Can Technology Be Mindful?

Cue a perfect morning. I woke-up to the a warm city full of new life, played around on my mat for a bit, meditated, ate a delicious breakfast, and walked over to the neighborhood tea shop. I smiled at the baby birds fluffing their feathers in the dirt (why do they do that, anyway?) as I savored a cup of Now & Zen tea and read the Yoga Sutras in the sunshine. And then, right as I got to the juicy part (kidding), a voice behind me asked, “So, what are you reading?”

A simple question followed by a litany of others…

The natural Vitamin D and barefootedness made for a particularly hospitable and sunny disposition, so I was happy to entertain the morning’s disruption and engage in an impromptu existential, philosophical conversation with a stranger. Within five minutes, he asked me to thoroughly define mindfulness, prove that the benefits of living in the “present” outweigh the risks, and outline the timeline and trajectory required to appropriately call oneself a yogi. This kid – apparently a lawyer – was a tough customer. But as I fielded his questions, he seemed satisfied with my responses and I quite enjoyed the mental exercise.

But then, he asked a really great question. It was a great question because I had no idea how to answer it.

Up until that point, the conversation had been peppered with details of my life including my decision to leave neuroscience and apply to tech startups  in the pursuit of a more engaging, creatively-rewarding, and stimulating career. Putting the pieces together he asked, “Isn’t this a conflict of interest? Isn’t all of this tech stuff ruining mindfulness?”

Point taken, lawyer man. It knocked the wind – or rather, the decisive opinion – out of me, because I’ve recently asked myself the same question. As I compulsively check my LinkedIn profile (and as I typed that, I went and checked it again) and refresh my inbox, I actively recognize the un-mindfulness. I mentally reprimand myself, but within five minutes, I’m back to the same behaviors.

Let’s be honest. Technology does have the overwhelming tendency to make us less mindful. And let’s be really honest. Technology companies, for the most part, benefit from this lack of mindfulness. Our inclination to pull up our Facebook app for the fiftieth time today because we’ve been unstimulated for twelve seconds and are made claustrophobic by the sound of our own neurons firing is really good news for them.

Or is it? Clearly being mindful is almost always in the user’s best interest, but am I a better customer of an app (meaning, is it also better for them) when I use it less often but mindfully over more often and not mindfully?

Can technology and mindfulness coexist? Or dare I ask, even have a symbiotic relationship? Can we mimic the relationship between the acacia tree and the ant, in which the tree feeds the ant and, in exchange, the ant protects the tree? One side of the equation is solid: users can benefit from mindfulness. But can we make this interdependent such that tech companies benefit from mindful users?

Let’s talk this out. We slide into unmindful usage because of habit formation. Habit formation is the result of dopaminergic system (reward-pathways modulated by neurotransmitter dopamine) stimulation. And what’s more rewarding than those little red number notifications on top of your app icons that let you know someone out there is paying attention to you?

So perhaps the answer is holding constant the level of rewarding feedback (you can’t take away a child’s ice cream cone after it’s already melting in their hands), but instead of diluting that feedback with constant, brainless usage, you pack a substantial punch in smaller doses.

 

Think about it like an equation:

X amount of reward activation = 10 low-quality pieces of chocolate eaten at 10 time points in the afternoon OR 1 decadent, high quality piece of chocolate cake eaten in 1 sitting

X amount of reward activation = 10 daily app log-ins lasting 1 minute each with 1 notification per log-in OR 1 daily app log-in lasting 10 minutes with 10 notifications per log-in

Am I more likely to select meaningful and diverse content, be drawn to relevant advertisements, and have an overall enhanced experience with my one, prolonged mindful log-in? Absolutely. When I briefly but constantly check an app, I tend to re-read the same articles, become desensitized to advertisements, and ignore most of the content. When I log-in once a day for a longer duration, I’m captivated and intrigued by the fresh content and am more likely to dig into deeper layers of the product. The trick is making this approach sufficiently appealing to companies so they encourage mindful use of their technology.

You don’t have to call this phenomenon mindfulness, as I know this term makes some squeamish and squirmy. No judgment. I was the same way not too long ago. Call it a life-hack, if you will. The user is saving time and the technology is benefitting from an attentive consumer who is using their product in a more intelligent and deliberate manner.

So back to lawyer-man’s initial question. Is my pursuit a conflict of interest? Is all of this tech stuff really ruining mindfulness? Perhaps the process isn’t perfect yet, but I see the potential for a happy marriage. Like the ant and the tree, I have faith.

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