Tech is exploiting our attention and disconnecting us from others, but it could also be the answer to humanity’s ills

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

We call rapid proliferation on the internet “going viral” for a reason: Ideas spread online exponentially, like viruses. Where viruses hijack our biology, viral memes hijack our minds. In both cases, problems arise when we can’t adapt quickly enough. Our systems get overwhelmed by the flood and eventually, we get sick.

As social, mobile, and other technologies go viral, core pillars of our society are crumbling. Big tech platforms have opened the back door to a billion minds with only one true goal: profit. It’s the perfect recipe for unintended consequences. The clearest example of this started in 2003, when a lonely Harvard student tried to engineer his way out of loneliness; just over a decade later, Facebook started accidentally breaking democratic elections. …


How a pursuit that seemed to go nowhere on the surface ended up going far deeper than I ever expected.

Image for post
Image for post
The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, 1903–1904

When I was a little boy, my parents took me to piano lessons. I remember hating them. We played scales, practiced repetitive keyboard exercises, and learned how to read music. I think I only lasted a few weeks in those classes, but their effect on me lasted almost a decade.

For the rest of my childhood and teenage years, I sincerely believed that I was not a musical person. I assumed learning theory was the only way to make music, so I saw it as too boring and hard. This belief led me to decline many other musical opportunities. …


A playful social media experiment captures our love-hate relationship with technology.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

On Wednesday July 31st, I ran a little experiment probing the entire Daily Haloha community on their relationship with technology. If you haven’t tried the app yet, it’s basically social media for people who are sick of social media. It uses question prompts to simply and anonymously connect people online. And what’s most refreshing, it’s impossible to spend more than a few minutes on it per day.

Here’s how it works. Every morning, a new thought-provoking question prompt arrives through the Daily Haloha app. When you send in your answer, you see an anonymous wall of other people’s answers from around the world. …


Image for post
Image for post

Life is full of challenges. Big ones like injustice, small ones like being late for a meeting, and even small-ones-that-seem-big-in-the-moment like when the baby just won’t go to sleep.

Acceptance can make the situation a lot better, but why should we accept a situation if we don’t like it or if we think it’s wrong? Well, first of all, it’s happening. No way around that. But beyond that, it’s important to remember that accepting something doesn’t mean you like it, or you think it’s okay.

Whether you face pain, injustice, betrayal, grief, anxiety or depression, to accept it doesn’t mean you’re surrendering to it. You’re not giving up. …


Last week, Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology unveiled a new mission: “to reverse human downgrading by inspiring a new race to the top and realigning technology with humanity.” They have done incredible work as advocates in sharing the exploitative nature of our attention economy with society. They’ve met with big tech CEOs and political heads to discuss preventing internet platforms from polarizing us, spreading propaganda, and influencing mental health. It’s very important work, yet something’s missing.

In 2016, I asked “Is popular culture, media, and science’s renewed interest in meditation a coincidence, or is it a visceral reaction to our culture of attention theft?”. Our smartphones, social media, sensationalist news, and addictive design patterns are harvesting our minds and impacting mental health, relationships, identity, and politics. Is it any wonder so many of us working to bring mindfulness — a practice all about training our minds — into our schools, hospitals, teams, governments, technologies, and more? …


To those of you who create, remember that your craft is old.

Writers, painters, musicians, actors, poets, dancers, artists… your craft is older than the self-defeating loop. You share a lot with your artistic precedent, with those generations of past creators who did what you do.

First creations are almost always met with silence. All creations are almost always met with silence. Your creative ancestors physically revealed their craft not hoping immediately for hundreds of thousands of hearts, likes, comments, views, retweets, subscribers or applauding fans. Creating for a mass audience was barely conceivable before this tyranny of quantification.

What hasn’t changed is the beauty in creating for one. One deeper connection, one smile, one reflection, one moment of further inspiration, one opportunity to perform, one reason to keep creating. Those historical artists whose names we know were the rare few, most could only ever hope to reach one. That didn’t stop them. There is infinity between zero and one. …


Sweeping generalizations are misguiding public sentiment

Image for post
Image for post

The conversation around the attention economy has exploded. No doubt in part to the role of social media in the last US presidential election and Brexit, along with some amazing advocacy work from people like Tristan Harris and authorship from figures like Tim Wu.

We’re also starting to see mainstream journalists address the issue and thought-provoking films about how this culture of influence is impacting mental health — especially in the younger generation. …


8 months ago, when we decided to leave Toronto for a monastery, it felt like a renunciation of sorts. We were trying to slow down. By backing away from the lifestyle and opportunities of the city, it would seem that we wanted less. The exact opposite was true: we wanted more. More than money, a house, a job, a reputation. More than Netflix, social media, craft beers, and fancy brunch. Something deeper, something more meaningful, something else.

This week, we moved back to Toronto. If you’ve been following along, you might be surprised to hear that. After detaching completely from our urban lives, we spent a little while practicing intensive mindfulness with modern monks, enjoyed some long-overdue quality time with family, and even road-tripped to the Atlantic ocean through Montreal, Halifax, and many stops in the Maritime countryside. All the while we were considering alternative ways of life, yet in the end, we’ve decided to come back to Toronto. …


Image for post
Image for post

I’m writing this from the east coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It’s been 4 months since we abandoned our lives and jobs in Toronto and set off on a journey. We got rid of our apartment, quit our full-time jobs, put our belongings in storage, loaded up the car, and took off wandering. We ended up spending 2 months living a monk’s life, practicing intensive mindfulness in a wonderful monastic community in Vermont. Since then, we’ve been driving around with no permanent address and no destination, making extended visits with family and friends while exploring eastern Canada. …


As you might already know, my wife and I recently abandoned our lives in Toronto for intensive mindfulness practice in a monastic setting. What you might not know is that practicing in a monastery includes a strong emphasis on responsibility. Some weeks, we focus on formal seated mindfulness practice, sitting for more than 10 hours a day. Other weeks, there are responsibility periods where we aim to bring present-moment awareness to work tasks.

One amazing thing about the monastery we practice at — the Center for Mindful Learning’s Monastic Academy — is that it’s a modern monastery. They’re serious about formal practice and structure, but they’re also serious about integrating mindfulness and compassion into the modern world. Can you imagine? …

About

Jay Vidyarthi

“Good” design as in useful, enjoyable, and ethical. Mindfulness as a tool to reclaim freedom of choice. — Stay in touch at www.attentionactivist.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store