What the Tech World owes The World
Donald Norman, that visionary genius, who spoke the language of my own young tech heart of a bygone time in refrain, long ago speculated, in that time of the Apple box computer and the emerging point and click culture, that were humanity to become extinct (how prophetic already), and all a visiting alien culture were to find in the wasteland of the world that was, a PC box, they would speculate that humans were a cyclopian head, with one extending digit of a tentacle.
That image in his book, The Design of Everyday Things, or was it only in my own head, was the stuff of creative and humanistic nightmare, or just ‘harmless’ cluelessness on the part of the tech community and its design failures, but continues to hold true after a whole generation of technological advance, however sad, it is.
In my youth as a human centric computer scientist in the 90s, I riled against the easy (lazy?) ways the technology world expected the human world to conform to its design (or is it, the lack of it?), and in particular the prevailing paradigm of screen based interaction, which has now utterly devolved into screen based existence, for much of the modern world.
Sure, we have made progress in tangible media and wearable media and ubiquitous computing, that which was research in my time in CS, is practical reality now, in the form of the handhelds, and tablets, and the glass. Unfortunately, the basic problem, still remains, if drastically worsened, where much of our work lives, involve sitting at desks and staring at screens, where much of our personal lives is veritably lived out on social media, where even our most basic relationships are mediated, via a screen; where most people’s actual domicile, is ‘online’.
From the early on, as more and more of our daily activities, such as reading newspapers, watching television, playing games, even ‘going to’ work shifted on to that screen, I was tempted to reject it all as a life choice, even as I floundered online, reading voraciously, living in what can only be termed as ‘noosphere’. While there are some quarters that exalt this as a natural progression, I do not. As my own life, shifted away from technology and modernity, into yoga, art, physicality and the natural world, much of the world was moving more and more online. I was ‘gone’ for much of the arrival of the new-normal, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter…
When I emerged out, so to say, after a period of nearly seven years, I felt somewhat like Rip van Winkle. Facebook! Twitter! iPhone! Of which of course I was most appreciative of the little ‘i’. The physicality, tangibility and the overall design considerations and thoughtfulness and potential to augment real life, rather than appropriate it, were reasons enough and in line with my own earlier work in tangible programming. But social media, I loathed. And continue to. After going on Facebook for three months to catch up on friends from lives past, I was distraught to see that perfectly reasonable people had become somehow distorted and disingenuous, or appeared so, on their online version. That and the addictive nature of it all, where, the captive and unaware population is literally harnessed for profit (‘energy’), not unlike the dystopian vision of the Matrix’s real world, it was enough for me to get off any and all social media, after a quick dip in the abysmal waters.
Although I have been tempted to, and have even attempted for periods in my life, be a Luddite, I am not anti technology. I am just anti-mindless technology that takes away, rather than truly augment our lives, intrinsically and holistically. Technology that supports the whole being, in all its dimensions, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. The danger of living a life solely of the mind, is that we very quickly lose perspective and enter into the land of projections. Being grounded in the body and breath, being present to ourselves and our physical environments, is what makes life, in the long run, worthwhile and meaningful. Makes a mind, a person. A human being.
This predilection to shift our entire focus and attention to a world that we perceive through a glass door, into which just our consciousness and awareness projects in and diffuses out, makes us all terribly impoverished. The brain is said to be such that, at any given moment, it focuses on one at most two, and in the rare case three, of our senses. The nature of our screen based lives, puts an over emphasis and an almost sole reliance on the eye and the mental aspect of our lives, to the detriment of all our other faculties and senses, including the rarest of all, just plain, common sense.
So what does the tech world, which seems to want to operate on the mantra of ‘making the world better’, owe the actual world? I think, as I once observed in conversation, to a supposed social media evangelist, it owes us, ourselves. That is, design, that puts us also back into ourselves, rather than just take away from us. I am sure a mutually beneficial arrangement can be arrived at, and a formula for making profit can be devised for such services too.
Of course, the standard argument is always that no one is being forced to use any of these services, which is just as disingenuous and avoiding of the real problem at hand as claiming to do no evil, or that these are in fact ‘services’. However my intention is not to lay all the problems the modern world faces in the lap of the tech world. It is because that it is still actually possible to make good changes in and with technology, despite the rapid centralization and homogenization that is happening of the internet, as was the case with mass media in the past, and even if 5% of those young technological minds feel and mean their intention to truly make the world a better place for one and all, it makes for a hopeful scenario, rather than a bleak one, such as say, in WALL-E.
This tension at essence is between exporting more and more of our lives online and importing information and assistance as and when needed via smart computing and tangible technology into our physical lives. This can and need be very intelligently and sensibly addressed by choosing to be human-centric as a principled philosophy in designing technology that leads us away from screen-centric and its take-away existence. For this, training of our technological minds have to include a good dose of humanities education at the get go. So that design and technology does not result in our own bodies and physical lives becoming peripheral to our technological existence, ever elsewhere, in ether.
But first as in any case of development, one has to pause and really reflect on what makes for development. And also become aware of and respond alertly and correctively to the manifest effect and impact of that technology, on society at large. But this very real need to ‘pause and reflect’ is what is being lost in our insta-gratification world.
In my own efforts to live an authentic and unmediated life, fully and as a whole being, not just as an intellectual, emotional or physical being, scientific or creative being, I have been offline, off the grid, back to earth, itinerant and wandering about the world, as well as locked in and wholly internal, in ashrams and monasteries, or even just my own flat, and the fact is, there is no running away from what is.
So what can technology do? Technology and social media, like a zen teaching, can be like a finger pointing to the moon. Right now, we are all fixated on the finger, and technology and an insecure profit motive based on ‘capturing eyeballs’, inevitably binds us to that finger, like a dog to its master’s hand, where as any actual connection, realization, discovery and enlightenment can only happen when the moon of consciousness, our own awareness, dawns within us, in the body, as the body, wholly integrated.
To this effect, if the goal of social media say, is to connect us, it has to first connect us back to ourselves. Only when work and relationships arise out of this connection to ourselves, all other things we search for, meaning, purpose, happiness, fulfillment, the whole slew of intangibles and immeasurables, but are eminently and intensely experienceables, can be fully attained. A population of such an intensely alive humans can only be an asset to any society and the world as such. The profits to be had in such a manner, can be wholly out of this world. And this will be real progress.
To illustrate simply, and as a start, here is a simple idea that can be easily incorporated into any and all existing online portals and social media environments or the ubiquitous handhelds, that pings you randomly through the day, to bring your attention not to some advertisement or a cause, but to yourself. Your own breath and body. To remind you to take a deep breath or ten. To prompt you to stretch your arms overhead or twist your spine this way and that, bringing you, if momentarily back to your body and breath, situating you back in your physicality and your particular environment. If you can afford to give your attention to a social media notification, you can then do so, for that micro moment, to your own self. Very simple and very feasible. Haven’t you ever noticed how shallow your breath becomes and how dry your eyes become, or how stiff your body gets, during your day’s work at the computer, not to mention when you pull an all-nighter on screen, or on a surfathon? If not, please do.
This idea stems out of interacting with a friend who was perpetually stressed. After exhausting many possibilities, I put a little flexible toy-man on an unobtrusive corner of her desk, and told her to take 10 deep long breaths, every time her eyes fell on it. And just that. Nothing else. While she refuses to co-operate fully, she has grudgingly acknowledged that it, in fact helps her, when she would allow just a precious moment to shift her attention back to her. Taking a deep breath, instantly relaxes. So even though it seems so simple, it is profoundly a powerful technique in this context. That immediately relaxes and streamlines even if just a little.
But simply like this, technology can aid us, reminding us gently to do micro and nano exercises with the breath and the body, all the while cultivating deeper awareness, a relaxed embodiment and a clearer mind.
Good design understands the tendencies of the mind and the body, its strengths and weaknesses, and results in strengthening the strengths and weakening the weaknesses. But great design knows the strength of the weaknesses and vice versa, and translates and delivers a total solution that elevates the entirety of user and engaged experience. It is clear that the tendency of the mind to fixate and get absorbed into an activity or a monitor can very well be a strength in the right circumstance, but also a weakness in others. The wisdom to tell the difference is of course in the hands of the individual user, but truly worthwhile innovations stem from great design that serves the user wisely, already, and for the greater good of all.
It is no longer enough to do that one hour yoga once a day. It has to be through the day and in this simple way, life, work and relationship can all be that much more nuanced, interesting and fulfilling. And it is not just information that I speak of, but inspiration, in its most original sense, where technology that actually helps us breathe better, even as we simply use it for something altogether different. If Google, Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, the Guardian, this very Medium, and the whole lot, can add such an element to their repositories and web experience, your smartphone to its daily duties, then anyone wandering in the annals of the Internet, or out and about the world, has that much more a chance to bring the attention back to themselves, to their breath, their bodies, their own physicality and emotionality; and the thinking and living, from such a body can only get better. Such systemic and system level technological interfacing that supports our embodied reality can offer the user multiple choices of levels of such reminders, from an occasional unobtrusive reminder to simply take a deep breath to periodic reminders to do some mini physical stretches of different parts of the body or direct you to bring your attention to specific parts of your body to enhance your awareness of the moment to include the totality of your embodied being.
And it is not that there are not apps already that help you to relax or destress in some manner or another, but for it, to be built-in, as part of one’s technological experience, especially since we know how absorbing yet distancing it can be, it has to be wholly integrated. In other words, to address and counter act the addictive nature of zoning out on the web, we create technology that helps us, zone in as a natural result of using it. A seamless and voluntary attempt by social media and online sites to help refer back to oneself from time to time, can only be a wonderful thing, like the clean air act for the mind. Of course, the still fierce (and thankfully so) and staunchly independent pockets of Internet will have the choice to opt out, but I suspect that they already do.
In conclusion, I am not asking the tech world to go all MotherTheresa on us, although some do go, but to merely upgrade and rethink our very base level of being online and technological, to include and not thwart the physicality of our beings. We do not want a world where our machines are more conscious, more feelingfull and more human, than us. And it won’t necessarily be because the machines gained, as much as what we have lost of our own selves.