SHOW NOTES :
- The duality of tech being fetishized and pathologized are we in a holy war for information?
- The argument that tech does good and bad is the agency it grants the technology
- Why did you write this book?
- Nicholas Carr- The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
- When you live in a world where you stare at screens for 12 hours a day, it's easy to think the screens are the problem
- Raw brain power vs. Self Discipline
- We are all cyborgs and it is the great challenge of our lives is to become mindful cyborgs rather than mindless cyborgs
- The individual is in charge of managing their own tech choices
- The problem with tech is not that it's addicting, it's poorly designed
- Business models are about sucking up attention, it's like asking wolves to be vegetarians
- Aaron Levie on Twitter
- Big news is going unnoticed
- What does August 2014 look like for social media?
- Declaring follower bankruptcy?
- Contemplative practices 800 and 200 BC as a response to globalization
- Is the problem the networked tools vs. solitary tools?
- Contemplative Technologies go open source.
TOP STORIES :
WORD OF THE WEEK :
Contemplative - expressing or involving prolonged thought.
THANK YOU / FIND US :
Mindful Cyborgs - Contemplative living in the age of quantification, augmentation and acceleration, with your hosts Chris Dancy and Klint Finley.
CD: Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs Episode 9. Mr. Klint, do I feel your presence through the ether?
KF: Hi there. How’s it going?
CD: Good. Klint, we’ve had so many interesting people. We gave away a trip to Buddhist Conference last week where they’re going kind of teach me to be Buddhist and work with contemplative technology and speaking of contemplative technology, boy, did we land a doozy today. You found this guest. Why don’t tell me a little bit how you found our guest and introduce him, if you don’t mind?
KF: We have Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I’m sorry if I mispronounced your name, Alex. He’s the author of “The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues and Destroying Your Soul” book that’s just out from Little Brown Books.
Welcome to the show, Alex.
ASP: Thanks very much. It’s great to be here, Klint.
CD: My favorite part of the whole title “destroying your soul”. Can we start there? Because there does seem obviously ... I’m just going to get right into the meat of this, Alex. Your book is inflammatory on a level. Yes, I don’t know. I haven’t read anything this good in such a long time. That being said, I can see your book being used as a weapon by people who think tech is destroying families and ripping apart communities and also being used by people who feel that tech is enriching and empowering people’s lives. I can see both people waging the holy war with this book.
ASP: You can say that both sides are equally right and wrong, I mean in the sense that you can make the same kind of argument about fire or lighting or any other number of technologies that have come to be ubiquitous parts of our lives that we use almost unthinkingly. They become what sociologists refer to as [00:02:37] technology, ones that are omnipresent, whose use we cannot think about very much and therefore become incredibly powerful.
Now, I think that sort of the argument that technology does these things: drives families apart, makes us more connected, impoverishes our soul, allows us to be more spiritual. I think that the objection I have to that is the agency that grants the technology and one of the things that I want to argue and that I want readers to have a stronger sense of is that while it’s certainly the case that technology can exacerbate problems or they can be designed to encourage or to nudge up those behavioral economists who have put it to have certain kinds of habits rather than others or have defaults that are set to encourage us to engage in some kind of behavior.
The reality is that technologies creators efforts to make us unaware of the fact that these are systems and devices over which we still have a measure of control and over which we can exert agency and choice is ... I think that’s a critical realization to maintain in today’s world and so I would say that the technology may enable all kinds of good and bad things, but that it’s still critically important to remember that ultimately we are capable of making choices about how we use them.
CD: Two things here. Let me slow you down a little bit here. Literally, we could replace some of the terminology in this book and release it in 1800.
ASP: Yes or 1500.
CD: Good. I want to make sure that I understood what I read. You’re driving me crazy because I just want to just go and just start debating you in this. I agree with you. I guess I’ve got a million questions I want to ask you. Just this thing what you just said I only have one question that’s like I have to know, why did you write this book?
ASP: Why did I write this book? That’s an excellent question. First of all, I’ve spent at this point half of my life or so trying to understand people and technologies and the worlds they make. I started out as an historian of science and technology looking mainly at 19th and 20th century British and American history of technology. For the last dozen or so years I’ve been technology forecaster and futurist which means that I’m asking all the same kinds of questions that I was asking when I was looking at relationships between printers and astronomers in 19th century, photography and astronomy but I’m just asking them about the future rather than the past.
The more immediate answer to the question why did I write this specific book was that like a lot of projects, intellectual projects that people get really passionate about, it kind of came out of a crisis. A few years ago after working at a think-tank dong a lot of scenario work for many different clients that involved reading huge amounts of stuff online, jumping from project to project, doing a lot of travel, I was really feeling cognitively very stretched in. I was still doing pretty decent work but I was really starting to worry about having serious like memory issues, the kinds of stuff that Nick Carr talks about at the very beginning of his book “The Shallows”.
CD: You physically felt that the technology was literally changing your mind, I mean you were forgetting things.
ASP: It certainly was part of it.
CD: Again, you can’t make this stuff up in real life, can you, Alex? I was just at a professionals - oh shoot, I’ll just say it. I was at my esthetician. I’m older and I’m sensitive of my nose hair - I’ll just go there - and she said to me, “Chris, I’m retiring” and I said, “Why?” She goes, “I need to teach and I have an opportunity to teach” and I said, “Well, that’s good. That’s wonderful. You’ve been doing this for twenty-some years.” She goes, “But I have to. I know you really to. I just want to tell you, I feel like I’m becoming brain dead.” I said, “What do you mean?” She goes, “All I do is I work on people every day and I do my different services” because she does facial services also, that kind of stuff. She goes, “But I’m starting to forget stuff.”
My question to you is, do you think she’s actually kind of mistaking her phone addiction for staring at someone’s eyebrows when she’s plucking them out?
ASP: I think that there are all kinds of reasons people start having memory issues or a feeling like they’re slowing down. When you live in a world in which you’re staring at screens for 12 hours a day, it’s really easy to come to the conclusion that the screens are the problem.
CD: That’s very profound.
ASP: Realistically, I was at a point in my professional life where I had done the same thing two or three times and I was in my mid-40s which is the classic time to start thinking you got early onset Alzheimer’s or some other kind of issue. In my case, it really was a kind of perfect storm of things. The technology was certainly part of it that it wasn’t the only thing. So I started trying to figure out is there a way to deal with this. For someone who had spent his entire life of succeeding on the basis of essentially raw brainpower as opposed to things like self-discipline and good work habits the idea that your mind is flipping like Hal at the end of 2001 is pretty terrifying. So, I started meditating.
CD: So far you sound like a mindful cyborg.
ASP: Well, yes, absolutely. I think that we are indeed, Chris, I would say we are all cyborgs and the great challenge of our lives is to become mindful cyborgs rather than mindless cyborgs.
CD: First time I’ve ever heard someone say we’re all cyborgs was Amber Case.
KF: We’re entangled with our technologies. I really like that the term “entangled”. You emphasized that the individual is responsible for managing their attention and that you can’t just buy something off the shelf that’s going to “fix you” but at the same time you talk about how the design of technologies can pose problems. For example, you wrote that the problem with too many devices today is not that they’re too engaging or addictive, the problem is that they’re poorly designed. I wanted to ask you, to what extent do you think designers are responsible for implementing contemplative computing?
ASP: I think they should be more thoughtful about it. I’m afraid though that for too many companies their business models really depend upon being able to suck up as much of your attention as they possibly can. It’s a little bit like asking the wolves to be vegetarian. There are certainly things or even relatively simple things that, let’s say, social media app designers could do that would assist users of being less distracted. For example, setting initial the defaults on notifications, turning it down from 11 which is what most everyone seems to do which is notifying you when anything on this system happens that is vaguely related to me send me a text message about it.
Every time I install an app I have to go in and turn all that stuff off. I think it’s one small example of how in their own way of media companies and technology companies are kind of addicted to distracting us. They see that as right now as a way to build up their user base to get more hits, to get more screen time, to justify the development of these expensive mobile social apps and generate more data that they can use to then resell to advertisers.
KF: Generate more data to find out better ways to distract in other words.
ASP: Exactly. I think that the phrase, it’s an instantiation of the concept of the attention economy that is, I think, really of ultimately unsustainable and for all of its claims to be customer focused, is customer focused in the way that the shark is focused on the fish.
CD: I know the term attention economy. This is more like an attention depression. Again, if I just look at just online. I look online behavior. You go back just 9 months ago someone like Aaron Levie was getting re-tweeted 100 to 300 times for one of his little smart comments. Today, that number’s about half. His comments aren’t less interesting but I’m noticing that people are just skipping it which is making him and other people like him just like more rabid about getting back to that unattainable level when it was manageable. You know what I’m talking about, Klint?
KF: Yes. Well, I’ve seen a couple of examples recently where somebody who works at a company tweeted out not huge major news but significant news about their company that didn’t end up getting picked up on when, I think, 6 months to a year ago and certainly a year and a half, 2 years ago, those tweets would have led to a dozen different publications running a news story about that piece of information.
CD: That’s my point. I mean, Alex, in one year, let’s just go out 12 months, let’s pretend it’s August 9th, 2014. I don’t see any of this sustainable.
ASP: So, you think of sort of stuff like Twitter based marketing or...
CD: Twitter or anything social, I see a mass exodus back to paper magazines within 2 years.
ASP: We’re going to see the bursting of the bubble of the attention economy.
CD: Yes, because when I deal with people it just seems like to me they’re like where they made an attempt before, they’re more conscious about getting new content out than consuming the content in front of them. I call it the buffet attention span, right? Take all you want but eat all you take, right? It’s like filling a bookshop full of books you’ll never read so you look smart. More people share stuff to kind of dictate who they are and define themselves from a psychological standpoint than they actually read this stuff they’re showing you. If they were to click on it, they’d realize it was a dead link. I just literally don’t see how this is sustainable. Just yesterday Klint said he wanted to un-follow everybody.
KF: I was going to ask. So, Chris, I know you don’t follow very many people. You follow like 60 or 70 people or something?
CD: 30 people.
KF: Thirty people. Okay. Yes, that day when I said that I did go through and I tried to un-follow as many people as I could and I felt like I un-followed so many people and it was really hard to go through my whole list. I was just like I got to cut this down because I had over 400 people that I was following and so then it was all over. I was thinking maybe I got this down to like less than 300. 250 is what I was thinking I might have gotten it down to and it was only like 340 still what I’m at now.
I’m curious, Alex. How many people do you follow and do you have any thoughts on how to pair that sort of thing down? I guess I’m asking you for some more specific, less philosophical questions.
ASP: The first answer is I’m not sure how many people I follow. I think it’s in the 300 something but it’s not a number that I have looked at in a long time. I will un-follow someone if they are clogging up my Twitter stream. People who it turns out that have post a lot of stuff that isn’t particularly interesting or relevant. These people are far less interesting than someone who will post a couple of times a week but will point out pretty interesting things.
Yes. There is that Scottish saying, “Say but little and say it well.” when you got several hundred people in your Twitter stream, the more of them who follow that kind of rule the better. So, really that’s the only real life follow in terms of who to take off.
CD: You follow 410. I just looked.
ASP: Oh, thank you.
KF: One other thing I wanted to ask you about, Alex, it was one of the more surprising things in the book to me was that you pointed out that contemplative practices seem to have started somewhere between 800 and 200 BC as a response to colonialism, global trade and urbanization. That actually does kind of bring us back to that idea of the technologies that causes this sort of problem aren’t hammers and bows and arrows but they’re network technologies like social media comes back to that comparison of urbanization and economics and so forth. I would have thought those practices would still have developed much, much earlier in history so I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the research you did in that area of the history of contemplation.
ASP: There’s not a huge literature on this yet, I mean people definitely are working on it but I think that what’s distinctive about that period which historians of religion refer to as the Axial Age is that it’s the first time that contemplative practices stopped being a secret. They stopped doing things that are for initiates that are part of ... It’s the first time that we begin to see people like Buddha arguing that these are and should be accessible to everyone. That they’re open, they’re public sort of in a sense that they go from or they continue to the network metaphor they go from being proprietary to being open source. Anyone can do them. Anyone can improve upon and add to them.
It’s actually not something that I draw out of a book but because ... well, funny story, I didn’t notice them. You’re exactly right that the world is becoming more networked at this point. That’s the thing that’s distinctive about it.
CD: It’s going to be really problematic when all the network devices in your house ignore you. Yes. Linda Richman of the networked house “talk amongst yourselves”. Literally the first day I come home and my robot vacuum cleaner is having a cigarette with the washing machine. [inaudible 00:17:53].
Let’s get us some news. You guys want to jump on some crazy news because I think I’ve got news that would just twist this whole conversation in half?
KF: All right.
CD: The company that I found online through a Quantified Self Forum called Crowdage. Basically, I went into Quantified Self Forum and said hey, come to our website. The first 2,000 people to opt in your Fitbit data to us via API you just clicked a button and your Fitbit was connected to their system. We will give you the results too within 3 days. They had 2,000 people opt over all the health data so that they could see how other people were living.
I called it Kiva Loans meets the data economy. Again, it’s Kinsey on a whole new level. Do you guys have any opinion about the 2,000 people who raced to hand over their sleep data so they could compare it to someone else?
KF: The first thing that comes to mind is that sort of data does become more useful when you can compare it to somebody else when you can compare your data against yourself there’s a certain amount of utility in that like, okay, this is a normal knife for me but it does seem like anything would be more useful it’s networked.
CD: How many people kind of get an infographic from this survey and by the way I was one of the 2,000? How many people are going to use the infographic they get from this to share with their friends? There’s this thing called Zuckerbergs wherever we are we try to share twice as much. To me it’s not a sharing. We have an under intimacy problem. We have no concept of intimacy with ourselves in respect to our data.
KF: Yes. We are such exhibitionists now.
CD: Completely. Alex, do you have any opinion on people exploiting their personal data? In this case, I opted in. No one took it from me. I opted in. How do you feel about that?
ASP: I think if you go into it with your eyes open at least as reasonably open as they can be after you read the licensing agreement, then you’ve got to make your own choices. Personally, I tried a couple of like life logging systems like saga and a couple of others and things. They really haven’t grabbed me all that much maybe because I’m not a very good quantifier yet.
CD: I happen to be a very good quantifier. Ask Klint. The key to it is low friction, right? I have to do no work - none - and I have to get value for that. At what point are the devices not the distraction but our actual output from the devices? At what point is it not the Ferrari but the exhaust?
ASP: I think it is really interesting that these days there is the assumption that if you measure something the next logical natural thing to do is to share it and it’s really interesting how quickly that they can hold. I would also point out there isn’t ... I don’t know if there’s anything inherently let’s say creepier or stranger about sharing your sleep data with a company that analyzes sleep data than there is having your credit card company have intimate knowledge of your transaction history.
CD: I don’t think it’s that much creepy. What shocked me was how fast they got 2,000 people to go to a site they’ve never heard of and handed over. You could not ... I mean if this were just sheer marketing data: someone in a mall asking people to take surveys, they’d be king of that company for that type of response.
ASP: Right. Well, so presumably people think they got something out of it.
CD: I think there’s going to be a distraction. There’s going to be a distraction addiction part 2 about people distracted not to the devices but to their own data. It’s kind of like my brother said when he was young and he used to go “There’s nothing like your own brand.” I’m like “That’s disgusting, Chucky,” but I’m starting to think people live for their own exhaust.
Second wild crazy personal data story: company called BioBeats has out couple of apps now that basically they’re calling it adaptive media. It basically it listens to you, it listens to your body and watches your surroundings and creates music or in one case creates music from you in your activities, so if you’re dancing, the music is created from your movement. In the other case it actually analyzes where you’re at and makes suggestions for you to listen to things.
So, personalized adaptive entertainment based external going out or internal coming in depending on what you need based on your actual bioness, so how warm is your skin, how fast is your heart beating or how focused is your brain. We talked about that last week. There’s a company called Melon who has this head wrap and they give you geolocation for how focused you were in Central Park versus Time Square, the distraction addiction.
What about people using technology applications or devices to have them assist them to create new things around them?
ASP: Well, as the world’s worst dancer, I’m still stuck on the idea of a system that’s trying to rely on movement to create music. Not having experimented with the system my initial impression based on looking at sort of the webpage sort of interesting science experiment, is it music, someone who would play the occasional musical instrument, I would set the bar a little bit higher for constitutes even ambient music.
However, if you could do something more interesting and serious with it which is sort of like a next generation where you were able to have sensed kind of play your body rather than playing an instrument, there might be something cool there.
CD: I think you hit on something brilliant. How many people would opt over that application data for that company to make them all do the Thriller dance? We won’t have flash mobs. We’ll have app mobs, right? You literally take over a mall, right? And everybody will do it. Sure. Will I get free ice cream? Sure, I’ll dance. Boom, all your phones are vibrating. Your haptic shoes are making you twist around like a robot in crack.
So, we’ve got some events coming up, Klint. We got Buddhist Geeks in Boulder. Very contemplative technology group, Mr. Alex, if you’re interested and that’s August 16th through 19th. Singularity University, if you want to swallow a bunch of sensors and monitor your calories, October 5th through 12th for the executive program. The Quantified Self Conference with everything in those two people, October 10th and 11th in San Francisco, and then of course our page for South By Southwest, Klint, it should be out soon, shouldn’t it, before we put a vote?
CD: It should be up. I think South Bys are going to get it up soon, but South By is March 7th through 16th.
Alex, thank you so much. We’re going to give away five copies of Alex’s book. This is part 1 of the show. Part 2 we’ll give away some more books too. I’d like to think Aaron Jasinski our artist for our Mindful Cyborgs. Ross Nelson, Brown Hound Media for our mixing and editing and there’s a lot on this show. You can find us on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter for all the stories we talk about in this episode and all the ones we just like and of course you can find Mindful Cyborgs on iTunes, SoundCloud, and starting this week Stitcher Radio.
Thank you so much, guys, and I will see you in a few weeks.
KF: See you, Chris, and thanks for being on the show, Alex.
ASP: Oh, you bet. This is a lot of fun.