Being mindful is the first step in crafting a better relationship with a deeply technological world.
The next time you connect to the Internet, try connecting with yourself, too. You may discover it’s a good way to begin dealing with the stresses of life in the digital age.
Breathe deeply a few times and I’ll tell you about David M. Levy and his new book out last week, “Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives.” Levy is a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, has a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford, worked many years in Silicon Valley, and is a calligrapher. His résumé is part of the road map to his ideas about balance.
A lot of people feel out of balance, and technology plays a role in that. Mobile tech and the web have blurred lines between work and home. Instant access to news and information of all kinds creates pressure to keep up, which is impossible to do. Social media raises expectations for constant connectedness. And email is always beckoning. We go faster and still fall behind.
Technology is a marvelous solution to many problems but a facilitator of others. Praise it, blame it, but if you want a better relationship with it, you have to take charge of the way you relate to it.
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Levy writes about that and discusses ways to craft a better digital life. His ideas may sound familiar to you if you practice meditation.
The book includes exercises for each of several digital stressors, and they have a similar structure. So if email is an issue for you, he suggests doing what you usually do while paying attention to and even logging your behaviors, feelings, and the status of your body. Are you slumping, are you holding your breath, do you keep interrupting other tasks to go back to email? Are there messages you dread? How many of your actions are the result of conscious decisions and how many are automatic?
Being more aware is a necessary step in improving any aspect of life. Once you’ve observed yourself and analyzed your interaction with email, you can see where problems lie and make changes. He talks about alternative ways of handling email and includes stories from other people about their digital experiences, because every person has to craft a way to be more effective, less stressed and more balanced.
And Levy notes that problems with email or multitasking are also life problems that predate digital culture, so the solutions can apply to other areas of life.
I’ve simplified the process, but I hope you get the idea: Listen to yourself and you’ll know what you need to do. Levy does that. I could see it when I asked about his path to the book.
Levy attended a science-oriented high school in New York City but loved the humanities, too. In college in the late 1960s he thought computers, artificial intelligence in particular, could help him explore his interest in language and the mind.
After getting his graduate degree in 1979, he worked for a tech company, but even though he enjoyed programming, it wasn’t fulfilling his broader curiosity about the mind. He went to London and studied calligraphy and bookbinding for two years, which connected him to older technology.
Doing calligraphy was meditative and led him to take up meditation. Both practices helped him examine the relationship people have with digital life and digital tools.
He came back to the U.S. with an interest in computing as the future of writing technology, and he took a job at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where he focused on the transition from paper to digital documents for 15 years before coming to the UW in 2001.
Levy talks about the beginning of the industrial era and the more, faster, better culture it created. Some people back then predicted that constant pressure to produce might lead to problems, and today, he told me, we see how that escalating pressure has changed life. Levy has a book in progress with the working title, “No Time to Think.”
He says it’s not the tools, though, but how they’re put to use that determines their effect on our lives.
He wants individuals to think and to take control of their digital lives. There are questions for the broader society, too, but those conversations must start with people who’ve reclaimed a bit of their own humanity.