Digital detox holidays are growing in popularity as a short-term respite for people suffering from an information technology DA (distraction addiction).
There is a cure, according to technology futurist, business consultant and author Alex Pang. It’s called contemplative computing, and it’s described in Pang’s 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 (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).
Pang’s background as a science historian informs his approach and his views on the impact information technologies have on every aspect of our lives, including business.
This is the second installment from a dialogue between Pang and Diane Merlino, editor in chief of Travel Weekly PLUS, about how information technologies are shaping what it means to be human.
Merlino: You’ve said that connection is inevitable but distraction is a choice. But I’ve also heard you say that today’s information technologies can cause us pain because they’re often poorly designed as well as thoughtlessly used. That seems to imply there are two parties involved here — both the makers and the users. Or is it all under the individual’s control?
Pang: We need to acknowledge that social media companies — technology companies, smartphone designers, game designers — spend huge amounts of money and energy trying to capture and commodify our attention, and they have become very good at it. So it’s not purely accident that we spend more time on Facebook or Twitter than we might expect, that we can check our email and resurface half an hour later and wonder where the time has gone. These are things that happen in part by design.
However it is not the case that we just have to surrender to them. The design is not destiny. For all these companies’ efforts to get us to forget that we actually have choices about how we use these devices or how we communicate and what we share — despite their efforts to create the sense that if you are not always sharing a lot of stuff in real time with everybody then there’s something wrong with you — we still have the ability to be thoughtful and mindful and in control of our technologies and our digital selves.
The line that connection is inevitable but distraction is true once you realize that social media companies and technology companies are doing their best to capture and commoditize your attention but they do not have to win. You can fight back and you can learn to use these technologies in ways that work well for you, not just in ways that make them richer.
Merlino: “Commoditize your attention” — great phrase. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it before.
Pang: Yeah. I’ve got to trademark it.
Merlino: Alex, how did your studies in the history and sociology of science shape the development of the principles of contemplative computing?
Pang: There are two big ways that my previous life as an historian of science shapes this work. The first is that my first instinct when I’m dealing with some question in the book is to dive into the historical record. This was especially important with the first of the four principles — that our relationships with information technologies are incredibly deep and express unique human capabilities.
When you look at human history very broadly, going back a couple million years to our first proto-human ancestors, you quickly come to recognize that technology has played a critical role not just in allowing us to succeed but in very literally making us who we are, in shaping our bodies, and that it plays a role — just as important but not quite as well preserved in the fossil record — in shaping how we think.
I think that getting a long view of this phenomenon is important. It also made it easier — at least for me — to recognize that this problem of technology and distraction is not a new one. The fact that it’s one that we’ve been fighting successfully for thousands of years is something I wouldn’t have seen, or it would have taken me a lot longer to see, if I didn’t have this historian hat that keeps falling over my eyes.
Merlino: You said your background as a historian of science shaped your work in The Distraction Addiction in two ways.
Pang: The kind of history of science that I was trained in taught me to ask really basic questions about the role that technology plays in our lives, to ask why it is that we believe certain things about technology — that it is inevitable that technologies take the shapes that they do or that it is natural for us to want to use devices in one way versus another — and to treat that naturalness, that sense of inevitability, as something like a special effect in the movies; that it is the product of a lot of behind-the-scenes work, a little bit of misdirection, and maybe sometimes the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers.
That was really important in giving me a useful skepticism about claims that the effects information technologies are having on us are either absolutely novel or irresistible. When you start from the assumption, when your reflex is to ask if that’s really true, you’re a lot more likely to find the holes and find the alternatives than you would be otherwise.
Merlino: The second principle of contemplative computing is that the world has become a more distracting place, and there are solutions for bringing the extended mind under control. Let’s start with what you mean by the extended mind.
Pang: The extended mind is an idea borrowed from a couple philosophers of mind, David Chalmers and Andy Clark. The extended mind thesis argues that we should think of the mind not just as something that’s riding around inside the brain and is generated by electrical signals going in between synapses, but rather that the mind should be thought of as encompassing stuff that goes on in the brain but also in the body, and even in external technologies.
Going back to that example of leaving your smartphone at home and panicking over it, well, one of the legitimate reasons to panic over it is if you're like me you've memorized maybe a handful of phone numbers in the last 10 years. I know my kids' cell phone numbers and my wife's cell phone number and that is it. Everybody else I just put in my iPhone because my iPhone does a really, really good job of remembering those numbers. Now, in an emergency, I'm going to want to be able to call my wife and my kids no matter what, so I remember their numbers. During the Zombie Apocalypse those are the only numbers I need. I do not need the number of the fish taco place or the Sheraton in Arlington, Va., or even my own office number.
That’s a really good example of how we will outsource to devices, whether they're paper or zeroes and ones, some things that we used to commit to memory. Or we might start with paper and then digitize. I had a very fat Rolodex at one point and a couple years ago it was like this historical artifact and I just ditched it.
Merlino: So what’s at the heart of this second principle — that there are solutions to living in a more distracting world?
Pang: The important thing here is that we're living in a moment in which there are all kinds of efforts, intentionally or not, to capture our attention, to make us more distracted, but that we have these abilities and tools that have been developed over the last couple thousand years to bring our extended mind back under our own control.
While the kinds of challenges we face now may be different in quantity they're not so fundamentally different qualitatively from the kinds of challenges that we faced in the first great ages of urbanization and global travel 2,500 years ago when, surprise, we also saw the development of Buddhism and the first codified contemplative practices in Europe under the Greeks, and the rise of monasticism in early Christianity. All of those can be seen in part as responses to the challenges that a faster, more frenetic, more connected, more uncertain world brought.
When you realize that it's not a surprise that Buddhism or meditation or lectio divina, the great Christian meditative practice, still work. They were invented to deal with the same kinds of problems that we face every day. What’s new is that we have fewer spaces and opportunities for simply being contemplative, for being quiet, for being disconnected, than we did even 20 years ago, much less 2,000 years ago. So it becomes more important to learn how to cultivate those ourselves.
Merlino: As more and more technology-related distractions appear do you think we’ll lose something of our humanity if we don't create time to disconnect and learn to choose how to direct our attention?
Pang: Absolutely. The great American psychologist William James famously said that "you are what you attend to," meaning that your sense of self, your sense of identity, is intimately bound up with your attention. So on a moment-by-moment or day-to-day level your ability to control your attention is central to defining who you are.
Over the course of years or over the course of lives we don't see many people who are able to live meaningful, fulfilled lives who do not at some point stand back and take stock of what they're doing and what it all means. I think the capacity to live fully in the moment, to be really engaged with what you're doing rather than dividing your attention between the road and the text message that you just got — heaven help you — has to be balanced with an ability to step back and understand at a much bigger level, a much deeper level, what you've done with your life and what you want to do.
I think that constant distraction threatens both of those things, and the erosion of spaces and opportunities for both immediate focus and for that kind of deeper reflection challenge our capacity to be as deeply human as we could be.
ALSO SEE: Alex Pang onCan’t live without your smart phone? You’ve got a problem