This is the talk I prepared for the Sunday Assembly in Portland, Oregon last February. The actual talk diverged quite a bit from this, but since it wasn’t recorded, this is the closest approximation to what went down that exists.
I’m supposed to talk to you about coping with 21st century technology without losing your mind. But you may notice that I’m all nervous and fidgety. That’s not just stage freight. It’s the way I am. I’m not some serene zen master. I’m not here because I’m a master of calm usage of technology. I’m here because I started experimenting with this stuff because I desperately strategies for coping with tech myself.
These days I’m feel pretty worn down by being online all the time. I’ve been on the Internet since 1995, when I was 13 years old. I got my first smartphone in 2002, the day I turned 21 years old. So it’s not that I haven’t grown up with these technologies. I’m basically a digital native. I’m just really tired.
I’m a tech journalist. I work online. I don’t really have the option to stop using the Internet, or give up my smartphone, or to stop using social media, because they’re not only part of what I report on, but part of how I do my job. Giving up having a cell phone or the Internet is, for many of us, a choice between being employed or being unemployed. Giving up social media is a choice between staying in touch with friends and family and barely ever hearing from them at all. For a lot of us, unplugging isn’t really an option, so we have to learn to live with this stuff.
So that was part of why I co-founded the podcast Mindful Cyborgs, though I don’t host it anymore, perhaps I can share some of what I’ve learned. But I’m not a guru. I don’t have anything to sell you. My goal is not to fix your life, but to talk about the ways I try to manage my own, in hopes that some of my experiences will be useful to you. I’m just here to give you things to contemplate.
So with that in mind, let’s dig in. I’m sure many of you are wondering what a “mindful cyborg” is since I’ve promised to talk about how to be one. But first I want to clarify what I’m NOT talking about.
I’m not talking about John Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness based stress relief work. I’m not talking about UCLA’s school of mindfulness. I’m not talking about cognitive behavior therapy or any branch of Buddhism. I kind of wish we’d called the podcast something different, because the word “mindful” is such a loaded term. In fact, I’m not sure I’m talking about “mindfulNESS” at all. I might just be talking about being mindful, without the “ness” part. The Oxford dictionary defines mindful as, simply, “Conscious or aware of something.” This is the sense in which I use the word. Not merely being aware of your breath, or whatever, but of being aware of many different things.
Again, I’m not great at this. Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a tendency to zone out and day dream. I get distracted easily. I fidget. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but there are times I want to focus, things I want to be more aware of, and things I want to ignore.
As for the cyborg part, I’m obviously not talking about brain implants or robotic arms. I’m using the term in the sense that Donna Haraway used it in the Cyborg Manifesto, to talk about beings who have a symbiotic relationship with technology. In this sense, we’re all cyborgs, and we always have been. So we’re all already mindful cyborgs, because we’re all cyborgs and none of us completely mindless. So what we want is to become MORE mindful cyborgs.
If I could recommend just one book on this topic, it would be Alex Pang’s book The Distraction Addiction. You could just buy this book now and skip the rest of this lecture if you wanted.
Alex talks about the idea of “entanglement” with our technologies. Entanglements change the way our minds and bodies work. Take the bicycle. It extends your ability to traverse the city. Without you, it doesn’t work. Without it, you can move much less efficiently. People have told me that their bikes feel like extensions of their bodies.
There are countless other examples. Soldiers in the middle ages described their swords as extensions of their bodies. Prosthetics extend the abilities of people who have lost limbs. People with pacemakers have a crucial entanglement with life saving technology. The earliest humans must have had an entanglement with fire.
So there’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, or with entanglement. We’ve had these entanglements since humans first started making tools. But as Alex said in a talk a few years ago: “The problem is that today’s information technologies are often poorly-designed and thoughtlessly used: they’re like unreliable prosthetics that we have to depend on, but can’t quite control or trust.”
He proposes an idea called contemplative computing as a solution to our problematic entanglements with information technology.
Very importantly, contemplative computing is not a product. There are tools that can help, and I’ll talk about some of those later, but it’s important to keep in mind that contemplative computing is a process, not a product. You might find something that is less distracting than other products, or something that reduces the number of temptations you face. But you can’t buy a product that will make you more mindful.
Develop an Information Diet
OK, I’m gonna recommend another book. Last one, I promise, and both of these books are short. The Information Diet by Clay Johnson is a great guide to getting a handle on your information consumption. It came out in 2011, and things have changed dramatically since then, but the underlying principles are still the same.
Clay talks about getting information over affirmation. What he means is that we as humans tend to be very susceptible to confirmation bias. Online, we have a tendency to seek out content that reinforces what we already believe, rather than content that informs us about our world, about our communities. This isn’t even so much about filter bubbles, though that’s part of it, but about asking how much of content you read on a day to day basis is actually making you a better informed citizen, and how much of it is telling you what you want to hear.
The situation has only gotten worse since Clay wrote this book. We’ve seen the rise of hyperpartisan sites that have headlines formulated along the lines of “something happens, and liberals lose their minds” or “this liberal professor totally shuts down a right-wing troll.” These adversarial headlines that are designed to make you feel superior to the other side, whoever that is.
But the way to handle this sort of thing is broadly the same. Which is to be very conscious of what media you consume. Ignore headlines that are formulated like school yard taunts. Seek out information from outside your bubble, yes, but more importantly, seek out information as opposed to opinion. Go straight to the source as often as possible.
Think before you click. And, perhaps more importantly, think before you share.
Be a compassionate technology user. Use social media the way you’d like to see other people use it. Social media makes it so easily to post and share things without thinking it through. It’s just one click to retweet something. It takes only seconds to type a Facebook comment, and just one click to share it. We all need to take a breath and think about the things we share.
I find the Buddhist notion of “Right Speech” helpful in this regard. I promise this is the only thing I’m going to quote the Buddha about. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but I think this is good advice for anyone.
- There’s a suttra in which the Buddha talks about “Right Speech,” and explains that if something is untrue, unhelpful, and disagreeable to others, you shouldn’t say it. That much should be obvious.
- But if something is true but it’s neither agreeable to others nor beneficial, you shouldn’t say it. In day-to-day life we know we shouldn’t say rude or hurtful things just because they’re true, if someone doesn’t stand to benefit from hearing the truth. But it can be easy to lose sight of that online. It can be very easy to write harsh replies to our friends and family online, and especially to strangers.
- It’s also easy to write things that are true and that people will find agreeable, but are utterly pointless. I’m not going to try to define what is or isn’t pointless to post to Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes you need a little affirmation. But should think before posting trivialities.
- If something is true, and someone really needs to hear it, you should wait until the proper time to say it. Maybe someone needs to know that their breath stinks. But at their birthday party right in front of all their friends is probably not the time or place to tell them. Likewise, a Facebook comment that everyone is going to see might not be the best place to them either.
I don’t always manage to follow these guidelines. I’m only human, and like I said, social media sites are designed to make it easy for us to share our thoughts, and the real-time nature of these applications make us feel like we need to respond to things quickly. But I find that if I slow down and try to ask myself if I should post or repost something, it changes the entire way I interact with a service. Other people’s pointless posts don’t bother me as much. I’m less inclined to click on things that I know are just going to piss me off, or that are just going to reinforce things I already know.
Like I said, few of us have the option quit using the Internet, or even smartphones or social media. But we can take temporary breaks. The idea of taking retreats where you’re completely offline for days or weeks at a time have become trendy, but few of us can even do that much. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take small breaks on your own. You can put your phone away for the night after a certain hour, for example. If you really need to be able to get calls even late at night, turn off all your other notifications and put the phone on the other side of the room, so that you can’t just grab it without thinking about it, but you can still hear it ringing.
You can also try cutting out specific services for certain periods of time. Maybe an hour. Maybe longer. A few years ago I found that I was haunted by Twitter. I found myself essentially thinking in tweets. I didn’t like that, so took a month off Twitter. I even had my wife change my password and not tell me what it was so that I wouldn’t be tempted to login. I’m not going to tell you it changed my life or anything, but it helped me break my addiction to that service, and it helped me stop thinking in tweets. Now my internal monologue, instead of being a series of tweets, is stuff for my e-mail newsletters. I’m OK with that.
This is a pretty easy one. It’s easy to say “I’m going to just spend a few minutes browsing the web” or “I’m just going to check Facebook real quick” and then lose hours of time. Using a timer to enforce that browsing can really help make you more aware of the passage of time. I also like to use timers when there’s something I want to make sure I’m spending enough time doing, like writing or reading books. I find having a timer going helps me focus, I don’t know why.
Meditate. I find I’m better able to focus on what I need to work on when I meditate on a regular basis. When most people think of meditation they think of seated meditation. That’s what I do, but there are lots of other types of meditation, such as walking meditations. There’s a great variety of different types of seated meditation as well. Most involve focusing on breath, but there are other approaches. I do a breath counting meditation that I learned from a book on Taoism, but the important part is finding a practice that works for you, that you can stick with.
The trick for me, I found, was working it into my daily routine. People who study habit formation say that chaining habits together is a good way to build a habit. So mine is pretty simple: every morning I make coffee. I meditate during the 15 minutes that it’s brewing. Very simple.
- Internet blockers: Freedom (Cross Platform), Self Control (Mac, Linux), just turn the dang internet off
- Full Screen: Some people swear by “distraction free” writing apps like Write! (Cross platform), Dark Room (Windows), and Write Room (Mac)
- Time Trackers: Rescue Time (Cross platform), Manic Time (Windows), Timing (Mac)
- Webpage cleaners: Clearly by Evernote, Mercury (formerly known as Readability), Reader mode in Safari
- Email apps that let you defer mail: Outlook (Android, iOS), Streak (Chrome plugin for Gmail), Spark (iOS).
- Read it later apps: Pocket, Instapaper, Send to Kindle plugin.
Coping vs. Fixing the Problem
One thing I want to emphasize is that we’ve mostly talked about coping with 21st century technologies rather than fixing the problems. I said in the beginning that giving up our smartphones or giving up Facebook isn’t a realistic option for many of us. That should change.
Much of the trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into actually stems not from digital technology, but from bigger issues, like the economy, our work expectations, our culture. Changing those things is beyond the scope of a 20 minute talk. I’ve opted to talk about survival strategies instead. But I want to end by asking you to notice—to be mindful of—the way that society shapes our tech habits and start thinking about how to attack the actual cause, rather than the symptoms, of this cognitive crisis.