Episode 10 - Enduringly connected to the creator, Entangled Technology, and the Detox Fetish

GUESTS :  

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang  Book: The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul

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SHOW NOTES :  

 TOP STORIES : 

Trillions of Smart Sensors Will Change Life as Apps Have, "We’ve not even conceived the possibilities of applications for this,” Mulligan said. “We are at a tipping point for it to begin to explode.”"

Imperceptible Electronics, "The new flexible touch sensor is the world's thinnest, lightest and people cannot feel the existence of this device."

WORD OF THE WEEK :  

Performative -  Being or relating to an expression that serves to effect a transaction or that constitutes the performance of the specified act by virtue of its utterance

TWEET OF THE WEEK : 

@askpang: RT @umairh: If you want to be happy, live your fucking life with dignity and courage. Instead of digitizing it like a little wimpy 

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TRANSCRIPTION :  

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 10 for August 2013. Hey, it’s Chris and we are here for a special part 2 of our series with author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang on his book “The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues and Destroying Your Soul” a very spirited debate and we’ll jump right back into the conversation.

Three things from your book I want to just get out of the way. A section from your book: “Contemplative computing isn’t enabled by technological breakthrough or scientific discovery. You don’t buy it. You do it. It’s based on a blend of new science and philosophy and some very old techniques from managing your attention and mind and a lot of experiences with how people use and are used by information technology.”

I started chatting with people about a year ago in saying are you tech dependent or are you tech enabled. So, I used this analogy of ... I call taxi drivers the digital canary in the coalmine because four years ago I could go to any city in the United States and the taxi driver knew how to get me somewhere. Today, they don’t move until they have something in the GPS. You go all the way out to something like ways that - I think that’s how you pronounce it - application that kind of shows you the crowdsource traffic patterns.

You sort of have an assistant technological relationship but in some ways you’re just kind of being low rent GPS with that. Then you move up to something like automatic which is this sensor for your car that gives you real-time feedback: hard brakes, lists how many times you sped up, lists how many times you drove erratically etcetera and that’s the sensor you get for your car that you get feedbacks. So, I think unlike a GPS it starts to help you understand your relationship to the car via the data. Then you go all the way to the other side and you’ve got a Google car driving you around.

Do you see these levels of healthy tech choices?

ASP: Yes, I mean I think I have very mixed feelings about automated systems like the self-driving car. One of the problems with automated systems like that is that they are great under normal circumstances but when things go wrong they can result in really disastrous outcomes and I think we’ve seen this with automatic pilots in aircraft. There have now been several crashes that investigators believe were exacerbated by the fact that pilots have become so reliant on the automatic pilot systems that they no longer really quite knew how to respond when things were going bad.

So, I think that these kinds of systems can in a sense erode all our own skill and resilience when things begin to go sideways. I think also that cab drivers are terrific example because there has been some really interesting stuff ranging from studies with the way that London cab drivers bring change when they study for the exams so that they can become cab drivers.

If you’re not familiar with this, London cab drivers spend years acquiring what they call the knowledge, and it’s not just anybody of knowledge, it is “the” knowledge. What this is, is a mental map of London which if you’ve ever been there you know the streets change approximately every like 30 yards.

CD: But you know what I noticed, Alex, is when I get an Uber, I’ve never seen an Uber driver use GPS.

ASP: Interesting.

CD: I get a Yellow Cab and then they said they can’t move until they have the address in it.

ASP: I have to confess the only times I take cabs are when I’m visiting New York which is kind of an odd example because if you’re in Manhattan it’s relatively simple to sort of figure out where things are, you hope. I don’t know if that’s a function of cab drivers of becoming reliant on the GPS because it gives them the shortest route. Maybe it’s a performative thing where it’s a way to reassure the passenger.

CD: That’s what I think. The first time I ever allowed my phone to talk in a cab I was watching - the cab driver didn’t have GPS. I did, right? And he lost his mind when he knew that I was watching our travel. So, I think you actually hit on it there. I think in some ways they might use GPS to make us feel better.

ASP: Yes. I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I think also that the other really interesting use of mobile technology in cabs is what my friend Anthony Townsend looked at in his book on smart cities which is how cab drivers will be on the phone with each other constantly performing these ad hoc intelligence sharing networks about where traffic is backed up where this particular concert has just let out, where the police are, so that they’re sharing all sorts of information live and in a sense for them doing for themselves what have smart city proponents like IBM and Accenture imagined being able to sort of do at for all of us at really remarkably high cost, but for cab drivers that’s cool because for one thing the information is useful.

For another it’s a way of staying connected to colleagues and friends and in environment that sometimes can feel a little isolated and unsafe. That’s definitely sort of enabling or extending example as opposed to one that is kind of making you stupider.

CD: One more question on this concept: you speak of a digital Sabbath which I don’t know if you listen to the show of Nathan Jurgenson. Today, August 9th Nathan Jurgenson’s basically on Twitter having a minor meltdown listening to people struggle with what he calls digital dualism, so this pathologizing of an online versus offline reality. I don’t know because I’ve never asked Nathan how he feels about a digital Sabbath but I would think he would say is probably the most dualistic thing you could do.

To that point I personally tweeted out recently celebrating your ability to unplug is the fastest way to declare a pathological relationship between yourself and your data. Are you pro-digital Sabbath because your mind just needs a break or I mean, do you literally think that we need it because this is so unhealthy we need to detach from it and make it something separate?

ASP: First of, I think Nathan’s meltdown is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t go to academic conferences because there’s this sociological association like now. It’s a toxic environment so stay away.

There has in the last few months been this kind of fetishization of digital detoxes. That’s an idea that the cool kids are putting their things down and they are going off to the woods and playing Shuffleboard.

CD: It helps when you’re making $300,000 or $400,000 a year that you can put your phone away a lot easier by the way.

ASP: Exactly. Yes. And the fact that there are a couple of Caribbean islands and some resorts in Tahiti and Thailand who are starting to advertise themselves as digital detox centers only adds to this, but this is to say that any beneficial activity can be turned into a status symbol. We’ve seen this with yoga, with organic food or sending your kid to a progressive school anything like this can be turned into a status symbol and I think that shouldn’t detract from recognizing a couple of things and one of them is that it’s totally reasonable to want to take a break from things that you love.

I love my kids but they’re at camp right now and when I get up in the morning I was thank God, they’re at camp. I’ll have them be on 50 weeks of the year. It’s cool to have a little break.

CD: I think the show “Dance Moms” wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t an addiction to everything including your children.

ASP: Yes. I think the other thing is that though we need to recognize that just putting down the devices and assuming that your attention or other good things will just kind of spring magically, jack in the box kind of back up in full force if you just turn off your phone for 24 hours is actually wrong. It’s certainly the case that what you need to do is I think to use that time more fruitfully. David Steindl-Rast, the Viennese psychotherapist and Benedictine monk, said that “The cure for exhaustion is not rest. The cure is restoration.” By which he meant that it’s not just about of sitting on a beach in Tahiti, the way to mend a broken soul or the cure burnout from having worked too long is to actually go and do other things that engage you differently. I think the digital sabbath I think can really be a good thing.

CD: I don’t mind people going to these digital detox places. I hate the fact they celebrate it on Facebook.

ASP: Yes.

CD: Yes. I’m at fat camp but here’s a picture of a Big Mac on Instagram. Exactly. That to me if you’re going to pathologize something, pathologize our absolute disconnectedness to anything we realize we’re doing. It’s beyond crazy sometimes when I watch people online but to me - the book is “The distraction addiction” - to me the distraction addiction in some ways is rooted very deep in our ego and very deep in our psyche because until this period of time expressing yourself was really limited, I mean yes, books democratized our ability to consume information but we really never democratized our way to share information and now that that’s been democratized we’ve totally forgotten to consume which ... I don’t know. When I was smaller my mom used to say to me “Chris, you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that order.” But I see social and I see technology being used all mouth no ears.

KF: Well, I try to be more ears than mouth on Twitter.

CD: No, you are Klint. I’m not, Klint. You’re fine.

KF: No, I know. But for me a big part of the issue is the social and professional obligations that come with social media and sort of like the people I’m trying to think about getting on following a lot of cases it’s like what does this say, what does this communicate to somebody that I don’t follow them anymore. Is this is professional snub? Is this a personal snub?

CD: Let’s ask Alex. Alex, if we are pathologizing our digital attention with another person who doesn’t consume or respect our time, do we have the problem or do they?

ASP: They have the problem.

KF: But they’re making it your problem.

ASP: I think that we should no more tolerate bad distracting behavior online than we should in the movie theater.

CD: Thank you. But to Klint’s point, it’s very unnerving. I’ve had people write me hate mail because I un-followed them. Hate mail!

KF: Same here. Yes.

CD: When I went from 900 friends on Facebook to 30, people lost their minds. I literally had to copy and paste the definition of friend and then make an attempt for 6 months to call people once a week to remind them that this was our friendship. That their game posts and pictures of their cats weren’t our friendship. The distraction addiction to me what really scares me about this amazing book in your ideology is that it’s going to open a dialogue that needs to be open and it’s going to be where we’re pathologically uncomfortable with our own ability to understand our need to be heard.

KF: That raises another thing that I wanted to bring up which is that one of the biggest differences between our entanglement with a technology like a hammer or a bow. A lot of the technologies we’ve had in the past is that network technologies like social media are also entanglements with people including our friends, our professional contacts but then also the designers of the technology and those as you pointed out the designers have particular agendas usually to maximize shareholder value for the companies they work for.

ASP: Yes. I think that a bow and arrow or something didn’t come with an end user license agreement...

CD: So, if the horse had written it, he would have come with an end user license agreement. We need to really, really move slowly to this conversation because again we seem to objectify what’s comfortable and kind of ignore the obvious and this is really kind of troubling for me because, Klint, again he’s hit on this brilliant point. We didn’t have these problems with tools that didn’t connect us to other people.

Now, you’ve got to wonder the first thing my parents did in the 80s when we had the option to pay extra to enlist our number, was unlisted.

KF: Yes. In that regard though it makes me things that we’re not comparing the right technologies as we have other technologies that we tend not to think of as technologies that have historically entangled us with other people including people who are far away: architecture, politics, governments. We don’t always think of cities and of governments and politics and economies as being technologies but they are and those technologies definitely entangle us with their designers, with their implementers.

CD: What is it, Alex, about today’s technology that is creating a distraction addiction?

ASP: Well, I think my personal point is absolutely right that there is a long history of grappling with designed objects and environments that have an effect on the way we think, the way we behave, our mental capabilities and so on, but I think what is distinctive is this network quality which means are connected to other devices, connected to other people, enduringly connected often to the creators that in effect they become like prosthetic devices that we don’t control completely.

It’s as if you would have had an artificial hand that was let’s say you go to the store and because the hand is sponsored by a beverage company when you go to the refrigerator it wants to reach for one six pack of beer versus the kind that you like, and I think that the ability of these devices to be kind of install others preferences and desires in us and to enact those not just in a kind of general way the way that let’s say sort of Robert Moses’ ideas about class affected the design of sort of highways around New York is a great article about that, about how it was difficult for sort of working class people to get to the beaches because Robert Moses thought beaches should be for middleclass people who drove, but rather that in the sense that network devices make it possible for either the desires are slightly over communicating friends to have us see pictures of their cats 24/7 or the desire of a social media company for us to connect with our friends or read the sponsor’s posts.

CD: I have friends that might as well be social media companies. They post more than Robert Scoble on crack. I don’t understand at what point do you realize you are just wrecking my day, and then my friends go, “Well, just hide them. Just bury them in your list. Hide them in Facebook” and I go “I’m not Anne Frank. I’m not going to hide people in my attic and make them feel safe for the sake of them to think they have some digital relationship with me that’s not rooted in anything other than silliness.”

ASP: You are doing neither yourself nor them any good if you pursue that path.

KF: I wanted to say we talked about I have problems with prosthetic limbs. I was going to mention that I’m actually working on a science fiction story right now about a guy who gets Malware on his prosthetic limb and the vector of infection was actually pirated muscle memory.

ASP: Cool! Did you see the news today a piece about hacking connected prosthetics?

CD: Complete fud.

ASP: Apparently, this is sort of the ... US warns of cyber-attack targeting medical devices.

CD: And these are the same people listening to our conversations warning us not to ... oh, don’t even get me started. This is ridiculous.

ASP: Yes. The FDA is warning that implanted medical devices like pacemakers and defibrillators are often connected to networks that it turns out are vulnerable for cyber-attack.

CD: Based on this conversation some people should have their defibrillators turned off. I think Cloud should turn off your defibrillator when you drop below 30. All right. Klint, did I just go there? Yes, I did.

ASP: The fact that we have this sense that we’re in this new world with new [00:18:09] does make it a little or does give a pause about saying you know what you can really ease back on divine from the cat pictures, but ultimately you may be doing someone a service just as reminding friends that talking during a movie even if it’s “Pacific Rim” or something equally loud really isn’t a very nice thing to do for the people around you.

CD: Yes.

KF: It goes beyond the difficulty though in managing people who are inconsiderate on social media because that’s a relatively easy thing to do but for me there’s still just the sheer number of people so even if I’m cutting out people who post a lot at 400, 300 people so even if they’re only posting like three things a day that’s like 900 to 1,200 things a day.

CD: To me the elephant in the room is still the very simple fact that a lot of people like to say technology has enabled us. Amber Case always says it has allowed us to be more human. To me large vast of the population in first world countries technology has enabled them to create a sociopathic relationship with the outside world that they would not have gotten away with five years ago.

It literally would have been clinically ... you would have been put away if you were doing this on the street corner as often as some of these people do. I don’t think it’s sustainable.

KF: Yes. It’s hard to keep up just even with people who are considerate. It reminds me, Alex, actually the part in the book where you talk about so called labor saving devices in the way that the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and so forth didn’t actually end up saving people labor they created more work because it changed the expectations.

CD: And my mother bought more clothes.

KF: Yes.

CD: Literally, when we got a new washing dryer, we bought more clothes.

ASP: Yes. Sure.

KF: That’s more of the point I feel like I’m at with social media is it’s more of an issue of because there is these technological things that allow me to have more relationships with people even if they become more and more superficial the more people I add on. It makes it harder to decide who to follow and who not to follow.

CD: I think we’re heading back to Studio 54. If you were alive in ’76/’77 in New York City, you could go to any club you want but you wanted to go to 54. You didn’t want to go to 54 because the people are amazing. You wanted to go to 54 for the chance to get in. We’re just at the point where throngs of crowds are going anywhere they want and there’s no exclusivity and it’s hard for me to say that but I think until we have an environment where people are creating value for you and your time I just can’t imagine. It was easy with television. It was easy with radio. I had lots of choices. Programmers were forced to get better.

My digital connections are now forced to get better. They’re actually encouraged to get worse. Let’s get to some news.

KF: All right.

CD: Trillions of smart sensors will change life of apps as we know it. This is from Bloomberg. The story ends with the quote “We have not even conceived the possibilities of the applications here, Mulligan says. We are the tipping point for something to explode.” Tied to another story which I’ll tie the two together and we’ll get a feedback on this. Video - I’ll put all these in the show links - imperceptible electronics. This is a 3-minute video on something literally lighter than a feather. They dropped a feather from a balcony along with this transistor foil. Showed the transistor foil tied to the roof of a mouth. The quote from the article and the video “The new flexible touch sensor is the world’s thinnest, lightest. People won’t even be able to feel the existence of this device on them or around them.”

Smart sensors and imperceptible electronics make the distraction addiction different how?

ASP: Potentially to make it an awful lot worse. There is also the possibility that the more unobtrusive these things become - if you have enough control over them - also that unobtrusiveness could really genuinely allow those technologies to get out of the way in the way that Mark Weiser envisioned what 20 years ago and allow us to live our lives unencumbered by both having to spend sort of much time interacting with or thinking about these devices.

However, I also think that these kinds of statements about how this is only the beginning or now we’ll be able to follow you everywhere. Follow what I think of as the Jesse Pinkman which is - Jesse the character from “Breaking Bad” - if you have a statement in a press release or an interview that is enhanced and clarified by putting the word “bitch” at the end, then maybe you got to kind of wonder if this is ultimately going to be a good thing. “We’re going to be able to follow you everywhere, bitch.” I don’t know.

CD: Well, it works for Mark Zuckerberg and his CEO statement. Didn’t his business card say something like that? I mean you could not subtract the plutocracy from the word “bitch” ever.

ASP: No, no.

CD: All right. Klint, do you have any feelings on trillions of sensors and imperceptible electronics because you are the Klintron by the way?

KF: Yes. But it does bring me back to that what you were saying about the guy you was talking about comm computing years ago which is that a lot of the tech problems that we have or at least I personally have I don’t know exactly how trillions of sensors are going to help me read the news faster or whatever. I’m always cautious about how much that stuff’s going to affect my life in any way other than just possibly creating mountains and mountains more of information that I’m going to have to go through.

Yes, in terms of like body sensors, there is definitely a lot of new information that you can find out about yourself and there are some interesting possibilities there. We’ve talked a little bit before about how I can’t really keep up with calorie counting because it gets too hard at a certain point to figure out how many calories or nutrients are in certain things, but what if you could actually just swallow a sensor that lives in your intestines and actually literally counts all that stuff.

CD: Nancy Dougherty she talked about that, right? She’s swallowed sensors before.

KF: Yes.

CD: We talked about neural dust last week. I mean, how long until we’re not worried about GM food but food that actually is full of some type of neural dust that gives you that information. I don’t know. I’m sure for certain obese people it’ll be a problem but you guys talking in this comm technology I think it was a good idea where we kind of like had this bigger problem. If we’d just gone straight to comm from where we were 20 years ago, I think we’d be okay. But we went from comm to absolutely psychotic episodic digital reactions and now we expect people to become comm and you need some form of social Haldol for that and I don’t see that, which takes us to a couple of tweets of the week.

We’re going to end with the tweet that Alex had. I’m going to toot my own horn because I love my own brand. I said when you can’t see the tech all you have is the data and the experience, and I think those are two really important things especially around this distraction addiction and lot of things we talk about in Mindful Cyborgs is you just literally got rid of the tech and you were just in a cornfield walking around all you really have is the experience and the data of walking around in the cornfield. That usually was just recorded in your brain but Alex your tweet is probably “the” tweet of Mindful Cyborgs episodes 9 through 10.

You re-tweeted to someone. I can’t pronounce her name: U-M-A-I-R-H? I don’t know. The tweet was, “If you want to be happy, live your - I don’t want to say the word - live your f’ing life with dignity and courage instead of being digitized like a little wimpy baby.”

ASP: Yes.

CD: Do you remember re-tweeting that?

ASP: I can’t remember his name right now, but yes I did that a couple of days ago. I don’t know that I completely agree with it, I mean I like the sort of in your face of dealing with your issues and be authentic kind of sensibility behind ourselves.

CD: Klint, what do you think of that statement, “If you want to be happy, live your f’ing life with dignity and courage instead of digitizing it like a little wimpy baby.”

KF: I didn’t really like it. I didn’t think it really said very much. I think it kind of sounds more like a slogan, a bumper sticker or something than something that actually is helpful.

CD: Yes. I read it and I just thought well, he’s got the “f” in there. He’s using dignity. He felt like something a boy scout who can’t get off Instagram would have tweeted.

Alex, thank you so much for being on the show today.

ASP: You bet. It was a great pleasure. A lot of fun.

KF: Yes. Thank you.

CD: Thank you so much, Alex. And that’s Episode 10. You can catch us at Singularity University coming up October 5th through 12th, Quantified Self Conference in San Francisco and that is October 10th and 11th. South By Southwest - you can vote for Klint and I online right now. Check the Shownotes for a link. We’re bringing Mindful Cyborgs hopefully to Austin, March 7th through 16th, 2014.

Again, thank you, Alex, today. Thanks, Klint. I want to thank Aaron Jasinski the artist behind Mindful Cyborgs’ logo. Ross Nelson, Brown Hound Sound. Find us on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter for all the stories we didn’t have time to talk about. Endless stuff we wish we could have had time to talk about and the stuff we actually just think is kind of cool and you can catch Mindful Cyborgs at iTunes, Stitcher Radio and SoundCloud.

KF: See you, Chris.