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.
This past Tuesday I did a reading at Kepler's Bookstore, my local bookstore.
Most of the crowd was family and friends, Peninsula School people (Peninsula is pretty important in my family's life), or people from my in-laws' retirement home, so it was a crowd that was definitely on my side.
Nonetheless, I put plenty of time into the reading, and took it seriously: it's the first of a number of bookstore appearances we have lined up over the next few weeks (the other scheduled appearances are visible on this Google calendar), and they're worth learning to do well.
The reading went well-- I was engaged, people responded well, they laughed at the right places-- and we had pelnty of time for questions. The one thing I really need to learn to do better is answer questions briefly, and especially to answer broad questions briefly: I tend to want to be thorough, or at least stream of consciousness, in my answers, when I need to do a couple sentences and leave it at that.
There was also an amazing cake. Really phenomenal.
Afterwards I signed a bunch of books. I'm not very fast at signing books, but no one had to wait too long.
Now on to the next reading, at Town Hall Seattle!
The title pretty much says it all. I'll be speaking at Town Hall Seattle. Built as a Christian Science church in 1922, the Roman Revival structure looks fascinating, as cool as Freight & Salvage.
I'll be speaking at 6 p.m., and will be followed at 7:30 p.m. by Ramez Naam. In the "It's a Small Small World" department, we were scheduled separately, but he blurbed The Distraction Addiction and I reviewed his Better Than Human for the Los Angeles Times a few years ago.
I quite like Seattle: I absolutely LOVE the Seattle Public Library, and would like to get to know the city better. Maybe this trip-- where I'll also be doing a radio interview on the University of Washington campus, and a talk at Microsoft Research, I can get out of the downtown and see some more of the place.
Also, my West Coast Live appearance is now available online at KALW-FM. Go to the Local Music Player Page, scroll to the bottom, and hit "West Coast Live;" the performance will load automatically. I'm on around minute 71, but the rest of the show is excellent.
Today I went to Berkeley to be on West Coast Live, a radio show that you might think of as a rangier, looser version of Prarie Home Companion.
It was an awful lot of fun. It's the best of Berkeley: on the old side but lively, with a staff that's laid-back yet terrific at what they do, and clearly cares about putting on a great show.
The show was broadcast from Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, which not surprisingly is a warehouse that was converted into a performance space in the 1960s. West Coast Live broadcasts from there pretty regularly.
Fortunately, the person who interviewed me-- he's one of the show's regulars, and a terrific pianist-- had read the book and had lots of excellent questions. Actually, they were more like introductions to the book's high points: each one qued up some important idea-- embodiment, multitasking, meditation, and so on.
I find that talking about the book in this format is a challenge, but one I'm starting to figure out and am slowly getting better at. The first thing you have to recognize is that while the book is the reason you're on the show, doing good radio interviews absolutely require different skills than writing. In ordinary conversation, I tend to give very long answers to questions: I start talking, edit and revise myself as I go along, talk about the evidence and cases, and throw in asides or looks down interesting intellectual alleys.
That doesn't work on the radio: you don't have time, and you can't assume that the audience has the patience. Instead, you need to be focused, on point, and trust that the person interviewing you will ask the interesting next question-- which you'll answer briefly. It's not a freeform jazz odyssey, it's trading fours: you want to play off the interview, get a good rhythm of call-and-response, not embark on a six-minute solo.
This isn't natural for me-- or perhaps more accurately, it isn't very familiar. A few days ago, after an interview with an Irish radio station, I wrote out the questions I was getting-- people tend to ask the same things-- and then put together the shortest, most interesting answers I could come up with.
In many cases, I ended up with answers that were considerably shorter and pithier than ones I'd given on the fly. In a couple cases, I came up with completely new takes on the questions. It was a valuable exercise, and one I think I'm going to keep tweaking as the interviews continue.
I've got a big round of radio interviews coming up next week, and I might print these questions and answers out on note cards, then put the cards up in my workspace, so I'm surrounded by a blizzard of elegant turns of phrase and reminders of critical, must-communicate ideas.
My idea is not to merely read the answers, but to be familiar enough with specific turns of phrase or alliteration to be able to work them into the conversation, and I believe having them in front of me will help with that. (It's a bit like what the Homeric bards did, according to Perry and Lord: have a repetoire of key turns of phrase and descriptions, then improvise everything else.)
The interview concluded with me reading the last couple paragraphs of the book, which was good practice for Tuesday's appearance at Kepler's Books here in Menlo Park (there will be cake!).
Afterwards, the other authors who'd been on the show and I sat in the lobby and autographed books.
I'm happy to say I sold out-- which is good, because on the way home the car overheated, and we limped into a dealership before the engine melted down. Fortunately, my father-in-law was able to come pick us up, and we'll just have to make do with my car for the next couple days (though that one is pretty close to the end of its life, and probably isn't worth trying to fix).
I write it off as karmic balance, the cosmic tax for such a great morning. Yes the car will probably cost a fortune to fix and it'll be a pain to deal with, but my family and I made it back alive, and the West Coast Live appearance was about the best introduction I could have to the craft of talking about the book with a live audience. I just hope next week's satellite tour doesn't cause and earthquake.
Contemplative computing is about learning to use information technologies in ways that help you be more focused and mindful, and protect you from being perpetually distracted. This 2011 talk I did in Marseille is a good overview of contemplative computing.
I'm the author of The Distraction Addiction, published by Little Brown & Co in August 2013. It's probably available at a location near you. If not you can order the book via Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, or from your local bookstore.
I try to keep up with the reviews of the book, and assemble links to them here. It's been reviewed pretty widely in the popular and technical press, so if you're not sure the book is for you, the reviews will come in handy.
I'm happy to announce that the first reading from THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION will take place at Kepler's Books on Tuesday, August 27 at 7:30 p.m.
I'm fortunate to have Kepler's as my neighborhood bookstore, so it'll be especially nice to start the publicity off there. Indeed, the whole family loves it.
Plus it's an awesome space, and one of the West Coast's great independent bookstores.
I'll be on City Lights radio tonight at 7 pm, talking about digital distraction with Neema Moraveji and Stephanie Brown.
City Visions Radio presents: Texting and Tranquility: Finding mental calm in a sea of technology and distraction
Airs live on Monday April 15, 7:00 pm, KALW 91.7FM San Francisco
Call-in number: (415) 841-4134
According to an online survey conducted in 2010, over half of American respondents reported feeling “addicted” to the Internet, with an even higher percentage for young people. When the Pew Center Research Center polled smartphone users, they found that most people check their email every single time they receive a new message, and many recheck their devices up to 40 times an hour. Almost half of those polled also reported sleeping with their phones next to the pillow and also experienced “phantom rings,” where they reflectively check for new email or texts even when their phones make no sound.
Here in the Bay Area, we are especially wired to technology, with start-up companies and entrepreneurs launching new apps, products and programs on what feels like a daily basis. Yet many of us struggle to manage the demands of technology with the need to be mentally present, connect with family and make thoughtful decisions.
Why is it so hard to put down our iphones and unplug our digital devices? What does technology do to the brain that makes it so addictive? How can people balance the urge to be online with the need for mental calm? And what is the impact of our ever-connected lives on relationships, work and decision-making?
It should be fun, as I know Neema and his work, and have heard of Stephanie Brown's addiction clinic. Plus it'll be good to hear what questions and concerns people share.
04/15/2013 at 07:07 AM in Attention / Distraction, Conferences / Talks, Contemplative practices, Digital Sabbath and other responses, Drivers / Textestrians, Email, Mobile / personal devices, Neuroscience / Psychology, Reviews / Interviews / Press, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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The first big talk I gave about contemplative computing was at a conference on technology whose theme was "Slow." Last night I revisited that ground: I spoke at an event sponsored by the Hayden Group, an branding and marketing consultancy. (Do we say consultancy in America?) They run a great speaker series, and my friend Rich Green and I talked about slow technology in its various manifestations.
rich showing off slow technologies, via flickr
Rich showed a number of slow technologies, including some very old cameras, computing devices (slide rules and the like), and notebooks.
old and new cameras (Zeiss Ikon folding camera and iPhone), via flickr
I did a brief overview of the book, as I am wont to do these days. The crowd at these events is very high-powered, with some really smart people who aren't afraid to express their opinions; but it was that kind of conversation where even the disagreements yielded interesting things.
A couple people raised objections about the artifacts Rich had brought, and whether they would have been considered "slow" in their own time. A camera is a lot faster than a painting, a slide rule is faster than calculating with pencil and paper; even a bow and arrow (which if you read Eugen Herrigel, you associate with Zen and leaves falling from trees and practiced effortlessness) was faster than a club.
zen and the art of archery, via flickr
If that's the case, then isn't "slowness" just a kind of nostalgia, a projection of a desire for a once-simpler life (which probably didn't seem simpler back then)?
We went back and forth on this a bit, and I came to this question: is "slow" a technical descriptor, or is it something else? Put another way, does a "slow" technology have to be one that actually is s... l… o… w… as measured by a stopwatch?
slow, via flickr
Of course, there are no slow technology police, so you can define it however you want. But it seems to me that people who talk about it emphasize or seek a few things.
They want technologies that promote a measure of reflection, even if they're easy to use.
They offer opportunities for cultivating and using skills. (The disappearance of older skills, and the perspective they encouraged, is what architects complain about when they lament the impact of CAD on architectural education and practice.)
They offer their own inherent pleasures, even as you're able to use them without regard for their craftsmanship. Like the goblet, you can appreciate its fine details, but you can also ignore it while you're focused on its contents. Good cameras are a great example of this kind of balance between geeky beauty and utility: the Leica M9 is truly a thing of beauty, but you can also shift your attention away from its heavy precision and use it to see the world.
slow technologies, via flickr
They invite deliberation. As the Slow Media Manifesto declares, "Slow Media are... about choosing the ingredients mindfully and preparing them in a concentrated manner."
Using them can be so engaging that you lose track of time. This is the other critical form of slowness: not just that you're doing things at a slower pace than you are in your normal hurried life, but that your sense of time slows and stretches.
foggy park this morning, via flickr
To me, all this points to a conclusion: that the "slowness" is a psychological thing, not a purely technical one. It's the kind of slowness that comes when you're so engaged in something you don't notice the time passing: you look up and four hours have passed, and it's surprising and blissful.
The exercise of skill that challenges (but doesn't overwhelm), immersion of attention, time slowing… We've all seen this before. It's Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's definition of flow. As you're recall, flow, or optimal experiences involves
a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-conciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. (71)
This psychological dimension, I should add, isn't one that proponents of slow technology (or other slow experiences) ignore: Jack Cheng describes the Slow Web, for example, as
a feeling we get when we consume certain web-enabled things, be it products or content…. [my emphasis] It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease with the web-enabled products and services in our lives.
But the point is this: looking for slowness in the technologies themselves, or evaluating slow technologies on the basis of whether they're "really" slow or not compared to today's technologies or their contemporary competitors, misses the point. The slowness is experiential, and it's the simplest expression of a bigger set of phenomena that emerge when you're able to engage mindfully and skillfully with technologies. It's psychological, a product of your active use of a technology, not something the technology lets your consume.
It took a while to figure this out, and the discussion went about an hour longer than I expected. But I didn't notice. The time just flew by.
I can't go, as I've got to get things together for my Seattle talk and have a day job, but this conference on email actually looks quite good, especially for a conference about, well, email.
Last night I went to a presentation on calming technologies at Stanford's d.school. Neema Moraveji, who I interviewed last year for my contemplative computing book, is teaching at the d.school now, and with a couple friends offered a course on the subject this spring.
d.compress, via flickr
The event was in the d.school building, which I confess I have mixed feelings about: it's like a perfect distillation of every architectural trick and tic that announces "INNOVATIVE SPACE HERE." Lots of whiteboards? Check. Movable writing surfaces? Check. Cool things that are furniture height but you're not sure if you can sit on them? Check. Walls meeting at odd angles? Check. And yet, for all its self-awareness and self-promotion, it's a space I quite like. If there was one place other than the library where I'd want to sit and write, it's there.
the d.school, via flickr
It was a fascinating evening, a great bunch of students, and a really good crowd-- lots of design people, of course, but also folks from the Medical School, some entrepreneurs, and other sorts-- a nice indication that this package of ideas is developing some momentum. The students were all quite thoughtful and even after three months' constant work still enthusiastic about their projects, and yet also willing to hear criticism or suggestions for improvement. As Neema said, "You can't fake calm."
neema's opening remarks, via flickr
Most software aims to help you do things, as Neema explains; calming technology is more helping you be-- specifically, be calmer. Many of the presentations were specifically aimed at changing behaviors or mood, while others took a more indirect approach of helping people do things more calmly-- in effect, at changing being by changing doing. I'm not going to talk about all the projects, though it's worth saying that all of the projects were intriguing, smart, and even inspiring. Rather, the evening as a whole brought to light a couple issues around the whole enterprise of calm computing and designing for calm that deserve some reflection.
student presentation, via flickr
First, there's a tendency to assume that everything will be good if it's made social, and have a gamification element. Sharing your efforts to be calm provides encouragement to others, and allows them to encourage you, while gamification injects a useful element of friendly competition into the mix.
However, I came away from the evening not sure of the general situations under which sociability can be good for calm, and when it's not; but at the very least, it seems to me that these applications should work well both in public and private. Sunita Mohanty, the creator of an app called Snuggle, reported that one of her users liked the app, but didn't feel the need to share her use of it with others, and already told her fiance everything she told the app.
student presentation, via flickr
This points to something important: that there's an introspective, reflective quality to the use of these applications, and I think that's something we want to encourage as much as possible.
There's another element of sharing, around the question of just what we should share, and how automatic it should be. We're a long way from a point where tweets from my meditation app, my calming app, my focus app, etc. become so numerous that they interfere with other people's calm; but we're probably closer than we think.
But is a 140 character notification the way to share your efforts to become calmer? Or would it be better to encourage a longer, more thoughtful, more introspective reflection-- in effect, to encourage the sharing to be a moment for the user to think about why they're doing what they're doing, how a specific app or trigger fits in their lives, how it works or doesn't?
Of course, as a writer I think of communication-- of writing-- as a form of reflection. But I've also been trying to reduce communication that doesn't have that reflective dimension. For example, I didn't tweet last night's event, because I've taken the Twitter app off my iPhone and iPad. I've done that because I think if the world needs anything from me, it's more books not more tweets, and the latter can get in the way of the former. And arguably even if I don't write another book, having fewer but more thoughtful tweets would be better for everyone.)
space, via flickr
Another big question that the evening raised was, how much can we tweak the tools of social media or behavioral manipulation to encourage greater calm and mindfulness? Many of the prototypes were designed for use on smartphones, or used Facebook or Twitter or SMS in some way. There are obvious virtues of this approach from a developers' point of view-- these SDKs for these platforms are pretty good-- and from a marketing point of view-- these platforms are where the people are.
But can you really flip a bit in systems designed as choice architectures, crafted to nudge people to more mindless behavior, or that seek to redirect behavior in ways that benefit companies and investors at the possible expense of users, and have them promote more thoughtful behavior and very different outcomes?
I would like to think that this is so, but I came away from the evening thinking that it remains to be seen how we can make it happen.
The last big question the evening raised was, when should these applications aim to cultivate skills that you learn to exercise independent of the app, versus promoting calm only through their use?
The question was driven home by an app called Fairfox, which sought to take some of the stress out of negotiating by helping parties find win-win positions. I think this is great, and there are times I could definitely use help in building a negotiating strategy.
But it's a very different thing if you want the app to teach users how to be better negotiators on their own-- how to recognize others' signals, how to understand your own position, how to find endpoints that are mutually satisfactory-- versus expecting them to always turn to the app every time you have to negotiate anything.
make space, via flickr
The first builds a skill; the second risks creating a dependency. Both may create a form of calm, but they have very different sources, and I think that the first is a far more valuable and enduring than the second.
Now, the situation is different for things like Zenware. I'm never going to write a book without a computer (or iPad, or more likely some unholy combination of devices, cloud storage, and the occasional but critical appearance of paper), so in this case it's okay to create tools that promote my calm as a writer, but don't necessarily make me a calmer writer when I'm using other tools.
It's all right for a word processor to help me be while helping me do. Something like a negotiating tool, or a tool that helps prepare me for a medical emergency, might be best designed to ultimately make itself obsolete-- to let me internalize the tools and build the skills necessary to do it for myself.
contemplative computing drafts, via flickr
You might think of it this way. Are you in the hammer business, or the karate business? No matter how good I get with a hammer, I'm never going to have hands solid enough to drive nails. However, if I become a black belt at karate, I have skills that reside within me.
One last minor point. There's a tendency to think of efforts like these as really new. Contrast the desire for calm with the addiction of buzz, the interest in people with the desire to maximize productivity, and it's easy to built an oppositional narrative. But Silicon Valley is a product of a counterculture that was into Zen, yoga, and meditation long before they went mainstream. (This is something that was first argued by Theodore Roszak argued in From Satori to Silicon Valley, and many others have since picked up the thread.)
In other words, we can argue over how to design software or devices or use experiences that promote calm-- it's an argument very much worth having-- but I don't think the idea of creating devices that promote calm would have seemed weird to Douglas Engelbart or Steve Jobs.
The term "contemplative computing" may sound contradictory or complicated, but it's really pretty simple. Information technologies promise to make us smarter and more efficient, but all too often end up being distracting and demanding. Contemplative computing shows how we can use them to be more focused and creative.
Contemplative computing is something you do, not a service you use or a product you consume. It involves deepening your understanding of minds and information technologies work together, becoming more mindful of how you interact with technologies, and discovering ways of using them better.
There's a great Buddhist saying (echoed in virtually every religion) that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. What the Buddha meant was we all face setbacks, get sick, and lose loved ones; but we can choose how we respond even to these difficult events. Likewise, I argue that in today's high-tech world, connection is inevitable, but distraction is a choice. The purpose of my book is to show you that that choice exists-- and if you feel overwhelmed by smartphones and email and social media, how to make different choices.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, will be published by Little, Brown & Co, and will hit the bookstores in August 2013. Until then, these videos offer the easiest way to get a feel for the whole project.
This is an overview of the whole contemplative computing project, and the best 20-minute introduction to what I'm doing. There's also a transcript of the talk available.
This talk is about the issue of digital distraction, and how Buddhist monk bloggers and media entrepreneurs manage to spend hours a day online without suffering the ill effects that the rest of us consider a natural consequence of being online. It's a bit rushed at the end, as I was running low on time.
There are also a couple exercises I did with the audience that might not make a lot of sense on video.
05/31/2012 at 09:10 PM in Attention / Distraction, Augmented / Embodied cognition, Computing, Conferences / Talks, Contemplative practices, Digital Sabbath and other responses, Future, Human-computer interaction, Memory, Mobile / personal devices, Neuroscience / Psychology, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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I spent yesterday at the Being Human conference (it bears no relationship to the excellent BBC show about a ghost, vampire, and werewolf who share a flat in Bristol), an all-day event at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
While I posted a few pictures yesterday, I didn't really write about it in any depth, because the wifi managed to fail during the opening remarks, and I never got on the network. Otherwise, I must say that the whole event was beautifully organized-- and as someone who's planned and participated in a lot of conferences, I know what I'm talking about.
The overall theme of the conference, "Being Human," was interpreted largely in terms of our scientific understanding of perception, body schema, decision-making, and how we come to experience the world and consciousness as transparent, seamless things. It was sponsored by the Bauman Foundation, which as I understand it has been supporting work at the intersection of neuroscience and contemplative practice for quite some time; its leader is Peter Bauman, a Tangerine Dream veteran turned CEO, so it's got an interesting pedigree.
More broadly, the whole event sees itself as part of a bigger enterprise, which we might think of as being better humans, through recognizing our collective similarities, and the inescapability of our interdependence. As Bauman put it,
A shift to a more interconnected world is possible only when our hearts are open, as well as our minds.... if we want a more enlightened future for our species, we have to know who we are.... we long to understand, so we can feel at home in this mystery, and at home in this universe.
For me, the opening talks were the most interesting and engaging. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist and performance artist, gave a talk about perception that, as he put it, aimed to get the audience "to know less at the end than you think you do now." Perception, he argued, is the foundation of being human: "everything begins with perception," he said, including the way we see the world, ourselves, and our place in the world.
But the straightforward relationship we think exists between the world and our perception of it is a brilliant construction, something our senses and minds put together. Take perceiving light, for example. All kinds of animals sense light: "Even jellyfish perceive light," Lotte noted, "and they don't even have brains." For humans, the ability to sense color is rather important, and most of the talk was devoted to showing that we don't really SEE in the straightforward sense: perceptions involves all kinds of automatic, unconscious choices and exclusions, and a huge amount of interpretation. "All information is inherently meaningless, because it could mean anything," Lotte said. "Its the meanings that we see." The brain actively creates relationships between information, partly be enacting information and engagement, then by associating meaning with those relationships. "We always see meaning," as he put it. "That's ALL we ever see."
When it comes to seeing, context is everything; understanding why that's so and what it means is one key to understanding what it means to be human. The other big key, as he put it at the end of the talk, is that "We can see ourselves see." This ability to see ourselves see, to become aware of the degree to which our perception of the world is dependent on experience and context, is what makes us conscious of us agency, choice, compassion.
V. S. Ramachandran followed with a talk about phantom limbs, and how the phenomenon reveals all kinds of things about the plasticity of our body schema-- or what Thomas Metzinger later called self-models-- but also suggests that there are ways in which bodies are entangled that we're only beginning to understand (but which perhaps things like tantra have been making use of).
Thomas Metzinger followed this thread with a talk research like the virtual embodiment and robotic re-embodiment project, which is exploring how we can use VR to transpose the sense of where the body is in virtual space, and the problem of what GE Moore called the "transparency of consciousness." Normally we have no access to the construction process: we don't have a sense of neurons firing, but only the final product-- which is why we have a sense of direct engagement with reality. "consciousness is an invisible interface." Our sense of self-- the thing that defines being human-- is produced by the self model and that transparency.
A second thread looked at recent work on the nature of biases and irrationality-- or what we normally define as biases and irrationalities-- in decision-making and perception.
Laurie Santos gave an amusing talk on the evolution of irrationality, using her research on monkey economics. It turns out that when given tokens that they can exchange for snacks, capuchin monkeys figure out the fundamentals of markets pretty quickly, and also exhibit the same kind of risk and loss aversion that humans do. What this suggests is that if we define human qualities or capabilities by those that are exclusively human, we have to exclude things like economic decision-making-- which may not leave us with very much to work from. On the other hand, if we're not bothered by the fact that we share some qualities of the mind with other animals, this has implications for how connected we should see ourselves to the rest of the animal world.
David Eagleman's talk on neuroscience and decision-making was just as engaging, and also aimed at big questions. In decision making, he argued, you have different networks evaluating economic cost, hedonic reward, and social signaling, and these three systems essentially fight for priority. He further argued that we now know quite a bit about the ways brain development or pathologies affect moral decision-making, to the degree that we can now begin to incorporate it into our understandings of justice, punishment, and free will. (There are plenty of cases of people who develop deviant behavior with brain damage: Parkinson's medicine, for example, can make people less risk averse, leading to jags of compulsive gambling and other risk-taking.) The law argues that we are practical reasoners (free to choose how we act), and that all brains have an equal capacity, but neuroscience suggests that these are poor assumptions; but neuroscience argues that that's just not so. "When we talk about morality and decision making," he concluded, "we're really talking about the neurological bases of morality and decision making," and we need the law to recognize that.
The other highlight for me was Paul Ekman's talk on emotions. "It's totally misleading and an oversimplification" to think of emotions as positive or negatives, he argued: "emotions would not have been survived our evolutionary history if they were inherently negative." Every emotion can be experienced in a constructive or a destructive way.
One problem is that the language we have for describing our own emotions isn't very elaborate. Emotions are actually families of experiences, not single things: happiness, for example, is a whole package of emotions, which we experience in different contexts but describe with the same term. Likewise, his FACS (facial action coding system) distinguishes some 200 different signals of anger, but no language comes close to describing all of them.
Further, the equipment we're born with to understand emotions in others, isn't as good as we think. Ekman has done some of the classic work on micro-facial expressions and lying, and he's concluded that we're actually terrible liars, but even worse lie detectors. It's possible to detect lies if we know how to look for them, but people conspire in being misled. (What a lovely thought.)
So what did the conference yield? I felt like there were a couple big takeaways, but also some tensions that were never really resolved.
Not surprisingly, a number of the speakers made an explicit or explicit case for varieties of mindfulness being useful in overcoming the biases or limits that their work mapped out. You can't meditate your way to free will; but being more knowledgeable about inherent biases can help keep you from being their slave.
Another recurring theme was that what we think of as bad elements of our natures may not be so. As Laurie Santos notes, for a long time we looked at the things we like about ourselves-- language, technology, tool use, cooperation, etc.-- in other species, but her work suggests that some behaviors that we think of as biases or errors actually may be helpful. Paul Ekman, likewise, argued that there really aren't bad emotions, but bad outcomes: fear is a perfectly useful emotion in the right context and in the right amount, but debilitating if it overwhelms us.
On the other hand, there was a split between the universalist vision of Bauman and the neuroscientists-- which held that their results point to universals in the human condition-- and the arguments of Anne Harrington and Hazel Markus, who argued that culture plays a strong role in shaping illness and our reactions to treatments (Harrington pointed to the history mesmerism and neuropathy), and our success in dealing with challenges or problems (this was Markus' talk).
Last week I was on an Australian radio show, Encounter, in an episode on "Worship 2.0."
I appear about 40 minutes into the hour-long show, but there are a LOT of interesting people in the show. There's also a 20 minute-long Web-only extra with more of my interview, which goes into the contemplative computing idea is much greater detail. It's drawn from about an hour's conversation, and they did a great job of constructing something worth listening to (though I think I sound like one of those machines reading a transcript-- which is kind of how I sometimes feel when I'm doing interviews).
Masako Fukui: The idea that tweets can be a mindfulness tool may seem paradoxical to most of us. More often than not, we experience our mobile media technologies as annoying distractions. In fact, rather than make us smarter, information technology is often experienced as a stream of distractions, not a stream of useful information.
But according to Palo Alto-based futurist Alex Pang, we need to interact more thoughtfully with our technologies, by adopting what he calls contemplative computing. And the inspiration for this idea goes back a few thousand years.
Alex Pang: The Buddhists have a wonderful term called ‘the monkey mind’, which is the mind that’s always jumping from topic to topic, that can never be still. That is an ancient concept and I think it perfectly describes our minds on Facebook and Twitter.
And what this means is that not only do we have thousands of years of dealing with the impacts of new technologies—from the invention of language to alphabetic systems to the printing press down to the internet—but we also have an equally rich history of dealing with the consequences, of learning how, despite the deluge of words that came from the invention of codex books in the third and fourth centuries AD or the rise of cities and global trade, to deal with the distractions that all of those cause.
It was a fun interview to do: the show is recorded in Sydney, and I went to the Stanford radio station, which has some kind of amazing high-bandwidth connection into its studios, so it sounded like I was right there with Masako.
I gave a talk yesterday at TEDxYouth@Monterey (I think I got all the various Xes, @s, and other connectors in the event name).
It was a very interesting event: there were some good speakers, and the setup was pretty great.
I talked about blogging Buddhist monks and what they can teach us about mindfulness and technology. After it was over, I was struck by just how different the kids of arguments are that you can develop in writing and on stage.
When you're writing, you can be complex and multilayered.
In talks, the simpler you can make your story, the better. This is not to say that it can't be intellectually ambitious, just that you have to direct that ambition in different ways than you would in print. It's better if your audience remembers one thing you tell them than if they forget five. It does you no good if they think you're smart but can't tell people what you said.
I also came up with a pithy line that I may use in the future:
Distracted people never change the world. Focused people change the world. And mindful people change it for the better.
I just hope there's some truth to it. I think there are audiences that will like it.
Just discovered that the good folks at Lift 11 put the Marseille talks on YouTube. Here's mine!
The video for my Marseille talk went live today. I was getting kind of impatient, but I must admit, they did a nice job editing it!
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).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009