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.
I’m going to be at Princeton next week, doing a more academic-than-usual talk on contemplative computing.
I'm appearing there as part of the “Pay Attention: The Art of Here and Now” course, taught by director Marianne Weems.
The undergraduate course taught by Weems questions whether our sense of the present — to which we are meant to be attentive — has changed, and the impact of Twitter, Instagram and the “selfie” on making art. The course draws upon various perspectives with guest speakers, of which Pang is one, focusing on spirituality, neuroscience, ontology, psychology, and gaming to investigate these questions of modern consciousness.
The Princeton Atelier is an interesting project: started by Toni Morrison, it "brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of a semester-long course.”
I haven’t been in Princeton in ages, so it’ll be great to visit again.
Wednesday I was part of a forum at the Getty Center on the future of public space in the digital age. Cosponsored by Zócalo Public Square, it was me, architect Mia Lehrer, and Robert McGinn, an STS professor from Stanford (and with whom I worked ages ago).
Occasionally at these events you think of things on your feet (or sitting in front of the audience) that are worth remembering. This time, during a discussion of technology and privacy (a subject that almost always comes up in public discussions like this), I realized that we shouldn't confuse the exponential growth of means for invading our privacy, or convincing us to give up incremental bits of it for some theoretical convenience, with the death of privacy. The concept pf privacy doesn't disappear when the tools to violate it become more powerful, any more than property becomes irrelevant when thieves learn how to pick locks.
And Los Angeles was a good time.
While I finish writing up the notes from my NAIS talk-- I've got deadlines at work, kids' sports practices, and several recent interviews with people who organize digital sabbaths, so it's not as simple a matter as just transcribing what I said in Orlando-- here is a graphic map of the talk.
The full-sized version (which you can actually decipher) is here.
I've been lucky to work with some great graphic recorders, including real giants in the field like Grove Consultants founder David Sibbet, so I know what I'm talking about when I say Alece Birnbach did a great job on this map.
How are technologies designed to distract students (and their parents and teachers)?
Some people talk about how the shiny-blinky flashing Internet appeals to our visually-oriented brains, how Facebook likes and retweets give us a little shot of dopamine. But these effects aren't merely an accident. Technology companies actively design to maximize our engagement with them. (It's the downside of the desire to create technologies that are compelling and user-friendly. It's easiest to ignore technologies that are clearly broken.) Here I'll give a couple examples of how these designs work.
In their fabulous book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explore the power of default settings, and explain how they can be used for good or evil. Retirement plans that automatically maximize employee contributions, and increase as salaries go up, yield richer nest eggs than those that have to be actively managed. (Everyone means to manage their retirement portfolios or put more away for their old age, but today's credit card statement always calls louder than your need for money thirty years from now.) You can get kids to eat healthier school lunches by making the fruit more accessible than the cake: kids who default to having whatever's easiest at hand will opt for the apple instead of the apple pie. (I write more about Nudge and its ideas here, here, and here.)
In the technology sphere, defaults can have just as powerful an effect on behavior, and designers have quickly learned how to set defaults to keep users watching longer, sharing more, or interacting for longer periods.
For example, Netflix, which helped popularize the concept of binge watching, has a brilliantly evil design element. When you’re watching a TV series, at the end of an episode Netflix automatically queues the next show. The default is to keep watching.
Now given that plenty of people binge-watch it's not an obviously unreasonable design choice; but it does make it much easier to rationalize one more episode of Breaking Bad when you should be turning out the light.
The iPhone app Facebook Messenger offers another example of how defaults ensnare our attention. When you open the app, the first thing you see if not a list of your friends or recent messages; you see step-by-step instructions to make sure that “you and your friends will see messages instantly on your phones.”
If you don't change those settings, you'll see the instructions again the next time you open the app, and the time after that, and the time after that. Messenger, and Facebook, really want you to make this your default. The more you interact with it, the more it learns about you—where you are, when you’re messaging, who you’re messaging with.
Finally, there are cases where designers harness social obligation to keep you using their service. Web services that offer you the chance to invite your friends to join are banking on the theory that The game Drawsome, for example, is an open-ended game in which players guess what their friends have drawn.
But you don't just play with friends; the game uses social obligation to keep you playing.
For one thing, it's a cooperative game: you only get points if I correctly guess what you've drawn. Second, it's open-ended: the instant I correctly guess your drawing, the game starts the next round. There's no graceful exit, no way to agree in advance (within the game, anyway) to stop after a certain number of rounds. Quitting the game means quitting on your friends.
The examples of Netflix and Facebook Messenger and Drawsome could be multiplied endlessly, but they illustrate how social media, gaming, and entertainment companies now spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to get you to spend more time interacting with them, to recruit your friends to join them, and to intentionally or accidentally share as much information as possible with them.
Perhaps it's no surprise, given the degree to which designers trigger social responses, that we've come to treat our smartphones like children.
how smartphones behave like kids, via youtube
In addition to the powerful commercial imperative behind these designs, there’s also a deeper assumption at work: that for all kinds of reasons, connectivity ought to be the default in our lives. That we should always be accessible to the world, always broadcasting our status to friends, and "sharing" our location with media companies and advertisers. We have the ability to be always-on, therefore we should be.
This can have negative consequences for adults: it leads to a sense within workplaces that you should never be inaccessible to bosses or clients, that you're obliged to respond instantly no matter how urgent or trivial the subject.
But for kids who are figuring out themselves and their place in the world, this kind of hyperconnection may have a significant developmental impact. Parents and teachers need to learn how to can help kids become more mindful about how they use information technology, how they interact with others through it, and what place they allow it to have in their lives.
As Catherine Steiner-Adair put it, we need to help our kids become smarter than their smartphones.
I'd say we need to help them learn to use them skillfully enough to take full advantage of the technologies, and to see that mastering these technologies can make them become smarter, better, and even more resilient and compassionate people.
And by "we," I don't just mean some generic "someone in society:" I mean schools.
[This is the first of several posts drawing on my the talk I gave at the NAIS annual conference.]
We use the term "distraction" in two broad ways. Both involve situations in which our attention should be directed on one thing, but instead is directed on something else. This usually happens for seconds or seconds: we can be distracted from traffic by a text message, or distracted from finishing tomorrow's homework by a funny IM conversation.
It can also happen for years: we speak of being "distracted" from pursuing careers by a messy divorce, or being distracted from pursuing our art by the need to earn a living. At whatever scale, though, this sort of distraction happens when there's something that we SHOULD be paying attention, and something we pay attention to INSTEAD.
These days we also talk about distraction as a perpetual state, one in which constant interruptions and emergencies keep us from being able to focus on any one thing for long. No matter which way we use it, though, there's an important moral judgment that comes with the use of the term. As philosopher Damon Young puts it, "distraction is more than too many stimuli, or too little attention."
It is actually a matter of value – to be distracted is to be torn away from what is worthwhile in life.... [W]hat is most worthwhile is freedom: not simply rights or legal liberties, but the capacity to patiently, creatively craft one’s own life.
For CEOs, whose days may be sliced into five minute-long appointments, distraction is part of the job; ER doctors likewise have little ability to focus on any single thing, but instead have to deal with whatever emergencies come through the door.
For students, though, attention is a valuable thing: unless you have a natural talent for a subject, you can't become competent in it if you don't focus.
You can't master ANY subject if you don't know HOW to focus. Schools today now have to confront not just the ancient and familiar problem of getting students who'd rather be playing outside to concentrate instead on Euclid's theorems or "The Lottery;" they have to deal with students who find it hard to concentrate on anything at all.
Growing up in world that offers many opportunities to be distracted, and many competitors for their attention, they've had fewer chances to learn the effortful focus necessary to memorize Latin verbs or the fifty U.S. state capitals, or even experience the effortless concentration of losing themselves in a great book, or watching a movie with rapt attention.
Social media and gaming companies have commoditized distraction: they've learned how to use design, defaults, and social expectations to keep users watching, playing and posting. (I'll give some examples in the next post.)
What this means is that the child who is distracted isn't just stupid or lacking in self-discipline. They're the target of companies that have turned distraction into entertainment and social obligation. Distraction is evolving from a personal failing into a social disease.
This is not to say that kids (or their parents, or teachers for that matter) have no chance against weapons of mass distraction, or that the mix of behavioral economics, neuromarketing, and design that media and game companies can deploy. My book The Distraction Addiction explains how we can reclaim our attention, repair our relationships with information technologies, and rebuild our extended minds.
The problem of high-tech distraction doesn't start only with us, but it does end with us.
Ultimately, we all have a choice about how we develop and direct our attention. But it's a lot easier to exercise that choice in an environment that supports it. This is why school-wide campaigns to help students become mor emindful, or to turn off their devices for a few days, can be powerful-- and indeed, are absolutely essential.
This week my wife and I were at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference. I was giving a talk on contemplative computing and efforts by schools to promote mindfulness and wiser technology use; my wife was part of her school's delegation.
This is the second education-related conference where I've spoken about my work, and talking to such groups always a very interesting time: they're very interested in issues of technology and distraction, and I think independent schools in particular are very well-placed to tackle them head-on, and to move past efforts that focus just on individuals and involve families and communities as well.
The conference is huge-- about 4000 people from all over the U.S., and from Canada, Latin America, and even Africa-- and this year it was in Orlando, Florida.
I confess despite the fact that it's so clearly landscaped and carved out of (or floated on top of) swamp and pine forest, I really like Orlando.
We were staying at the Swan and Dolphin, a hotel on the edge of Disney World and EPCOT.
While I go to these events to work rather than to sightsee, we did steal away to attend an opening reception at EPCOT.
Over the next week I'll post some of the key ideas from my talk, as I want to think more about the question of how independent schools (and other schools) can use contemplative computing to improve the lives of their students.
One other note: my talk was sponsored by National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (SEED is short for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), and so I owe them thanks for the chance to think seriously about these issues.
Last week I was in New York for the launch of J. Walter Thompson's new report on consumer trends, and while I was on the East Coast I spent a day at Kagyu Thubten Chöling monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside Poughkeepsie. Needless to say it was a very interesting experience.
Next week I'm spending a day at the Kagyu Thubten Chöling monastery in New York, and on Tuesday evening I'll be giving a talk about contemplative computing. It'll start at 7 PM, and will be open to the public.
The monastery is outside New York City, in the town of Wappingers Falls, not far from Poughkeepsie. It should be a very interesting time!
More information about the monastery's calendar is here.
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 gave me a chance to talk about 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 / wearable 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.
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