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Lessons From Monks About Designing The Technologies Of The Future

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“The purpose of technology is not to confuse the brain but to serve the body,” William S. Burroughs once said in a Nike commercial, of all places. But things haven’t worked out that way, at least not for most of us. Our technologies are designed to maximize shareholder profit, and if that means distracting, confusing or aggregating the end-user, then so be it.

But another path is possible, argues Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his new book The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul.

He calls the idea “contemplative computing.”

Contemplative computing, Pang writes, is something you do, not something you buy or download. He does mention a few useful-sounding applications, such as Freedom, which will block your Internet connection for a set period of time, and full-screen text editors like WriteRoom and OmmWriter (my personal favorite is FocusWriter).

These tools, along with applications like RescueTime and SelfControl, are great — but they’re meant to treat the symptoms of a digital environment designed to distract you. Pang points out that OmmWriter was, ironically, designed by an online ad agency to help keep its copywriters from being distracted.

These applications tend to promote escape from the Internet, but others advocate a more extreme approach to escaping online distractions: getting off the Internet for days or months at a time. Several books and essays in recent years, such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, recommended spending less time online as a way to rejuvenate your brain. “Digital sabbaths,” where people give up their laptops and cell phones at least one day a week, have become trendy.

There Is No Offline Anymore

Like monks casting off worldly possessions and retreating to monasteries, free from the temptations of the modern world, unpluggers yearn for a simpler time, decrying our lack of appreciation for the offline world. “But as the proliferation of such essays and books suggests, we are far from forgetting about the offline; rather we have become obsessed with being offline more than ever before,” Nathan Jurgenson, an editor at The New Inquiry and researcher at Snapchat, wrote last year. “We have never appreciated a solitary stroll, a camping trip, a face-to-face chat with friends, or even our boredom better than we do now.”

But he warns that our idea of offline time has become a delusion. “Disconnection from the smartphone and social media isn’t really disconnection at all: The logic of social media follows us long after we log out.” In other words: are we really “offline” if all we’re thinking about is the Facebook post we’re going to write when we get back online?

We’re All Cyborgs, That’s What Makes Us Human

The issue is that technology shapes the way we think, and it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to extricate ourselves from the technologies we use. Pang calls this “entanglement,” and he points to ancient examples — such as soldiers feeling that swords were extensions of their bodies — to illustrate how core this is to the human condition.

But being entangled with a tool like a hammer or even a machine like a car is different from being entangled with a social network. Your mind is meshing not just with a computer but with the people you interact with — and the designers of the new technology.

Pang does suggest taking digital sabbaths to cope with these technologies, but thankfully it’s not the only strategy he suggests for coping with network technologies. One of his other major pieces of advice is to take up meditation, and that’s where things get interesting.

While sketching the history of these techniques, he notes something interesting: the rise of meditation and other contemplative techniques coincided with the rise of urbanization, imperialism and international trade. Although these techniques existed for many years as part of “mystery schools,” it wasn’t until between 800 and 200 B.C. that they started to become available to outsiders.

We might not think of cities, governments and economies as technologies, but they are. And just like social networks and mobile phones, they entangle us with other people and with the logic shaped by policies crafted by other people.

Restorative Applications

People have long coped with urbanization by turning to restorative spaces such as zen gardens, cathedrals and walking paths. According to Pang, these spaces tend to:

  • Be purposefully simple. Though “Simple doesn’t necessarily mean ‘stark’ or ‘blank,’” Pang warns.
  • Contain contrasts, such as elements that shift from small to large or light to dark.
  • Give a sense of “being away” Temples don’t tend to have outside facing windows, and urban parks tend to conceal the cities that surround them.
  • Not be completely wild or untamed Natural settings are good, but too much nature can be stressful.

Although Pang outlines several principles of contemplative computing — such as “be mindful” and “extend your abilities” — I’m more interested in the idea of designing computer applications with the principles of restorative spaces in mind.

Most applications take pains to preserve the look and feel of the operating system. This is considered good user interface design. But I’ve noticed that music applications like Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live often abandon the native UI of their host operating systems in favor of their own conventions. This creates a sense of “being away” from the rest of the computer. I run Live on the same laptop I use to write, do research and pay my taxes, but it feels like I’m using a completely different machine.

Clearly not every application can or should head in this direction, but it does offer a few clues to applications that promote a more mindful user experience.

But will the computer industry pick up on this stuff? Companies like RescueTime and Readability recognize the value of preserving attention. The “Slow Web movement” seeks to deliver information at the right time instead of in real time. But I can’t help but think we need computing environments reconsidered from the ground up: from the hardware to the operating system to the software. That means getting buy-in from giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

Contemplative computing does have an unlikely ally in Facebook. In a feature for Wired, Noah Schachtman wrote that Facebook engineering director Arturo Bejar, a student of meditation, brought in a group of “Buddhist-inspired academics” to suggest changes to the social network’s tools for reporting offensive content. The company ended up making a range of simple changes to make the tools more personable.

Schachtman notes that it’s easy to be cynical about meditation teachers working with barons of distraction like Facebook. And much like Internet blockers or distraction-free writing apps, these sort of fixes are aimed at symptoms, not the disease. But they are evidence that people are paying attention. The trick will be to get enough people paying attention to make it matter.

Pang’s notion of mindful, or contemplative, computing is useful, but ultimately it’s just a way of coping with a world of applications designed without our best interests at heart. Just as meditation, prayer and weekend retreats can help us cope with the harsh realities of the modern world, so too can it help us cope with flame wars, feral inboxes and the non-stop rush of social media. But just as citizens can demand safer cities, more humane governments and even economic reform, we can demand a new class of technologies.

Photo by AlicePopkorn2


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