Conscious Computing

Conscious Computing Allows Technology to Become a Prosthetic for Engaging with Our Full Potential

Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.

In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule.

“Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Watch the Twitter stream while working on PowerPoint?  Why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.”

Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.

Glenn Fleishman posted on software that disables bits of the computer to make us more productive and to minimize distractions. Programs like Freedom, Isolator, RescueTime, LeechBlock, Turn Off the Lights and others were mentioned — all tools that block distractions. This software category is called:  Internet Blocking Productivity Software.  Users can choose to disable Internet access and/or local network access. Users claim that software like Freedom makes them more productive by blocking tempting distractions.

I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies that address our bodymind, over parental ones.

Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.

Glenn was kind enough to call me for a comment as he prepared his post. We talked about email apneacontinuous partial attention, and how, while software that locks out distractions is a great first step, our ultimate opportunity is to evolve our relationship with personal technologies.

With technologies like Freedom, we take away, from our mind, the role of tyrant, and re-assign that role to the technology. The technology then dictates to the mind. The mind then dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

There are techniques and technologies that actually tune us in to our bodies, and our nervous systems.  These technologies let us know when we’re stressed, or when we’re engaged.  One of these technologies, from Heartmath, has been particularly helpful to me.  A clip goes on the earlobe, and is connected to a small, lightweight box, that can sit next to the computer.  There are lights on the box that indicate the state of the nervous system.  One of these products, the emWave2, can be used while doing work on the computer (in other contexts as well).  Heartmath also offer software games that work with the emWave2.  The 5-10 minute games involve actions that are totally controlled by the state of your nervous system.

At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing, attention, and emotion, are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.

Scientists, like Antonio Damasio, Daniel Siegel, and Daniel Goleman, have shown us that aspects of our intelligence come from sensing and feeling and that our bodies offer a kind of wisdom.

Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.

Our focus has been on technologies as prosthetics for the mind, and human-as-machine style productivity.  This has led to burn-out, poor health, poor sleep, and what I call email apnea or screen apnea.  We wonder where our attention has gone.  Turns out, it’s right where we left it — with our ability to breathe fully.

We can use personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings, to enhance our lives.  I call this Conscious Computing.

We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel.  For advice from a musician on how to do Conscious Computing, I interviewed the organist, Cameron Carpenter.

Conscious Computing with the help of passive, ambient, non-invasive Heart Rate Variability (HRV)  technology is poised to take off over the next few years.  It has the potential to help all of us learn the skills that musicians, athletes and dancers have, that immunizes them from email apnea.

With a musical instrument, it’s awkward at first.  All thumbs.  Uncomfortable.  We don’t know how to sit, stand or breathe.  With practice, a musician becomes self-contained versus merged with the instrument.  So it will be with personal technology.  Now, a prosthetic of mind, it will become a prosthetic of being.  A violinist with a violin.  Us with our gadgets,.  Embodied.  Attending.  Self-contained.  Present.

Published by Linda Stone

I coined the phrases continuous partial attention, email apnea, and screen apnea. I write about attention and our relationship to technology.

10 thoughts on “Conscious Computing

  1. When I began reading the above, I was struck with the analogous situation in the real world, irresponsible drivers. Not how you are now anticipating, the texting while driving issue. No, I was visualizing employers policing the unpaid personal activities of their employees while on the clock. As such, the blocking mechanism of a physical tracking device on a long range rig is not all that different from the blocking devices available for computers, in how they might most logically be applied in the physical world. A long linear trucking run is a better product of the price of the driver, gas and rig than, say, a run filled with diversions and stops to entertain the human machine at the heart of the rig. And the employee at the desk playing Bejeweled, Scrabble, answering personal email while Tweeting and IM’ing and uploading music will produce less virtual miles than one traveling a linear online route.

    In the self-policing world that the home desk provides, all of those online truck stops and diversions remain an option that each user must learn to navigate. Teenagers talk about how they learn better when they have music playing while they are working, and the study-focus for some is more sustainable with stops along the way to refresh their wandering minds with some playtime — much like our poor trucker stuck on a long straight highway with only CB radio and poppers to keep their mind from numbing over. Some distractions are undoubtedly all that stands between productivity and crashing, for truckers and processors alike.

    How to balance healthy distractions from those that overtake the primary goal? Each driver is different. A heart rate monitor in this house would capture rapid escalation every time someone passed by outside causing the dogs around this desk to bark frantically, alerting me as I work. The phone ringing, someone getting home, an alarming email, all can equally set off alarms in the passive monitor dutifully taped to the hard working brain’s body. Another level of distraction, monitoring the monitor.

  2. Wow–I never really considered a type of mindfulness when at the comp. Great post and brings awareness to an issue many of us face daily!

  3. I’ve always felt that someone who needed a software tool to save him from him(her) self was merely avoiding the real issue. Dealing with it directly, rather than trying to relying on something painfully artificial (“I must turn off the Internet because I cannot control my impulses”) would almost certainly lead to a better quality of both concentration and output. But we do live in a world of quick fixes and everyone-does-em shortcuts that are deemed worthwhile, or even necessary.

  4. I’ve always felt that someone who needed a software tool to save him from him(her) self was merely avoiding the real issue. Dealing with it directly, rather than trying to rely on something painfully artificial (“I must turn off the Internet because I cannot control my impulses”) would almost certainly lead to a better quality of both concentration and output. But we do live in a world of quick fixes and everyone-does-em shortcuts that are deemed worthwhile, or even necessary.

  5. This reminds me of recent reports on declining memory capacity (I can always Google it, why try to remember?) made even worse with smart phones, and declining attention spans and reading comprehension (if you can’t Tweet it, disjoin it). One wonders how bad things will get when Google glasses hit the streets. We’ll be staggering around in the street like zombies.

  6. It’s like you have been talking directly with my boss. He would love this article. Doing one thing at a time is his mantra. I’m still mastering it myself. The constant allure of checking to see if someone has replied to my email is a bit more powerful than me at the moment.

  7. “evolve our relationship with personal technologies”

    Yes I agree. I have had this notion since PCs came tot he market. I gave my first computer to a friend. It was a Timex and required a cassette player for memory. He quickly became addicted to a stupid ping pong game!
    It impacted me because he was not some lifeless individual. He was (and remains) bright, well educated, well traveled and had already shared in couple of wild adventures with me in our youth. Seeing him in front of that TV screen playing ping pong was a startling eye opener.

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