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.
This new article in Computers in Human Behavior is really interesting. A research team led by Patricia Greenfield wanted to know "whether increasing opportunities for face-to-face interaction while eliminating the use of screen-based media and communication tools improved nonverbal emotion–cue recognition in preteens.” So they set up this experiment:
Fifty-one preteens [specifically, 6th graders] spent five days at an overnight nature camp where television, computers and mobile phones were not allowed; this group was compared with school-based matched controls (n = 54) that retained usual media practices. Both groups took pre- and post-tests that required participants to infer emotional states from photographs of facial expressions and videotaped scenes with verbal cues removed. Change scores for the two groups were compared using gender, ethnicity, media use, and age as covariates.
What did they find?
After five days interacting face-to-face without the use of any screen-based media, preteens’ recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly more than that of the control group for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes. Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues.
Now, the good news in this study is that while lots of screen time may inhibit kids’ ability to read nonverbal emotional cues, they can get this skill back. The kids in both groups were pretty similar going in, but the group that spent the week at camp (specifically a place called the Pali Institute) became more skillful at reading the cues.
This study, by the way, broadly confirms findings of a 2012 study by Clifford Nass and Roy Pea that multitasking may harm teenage girls' social/emotion development, but real interaction cures it.
So when publications like Quartz report on the study by declaring that “Psychologists say overly connected children can’t read human emotion,” they’re not exactly incorrect (well, actually they are— “can’t read human emotion” is a strong version of the article’s claim), but they emphasize a negative “technology destroys our humanity” angle rather than a “people can get back their abilities” angle.
I love this: The Times of London is piping the sound of old-fashioned typewriters into its newsroom.
Nearly three decades after Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper publisher revolutionised the industry by moving to Wapping and ending the “hot metal” era, his flagship title has reintroduced the distinctive sound of old Fleet Street.
To the surprise of Times journalists, a tall speaker on a stand has been erected in the newsroom to pump out typewriter sounds, to increase energy levels and help reporters to hit deadlines. The audio begins with the gentle patter of a single typewriter and slowly builds to a crescendo, with the keys of ranks of machines hammering down as the paper’s print edition is due to go to press….
The introduction of the typewriter speaker was “a playful idea”, said Lucia Adams, deputy head of digital for The Times and Sunday Times. “Technology has always been an important part of what The Times has done and the typewriter might be an old technology but it’s still a technology.”
Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.
Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world's highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.
Some 87 percent of Singapore's 5.4 million population own smartphones as Internet-capable phones with cameras are popularly known….
Tan Hwee Sim, a consultant psychiatrist at The Resilienz Mind clinic in Singapore, noted that the symptoms exhibited by her young adult patients have changed over the years.
Obsession with online gaming was the main manifestation in the past, but addiction to social media and video downloading are now on the uptrend.
"Internet addiction as a disorder is not even listed in our latest psychiatric manual, it's only listed in the appendix as a disorder that requires further study," she said.
In terms of physical symptoms, more people are reporting "text neck" or "iNeck" pain, according to Tan Kian Hian, a consultant at the anaesthesiology department of Singapore General Hospital.
"It is a commonly observed phenomenon that many people have their heads lowered and are now using their mobile devices constantly on the go, while queuing or even crossing the roads," Tan told AFP.
The BBC recently had a piece on smartphone stress that’s worth a read. Two things stood out in particular. One is the work of Coventry University professor Christine Grant:
"The negative impacts of this 'always on' culture are that your mind is never resting, you're not giving your body time to recover, so you're always stressed.
"And the more tired and stressed we get, the more mistakes we make. Physical and mental health can suffer."
The fact that we can stay connected to the workplace wherever we are in the world is feeding deep-seated insecurities, she argues.
"There is a massive anxiety about relinquishing control," she says. "In my research I found a number of people who were burnt out because they were travelling with technology all the time, no matter what time zone they were in."
Then there’s this recent finding from Ocfom:
61% of UK adults now say they own a smartphone, while household take-up of tablet computers has almost doubled over the past year to 44%.
Since 2010 our daily total media consumption has risen from 8 hours 48 minutes to more than 11 hours, says Ofcom, largely thanks to the rise of smartphones.
As Ofcom found earlier, though, Britons sleep an average of 8 hours 21 minutes, and 8 hours 41 minutes a day on "media devices.” So even when you don’t include television, the number is kind of amazing.
After all, The Distraction Addiction opens with these words:
On the western edge of the ancient city of Kyoto, Japan, on the slope of Mount Arashiyama (literally “Stormy Mountain”), stands the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The park has winding paths and fine views of Kyoto, but the main attraction is the tribe of about a hundred and forty macaques who live there. The mon- keys of Iwatayama are famously gregarious, playful, and, occasionally, crafty. Like all members of the Macaca genus, they combine sociability and intelligence. They play with their kin, watch one another’s young, learn new skills from one another, and even have distinctive group habits.
Some develop a mania for bathing, snowball-making, washing food, fishing, or using seawater as a seasoning. [Or stealing iPhones!] Iwatayama macaques are known for flossing and for playing with stones. This has led some scientists to argue that macaques have a culture, something we’ve traditionally thought of as distinctly human. They’re also humanlike in their natural curiosity and cunning: one second, you’re watching one do something cute, and the next second, his friends are making off with the bag of food you bought at the park’s entrance [or your iPhone!].
They’re like humans in one other way. For all their smarts, nothing keeps their attention for very long. The mountainside gives them a fantastic view of one of the world’s most historic cities, but it doesn’t impress them. They keep up a constant chatter, a running monologue of inconsequence. The macaques are living examples of the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind, one of my favorite metaphors for the everyday, undisciplined, jittery mind. As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa explains, the monkey mind is crazy: It “leaps about and never stays in one place. It is completely restless.”
The monkey mind’s constant activity reflects a deep restlessness: monkeys can’t sit still because their minds never stop. Likewise, most of the time, the human mind delivers up a constant stream of consciousness. Even in quiet moments, minds are prone to wandering [or stealing iPhones]. Add a constant buzz of electronics [from stolen iPhones], the flash of a new message landing in your in-box [on your stolen iPhones], the ping of voicemail [emanating from stolen iPhones], and your mind is as manic as a monkey after a triple espresso. The monkey mind is attracted to today’s infinite and ever-changing buffet of information choices and devices [especially stolen iPhones]. It thrives on overload, is drawn to shiny and blinky [and stolen] things, and doesn’t distinguish between good and bad [stolen] technologies or choices.
Of course, this is a snow monkey in Nagano rather than Kyoto, but still, the picture captures the monkey mind’s fascination with technology as well as any image I can imagine. Though I muse admit, that monkey looks pretty focused on the phone.
Van Oosten explains how he got the picture:
Earlier this year, we hosted two of our annual White & White Japan tours. One afternoon, our group was photographing the snow monkeys when a large bus with day tourists from a nearby ski resort arrived for a short stop. Suddenly, we were surrounded by people shooting with iPads and iPhones, mostly selfies, of course. We were standing close to the edge of the hot spring (the monkeys are very relaxed with human presence), when one of the tourists started taking shots with her iPhone, moving her phone closer to the macaque after each shot. It was almost as if she was offering it to the macaque as a gift, so suddenly the macaque grabbed the iPhone from her hands and quickly moved away towards the middle of the hot spring—out of reach. The owner started screaming in agony, but the macaque was too fascinated by its new toy to notice. The minutes that followed were downright hilarious—monkeys already resemble humans in so many ways, but when they’re holding an iPhone the similarities are almost scary. At some stage it even managed to let the built-in flash go off.
Of course, things didn’t go well for the phone.
When the macaque decided to do some serious underwater testing, the owner of the phone almost fainted. All the while I was fully aware of the fact that this would result in some of the most original snow monkey shots ever.
Finally, van Oosten explains some of the technical stuff.
I used a Nikon D800 with a 70-200/2.8 VR lens to be able to zoom in on the macaque and isolate it from the surroundings. The shot was taken handheld, so I upped the ISO to 800 to get a shutter speed of 1/250 at an aperture of f/7.1. At times it was hard to focus because there was quite a lot of steam rising from the hot water (a constant 42ºC; outside temperature was below freezing). This also meant that I could not move the lens closer to the water as it would instantly fog up. From all the shots that I took, I picked this one because of the angle of the macaque, the way it is holding the phone, but especially how it is looking at the screen.
Until September 5 you can vote for the picture in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
The Art of Manliness has a guide to taking a tech sabbath on Gawker. The highlights:
I’ve written a lot about digital sabbaths as practice and trend (and looked at critiques), and most recently listed own list of rules for a digital Sabbath in a post on Medium. This AoM list offers similar advice, but at this point all of us— the National Day of Unplugging, Analog August, Canada’s Family Day Unplugged, Forster’s Tech Timeout, Analog Sunday and the Hibernate project,— are saying pretty much the same thing.
And because I still think it’s hilarious, I’m embedding the Vooza video about the dangers of unplugging and going on a digital detox:
Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark has a piece in The Atlantic about proposals to make wifi available in national parks and other remote areas, and whether a wired wilderness would be the same place. As "a lover of wild places,” he confesses, "I can’t help but feel a little freaked out by the whole thing."
Wifi in the woods? I think I’ll pass. Because if we ever succeed in knitting all (or even most) of the physical world into the Internet, we could end up abolishing the sense of the Away. When we’re all able to connect from anywhere—well, then, there’ll be no place left to hide.
And Mark makes an important point about the difference between technologies that help you get closer to nature, by extending your ability to survive in the woods, and those that threaten to distract you from it:
I like my lightweight, water-resistant space fabrics. I like my high-altitude stove and my sleeping bag and my water filter. Most of the Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers I’ve come across in the Sierra Nevada the past couple of summers are fully GPS-equipped; forget this Cheryl Strayed getting lost bullshit. Modern gear and gizmos make backpacking—if not exactly comfortable—at least bearable.
But there’s one key difference between a Gore-tex rain slicker and a satellite-connected cell phone. While the first enables an adventure into remote places, the second threatens to disrupt it. We all know how addicting our phones can be—how they distract us from the present and distance us from the immediate.
In other words, as always, the question isn’t whether MOAR TECHNOLOGY is bad. The question is, how will we interact with it? Will it help us be more resilient or independent or smarter, or less? The worst reason that you come up with to make wifi available in the wild is that it’ll let you keep up with the office, or write Yelp reviews of this section of the river.
It’s helpful to think about the difference between wifi and GPS. Both are radio signals, and both obviously are "technologies.” But the latter helps you establish your physical position more precisely, and can be pretty useful if you get lost; but you’re not very likely to be distracted by your GPS unit, and you can’t use the GPS satellite network to post pictures of yourself.
Mark concludes with this thought:
Maybe, then, what we need is a new preservation movement committed to maintaining some places that are offline. We need to make a societal choice to leave big, open areas totally disconnected. In the end, keeping the wild free from telecommunications will rely on the same idea that has always guided preservation: We have to exercise collective restraint because we know we’re not very good at personal discipline.
Buddhify recently conducted a survey of its users to find out why they started meditating. Here are the results:
Notice anything interesting? Nearly 60% said that they were drawn to meditation because of "anxiety and difficult emotions," or the "stresses of everyday life," while only 2.3% mentioned "digital overload" as their reason to start meditating.
Now, I haven’t seen the whole survey, and don’t know exactly how the question was phrased or what responses people could give, but my instinct is that if you’d conducted this survey in 1500, or 300 BCE, you’d have gotten a similar set of responses (though spirituality might have ranked higher, and the idea of “stress” as something we encounter on a daily basis is a fairly new concept).
The other interesting thing is that there’s no indication that Buddhify users see meditation as a tool for productivity enhancement, or a way to become more successful, except perhaps indirectly. Again, it may be that this wasn’t an option in the survey, but after so many critiques of corporate mindfulness, it’s interesting to see that even “dealing with the workplace” ranks lower than “interest in spirituality."
And not to sound like a shill, but the Buddhify app is really great. It’s very much worth trying.
Michael Harris’ The End of Absence: Reclaiming what we've lost in a world of constant connection come out this week, and to mark its publication, Penguin is doing something pretty brilliant: sponsoring something they call Analog August. So what is it?
Analog August is a way to engineer solitude and quiet in a world that’s become addicted to constant connections.
It’s not anti-technology—it’s pro-people. We’re giving ourselves a trip to the brain spa in order to rediscover the quiet joys of solitary walks, face-to-face relations, and a good book.
Here’s their advice about how to do it:
Remember you’re going offline on purpose. You might feel stressed at first, but it’s all part of the process of your summer digital detox. Return to something akin to the technological circumstances from your childhood. Reclaim what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection with these recommendations:
- Alert all of your family members and close friends.
- Turn your Wi-Fi/4G off.
- Turn on an email out-of-office–and resist the urge to check it!
- Log out of all social media.
- Re-record your voicemail message (remember those?).
- No self-congratulatory Facebook status updates about going offline.
- No Instagram photos of your pets, babies, engagement rings, or desserts.
- No self-diagnosis of pneumonia or pink eye on Mayoclinic.org.
- Take off the weird bracelet that tracks your sleep patterns.
- No 36 texts to set up plans with a friend.
- Take a hike! Navigate with a paper map.
This is good, but it’s also important to remember that our attention and old, Tolstoy-reading brains don’t just reawaken when we turn off devices (though I love the fact that War and Peace is one of the books Penguin will send you if you buy Harris’ book and sign up for Analog August).
As I explained in this piece, it’s better to think of this not in terms of negative time— i.e., a period defined by an absence of devices and connections— but rather as a positive time— an opportunity to do different, engaging things that you don’t normally make room for, and to practice slowing down your sense of time.
As one of the people I interviewed for my book put it, it’s amazing how much time you have when you don’t divide it into 30-second chunks.
Michael Harris writes in the Harvard Business Review blog about the hidden productivity hit that comes from being always-on. Being constantly connected and multitasking, he argues, makes us feel like "dedicated, tireless workers,” but in reality, "we’re mostly just getting the small, easy things done.” In other words, "Being busy does not equate to being effective."
And let’s not forget about ambient play, which often distracts us from accomplishing our most important tasks. Facebook and Twitter report that their sites are most active during office hours. After all, the employee who’s required to respond to her boss on Sunday morning will think nothing of responding to friends on Wednesday afternoon. And research shows that these digital derailments are costly: it’s not only the minutes lost responding to a tweet but also the time and energy required to “reenter” the original task. As Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University who studies the effects of media on attention spans, explains, “Everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We’re actually multiswitching [and] giving ourselves extra work.”
Each shift of focus sets our brain back and creates a cumulative attention debt, resulting in a harried workforce incapable of producing sustained burst of creative energy. Constant connection means that we’re “always at work”, yes, but also that we’re “never at work” — fully.
People and organizations looking for brave new ideas or significant critical thinking need to recognize that disconnection is therefore sometimes preferable to connection.
It’s not just the cognitive hit that multitasking delivers that makes us less productive. To take but two examples, there's decades of research about “ego depletion,” and how the ability to mentally get away from work makes us better able to do our jobs when we return; and some fascinating work on the importance of solitude to idea-generation (which makes brainstorming exercises less valuable than you’d expect).
I do a lot of classroom work with students about navigating friendships and social interactions in the digital age. My favorites might be 4th and 5th graders—they are often aware of the problems, and have a genuine desire to come up with solutions. They are kind, creative, and collaborative—a real pleasure!
So how do you tap into that desire?
I conduct a fun exercise in my workshops—I have kids design an app. First, we brainstorm a list of everyday issues with technology. Then I break them into small groups and task them with building a quick prototype of an app that addresses one of the problems we identified.
The result is twofold. Not only do the apps they developed tell us a lot about how kids experience one another and their parents’ communication via devices, but they also help kids think through and understand the issues. Imagine the next time they encounter one of these issue in real life. They will be well equipped to address it—or even avoid it!
In an exercise in which she had kids design apps for managing parents’ smartphone usage, this happened:
Kids understand that smartphone technology—and the connection that comes with it—makes demands on our attention. How many times have you seen a parent focused on the “second screen” while a child tries to get his/her attention? It’s easy to spot when it’s another parent, but be honest—have you done this before? As mindful as I try to be, I know that I am guilty at times. And this is a big issue for kids.
The most common solution to this issue that the kids “designed” was a voice recognition app that temporarily disables the parent’s phone if the child is speaking in the same space. If your child is speaking in proximity to you, it disables texting, social media, and phone calls. If you are talking on the phone, it gives you an indication to end the call.
As I mentioned recently, I think it’s now time to start our conversations with kids and teens about their online lives not with the assumption that they’re all dopamine and hormone-driven zombies whose under-mylenated prefrontal cortexes prevent them from being able to think about the consequences of their actions, nor with the assumption that as "digital natives” they know more than their parents. At least for the wiser (or perhaps simply more privileged) kids, assuming that you can harness their enthusiasm, and show them how to address problems they know they have, may work better.
Annie Murphy Paul has a piece in Slate on counter-marketing campaigns that reduced teen smoking, and how they could serve as a model to help kids become more skeptical and thoughtful about social media and games.
I was unfamiliar with this history, but one of the success stories in efforts to get kids to stop smoking were campaigns that "relied, successfully, on teenagers’ indignation about being exploited by the tobacco companies."
It broadcast commercials—some of them directed by teens—that quoted from tobacco companies’ internal documents, in which executives mused about how to replace the customers who were dying off with a new generation of smokers. And it sent young, attractive staff members into classrooms to deliver an unaccustomed message: “We’re not telling anyone how to live their life. We’re not against smokers or smoking. We're just here to give you information on how tobacco companies are manipulating you.”
So how could we make use of this history?
Let’s allow teenagers to discover (maybe with the help of their peers) that the freedom and autonomy they feel when they’re at the helm of their computers is in many ways an illusion, and let’s help them develop the skeptical, critical stance that would allow them to be truly autonomous users of the Internet. A template for such a project might be the efforts to show young people—especially young women—how magazine editors and advertisers seek to manipulate their sense of what the female body should look like.
One of the things I’ve recently been impressed with, in my conversations both with students, and with teachers and heads of school, is how thoughtful teens can be about digital distraction, and the place of Snapchat and Yo and other services in their lives. For them, the message that their goodwill is being manipulated, that media and game companies work hard to commoditize their attention, and that if they can’t tell what the product is then they’re the product, seems likely to work.
Of course it won’t work on everyone. But it’s worth a try.
I published a short piece on Medium about digital Sabbaths. I was inspired to write it by Jessica Valenti's entirely unobjectionable piece in The Guardian about how deleting the social media apps from her smartphone gave her a little distance between herself and "being told daily that you're a slut, or a bitch, or that you should be raped all because you had the temerity to have an opinion and a vagina at the same time."
I've been shocked at how much of a difference it's already made. I'm no longer "just checking" to see what people are talking about, only to come across some random person [being offensive].... I've also become less likely to get drawn in to a conversation when I should be eating dinner with my family, or tweeting when I should be relaxing before bed.... My concentration is also on the rise.
The number of negative comments the piece has "inspired" are kind of amazing. And more generally, there's still something about digital detoxes or Sabbaths that inspires a special kind of vitriol.
The Medium piece is based on one of the appendices of my book, with a little updating. I expected the advice "don't talk about the Sabbath" would be out of date by now, but oddly it's even more relevant than ever.
My friend Anthony Townsend points me to this great piece by a New York restaurant owner who was trying to figure out why fewer customers were being served per night, and service was slowing down. "We are a popular restaurant for both locals and tourists alike,” the piece say.
Having been in business for many years we noticed that although the number of customer’s we serve on a daily basis is almost the same today as it was 10 years ago, the service just seems super slow even thou we added lots more staff and cut back on the menu items.
Given that slow service is bad for both the restaurant (because it means seating fewer people) and customers (because they don’t like to wait), it was important to figure out what was going on
They had some old surveillance camera footage from July 2004— they switched camera systems then, and never took the tapes out— and so they looked at the old tapes, a more recent night’s footage, and compared how long it took to seat people, take orders, get the food delivered, get the check, pay, etc..
They focused on 45 customers in each sample.
When they started looking into this, they were told by a consultant that they should retrain their staff, get some new cooks— basically, that the trouble was with The Help. But when they looked at the footage, they found a new culprit.
Specifically, the customers and their phones.
In 2004, customers spent 8 minutes looking at the menu. The food was delivered in about 6 minutes (though some took longer). They usually paid and left within 5 minutes of getting the check. Even though a couple asked to be reseated, and two sent their dishes back to be heated up more, they spent an average of 1:05 “from start to finish."
In 2014, customers take 21 minutes before ordering. It’s not because the menu has become three times longer, or is now written in Galician. "Before even opening the menu they take their phones out, some are taking photos while others are simply doing something else on their phone.”
It’s not just that the customers are taking pictures or finishing that last email to the office. There are additional delays as well:
7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, they showed them something on their phone and spent an average of 5 minutes of the waiter’s time. Given this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this and they explained those customers had a problem connecting to the WIFI and demanded the waiters try to help them.
In fact, most don’t even look at their menus until the waiter comes over and asks if they’re ready to order, at which point “Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone."
Once they order, the food is delivered in about 6 minutes. At that point, 26 out of the 45 take pictures of the food. Another 14 "take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food.” Each of these actions takes 3-4 minutes. As a result,
9 out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat. Obviously if they didn’t pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn’t have gotten cold.
27 customers had the waiter take a group picture, and 14 had them retake the picture because they weren’t happy with the first one. (One of the other people in the picture was probably on their phone, and so didn’t look up at the right time.) This absorbs another 5 minutes of the waiter’s time, which means other people aren’t getting served.
It then takes another 20 minutes between finishing and requesting the check, and 20 minutes to pay rather than 5.
8 out of 45 customers bumped into other customers or in one case a waiter (texting while walking) as they were either walking in or out of the Restaurant.
Average time from start to finish: 1:55
So texting while walking, texting at the table, taking selfies, Instagramming the food, the obligatory group picture, etc., adds 50 minutes to the restaurant’s serving time.
In other words, it’s not the staff at all: the delivery time for the food hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t sound like the wait staff has become dramatically slower. All the extra time comes from patron self-distraction.
This is a small but brilliant example of how we may justify technologies like smartphones as making our lives easier and more efficient, while in reality— if you broaden your view just a little bit— you realize that that “efficiency” now comes at the expense of other people, and creates other dramatic inefficiencies.
Interestingly, the piece originally appeared on Craigslist, but has been flagged for removal.
From the preface to Richard Gabriel’s book Patterns in Software [pdf]:
In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres, she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, “Of course not, that isn’t what I am trying to do. . . . I could never do that.”
Then, I express my disagreement, and tell her: “That standard must be our standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile. That is what I expect of myself in my own buildings, and it is what I expect of my students.”
Gradually, I show the students that they have a right to ask this of themselves, and must ask this of themselves. Once that level of standard is in their minds, they will be able to figure out, for themselves, how to do better, how to make something that is as profound as that.
Two things emanate from this changed standard. First, the work becomes more fun. It is deeper, it never gets tiresome or boring, because one can never really attain this standard. One’s work becomes a lifelong work, and one keeps trying and trying. So it becomes very fulfilling, to live in the light of a goal like this.
But secondly, it does change what people are trying to do. It takes away from them the everyday, lower-level aspiration that is purely technical in nature, (and which we have come to accept) and replaces it with something deep, which will make a real difference to all of us that inhabit the earth.
This weekend Le Nouvel Observateur ran a front-page article on binge watching that features a couple quotes from me.
If you didn’t know better you’d think I spoke French.
Anyway, thanks to Marjolaine Jarry, who did a great job with the subject.
This is the second time I’ve made it into the Observateur; earlier this year I was quoted in an article about meditation in Silicon Valley. Always happy to talk to reporters.
David Pecotic flagged this New York Times piece about the "backlash against mindfulness," which mainly is a backlash among Buddhists against the corporatization of mindfulness, rather than a backlash among corporations against Buddhism (though I'm sure that'll come eventually.) As Anna North writes,
At the core of this debate is a question about what mindfulness should be. For some, it remains a fundamentally religious practice, one rooted in Buddhism’s ethics and understanding of social justice (Stone writes, "The first ethical principle that the Buddha taught in his description of living mindfully is ‘not Killing’").
But in the mainstream, mindfulness is often seen simply as a tool, a way of calming and focusing oneself. As such it can be used to de-stress after a long day, to get more done at the office, or even to wage war.
Two points. First, while entrepreneurs of mindfulness have almost all come out of or try to appropriate Eastern religion (particularly Buddhism), mindfulness isn't an exclusively Buddhist practice. While there are important differences between them, every religion has its own version of mindfulness practice. (Indeed, within Tibetan Buddhism versus Korean Son or Japanese Zen, there are nontrivial differences, just as there are between Catholic lectio divino and the practices you'd observe in a Quaker meeting-house.)
Second, it's worth noting that there's a long history of Buddhism being used for purposes that seem pretty non-Buddhist. Compared to the samurai practice of using Zen to become more efficient killers (or Imperial Way Zen in the 20th century), the efforts at Google or Facebook to use mindfulness to make programmers better skilled at designing things we'll click on is pretty benign. (Brian Victoria's Zen at War tells this story.)
And finally (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), in the Bay Area there's long been an intertwining of Buddhism and the tech world, in part because they began to grow into global centers at roughly the same time, and in part because plenty of people in the counterculture were interested in both. Steve Jobs spent time in Tassajara, and talked about the Zen of the product; lawyer Bill Fenwick believed that Zen provided a good mindset for doing legal battle. The current version is just better-publicized.
San Francisco-based Minna Life has a Kickstarter campaign for, not exactly a wearable device (I don't think), but certainly one that takes exercise and self-monitoring to new places: kGoal, "the world’s first smart Kegel trainer."
Apparently, the first Kegel trainers were developed in the 1940s using "an air pressure balloon and a tire gauge," and haven't evolved much since then. But given that "Strong pelvic floor muscles are a critical part of a healthy body," and play a role in healthy childbirth and postpartum recovery, bladder control, and posture and balance, there's no reason it shouldn't be taken seriously.
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 Spanish (as Enamorados de la Distracción); Russian, Chinese and Korean translations are in the works.)
The Distraction Addiction
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 Barnes & Noble, Amazon (check B&N first, as it's usually cheaper there), or IndieBound.
The Spanish edition
The Dutch edition
The Chinese edition
The Korean edition
Empire and the Sun
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009