J. Walter Thompson has just released its list of top ten trends for 2014. Two of them, "Raging Against the Machine" and "Mindful Living," connect with 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, will be published by Little, Brown and Co. in August 2013. In the meantime, this 2011 talk is a good introduction to the project and its big ideas.
J. Walter Thompson has just released its list of top ten trends for 2014. Two of them, "Raging Against the Machine" and "Mindful Living," connect with contemplative computing.
The Guardian has a quiz to test if you're an Internet addict. For the record, I'm not (really, I'm a recovering one).
It has been reported that the average British web user now spends one in every 12 waking minutes – or about an hour and a half a day – online. Whether that sounds like a lot, or like hardly anything, all depends on your own personal level of internet usage. Here’s a quick quiz to help you work out your level of web dependency.
A new Mobile Life report by O2 and Samsung adds another data-point to digital distraction:
An estimated 20 million passengers miss bus or train stops each year because of ‘digital distraction’ from their smartphones, a study suggests.
The problem has affected 51 per cent of Britons and causes 15 per cent of commuters to run late for meetings, according to the findings.
Over the last year, passengers have missed their stops an estimated 29 million times, the report showed.
Londoners were found to be among the most preoccupied by their mobiles.
Three in five of the capital’s Tube, bus and train travellers said they had missed a stop for this reason.
On average, Londoners miss two stops a year because they are using their phones.
Personally, when I lived in England I was unfamiliar enough with the train system, and so I always felt the need to pay attention.
Besides, some of those stations are-- for an American and former historian of the Victorian era-- pretty damn cool.
Experian released a new study on Internet use on personal computers:
Experian Marketing Services, a global provider of integrated consumer insight, targeting and cross channel marketing, reveals that if the time spent on the Internet for personal computers was distilled into an hour then 27 percent of it would be spent on social networking and forums across US, UK and Australia. In the US, 16 minutes out of every hour online is spent on social networking and forums, nine minutes on entertainment sites and five minutes shopping.
In the UK 13 minutes out of every hour online is spent on social networking and forums, nine minutes on entertainment sites and six minutes shopping. Australian Internet users spend 14 minutes on social sites, nine on entertainment and four minutes shopping online.
I think it can be revealing to add up the amount of time you spend online (or spend in traffic, watching movies, whatever). For example, if you spend an hour every day doing something, that works out to 15.2 days per year. Now, I easily spend an hour a day walking my dog, but I'll die content with that choice: he's a great dog.
On the other hand, if I spend an hour a day on Facebook, and the first 5 minutes are fun but the next 55 are kind of… mechanical and mindless.. then I'm spending about 1 day making myself happy, and wasting 14 days. That's the equivalent of two vacations.
I don't know about you, but I have better things to do with two weeks of my life.
Cellphone use has made people forget how to walk in straight lines, walk more slowly, and of course become threats to public safety while driving. Last week, several people (including me) scratched their heads when Sergey Brin argued that smartphones were "emasculating."
Well, the joke was on us. Cue the new study!
A quarter of men admit to sitting down on the lavatory to urinate so they can have both hands free to use their mobile phones, a survey has claimed….
Three quarters of people of both sexes polled said they used their phone while on the lavatory, and half said they took their handset with them when they had a bath.
The survey found that 59 per cent of people admit to texting while on the lavatory and 45 per cent to sending emails.
Almost a third (31 per cent) admitted they had taken a mobile phone call and nearly a quarter (24 per cent) said they had made a call while on the lavatory, according to the poll by Sony and O2.
Granted it's a survey of 2,000 people in Britain, so my American readers can think snarky things about the masculinity baseline of the surveyed population, but still.
I also loved this little bit:
When asked why they use their phones in the bathroom, most said it was due to not having anything better to do.
The Wall Street Journal reports that researchers "who study work habits say a new generation reared on mobile devices is increasingly accustomed to using them while propped against pillows, lying down or in a fetal curl:"
Half of 1,000 workers polled this year by Good Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., mobile-security software company, said they read or respond to work emails from bed. A study of 329 British workers found nearly 1 in 5 employees spends two to 10 hours a week working from bed, according to the 2009 poll by Credant Technologies, a London-based data-security company.
The Good Technology survey found:
the average American puts in more than a month and a half of overtime a year – just by answering calls and emails at home…. [M]ore than 80 percent of people continue working when they have left the office - for an average of seven extra hours each week – almost another full day of work. That's a total of close to 30 hours a month or 365 extra hours every year. They’re also using their cell phones to mix work and their personal life in ways never seen before.
While 60 percent do it simply to stay organized, almost half feel they have no choice because their customers demand quick replies. Thirty-one percent of respondents admit to continuing to work at home as they find it hard to ‘switch off.’ Half of Americans can’t even put their phone down while in bed, as they read or respond to work emails after climbing under the covers.
(Good, btw, has found similar things in other countries: 88 percent of people in a recent Australian survey "said that they worked on their mobile devices outside regular working hours," while "35 percent checking their phones and emails in bed" and "24 percent of respondents fought with their partners over working on their mobile devices outside of work.")
The habit of working is bed is problematic because it can contribute to insomnia, ergonomic problems, and strain in your relationship. Of course, this isn't just a problem; for some, it's a catastra-tunity! The Wall Street Journal explains:
Reverie, a Walpole, Mass., maker of adjustable beds... is pushing to change the hospital image of adjustable beds to appeal to younger consumers, showing them how elevating the head or foot can ease strain while watching TV or working.
Reverie also offers a built-in power outlet in the base of its beds to plug in lamps, televisions or laptops. Both the outlet and the bed's movement can be operated with a hand-held remote, or with the user's smartphone or tablet via built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Granted, some people do manage to get some good work done in bed, so this isn't necessarily bad for everyone; but it strikes me that it's not one a trend we should encourage, and that as users we should avoid it if we can.
Problems keeping technology in balance aren't specific to the United States, according to Northern Ireland business Web site Business First Online:
While technology ownership in Ireland has seen swift growth, with 60% of NI (Northen Ireland) and 51% of RoI (Republic of Ireland) consumers owning smartphone and a further 18% of Irish technology loving consumers saying they plan to buy one by the end of 2012, it seems today’s technology is not without its pitfalls.
Indeed it seems technology may be taking its toll on the physical health of the nation as today over one in ten (12% RoI and 11% of NI) of Irish consumers claim that technology and the internet has negatively affected their sleeping habits.
Indeed, new research from Mintel’s Irish Lifestyles report, examining the impact of technology on Irish consumer habits finds that some consumers may in fact be over-reliant on being online, with some 18% of consumers feeling a sense of anxiousness when they are ‘cut off’ from technology and the internet.
According to Brian O’Connor, Research Manager, Mintel Ireland:
“Consumers are getting less sleep because they don’t want to switch off from technology. Between on-demand TV, addictive video games and the constant bombardment of information from the internet, consumers are finding it harder to pull away from technology and get a full nights rest. In the end, the more consumers use technology, the more anxious they are likely to be when ‘cut-off’.”
Some scary statistics from a new survey by mobile device company Good.
Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic catches a new report on office work:
There's a good chance you spend more than a quarter of each week reading and answering those emails.
That factlet comes courtesy of the McKinsey Global Institute, which broke down how so-called "interaction workers" spend their days. They describe these as people whose jobs require "complex interactions with other people, independent judgment, and access to information." I'm interpreting it as consultant speak for "office stiff."
The upshot: we spend 13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email. Assuming two weeks vacation, that multiplies out to 650 hours a year.
Put another way, four months of every working year-- 16 forty hour weeks-- are devoted just to email.
Of course, without reading the report, it's not clear if this 650 hour number is good or bad. Office workers spend more time on email than they did 50 years ago, but are there things that they're not doing that they should be instead?
Obviously some of that time is spent doing inbox management, main new folders, trawling through old messages for some suddenly-essential fact, but some portion of that time is spent... working. Telling people important things. Making plans.
Fortunately though, McKinsey has a solution: it "suggests that by moving to social media-based information platforms -- think some of the more recent versions of Microsoft Sharepoint -- would make workers 25 percent more productive." Because nothing solves a technology-generated problem like more technology.
Alexis Madrigal sighs, "Another day, another New York Times story about technology addiction." He's pointing to a Matt Richtel article about concerns about technology addiction-- right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.
“If you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll boil to death — it’s a nice analogy,” said Mr. Crabb, who oversees learning and development at Facebook. People “need to notice the effect that time online has on your performance and relationships.”
Okay, first of all, yes it's a nice analogy, but the whole "frogs in pots of cold water don't notice that they're boiling to death when the heat goes up" thing is wrong. Try it yourself. See what happens.*
Second, where the Hell else is this kind of concern going to manifest itself? The people who are going to be worried about the downsides of being plugged in are… wait for it... people who are plugged in.
Everyone I interviewed for my book chapter on digital Sabbaths is an engineer, a professor, a writer, a consultant, a Web developer-- in other words, people who are seriously wired, and need to be to work. (They also, as Madrigal would point out, tend to work in industries that value overwork, and the perception of busyness). You wouldn't expect Buddhist monks to worry about these issues. (And indeed they tend not to, but because they have a very sophisticated, self-empowering view of attention and distraction. See chapter 3 of my book, or my TedxYouth talk.)
Third and finally, let me just quote this article:
In an era when the boss wants us available 24/7, and when the high priests of the new economy bombard us with ubiquitous marketing messages, some burnt-out survivors are taking another look at their cell phones, pagers, home satellite dishes and "constant connectivity" to the Internet….
"We seem to have no way to put a human handle on our ingenuity," he says. "Between 80 and 90 percent of the messages we get every day are marketing messages, designed to make us feel incomplete. This is having a terrible effect on our inner landscape."
This is from 2001. It's the first instance I can find of the use of the term "digital sabbath." Which is not to say that this conversation is unimportant, but that we've been having it here for some time.
*Spoiler alert: you'll end up with a terrified / pissed off live frog and water all over your stove.
Clifford Nass, Roy Pea, and the rest of the circle in the Stanford communications and education programs do some really interesting work on multitasking, our attitudes to computers, and the emotional impact of being online. Their latest study [available here behind a firewall] looks at how multitasking and heavy media use affects the social and emotional lives of 8-12 year-old girls, and the results are striking.
Tweenage girls who spend endless hours watching videos and multitasking with digital devices tend to be less successful with social and emotional development…. But these unwanted effects might be warded off with something as simple as face-to-face conversations with other people.
The researchers... surveyed 3,461 girls, ages 8 to 12, about their electronic diversions and their social and emotional lives. "The results were upsetting, disturbing, scary," Nass said.
The girls, all subscribers to Discovery Girls magazine, took the survey online, detailing the time they spent watching video (television, YouTube, movies,) listening to music, reading, doing homework, emailing, posting to Facebook or MySpace, texting, instant messaging, talking on the phone and video chatting – as well as how often they were doing two or more of those activities simultaneously.
The girls' answers showed that multitasking and spending many hours watching videos and using online communication were statistically associated with a series of negative experiences: feeling less social success, not feeling normal, having more friends whom parents perceive as bad influences and sleeping less.
Fortunately, this isn't one of those studies that just concludes that the sky is falling. Indeed, the solution to the problem turns out to be rather straightforward:
For the negative effects of online gorging, "There seems to be a pretty powerful cure, a pretty powerful inoculant, and that is face-to-face communication," Nass said.
"Kids in the 8-to-12-year-old range who communicate face-to-face very frequently, show much better social and emotional development, even if they're using a great deal of media."...
Higher levels of face-to-face communication were associated with greater social success, greater feelings of normalcy, more sleep and fewer friends whom parents judged to be bad influences. Children learn the difficult task of interpreting emotions by watching the faces of other people, Pea said.
This sounds really easy, but paying attention to someone else-- really doing it, not just giving them enough of your attention to decode their words-- actually requires work. Parents knows this, both from trying to get older kids to pay attention to them-- and in the energy they have to mobilize to look at a kid's drawing for the billionth goddamn time when all you want to do is read the paper.
The Atlantic reports on new research exploring how smart phones affect the way people perceive and act in public space. Smart phones, the piece argues, "combine numerous spheres: your social network, your email, your news source, your live personal conversations," and hence are more distracting and appealing than traditional old pre-smart phones (which we all thought were bad enough).
Tali Hatuka, who heads the Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design at Tel Aviv University... and colleague Eran Toch have been studying smart-phone users relative to their old-school, flip-phone counterparts. And the difference between the two groups is surprisingly stark, with serious implications for the future of public space in cities and the often-uncelebrated role that sociologists say they play.
“It’s very interesting to see that some of the basic ideas of public spaces are conceived totally differently by smart-phone users,” Hatuka says.
The ubiquitous smart phone may even degrade the way we recognize, memorize and move through cities.
She and Toch have given lengthy surveys to both smart-phone and traditional cell-phone users, quizzing them about their own behavior – where, when and how they use phones – and how they feel about the behavior of others. Smart-phone users, for starters, are much more commonly under the illusion that they have privacy even when walking down a public sidewalk. They’re less skittish about having personal conversations in public. They’re more detached from their physical surroundings. They’re more likely to violate social norms about having disruptive, private phone conversations (and less likely to feel guilty about this)....
In their surveys, Hatuka and Toch also asked what sounded like some pretty silly questions about what people remembered of the public spaces they’d visited just 10 minutes earlier: what did those places and the people there look like? Smart-phone users couldn’t remember much at all, which is another of way saying that they weren’t paying attention in the first place. This suggests, Hatuka says, that the ubiquitous smart phone may even degrade the way we recognize, memorize and move through cities.
But paradoxically, if they effectively distract us from out surroundings, they also can provide us with enough information about our locations to make it unnecessary for us to deal with our fellow citizens:
Five years ago, if you didn’t know how to get somewhere in the city, you’d probably stop to ask a stranger. Now, Google Maps can get you there. “So no one is asking anything,” Hatuka says. “This kind of stranger communication is a vital thing for a society. The communication of strangers was always one of the key roles of public spaces, observing and exchanging with the other. Because smart phones are supplying so many of these services, this kind of exchange with the stranger is just diminished to almost zero.”
So the result is a greater ability to complete a task (i.e., get from point A to point B in an unfamiliar space in a short amount of time) but a degraded capacity to remember anything about that space, or to make the kinds of unexpected discoveries that travelers usually cherish.
A new Pew Internet survey reports that "any given day,"
53% of all the young adults ages 18-29 go online for no particular reason except to have fun or to pass the time. Many of them go online in purposeful ways, as well. But the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project show that young adults’ use of the internet can at times be simply for the diversion it presents. Indeed, 81% of all young adults in this age cohort report they have used the internet for this reason at least occasionally.
These results come in the larger context that internet users of all ages are much more likely now than in the past to say they go online for no particular reason other than to pass the time or have fun. Some 58% of all adults (or 74% of all online adults) say they use the internet this way. And a third of all adults (34%) say they used the internet that way “yesterday” – or the day before Pew Internet reached them for the survey. Both figures are higher than in 2009 when we last asked this question and vastly higher than in the middle of the last decade.
People under 30 think they're the new essentials, according to Cisco's new Connected World Technology Report. The study surveyed 2,800 college students or young adults in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Australia. Their findings?
One of every three college students and employees surveyed globally (33%) believes the Internet is a fundamental resource for the human race – as important as air, water, food and shelter. About half (49% of college students and 47% of employees) believe it is "pretty close" to that level of importance. Combined, four of every five college students and young employees believe the Internet is vitally important as part of their daily life's sustenance....
More than one in four college students globally (27%) said staying updated on Facebook was more important than partying, dating, listening to music, or hanging out with friends.
Of course there are lots of others, most of them not that surprising. And while I'd like to see the original questions, it could be a useful datapoint in how people think about the Web and its centrality to contemporary life.
Living here in Silicon Valley, where the driving is terrible, I'm really not at all surprised by the very depressing statistics Klint Finley reported on in ReadWrite Enterprise:
Here are the percentages of respondents [to a Unisys survey] who reported work-related e-mail, posting or Tweeting during the following activities:
Granted the report is from July, but several months later, it's still terrifying and depressing.
Digital cameras are now ubiquitous - it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos.... Every 2 minutes today we snap as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800s. In fact, ten percent of all the photos we have were taken in the past 12 months.
I'm often more than a little skeptical of these comparisons of content creation or consumption today versus in the past-- how do you estimate how much information was generated in 1600, and can you really use the same metrics to measure how much information there is in an issue of the LA Times or Wall Street Journal?-- but photographs seem more easily comparable between analog and digital realms.
There post also reports the great statistic that in 1960, 55% of all photos were of babies.
Despite the slight twinge of residual, reflexive Old Left disdain I might feel toward a survey of "The Affluents" (a piece of terminology that does the nice trick of reminding me simultaneously of The Incredible and effluents), there's some interesting if relatively unsurprising material in this report about how access to technology doesn't make people happier:
As people of means acquire more technological devices to simplify their lives, their lives have actually become more complicated....
But technology, seemingly like everything else from the last decade, is viewed by the Affluents as something of a mixed blessing. When we asked how their lives had changed over the past decade, "infused with technology" was the most widely cited answer. But equally telling are the phrases coming next on the list -- "more complicated," "more stressful" and "focused on finding ways to do more with less." In contrast, fewer than half said their lives had become "more fun" or "easier."
At least in the short-term, expect both trends to continue -- enthusiastic adoption of new technology, and the increasing complication of everyday life. A host of new tablets, e-readers and other platforms are poised for introduction, surely bringing lower prices, new capabilities, and increasingly complicated purchase decisions. For most, a tablet or e-reader doesn't replace an existing device, it becomes a supplement -- another device to carry, manage, troubleshoot and potentially pay monthly charges for. And it's another device to be accounted for in the complex calculus of choosing a media platform for a particular task or occasion (e.g., a smartphone for calls and texting, a tablet for app usage, a print magazine to read on the train, a laptop for document creation and internet use).
Or, as Gawker puts it,
The more money you get, the more gadgets you get, and the more harried you feel, and the more stressed you get, and the less happy you are.... More gadgets! More technology! More demands! Less free time! All of the hours of the day that you don't spend earning your $100K+ are consumed by a tidal wave of information and its various shiny delivery mechanisms! No peace! No rest! No time for contemplation! Plug in and never escape! Your means have trapped you in their seductive embrace! It's the curse of the Affluent in our modern age!
I'm not sure how much of that complexity is simply irreducible, and how much of it can be reduced through better design. On one hand, having spent the evening setting up a wireless printer-- an experience that required me setting up a new wireless network in the house, installing software on my own computer twice, then changing configuration settings and setting up new software on each of the four computers in the house-- I'm certain that some of the complexity can be reduced, but I think what The Affluents are pointing to is a fundamental bedrock of complexity that is a product of just being alive.
Perhaps at some point more people will look upon connectivity the way Seneca encouraged stoics to look at all indulgences: as something that the wise person would appreciate but not treat as a source of happiness. As he wrote,
Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfies his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby feel short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount he feel short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort... For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet is is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one's needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.
Or at the very least we'll recognize that technology doesn't make your life simpler through some magical combination of increased speed and automation. Actually simplifying your life-- consciously choosing to have less, to be more thoughtful about it, and to live more mindfully-- makes your life simpler.
A fascinating follow-on to Paula Niedenthal's work on mirroring emotions: Duke University researchers have found that people who undergo Botox have a harder time reading other people's emotions.
A few well-placed Botox injections can erase your hard-won character lines. But that may also make you less likely to pick up on other people's emotions.
That's because the botulinum toxin, which reduces wrinkles by temporarily paralyzing small muscles in the face, can make it hard to furrow the brow or make other expressions that convey emotion. And our own facial expressions, researchers now show, may be essential to recognizing the feelings of others.
This unexpected Botox effect is a fascinating window on how we understand what other people are feeling. A good part of that process requires unconscious mimicry of the other person's facial expression....
"The tendency to mimic facial expressions is rapid, automatic and highly emotion-specific," write David Neal and Tanya Chartrand in an intriguing paper just published online by Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Neal and Chartrand say the subtle contraction of our facial muscles when we mirror a friend's happiness or woe generates a feedback signal to our brains. Those incoming signals from facial nerves help the brain interpret how the other person is feeling....
In one experiment, the researchers recruited 31 women who were already having either Botox treatments or injections of a dermal filler, which plumps up wrinkles but doesn't paralyze muscles. After the treatment, the women were shown a series of images that showed people's eyes embodying different emotional states. Study subjects were asked to judge, as quickly as possible, what emotion the eyes conveyed.
The Botox patients scored significantly worse than those who got a dermal filler. That meant the Botox patients' ability to make fast judgments about another person's emotions was blunted. (The Botox didn't eliminate their ability to judge emotion. They still were about 70 percent accurate.)...
The cognitive implications go well beyond Botox users. But the findings do make Neal and Chartrand wonder if prolonged use of Botox would hobble people's ability to perceive others' emotions and give others empathetic facial feedback.
"Mimicry promotes liking and emotional sharing," the researchers say, "and may contribute to long-term relationship satisfaction."
Last post of the night, as I'm really supposed to be working on at least three other things (one of which is a popular version of the giant contemplative computing article): another example of an article on dealing with online distraction that conflates consumption with real improvement. "6 Ways to Avoid Letting Your Computer Distract You" (Chronicle of Higher Education, probably behind the paywall) talks about how
figuring out how to free yourself from distractions so you can do your best work (pace Merlin Mann ) is something that all academics—and all writers—need to learn how to do.
However, rather than talking mainly about things people can do, it turns into a survey of "a few tools that I have found to help me tune out or turn off:" in other words, it's about things to consume. And interestingly, the list consists of productivity tools, things that block your access to Facebook or the Internet, or help compartmentalize work from play.
So what's wrong here? I see three fallacies.
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. (A Dutch edition, Verslaafd aan afleiding, is also available; Russian, 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.. You can find it 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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