument. The more serious point is that the Antidote Economy is fed by profitable discontent: just as cars need long-dead dinosaurs, so too do purveyors of authenticity need people to spend 80-hour weeks to make themselves, well-heeled customers.
Recently I've stumbled across several digital Sabbath projects. The Foresters Tech Timeout, which I wrote about recently, is one; Mother London's No Internet Week is another. An older one, which I confess I just discovered, is analog Sunday, which "no email, no blog reading, no surfing the web, actually, no internet, no typing, in fact, no computer at all and no tv.
Most recently, I recently came across the Hibernate project (it's where I found the service that my book's Web site is now hosted on). It's trying to get 10,000 people to sign up for its e-fast pledge, a 24-hour break from email.
And as a result of the weariness of the journey to inbox zero and the distraction trap…I find it difficult to differentiate between binging on online content like a never-ending conveyer belt of fast-food that just looks and smells so good that I just don’t know what might come out of the kitchen next, so I’ll hang around a little longer AND surfing the wonderful web and discovering some of my favorite things in the world.
I’ve tried plugins like Momentum and it helps, but only a little. I want to be more focused and have as healthy a tech diet as I do with the food I eat.
While he's rather more the adventurer than some of the people I interviewed in the book, otherwise Keene is pretty typical of people who decide to start a practice like this: technical, busy, and looking for a way not to unplug completely but to restore some balance in their lives.
While it's possible to practice a digital Sabbath in a way that turns it into "conspicuous non-consumption" and a badge of moral superiority or elitism (as Laura Portwood-Stacer put it), any beneficial or noble or altruistic practice-- yoga, parenting, going to church, saving money, dieting, running marathons, meditating, being super-busy at work-- can become an performance of moral superiority. Arguing that digital Sabbaths, or hibernation, or analog Sundays,or other practices are mainly declarations of one's authenticity or superiority misses the point, and warps the intentions of the practitioners.
Mother London, one of those branding / marketing / design / media consultancies that's so hip it's impossible to tell what they actually do (but they have offices in London, New York and Buenos Aires, so they must do it well) recently pulled the plug on five people for a week. Or more specifically, they got give people to go offline for a week and record the experience. As the Web site explains,
[I]t's the annual occurrence of Internet Week that made us think– have we become addicted to the internet? And if we have, what would happen if 5 digital natives were forced to go cold turkey for a week? Would it be reminiscent of a scene from Trainspotting? Or would they regress to some kind of IRL utopia?
The result is this documentary.
I like the fact that their definition of "digital natives" was not the simple anyone-under-X-years, but rather various people who because of work or social life spend a lot of time online. Too often commentators will assume that there's an unbridgeable demographic chasm in digital life. The notion that anyone over 40 (or 50 or 60) can't possibly get Web 2.0, and that anyone under 20 can't communicate except through screens, is lazy and incorrect: it doesn't allow for the fact that, say, Steve Jobs came up with the iPhone and iPad is 50s, that Doug Engelbart was still working on augmenting human intelligence in his 80s, and that younger Baby Boomers like me have spent most of our lives around computers.
And as an American, I appreciate the tasting menu of accents presented by the five subjects in the video, too. I know that's shallow, but there it is.
Foresters, a Canadian life insurance company (can one think of an institution that sounds more stable and grounded?) just released a "Tech Timeout" survey looking at household Internet use in the United States. A couple things they found:
One feature of this is that it's not just aimed at individuals, like many digital detoxes or tech sabbath projects; rather, it "encourages families to take a daily break from technology." It would be interesting to know if this group approach works better, or appeals to people who wouldn't go it alone.
(Thanks to Jesse Fox for pointing it out to me.)
As a public service announcement, I link to this video about the dangers of unplugging and going on a digital detox:
"It just makes me want to light candles and do my laundry in a river..." I hope I'm not the only one who finds it screamingly funny.
But seriously, if the digital detox can be the subject of a parody, then it must be a thing now. The point of a joke like this is to make fun of something people know about.
Of course, any office where this happens needs a digital detox.
This 2012 presentation on digital detoxes, Zenware, and other efforts to buy escapes from distraction by Kasi Bruno, Director of Strategy and Cultural Insight at Young & Rubicam could be an advertisement for the book:
In an interview with Boost Agents, she explains what's going on:
Boost: In one of your recent speeches at Ignite you mentioned people are frustrated by being over connected, and are looking for moments with less digital distractions. With this in mind how should this inform how brands interact with consumers in the future, and how should they respond to this movement of wanting to unplug?
Kasi: I think what we’re seeing is people almost revolting against themselves, against their own compulsions. People are frustrated with themselves for being so dependent on technology, for not being comfortable being still or alone.
While there’s a huge fear of missing out on something if we aren’t hyper plugged in, we’re starting to see people realize that they’re actually missing out on what’s happening right in front of them because they’re too distracted by devices.
There’s a balance and leveling off that’s starting to happen. People want to regain focus and time for uninterrupted deep thought, so we‘re seeing real life, lo-fi, unplugged experiences becoming a luxury of sorts. Luxury is a function of scarcity and what’s scarce nowadays is exactly that- an unplugged moment of stillness, thought and a feeling of being truly present.
I think brands that understand this can help people find the balance. Sure, some will continue to exploit the consumer tick to be connected, but many can start to add value by nurturing the need for real presence that’s starting to bubble up. I think we’re going to see more of that. It isn’t a rejection of technology and connectedness, but a reclaiming of control over it. Brands can help people with that.
The media spotlight has often been too harsh for Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh physicist, who disappeared off on holiday without a mobile phone this week to escape the inevitable rush of journalists that bears down on every winner of a Nobel prize.
The move was carefully calculated and profoundly successful. The Royal Swedish Academy made calls to the scientist's phone but failed to make contact before – or after – announcing the winners of the 2013 prize in physics on Tuesday morning.
The Huffington Post reports that a "recent report from consumer research company SDL" that interviews 4000 people from the US, UK and Australia about their travel habits reveals that lots of them now try to work in a digital detox when they go on vacation. The two things that jumped out at me:
The second is particularly striking to me, as the temptation to post Instagram photos of your margarita is especially easy to give in to.
Occasionally you run across a phrase that strikes you as well-constructed or elegant; then every rare once in a while you find one that you think, "I gotta steal that." Recently I linked to Mónica Guzmán's Seattle Times piece about taking a week-long digital Sabbath while on vacation in Colorado. In an earlier article, she talks about why her earlier tech breaks have been valuable:
Disconnection is a rest, of course, with all the relief that brings. But more usefully, it’s a performance review of my interconnected life. New technologies breed new attitudes and habits so fast, sometimes, they hide. It’s like a tide receding: The longer I let the water drain, the more of those hidden habits I see.
This idea of "hidden habits" that we need to surface and examine is really useful. New devices come at us quickly, we get absorbed by the intellectual challenge or frustration of learning how they work, and we compare their performance to earlier devices we owned. It's a bit like what Daniel Kahneman calls "type 1 thinking," the quick, familiar-rules thinking that we rely on most of the time.
All that diverts us from noticing what new habits we've developed with them, what unintended effects they have, or how they may make one kind of task easier and another harder. This requires more reflection, an ability to question our more basic assumptions about our uses of technology, and an ability to see those assumptions in the first place.
Studying history of science gave me a bit of a leg up on this kind of thinking, because it's a lot of what I did in graduate school. However, if you don't want to give up five years of your life (and earning power, and long-term career trajectory), a week away from your devices could help you see things that you didn't even know you were doing, and question whether you need to do them.
It’s a culture shock, disconnection, if you’re as tied to your devices as I am. It slows time, amplifies your senses and actually changes how the world feels. If that sounds dramatic, try it, if you still can. I was surprised, too. Last week’s disconnection is the closest I’ve come to living in another dimension. When I came back, I knew I’d have to make some changes.
The more I talk to people about this-- and one of the good things about doing lots of book signings and readings is that you meet a lot of people interested in these issues-- I'm more convinced than ever that vacations should be a complete break from your normal routine, including your e-mail and other gadgets.
Unless you leave your mail behind, you're not really away: part of the monkey mind, or the multitasking office mind, is still there, making cognitive noise and distracting you from whatever you're doing right now.
Taking a screen-free vacation is good for two other reasons. First, it's a time when it's genuinely okay to go offline: the obligation of digital connection is more than balanced by the virtue of being with your family (or not wasting the money and time you've spent). Second, it's an introduction to something you can do at home, on weekends, or even one evening a week. It's a lot easier to power down your electronics than it is to get to the beach or campground, and in its own way can be just as rewarding.
Somehow I managed to not see this episode of Parks and Rec when it was out last year. Genius.
Gizmodo contributor Leslie Horn writes about her recent tech-free vacation in "The Right Way to Disconnect from Technology on Your Next Vacation:"
a vacation isn't a vacation unless you really really get away from the minutiae of your everyday existence. Question is, how do you do that without also stripping out the conveniences of technology?
I spent the first 10 days of August off the internet in the Rocky Mountains with my family and at a music festival with some friends. It was lovely and wonderful to spend time with people who are normally dispersed in different cities across the country, but the destination really could have been anywhere. For me, the key was relaxing by making the trip a perfect tech-free oasis.
See, there are those of us who have let the internet seep inside of their very souls, and take control of every pore of their existence. You know who you are—and this guide is for you.
So does the "right way" involve a very specific set of things, or steps? Not so much. Horn talks about what worked for her-- leaving the laptop at home, disabling work email on her phone, turning off social media notifications, for example-- but she adds
Whatever you decide is a-okay, make it a firm plan from the beginning, and don't flake on it....
There are varying levels of what this means for different people. I, for one, have little to no self-control... [and t]hat's exactly why I opted for a near total internet deportation.
Not everyone needs that kind of hard line, and tech isn't necessarily bad. It's more about deciding what you can and can't handle—and what you need to do to make yourself spend a few days chilling out. Digital decompression is good for everyone occasionally.
This is very consistent with what I heard when interviewing people who take regular digital Sabbaths: figuring out what you need to get away from (and what parts of your mind you want to restore), making a plan, and sticking to it, are keys to getting the most out of the experience.
This Huff Po piece on politicians staying connected when going on vacation has this vivid anecdote:
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said her daughter is turning 10 on Saturday, and for her birthday she asked her mom to put away her multiple phones and iPad for the entire 24 hours. Her daughter even said she wanted to take all the gadgets away so Wasserman Schultz wouldn't be tempted by them.
"It made me realize how often I'm not present, even when I'm present, if unplugging completely was something she wanted from me for her birthday," said Wasserman Schultz, who is also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
I wonder how this affects actual legislating. I don't imagine it's good.
That may sound contradictory at first glance, but it's sound advice from Microsoft Research scientist danah boyd about taking an August email sabbatical:
Communication is the key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful and people will get pissed off. They'll be offended. They'll think you're all high and mighty. But when you go through steps to make sure everyone's covered, it's amazing at how well people respond. And, often, they too start taking email sabbaticals, guaranteeing everyone gets the reset they need.
People often ask me if I'm frantic about the thousands of emails I must've missed. Again, because I'm a geek and use procmail, I have log data. What's funny is that, aside from the first 48 hours where people like to test my bounce message, people stop sending me email. With all of these steps in place, people actually leave me alone.
This is heartening, as it's part of a growing discussion about not just whether taking an email sabbatical is a good thing (this BBC News magazine piece is another good data-point), but how to go about doing it-- how to arrange it technically, but also how to manage it socially. The formation of social norms around a practice is always a good sign.
Last week, I took a few days off and took my son to New York City. (I had a workshop in DC, and needed to meet my publisher and speaking agent in NY.)
It wasn't completely unplugged, but because I'm cheap and refused to pay the $20/day for wifi in my room, I ended up spending a lot less time online.
I'd post things to Facebook, but it was very much a quick update, hit-and-run sort of interaction that I would do from our hotel room in the morning or evening.
Besides, we were spening a lot of time out doing tourist things. Wednesday night we went up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, which was brilliant, and I think a good introduction to the city.
The other days were spent doing things like walking through Central Park, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, and just exploring SoHo and Greenwich Village.
We also spent some time comparing the pastrami sandwiches as Carnegie Deli and Katz's (I confess I like Carnegie better) and the bibimbop at various places in Koreatown, and introducing my son to various odd drinks that are hard to get in California-- egg cream, celery soda, etc..
I suspect that 20 years from now, what he'll remember most vividly is the hotel bathroom (which was huge and very nicely-apportioned), and his introductions to egg cream and celery soda. Which would be fine, and very age-appropriate.
While I had some business to conduct and friends to meet up with, I had brought my son to New York so he could see a bit of the East Coast, and I was curious to observe the city through his eyes. I did a lot of traveling with my dad when I was roughly my son's age, and those were some of the moments of my childhood-- as well as my relationship with Pop-- that I remember most vividly. I'm a strong believer in the broadening effects of travel: like liberal arts education, you can't necessarily explain how it works, but you also can't quite imagine being as good a person without it.
Early on, I realized that understanding my son's sense of New York-- taking notice of what he found interesting, and getting a better understanding of both him and the city-- was not something I could have done as well if I were constantly updating and tweeting and texting, if I'd chosen to turn a little more inward.
I was thinking about this after reading Mobiledia's Margaret Rock piece on taking "a vacation for tech addicts." Some of the article will be familiar to be people who keep up with the digital detox / Sabbath trend, but if you're new to it (or want to forward on one article to someone who isn't), it's a good place to start: she talks about Camp Grounded, other vacation spots, and the like.
But if there was a lesson I drew from our New York trip, it's that this kind of disintermediated, or at least device-light and personal interaction / direct experience-heavy, sort of vacation is one that you can design even in a city supersaturated with wifi, cellphone towers, and the like.
The emerging digital detox vacation industry tends to emphasize getaways in the redwoods, South Asian beaches, and the like, and I understand why: people respond to exoticism, they like pictures of beautiful people doing yoga on the beach at sunrise, and the further you travel, the more money the industry makes.
But we shouldn't forget that the real power of the movement comes in its total accessibility: a detox or Sabbath isn't a place you go, it's a thing you do. It's a set of choices you make, not a service that's presented to you.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It's been translated into Dutch (as Verslaafd aan afleiding) and Russian (as Ukroschenie tsifrovoy obezyany); Spanish, Chinese and Korean translations are in the works.)
I'm a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park, CA consulting and research firm. I also have two academic appointments: I'm a visitor at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, and an Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Saïd Business School.
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction is published by Little, Brown and Co.. It's been widely reviewed and garnered lots of good press. You can find your own copy at your local bookstore, or order it through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
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