Contemplative Computing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Spring 2011 visiting fellow, Microsoft Research Cambridge

askpang@gmail.com

 

This version was produced on 24 March 2011. It is a draft, with incomplete citations and bibliography. All errors are mine, not MSR's. More information about the project is available at available at http://www.contemplativecomputing.org.

 

 


Acknowledgements

 

This work was undertaken during a visiting fellowship at Microsoft Research Cambridge. I thank my colleagues in the Socio-Digital Systems Group, most especially (but not exclusively) Richard Harper, for providing (as Virginia Woolf would put it) both a room of one's own and an intellectual tradition. Naturally all errors are mine, not Microsoft's.

 

Audiences at the Pervasive Interaction Lab at Open University, and the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, also provided valuable feedback on earlier versions of this paper, and I am grateful to Yvonne Rogers and Sam Kinsley for their hospitality.

 

On a different but no less important note, my thanks to my wife, and my mother, who in different ways made it possible to spend three months contemplating.

 

 


0. Introduction

 

The phrase "contemplative computing" sounds oxymoronic. Information technologies today do many things, but they do not make us more contemplative. Instead, they interrupt and distract us; they throw up swarms of real-time data that obscure our long-term perspective; they encourage us to spread our attention across a range of activities and devices—Web pages, documents and presentations, emails, phone calls, text messages, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Some look to technological solutions (e.g., better filtering tools or "distraction-free" software) or better personal management (exemplified by the GTD—"Getting Things Done" movement) to give teem balance; a few take digital sabbaths, and simply leave their digital lives behind for a day a week. I believe, however, that we can create information technology that does not distract us from the world, but invites us to engage with it more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and profoundly. In this article I will describe what contemplative computing could be; why it is an appealing and achievable design goal and attitude to devices; and how we can get there. My argument will unfold as follows.

 

I first explain why contemplation is valuable, and how contemplative practices have been applied in fields as diverse as military training and psychotherapy. I then look more closely at contemplation itself: contrary to the popular perception of it as a solitary, passive state, I argue argue that contemplation is active, skilled, embodied, and social. From this, I develop a set of design principles for contemplative computing. These are intended for both designers and users, for neither have complete control over the way people use computers; indeed, contemplative computing requires being contemplative about computing-- learning to think about how and why we use technologies in particular ways, and how to improve our relationships between devices. I explain how an approach to information technologies that emphasizes engagement, self-experimentation, and embodied cognition; that skillfully used spatiality and sparse design; that rewarded challenges, acknowledged obliquity, and allowed for mind wandering and reentering, would help us begin to deal with the problems created by today's information technologies and our interactions with them.

 

Thus this article is an effort to demonstrate how we can design with values in mind [Harper, Rodden, Rogers, and Sellen, 2006]. The project also seeks to answer the call proposed by Levy to develop new means for contemplation in creative and scholarly life [Levy 2007] in response to growing time and productivity pressures [Menzies and Newson 2007]. As computers make their way into more and more parts of our everyday lives, we need to understand how tools initially built for the scientific laboratory or office may be ill-suited to the home or family; how the objectives of efficiency and optimization may not work in environments characterized by irreducible uncertainty and ambiguity. Given the ubiquity of computers and their power to influence our lives, it makes sense to think about how they can be designed and used to better promote our abilities to see, act in, and improve the world, and to improve ourselves.

 

Contemplation offers a variety of benefits. A contemplative stance can help people be more creative; deal with complex problems that require months or years to solve; and is essential to long-term happiness. Contemplation promotes both self-sufficiency and close, questioning observation of the world, and both are particularly valuable in this moment in the history of technology. We need to develop personal tools to better control information technologies, and to see how technologies that often are described as irresistible and inevitable are really shaped by human decisions and choices (or the failure to make such decisions). Contemplative computing can help with both of these urgent tasks.

 

1. Contemplation and Computers Today

 

Today, computers, smartphones, social media, and Web sites are not generally treated as technologies that encourage contemplation. To the contrary: a number of authors argue that despite prognostications that these tools would make us smarter, they have eroded our individual and collective intelligence, our memories, and our capacity for sustained and deep thought.

 

For example, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read, and Remember argues that all the time we're spending online is making it harder for us to think deeply, to read intensively, and to remember.  Invoking the discoveries of neuroscientist on brain plasticity, he argues that if you "set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet." Its "cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively." Or, as he puts it in a nice turn of phrase, "The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it." [Carr 2010] Other critics, meanwhile, argue that the way we use computers and devices leads us to distraction. Baroness Susan Greenfield argues that multitasking renders us less about to focus: in trying to do several things at once, we end up succeeding at none. Theologian Pui-lan Kwo suggests that the religious practices of the "cathedral mind" are inaccessible to today's "bazaar mind" (to borrow Eric Raymond's metaphor) [Kwok 2010]. Finally, the variety of smart, always-on devices yields as Linda Stone puts it, a state of continuous partial attention.

 

Three things about this debate are interesting for our purposes. First, critics lament the loss of opportunities for unhurried, sustained attention that is essential to contemplation. For some, this is another intrusion of modernity in our intellectual lives: cultural critic Sven Birkerts worries about the "erosion" of "reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection... and intransitive thinking." [Birkerts 2010] Writer William Powers sees our digital devices as emphasizing habits that go back to Marinetti and the Futurists: "Today," he writes, "it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know." Los Angeles Times critic David Ulin describes being online as "an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know." [Ulin 2009] Others blame the super-distracting nature of the Internet itself. "What the Net seems to be doing," Carr observes of himself, "is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation." Later, he says, being online "crowds out the time devoted to quiet reflection and contemplation, [and] the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart." [Carr 2010] As Birkerts declares, "contemplative thought is endangered." [Birkerts 2010]

 

Second, the frustration is greater because the Web almost fulfills its promise to increase our intelligence, and clearly makes certain kinds of knowledge work much easier— then promotes distraction. The Web is not frustrating because it does nothing but destroy your capacity to think; it problem is that it brings the promised land within view, but keeps it out of reach. Like a stick that unpredictably slips out of a blind man's hand, the problem is that don't work, but their stubborn unwillingness to merge satisfyingly with the user.

 

Finally, there is a large body of scientific literature that shows that contemplation and mindfulness are critical to long-term happiness. People are happiest when they are absorbed in difficult tasks that engage their minds and senses, rather than consuming passive, sybaritic pleasures. [Gilbert and Killingsworth 2010] As Seneca noted of artists, "When his whole attention is absorbed in concentration on the work he is engaged on, a tremendous sense of satisfaction is created in him by his very absorption." [Seneca, letter IX] This is important for long-term happiness because challenges remain absorbing and interesting (so long as they become more difficult), while pleasures eventually become familiar and dull. A capacity to enjoy challenges leads to a greater degree of emotional self-reliance and mental independence, which is another critical determinant of happiness. [Csikszentmihaly 1991] While some arguments about the Web's impact on contemplative thought may be updated versions of the Two Cultures debate (an argument about the relative value of literary and scientific thinking that has its origins in the founding the Cambridge modern literature program a century ago), the human cost of these losses recommends that they be taken seriously.

 

It is ironic that critics describe a need to preserve contemplative ways of thinking in the face of digital onslaughts, at exactly the same time that contemplative practices have been finding their way into a number of areas of modern life. In the 1970s and 1980s, psychologists began applying contemplative practices to therapy, developing practices like Meditation Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) [Andresen 2000, Kabat-Zinn 2003]. Since then, contemplative practices have been adopted in fields that require high degrees of creativity, concentration, and an ability to perform under pressure. [Duerr, 2004] Educators are integrating contemplative practices into fields as diverse as science and jazz [Sarath 2003, Lichtmann 2005, Hill 2006, Zajonc 2006]. Coaches experiment use meditation and visualization techniques to help athletes reach peak performance [Kee and Wang 2008, Marks 2008, Kaufman et al 2009]. Military trainers and psychologists have used contemplative practices to both improve combat performance and combat post­traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [Dickey 2008]. Organizations use contemplative practices help improve collaboration and communication and smooth dispute resolution [Hoffman 2008, Reilin 2007]. Even lawyers have used contemplative practice as a way to improve negotiation skills, countering adversarial approach to legal negotiations, and even investing the practice of law with spiritual meaning [Blatt 2002, Silver 2004].

 

So even while our use of the Web threatens to erode our personal facilities for and broader social respect for contemplation, we've come to recognize the psychic value of disciplined attention, of learning how to set aside the self when facing challenges, and to know how to be focused and in the moment. MBSR, the contemplative lawyering movement, and coaching all show that these practices can be used in a variety of contexts. Applying them to the design of information technologies continues a series of decades-long experiments at the boundaries of philosophy, cognitive science, and the professions.

 

2. On Contemplation

 

Contemplation is an ancient word describing a vast set of practices for deepening one's spiritual awareness, connecting with the divine, or reaching enlightenment, that have been refined over thousands of years. While I believe we can draw on that tradition, it's also necessary to abstract and simplify it. Here, I define contemplation to be a form of detached, calm engagement. Each of these terms has layers worth exploring.

 

By detached I mean an effort to see without preconditions. Detachment allows one to avoid being surprised by novelty, to be blindsided, or to miss unexpected events because of limits caused by over-reliance on familiar routines and perspective. [Langer and Moldoveau, 2000] Detachment also allows a person to observe themselves, to evaluate their reactions to a situation in real time, and to more quickly and purposefully alter those reactions: to ignore hunger or pain or suspend judgment, for example. By calm I mean the ability of users to mobilize their skill and self-control, to avoid excitement, and thus maintain detachment and engagement. Engagement is the ability to focus attention on a subject, to keep the mind from wandering off on its own. It also requires paying attention to yourself. If the external world or your task is the center of your attention, your own senses and reactions are at the periphery: you monitor and observe them in order to be aware of their influence, not because there are worth your attention on their own.

 

One might think that detachment and engagement are opposites, but they are not. Detachment of one's emotions or ego doesn't prevent immersion in the moment; it's a precondition for it. As Mihaly Csikszentmihaly puts it, "The absence of the self from consciousness does not mean that a person in flow has given up the control of his psychic energy, or that she is unaware of what happens in her body or in her mind. In fact the opposite is true,” he says. The loss of self-consciousness “does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self.... When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are." [Csikszentmihaly 1991, 64]

 

Contemplation is Skillful Action

 

The term "calm" of course has a long history in HCI, but contemplation requires a special, revealing kind of calm. [Rogers 2006] We normally think of calm as either a physiological state (a steady pulse, a low adrenaline and cortisol level), or the absence of disturbances in our minds or surroundings. Neither of these is inaccurate, but they are insufficient, particularly in the context of contemplative states and technology. A third kind of calm emerges out of deliberate practice, an intimate knowledge of craft and tools, and is supported by practiced and often varied use. This is the kind of focused calm exhibited by pilots who land damaged planes, exalted in the code of samurai, and embodied in monk-like assassins in fiction (Hideo in Gibson's Neuromancer, for example) [Gibson 1984].

 

Philosopher Alva Noe, in his excellent and challenging book Action in Perception, argues that "perceiving is a way of acting," the result of "skillful visual probing" rather than a passive-- or even just highly edited and filtered-- but largely automatic activity. "You enact your perceptual content, through the activity of skilful looking." [Noe 2005] Calm with technology likewise is enacted, not consumed. It is not defined by the absence of stimuli, or the absence of distractions, but by masterful engagement with stimuli that leaves no room for distraction. It is an active form of engagement that requires training and discipline, and a deep understanding of both devices and self.

 

Contemplation is Embodied

 

Contemplation is often imagined to require ignoring the body. Not true. Meditation, as anthropologist Joanna Cole puts it, "may be understood as a prescribed embodied practice." [Cole 241] Contemplation, like all cognitive activities, involves both mind and body. Practitioners of yogi and Anapanasati meditation, for example, are taught to control breathing as the basis for more advanced forms of contemplation. Physical agitation can disrupt contemplation, but we can also exert control over those states in the service of contemplative activity. More generally, while the computer science community tends to think of brain-computer interaction as a set of technologies for bypassing the body, in reality early users of devices "use bodily actions to facilitate control of brain activity… [and] make their actions and intentions visible to, and interpretable by, others." [O'Hara, Sellen and Harper, 2011]

 

Likewise, contemplation sometimes is sustained when the subconscious mind is given a chance to work on problems. Just as the body needs breaks from intense physical activity, so can the contemplative mind benefit from time in the proper unfocused state. We all are familiar with the experience of working on something for a long period of time, and having some insight happen when we're doing something else. The phrase "solvitur ambulando"—it is solved by walking—is an ancient expression of the idea that the subconscious mind can sometimes work on problems when the conscious mind is allowed to drift, and the body is engaged in something different but not too absorbing.

 

Contemplation is Solitary AND Social

 

The conventional view of contemplative practice is that it is solitary. While there is unquestionably a singular, personal experience to contemplation, it typically involves less separation from the world, and more social support and reinforcement, than we normally realize.

 

These social connections are visible in a range of contemplative activities. Literary and scholarly work require both concentration and connection. As Virginia Woolf notes, authors need both a room of one's own, and a literary tradition that can inspire and give shape and meaning to author's solitary efforts: "books continue each other," as she put it, "in spite of our habit of judging them separately." [Woolf 2004]

 

Religious and scholarly activities likewise illustrate the ways individual contemplative efforts are reinforced by collective action. In religions that emphasize the direct personal accessibility of the divine (Buddhism and Protestant Christianity, for example), such connections are made through a combination of solitary activity (reading, silent prayer) as well as public meditation and communion. Monastic and scholarly life, while emphasizing its otherworldly qualities and separation from the bustle and noise of the normal world, requires material and financial support of nearby communities, and lay brothers or beadles who protect their silence. Ancient universities were founded within easy reach of trading centers and the materials—everything from parchment-making to stone-cutting— that scholars needed, but far enough to maintain independence and promote reflection. [Chrimes 2009] Indeed, since ancient times the architecture and rituals of monastic life have mixed public and private actions, open and closed spaces, and set rules for the treatment of guests and pilgrims. [O'Gorman and MacPhee 2006, McGinn 2006, Jamison 2006, Hedstrom 2007, Faure 2010]

 

Contemplation is Spatial

 

Contemplative practices in Buddhism, Christianity, and other faiths can be what Bruno Latour calls "immutable mobiles," transferred by practitioners from one domain to another, but like scientific ideas, contemplative practices are associated with particular physical places. [Latour 1987]

 

Landscape architects use a variety of concepts and strategies to create contemplative or restorative spaces. Designers of Zen gardens, monastic quadrangles, pilgrimage sites, and parks construct paths that take visitors from the ordinary to the contemplative, from bustle and noise to quiet, from the ordinary into the captivating. More interestingly, contemplative spaces often work best by juxtaposing contrasting elements (e.g. formal and wild, stone and water); alternating small and large spaces (e.g. an arch that opens onto a field); providing multiple partial views of a focal point (a common feature of Japanese and Gothic architecture); combining immensity and intimacy (e.g. a mountain overlooking a garden); and locating small, complex and meaningful objects in large blank spaces (a painting in an art museum). [Soares Moura, 2010]

 

Interestingly, computer users—and especially fans of Zenware—regularly invoke spatial metaphors to describe their interactions with software. One fan of Ommwriter says, "it's just you and your thoughts for miles around… When I write in it, within minutes I no longer hear the sounds of busy London city life zooming past my flat." Another describes it as like "writing in a Zen garden." Virginia Hefferman described WriteRoom even more lavishly: "you rocket out into the unknown, into profound solitude, and every word of yours becomes the kind of outer-space skywriting that opens 'Star Wars.'" Likewise, OmmWriter's overview video describes the program as "a writer's haven," adds, "If you are new here, hello," and promises that even in the new version, "you are still alone with your thoughts." This is all the more notable because there's nothing remotely spatial about WriteRoom or its progeny: they're as flat an interface as you could imagine (OmmWriter again is the exception). Yet clearly this idea is meaningful for plenty of people: the program is supposed to be like shutting yourself in an inspirational, meditative space. At the very least, this suggests just how powerful spatial metaphors remain in our thinking about computers and human-computer interaction.

 

The fact that contemplation is skilled and active, embodied, and has spatial and social dimensions gives a sense of its complexity. Indeed, while terms like "mobile computing" and "ubiquitous computing" call attention to different configurations of computer technology, and suggest that critical design challenges have to do with hardware and software, the term "contemplative computing" directs our attention toward people and their interactions with computers, rather than the properties computers might possess absent their users. It also suggests that contemplative computing cannot be a single form of interaction between user and technology, nor can it be triggered by a particular set of features. The best designers can do is invite users to be contemplative, and to support their efforts to work more thoughtfully or mindfully.

 

3. Principles of Contemplative Computing

 

Contemplative computing is constantly being created and recreated between users, devices, environments, information and tasks. It cannot be encoded in designs, but it can be supported by good design. Thoughtful interaction design can help users arrive at calm through engagement, reach contemplation through self-experimentation, and find balance by respecting the fluid tension that exists between users, technologies, and the world. It recognizes that the main challenge is not to create technologies that possess particular properties, but to support users' exploration and the development of their skills. This requires recognizing that contemplation is hard work, and most of that hard work must be done by users: designers can facilitate the process, but ultimately contemplative computing is practiced by users.

 

There are several principles that designers and users need to respect and work with:

 

●      Build awareness through DIY and self-experimentation

●      Recognize that we are cyborgs, and humans

●      Create rewarding challenges

●      Support mind-wandering

●      Treat flow as a means, not an end

 

Designers need to think about how these principles can be supported by designs and devices. Users need to learn to consciously apply these principles to develop more thoughtful control over information tools and their use of tools. Let us consider each in turn.

 

DIY: Tinkering With Information Tools

 

Contemplation is a varied activity: different people will need different tools at the same time, and the same person will need different tools at different times. As a result, contemplative technologies need to invite tinkering.

 

Tinkering is more than customization or reading the manual. It's a pragmatic, improvisational approach to engaging with and changing technologies that emphasizes flexibility, rapid learning, and bricolage: tinkerers use materials at hand, combining heterogeneous parts and components (e.g., raw and finished materials, handmade and industrial objects, customized and personalized consumer products) in ways that push beyond the boundaries of their original contexts. It can have a playful, engaging aspect that some describe as "Zen-like." Tinkering is also quite social: tinkerers share their ideas with each other, trade design tips, and show off their work. In the United States, tinkering has been elevated into a form of self-education and –improvement: it's a playful way to learn new skills, more fully understand one's built environment, and reduce the ecological impact of industrial civilization. [Pang 2009, Fraunfelder 2010, Balsamo 2010]

 

Self-Experimentation: Tinkering With Ourselves

 

Self-experimentation is the systematic observation of one's physical or psychological reactions to particular stimuli or events. It was part of the scientific method until the eighteenth century, when it fell into disrepute; more recently, it has begun to make a comeback [Kerridge 2003; Minkel 2008]. Among professional scientists, Werner Forssmann's self-experiments with cardiac catheterization won him the 1956 Nobel prize in physiology and medicine; almost exactly fifty years later, Barry Roberts and Robin Warren won the Nobel for their self-experiments on the bacterial causes of septic ulcers. As Seth Roberts argues, self-experimentation can be used for both testing ideas, and for developing entirely yield new hypotheses and insights [Roberts 2004, Roberts 2010]. Self-experimentation has also become popular with amateur scientists, people living with chronic illnesses, and high-performance athletes. In all these cases, self-monitoring has become more reliable and regular thanks to mobile information technologies; they've been adopted by groups who need to find specific, personal solutions to complex medical problems, or design training regimens adapted to their specific needs. [Pang 2010]

 

Self-experimentation is important in contemplative computing for two reasons. First, the process requires users to be reflexive, to pay attention to how different ways of using information technologies or designing information environments and flows suits their needs. Second, it generates long-term data series that are unique, and cannot be produced by designers and engineers. Computer designers are accustomed to thinking about time as a precious resource whose use must be maximized, [Saenger 2011] and user studies typically last a few hours—long enough to test specific designs or hypotheses. The support of contemplative states, in contrast, requires thinking about interactions with information technologies over much longer periods of time. Much as decades-long studies of single communities (the Framingham Heart Study and the Grant Study are canonical examples [Vaillant 1998, Vaillant 2003]) reveals social phenomena that are invisible in shorter observations, so will records of interactions at the scale of years rather than hours tell us much about how contemplative computing can be made to work.

 

Such reflection shouldn't just take note of how a user interacts with devices; it should encompass performance and context as well. It's necessary to be attentive to device ecologies, to the ways devices work in different situations, and to the potential unintended consequences of choices. Individual technologies may deliver incremental improvements that the designers intended, but do so in ways that have unintended consequences. [Tenner 1999] For example, the washing machine, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner all made housework easier, but they also raised standards of cleanliness and encouraged the feminization of housework; as a result, women spend almost as many hours now doing housework as they did a century ago [Cowan 1984]. Automation, if poorly designed, can exacerbate problems in human management of systems [Bainbridge 1983, Norman 1990, Vicente 2002]

 

We Are All Cyborgs...

 

Tinkering and self-experimentation are obviously similar, though one is principally directed at understanding how tools can be shaped and adapted to suit one's needs, while the latter focuses on building the data necessary to become more self-aware, to discover hidden patterns, and to more rigorously understand how new technologies and practices can affect us. Both are also joined at another level: they explore two sides of what designers and users should see as the same thing— the extended self, an embodied cognitive system consisting of brain, mind, body, and tools.

 

One the most powerful human abilities is our facility to extending our selves through our tools. Andy Clark argues that neural plasticity defines humanity: we aren't the only animals who merge with our tools, but we do it more frequently, more easily, and rely on it more often. [Clark 2003, Clark 2008] Colin Renfrew argues that plasticity makes humanity possible. Basic concepts like value, number and divinity—not mention speech and writing—all developed in the last 10,000 years in brains whose critical structures are at least 60,000 years old: the rise of human civilization is a story of ever-deepening cognitive engagement with materials. [Renfrew 2008; Malafouris and Renfrew, 2005]

 

Just as babies come to understand their bodies, selves and surroundings through "body babbling," tasting and dropping objects, and interacting with other humans, our adult brains and bodies are constantly experimenting with new devices to meld with, augment our capabilities, or offload tasks. This neuroplasticity has been described by digital Cassandras like Nick Carr as an interesting but fatal flaw: the Web, he argues, exploits neuroplasticity to addict and then dull our brains. I think this is a cause of celebration: the discovery of neuroplasticity means we can learn to recapture lost abilities, better understand how we interact with devices, and be more thoughtful about our own cognitive engagements and their consequences. We can be mindful about technology, and mindful through it.

 

…and We Are Still Human

 

It's easy to think that people who have a capacity to offload parts of their memory into digital devices, or use their surroundings or online spaces to support cognitive activities, want to behave more like computers: they want their own brains to have the reliability, efficiency, and speed of computers. Not true.

 

It's easy to fall into this confusion. For example, while we use the same word for them, human and computer memory are very different things. Computers remember indiscriminately. This is a very good thing if they're keeping track of bank records or subatomic events, but it's more problematic when it's applied to the world of more complex human affairs. Individuals are much more selective about what they remember, and societies actively negotiate what they choose to remember and call attention to. Well-adjusted people have the capacity to forget insults and painful events, or to think back on them with clinical detachment. Collectively, societies make decisions about what they choose to remember, and how to act toward the past. They may avoid deep reflection on wars or civil strife in the interests of national unity. Juvenile criminal records are sealed in order to give young offenders a chance to start their adult lives over, and someone who serves jail time is supposed to have paid their debt to society. [Mayer-Schönberger 2007]

 

Likewise, human activities have forms of complexity, paradox, and tension that most computerized tasks do not. Recognizing that complexity and indirection are parts of life is an essential part of self-development, and important for designing robust information tools. Psychologists have found that happiness comes more reliably from the conquest of challenges than the pursuit of pleasure: this is so well-known among researchers that they describe it as "the paradox of pleasure." [Martin 2008] As John Kay notes, most complicated activities have to be pursued indirectly, for "complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with each other, and that we learn about the nature of the objective and means of achieving them during a process of exploration and discovery." [Kay 2011, 3-4] This is not to say that efficiency is always bad; but HCI researchers and designers should be treat efficiency as a means rather than an end [Cockton 2002], and acknowledge the inescapability (and value) of indirection and paradox. Computers evolved to optimize fairly straightforward tasks like mathematical calculations, inventory control, and mass-production. But these are notable— and exceptional— precisely in their lack of obliquity. In other situation, however, safety and reliability are undermined by computerized precision: several mid-air plane collisions have been blamed on automatic GPS systems keeping planes on identical flight paths, rather than the fuzzier (and hence safer) paths that pilots manually program. [Greenspun 2006]

 

Create Rewarding Challenges

 

Recognizing the value of tinkering, self-experimentation, and extended cognition leads to a final point that designers and users need to recognize: that these things are often challenging, oblique, and cannot be reached through quickly-learned or easy-to-use designs and methods. And that's all right.

 

Ease of use has been so central to HCI it may seem absurd to disregard it as a design aim. But the idea that computers should not be designed for a technical priesthood is now commonplace. Further, for a generation of users who've grown up with computers, information technologies are not as alien as they were to the first generation of PC users. Indeed, both history and the embodied cognition literature suggest that "ease of use" is not defined by human physiology and neurology, but emerges out of experience. The first computer mouse, for example, had a single button because even two confused users; compare this with mice designed for users who have grown up with game controllers and smartphones. Designers don't make things easy to use; they create the possibility of ease of use. Users enact ease of use.

 

Further, people are less frightened by rewarding challenges than we imagine. Happiness researchers have found that people value difficult (even physically stressful or painful) activities more than sensual ones, and describe greater levels of personal satisfaction during work than during leisure. "Contrary to what we usually believe," Csikszentmihaly says, "the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times." Rather, they "occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." [Csikszentmihaly 1991] Many "leisure" activities involve perseverance, practice, adversity, and self-sacrifice, yet remain psychologically valuable and fulfilling. [Stebbins 1982]

 

Finally, while a little may be healthy, too much ease of use can be a bad thing. Problem-solving systems that offer lots of assistance interfere with users' internalization of information, and erode their long-term ability to solve problems. [von Nimwegen 2005] Smart homes systems that anticipate the needs of elderly residents may aim to keep seniors healthier, but they unintentionally "strip people of their sense of control over their environment" and promote dependence on technology— exactly at a time when staying active is critical for good mental and physical health. [Intille]

 

In order to create systems that promote contemplation, we should recognize that people like challenges, and that exercising skills keeps users healthier and smarter. The argument that "Technology should require human effort in ways that keep life as mentally and physically challenging as possible as people age" [Intille] is good advice at all ages.

 

Support Mind Wandering, Not Distraction

 

Concentration is hard, and it fails regularly: one recent study found participants not focused on their surroundings or activities about half the time. But while it may seem inefficient, some kinds of unfocused mental activity are both unavoidable and necessary. In particular, scientists have discovered that mind-wandering (popularly known as daydreaming or woolgathering) has psychological value and appears to be an important component in problem-solving and creativity.  [Smallwood and Schooler 2006] It's not the same thing as distraction.

 

Mind-wandering is what happens when you are driving a familiar route and your mind begins thinking about an upcoming meeting, while distraction is what happens when you are trying to navigate an unfamiliar city while the kids are arguing in the backseat and the phone rings. But while it may seem like an impediment to linear problem-solving or focus on tasks like reading [Smallwood 2011], it appears essential to creativity. Mind-wandering frees up cognitive resources for subconscious problem-solving or creative thought, while distraction does not. It thus helps generate those "a-ha" moments in which ideas seem to come unbidden into the mind, or see previously-invisible links between ideas or facts. Indeed, the brain's "default mode" might engage in its own kind of unconscious contemplation: it may "allow you to internally explore the world and your place in it." [Saey 2009]

 

Rather than fall from contemplation to pure distraction, therefore, designers should try to guide users to mind-wandering instead: to use down time in ways that leave their minds free to recharge and explore, rather than be given over to entropy.

 

Treat Flow as a Means, not an End

 

Contemplation, with its combination of calm, engagement and concentration, bears a strong resemblance to what Csikszentmihaly calls flow. In these states, "Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness 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." [Csikszentmihaly 1991, 71] However, engagement has a reflexive, moral dimension that flow does not always possess. As parents with video-game playing children know, it's possible for a person to concentrate and lose track of time, but not become a more complex person.

 

Flow has been a highly influential book in Web and game design (it has been cited thousands of time in the game design literature), but its influence has been highly selective: its broader insights have been overlooked in favor of a much more utilitarian reading. While Csikszentmihaly wanted to understand how optimal experiences make for more complex and satisfying lives, readers of Flow in the Web and game worlds have tended not to ask questions like, "How can we design computers in ways that let users experience flow throughout their lives," but rather "How can we use flow to make e-commerce sites stickier"? Gamers in particular have applied the lessons of Flow brilliantly: video games are absorbing in precisely the ways Csikszentmihaly described. While there is some evidence that serious gamers (particularly heavy players of first-person shooters) are more likely to exhibit mindfulness, software designers have shown that it's possible to dissociate flow experiences from the search for a good life. [Gackenbach and Bown, 2011] In this way, the appropriation of flow stands to Csikszmentmihaly's original work as bushido– the creed of the samurai—stands to Buddhism. In the hands of samurai (and later, kamikaze pilots), Buddhist precepts about nonviolence were discarded, while the contemplative elements were refined into a discipline that allowed the warrior to develop both extraordinary skill and disregard for life. [King 1991, Victoria 1997]

 

This limited reading of Csikszentmihaly made sense during the first phase of HCI, when the objective was to make computers more accessible to non-technical types, and it was still a challenge to explain why ease of use should be taken seriously, this more utilitarian reading of Flow made sense. Now, though, we live in a world in which many of us spend a lot of time interacting with computers and other kinds of digital devices. In such a world, questions about how computers can be designed and used to help us lead better lives—better in a psychological and moral sense—are inescapable. Indeed, the link between flow states, contemplation and creativity have long been noted, and designers would be wise to exploit this ancient knowledge. Ancient Greek and medieval philosophers argued for the nobility of serious leisure [Stebbins 1982, Stebbins 2004] on the grounds that it offered participants a chance "to engage fully and responsibly with one's self and the world." This, in turn, allowed them to cultivate intellectus—to prepare the mind for the flashes of discovery that we associate with creativity and insight. [Levy 2005, 284] In other words, we should treat flow as a means to a larger end— a more contemplative attitude, a deeper engagement with work, a better life— not as an end in itself.

 

Conclusion: Creating Engaged Computing and Smart People

 

For all its philosophical concerns and echoes of monastic and spiritual life, a design and use paradigm that uses tinkering, self-experimentation, embodied cognition, and challenges to help people become more contemplative— more capable of pursuing a detached, calm engagement with the moment— is not really very foreign. It's an approach that uses engaged computing to make people calmer and smarter. Engaged computing was proposed by Yvonne Rogers in a provocative article arguing that the pursuit of "calm computing" had led to a cul-de-sac in computer science. [Rogers 2006] I think advocates of proactive computing misunderstood the nature of calmness: they mistook the calmness in "calm computing" as a form of passivity, as the absence of action or distraction. [Weiser and Brown 1999, Tennebaum 2000] Contemplative computing draws on Weiser and Brown's original, profound vision of calm computing and Rogers' more exciting proposal for engaged computing. By seeing calm and concentration as more active, skillful activities, and by recognizing that contemplation is itself a complex, difficult, dynamic enterprise, we can see that engagement— and engaged computing— is a means to the end of calm. It's a vision that also emphasizes making people smarter, rather than making technology smarter. Smart technology isn't bad by any means, but it is just that— a means. Contemplative computing requires people to do plenty of difficult, rewarding work— but doing so can help teem discover new skills, build greater complexity and capabilities, and handle challenges.

 

4. Contemplative Computing and User’s Models of Themselves

 

Contemplative computing would use design principles drawn from contemplative practices to create digital tools that help users maintain focus and think more deeply. In so doing those tools would give users a new venue in which to exercise capacities for attention, mindfulness, and skilled calm. Contemplative computing would do one other critical thing: encourage users to develop new, more humane models of themselves.

 

In the course of using computers, people develop models of what computers are. As Clifford Nass has shown, many users react to computers as if they were reacting to people. [Nass 1995] Users also construct narratives to give meaning to their work with computers. Those narratives can take on lives of their own. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, many people who went online thought of themselves as "homesteaders on the digital frontier," visitors to (or even residents of) a cyberspace that was separate from and superior to the physical world. Drawing on spatial metaphors from video games and science fiction, and from philosophical and scholarly works ranging from de Chardin to Jacques Derrida, the idea of cyberspace not only gave an epic meaning to online activities; it in turn led to a variety of predictions about the impending death of cities, distance, identity, and other familiar things. [Pang 2008] The philosophy behind a tool or product can also influence those narratives. Zenware's evocation of Zen design and mindfulness, for example, is echoed by users who talk about the tools creating mental spaces or promoting clarity of thought. A WriteRoom user says the simple interface "gives me a peace of mind, a "mind like water". It is a good condition for me to enter the "flow" state, a condition where I lose track of time and have my creative juice flows freely."

 

But users also construct narratives about themselves in the course of interacting with computers. Our understanding of what it means to be human, and especially what it means to be intelligent, is affected by observing digital technologies, using them, and seeing the world through them. Jaron Lanier’s provocative book You Are Not a Gadget argues that our efforts to develop virtual realities, artificial intelligences, and online hive minds have impoverished our sense of human abilities and potential. In some cases, Lanier suggests, computer developers and entrepreneurs have actively downgraded human abilities in order to make computers seem more like people. [Lanier 2010] I argue that our models of intelligence, and of human versus computer intelligence, have several features:

 

●      Intelligence is mainly about processing large quantities of information; absorbing and responding in real time to information and events; finding the needle in the haystack.

●      Memory is measured by an ability to exactly recall past events or facts. A "photographic" memory that stores a great deal of detail, and presents it to people without error, is ideal.

●      Efficiency and speed are good.

●      Computers are smarter than people, or nearly as smart. Further, they continue to get smarter. Humans, in contrast, are not becoming more intelligent; if anything, we’re getting dumber.

 

Each of these, I would argue, is wrong. Intelligence and memory are not just about processing information; at their heart, human intelligence and memory are both creative. Likewise, efficiency and speed are useful when doing straightforward, well-described tasks; but much of life is defined by challenges and goals that are complicated and oblique. And while we may of us report feeling less intelligent—and because of our inability to deal with computer-like efficiency and speed to everyday tasks and information, less able to focus on the bigger and more complicated ones—even if it's true, it's not a permanent state: it's reversible.

 

Models have consequences. Ideas about intelligence in particular have a powerful effect on learning. Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that people who think of intelligence and skill as genetically determined or hard-wired, and those who think of them as flexible capabilities that can be improved through determined practice and experience, look quite differently on success and failure. People who believe they do well at tests because of inherent intelligence may rise rapidly, but are much more likely to interpret failures or poor performance as establishing and upper limit of their abilities beyond which they cannot go. People who believe that intelligence and talent are driven by practice and experience, in contrast, treat failures as temporary rather than permanent obstacles, and are more likely to learn from mistakes and act on those lessons. Elite athletes, musicians, scientists, and writers don’t completely discount the advantages genetics can confer; but they believe they succeed because they work hard, not because of raw talent. [Dweck 2006] Measuring human intelligence against the very different capabilities of digital tools inevitably brings humans up short. Contemplative computing, in contrast, may encourage users to see how creativity and intelligence differ from, but can be supported by, the capabilities of information technologies. It may allow for a more balanced perspective on the value of real-time information and efficiency. Ultimately, contemplative computing's model of what humans are, and what distinguishes humans from their tools, can help deepen our understanding of what constitutes a good life, and how our tools can and cannot help us live it.

 

5. Conclusion

 

The meditation room or monastery may not seem like the most obvious places to look for insights that can shape the future of computing, much less deal with what feel like very modern problems. But the problems of distraction, overload and fracture, for all their modern gloss, are ancient problems. There's an immense literature and body of practice around contemplation, and a great deal of reflection around what works. Further, contemplative practices are portable: they can be used in virtually any situation, including situations in which we are using—or immersed in—digital media. Further, these traditions show that there is a long history of designing technologies to support contemplation, and suggest ways to design digital environments and tools to promote contemplation.

 

In the 1969 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand famously declared, "we are as gods, and might as well get good at it." Written at a time when Brand's Silicon Valley neighbors were inventing new computer technologies and feeling their way to the concept of personal computing [Markoff 2005], the phrase captures the oracular yet folksy spirit and countercultural view of technology that inspired the personal computer [Roszak 1986]. The ever-increasing power of computers (Moore's Law was still a fresh idea) indeed made them seem like god-like gifts. But while the personal computer has certainly made some kinds of work immensely more efficient, and invested us with abilities we didn't imagine forty years ago, few people today would say they have god-like powers over information technologies. The engaging, absorbing, challenging, almost dangerously seductive feeling of getting "close to the machine" is still experienced mainly by gamers and programmers. [Ullman 1996] Meanwhile, many ordinary users feel overwhelmed by the competing and unending demands of e-mail, cellphones, Facebook, and burdened by the sense that being disconnected from real-time flows of information means being uninformed.

 

As we insinuate and burrow and weave computers and connectivity into even more corners of human life, it becomes more important to learn how to design technologies that work not by substituting human abilities or encouraging us to redefine ourselves as more machine-like [Lanier 2010], but that work by augmenting human abilities while compensating for our weaknesses [Love and Pang, 2008]. Doing that, in turn, requires developing a new vision of what it means to be human. It requires creating the means for users to be more thoughtful and purposeful about their interactions with technologies. It requires developing technologies that support users' efforts to apply a contemplative stance to their work and lives. For designers, it means backing away from a style of technology that places efficiency and speed above everything else; that recognizes the importance of human values; and helps users find and reach them. In other words, we are not as gods. We are as humans. And we might as well have tools that help us get good at it.

 


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