In a recent conversation I had with Rohan Gunatillake at the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, we spoke about the tension between our digital lives and our pursuit of mindfulness and wellness—he from the perspective of a technologist and social entrepreneur and I from the perspective of an emotion scientist and digital health researcher. This is a dilemma with few easy answers, in part because of the speed at which our lives have been transformed by digital technology and social media, the pervasiveness of these technologies, and because of the nature of how these technologies fit into our lives.
In his book Modern Mindfulness, Gunatillake references Clay Shirky’s point that the main modern problem we face is not information overload, but filter failure. This statement is simple but profound because it highlights two issues:
In other words, mindfulness and other techniques may be among the most crucial tools we have to help us live well in a world infused with digital technology and information overload. A rich inner life also protects us from the constant siren calls of “the grass is greener on the other side” and “everyone but me has a perfect life,” which is the natural consequence of living super-connected, exquisitely-curated, social media-driven lives.
The Attention Economy
The basic idea of the attention economy is that human attention is the most scarce and valuable business currency in the age of information overload. A business or service can only survive if it successfully attracts and captures a consumer’s attention; thus, it must do so by whatever means possible. So content needs to be compelling, attention grabbing, and addictive—and the interfaces we use to get that content have to keep us coming back for more.
Facebook is a perfect case study of the attention economy. Roughly 90% of all American young adult Internet users (18-29 years old) use Facebook. This is more than double the share of users who use other social media tools, such as Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Because a main source of Facebook’s economic power is that it trades in our personal data, it must acquire and retain users, keeping them coming back and contributing their attention and content to the avalanche of data being gathered every moment. And if we want the rewards that Facebook offers us—whether it’s the promise of an interesting or pleasant distraction, social connection, or checking the number of likes on our last post—we have to keep checking in. When we get those likes, we feel connected, soothed, and understood. This system is especially powerful because we access these rewards through intermittent reinforcement—you have the chance to get something you want, but you don’t know when it’s coming, and what you do to get it is only unpredictably linked to the prize. It’s the slot machine effect.
Repeatedly checking our Facebook feed increases the chance we’ll see something funny, get a like, hear from a friend, or find out a good tidbit of information. A range of social media, apps, games, and online shopping sites are deeply anchored in a version of the slot machine approach because, of course, you don’t know when this good stuff is going to happen, so you have to keep checking.
Finding the Middle Way
Even though we live in an attention economy, we want to use technology to perfect our inner lives. No easy task. Arguably, Moore’s Law has changed our expectations for technology over the past 50 years, but it has also, perhaps, changed our psychological view of ourselves and the world. Moore’s Law leads us to assume that not only will the rate of growth in computing power race ahead (doubling every 18 months), but everything else in our modern lives should keep up, becoming faster and more perfect with every passing day. This expectation leads to a general culture of “upgrading,” whether it’s a program, mobile app, aspect of our outer life, or whether it’s our inner spiritual and emotional lives. Perhaps our drive to find the perfect app for our spiritual well-being creates a host of risks we haven’t considered. As spiritual traditions for millennia have found, the desire to perfect our inner lives can lead to roadblocks, such as spiritual arrogance and pride, as much as the desire to perfect our outer lives can bring greater unhappiness.
I believe that there is a very real need to strengthen our inner lives in harmony with technology. That is, we should be finding more digital technology and apps to help us practice and build mindfulness, and, as a scientist, I believe we should be looking for apps with a solid scientific evidence base. There’s no doubt that we should be using technology in more mindful ways, not just deciding to check out or forgo all digital access through digital detoxes every once in a while. That kind of extreme approach doesn’t actually help us figure out how to live well with technology.
But at the same time, what happens if we don’t temper this goal of being mindful with technology with a healthy awareness of the costs of living life through a screen? The use of technology to find greater perfection in our inner lives puts us between a rock and a hard place— or in this case, between a cyborg and a hard place.
A cyborg? Many have argued that we modern humans are inexorably moving towards becoming cyborgs by using technology to perfect our memory, diets, travel, health, relationships, and parenting.
While it might sound weird and scary to call ourselves cyborgs, this isn’t some sci-fi talk of a future dystopia. According to most definitions, we already are there. A cyborg—which is short for cybernetic organism—is a being that enhances its own abilities via technology. In fiction, cyborgs are portrayed as a synthesis of organic and synthetic parts. But this organic-synthetic integration is not necessary to meet the criteria for a cyborg. Anyone who uses technology to do something we humans already do, but in an enhanced way is a cyborg. If you mediate your life through a mobile device, and can’t function as well once it’s gone—like when you leave your device at home—then you’re probably a cyborg. Do you use any wearables, like a smartwatch or biotracker? You’re a cyborg. Google glasses? Cyborg. So here we are, in a world hurtling towards every greater speed and perfection. Should this be mirrored in our desire to use technology to perfect and upgrade our inner lives?
Don’t get me wrong, the human race has been brain hacking and perfecting inner lives for millennia. We’ve long been shaping and mediating how we make sense of reality through language, religion, the arts, politics, education, and so on. Along come radical advances in digital computing and now we have another tool to use. But this tool should not be privileged above all others. And we must take a cold, hard look at how, in some contexts, the costs of these digital tools outweigh the benefits, leading to information overload, greater anxiety, and social disconnection.
I believe most of us know how to filter our lives more effectively. Simple things can make a big difference, such as silencing the endless rings and buzzes of our notifications, turning off our devices during meals, and minimizing the time our family, parents, and friends, and loved ones see the back of our devices rather than our faces. Of course, as Gunatillake articulates in Modern Mindfulness, we also can find more mindful and aware moments with technology, infusing our digital lives with opportunities to find space and stillness. When we take these steps, we treat our attention as sacred and precious, as a resource to be spent wisely, not bought and sold in the attention economy. We build our inner resources.
We can reclaim technology in service of our inner lives, and our inner filters. But we also need help. Designers can make technology more invisible and help us streamline screen time—less time with eyeballs on the screen—and design technology that facilitates our ability to live truly connected and fulfilling lives. Consumers can demand digital mindfulness and health tools with scientific backing and that help us connect with others both on and off screen. Let’s all be more conscious of how we’re spending our precious attention.