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?
Mindfulness plays a key role in our collective response to this situation. Personal practice empowers us to reclaim choice in how to spend our attention, and thereby our waking lives. Mindfulness-informed social action enables us to equip others to handle the attention economy. Designers are exploring new technologies with mindfulness at their core, advocates for digital wellness are promoting self-awareness on college campuses, teachers are bringing simple practices to classrooms, healthcare workers are integrating mindfulness into how they provide care, politicians are bringing mindfulness into their platforms, and much, much more.
My passion for the importance of mindfulness in attention activism has always felt pretty niche. Yet, on Tristan Harris’ livestream last week, something magical happened. Even though this is a community that usually speaks in the language of technology and design, the presentation opened and closed with guided mindfulness practices from well-known meditation teachers Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman. 😲
It was lovely to see the Center for Humane Tech’s growing confidence in sharing mindfulness as a vital practice. At the same time, I couldn’t help notice the complete lack of explanation from the presenters. I couldn’t find mention of mindfulness in any of the major articles about the event either, including Wired, The Verge, Vox, Daily Mail, and more.
It was kind of funny, the whole group was meditating together, and the word ‘mindfulness’ even zipped by on an animated slide, yet somehow the topic was never explicitly addressed at all. The clear relationship between mindfulness and the attention economy was not articulated in terms of science, design, mental health, leadership or technology, yet there it was in the form and structure of the event.
I’m grateful for the incredibly important work being done by the Center for Humane Technology, and I don’t expect them to cover everything. Yet I can’t help but wonder about this omission. As many of us work to build a legitimate, evidence-based community of mindfulness ‘professionals’ integrating meditation programs into systems of society, are they still stuck in echoes of the 60s and 70s, worried about diluting their message by being too “hippie” or “woo woo”?
Or perhaps they simply haven’t yet seen that these two movements are complimentary in more than lifestyle. The science is starting to emerge on both fronts: tech is fragmenting our attention in ways that seem to cause mental health issues, while mindfulness is training our attention in ways that seem to address those very same issues. I don’t see it as a coincidence. I see it as an opportunity.
Advocating for big tech to consider the unintended consequences of their work is hugely important. Yet as much as they ‘race to the bottom of the brainstem’ to manipulate us, people are not powerless victims or lemmings walking off cliffs. It is also of vital importance that we empower individuals to take action in their own lives. Mindfulness enables the individual to assert their own power in today’s battle for attention, and empowering that agency is just as important in the face of our attention economy.