Digitally Aware: David Levy on Mindfulness in an Information Overload

July 11, 2016

It was only a couple of decades ago that the most complex handheld computing system fathomable was a TI-83 graphing calculator. Technology has usually served to make our lives easier, but in the post-digital boom, in which full-blown pocket size computers are the norm, our attention spans are shrinking along with our free time (and graphing is the least of our data worries). Technology can seem to have made certain aspects of life simultaneously easier and more difficult.

Our guest this week is David Levy, a computer scientist and professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. He was a member of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Silicon Valley during the information revolution in which we began converting information from paper to digital. He has since focused the body of his work and research on information overload. His new book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, offers simple strategies and exercises to help develop digital control and mindfulness. Levy doesn’t claim to see the digital advancements of the world as being strictly an asset or detriment, but rather asserts that we need to begin to train our brains to process information differently to maintain control and balance over our increasingly fast-paced digital lives.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, July 11th, 2016. 

I’m Josh Zepps, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a wonderful organization, which I am sure you support. 

If you don’t, please check us out. Center for Inquiry, Dot Net. Now, more than ever, we need organizations that are fighting for secularism, for reason for science, for Athie ism in a world which is all too often overwhelmed by religious craziness and in pseudo science. I am also the host of another podcast, We the People Live. And you can find all kinds of links to that at WAPT live dot com or follow us on Twitter at WCP. Underscore Leive. Speaking of Twitter, if you are on social media, you may have noticed over the past few years the pace of things getting quicker. We all seem to be scurrying around with iPhones in our pockets and devices beeping at us constantly. What’s it doing to our heads? That’s a question explored by David Levie, who is a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington. He has APHC from Stanford University in computer science and pretty much spends his life thinking about all this stuff. The book is called Mindful Tech How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. David Lavey, thanks for being on the show. You’re welcome. So you were you were a researcher at Xerox Research Center in Silicon Valley for 15 years during the the heyday, I guess, the heyday of the information revolution or the beginning of the information revolution in the 80s and 90s as the world was transitioning from from paper to digital media. Were you thinking at that time that that might have implications for how our minds deal with data? When did that question come about? 

That’s a good question, Josh. I can’t say exactly when the issue of the mind and what it first came up for me. 

What I do not what I can tell you is that by probably into than 90s, the late actually 1995, I think it was when I first wrote an article reflecting on issues of overload and acceleration and combining that with my own meditation practice. I was in 1995 that I wrote an article called I’m Not Here Right Now to Take Your Call. Technology and the Politics of Absence. And that was where I where I first began to really wonder what all this stuff might be doing to us and also what the political dimension of it might be. I began to wonder whether the tools, like in the mid 90s, you might remember email was becoming a significant force and cell phones were in use. And we had call waiting. And so on. I began to wonder if the various tools that were being promoted as tools to connect us might also be disconnecting us. And what that what the effect of that might be. And I was beginning to wonder whether a more mindful or more contemplative relationship to the world might not be a very important antidote to all these other forces that I saw rising. 

Give us some specifics about how that happens, how one achieves a mindful relationship to the world in spite of all of this technology, some of the advice that you have in the book? 

Well, you know, I’m a longtime meditator. I’ve been in one way or another, I’ve been doing forms of what we would now call probably mindfulness meditation, although it wasn’t called that then. 

I’ve been doing that for 30 years. And what I’ve learned over the years is that it’s possible just to sit quietly, to pay attention to your breathing and to bring your attention back again and again to the breath and essentially bring it back to the present moment. And that if one cultivates that kind of practice over longer periods of time, it can kind of be an antidote to the sort of frantic, rushed states of being that I think I’ve just become more and more prevalent a digital devices making those frantic and rushed states of being more inevitable. 

And how do you know it is a practice of 30 minutes of meditation per day becoming less and less efficacious at countering them? 

Well, I think basically the story that I that I have come to in the years of, you know, writing and researching is that I don’t think our digital devices are the root problems. So at that that I think that’s where I would start. I think we live in a culture dominated by our economic system that’s pushing us to produce and consume faster and faster. And in that view of life, anything that isn’t immediately concerned with production and consumption is considered unimportant or pushed aside. And so I and I think technologies since the beginning of the industrial revolution, like steam power, were really their purpose was to accelerate our economic system and and affect our lives. So digital technologies are just the latest manifestation of tools and practices that push us away from a kind of slower and more embodied way, way of living. So in that sense, technol, these are our latest tools, are very much contributors to that. But I don’t think that they necessarily have to push us that way yet. 

That’s interesting because, I mean, on the one hand, you’ve got the hardware, right? You’ve got how we actually engage with the information in our lives, the fact that we can now engage with it wherever we are because we’ve got to we’ve all got a computer in our pocket, which we didn’t just 10 years ago. But then on the other hand, you’ve you’ve also got the impact of social media, where it’s not just about the how we consume information. It’s not just the fact that we can read a book on our phone. It’s now that we can connect with everybody we know and millions of people we don’t know on our phones as well. Has that altered the equation at all? 

Well, I think it’s absolutely intensified and that sense of the need to be to be continually on and continually connected. It’s it’s touching some of the dimensions of our life that are actually very important. Our social life are our connection to other people. Basically, you know, in the work that I do, a lot of what we end up looking at is to notice those moments of what you know of, I call them triggers when we suddenly feel a strong impulse. Maybe I better check Facebook right now or Instagram or maybe I better check my email and. And to pause and to really notice, you know, what’s driving that. That impulse at that moment to figure out whether it’s actually effective and a healthy thing to do or not. So, I mean, the fact is that it’s that these tools are keying in to things that are actually really, really important to us. But but so long as we’re not actively exercising choice and noticing when it’s actually a good thing to pay attention to, where we’re just kind of being sucked along by these waves, which I think are as much being driven by the impulses and the needs of of the of the big tech companies like Facebook to keep us connected. 

I know a lot of a lot of people, myself included, probably who who aspire to that and who would love to do it, but where the rubber meets the road, find themselves routinely failing at being able to notice and being being observant. And that’s really the core of your book. It’s not it’s not about the is digital good or bad? It’s about. That’s right. And and being an observer of your digital life. So you have some sort of exercises about how to do that, about how to observe and how to how to how to craft best practices for engaging. Right. Digitally. Can you elaborate on those? 

Sure. But before I do, I just want to say that of course, it’s hard to get to just in the middle of one’s, you know, crazy day to be observant of what’s happening. But that’s why one develops some sort of practice, a mindfulness practice, a contemplative practice, and cultivates it over, you know, weeks, months. And you. There is so that one has, you know, the additional sort of attentional strength that even in the middle of the firestorm, no one can be noticing. So but in terms of actual practical things, that one of the simplest thing that I that I talk about in my book and that I work with students and adult professionals on, is something I called a mindful check in. And that’s basically just a very simple pause where you were. You ask yourself some basic questions. You know, what’s going on with my breathing at this moment? What else am I feeling in my body? What what emotions am I feeling? Am I feeling stressed out? Am I anxious on my board? Am I happy? And also, what is the quality of my attention? And by building in these little check ins, especially when you can begin to notice a trigger and some impulse to do something, you have the potential to be basically you’re building a kind of witness or observer consciousness of that little observer on your shoulder that can be asking, what am I feeling right now and what is that tempting me to do? 

And once you can actually listen to that voice a little bit, you are the ultimate authority and you can decide, is this something I want to do or not do? And that’s the big message of what I’m offering in this book. It’s it’s not about here are the three best rules for how to use Facebook or when to be on email or or whether to multitask or not. It’s building up the authoritative observation inside yourself so that you can decide in the moment. Is this a good thing to do or not? 

It also it almost reminds me a little bit of the way that I hear some recovered addicts talk about about addiction insofar as though they’ll talk about understanding, about bearing witness, I suppose, to the to their own instincts and to the ways in which their subconscious is sort of pulling them the way the ways in which their lizard brain is getting little drops of dopamine or whatever benefits it gets from whatever substance they’re there imbibing and simply noticing that and becoming conscious of that and disentangling their own sense of self in terms of their long term aspirations from whatever short term hit the addict inside them wants to get. Is that is that analogy taking it too far or is there any truth in Josh? 

I think that’s a great analogy. And I think you said it beautifully. I mean, it’s exactly that kind of understanding that I’m suggesting that people cultivate. It’s the same sort of thing, presumably, that that smoking cessation programs help people to do or even if you want to eat in healthier ways. You know, I think a less fraught example is simply food, right? I mean, yes, there are people who are kind of addicted to food, but all of us could learn probably to eat in healthier ways. And I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t eat eat cake or ice cream. I mean, that’s for you to decide. I personally, I like ice cream a lot and I’m not as caught by it by cake. But but sometimes you say, well, is this the right time to have that second piece of cake and you get to decide that. Right. So it’s exactly right. It’s it’s kind of a prescription for living a more conscious and aware life that you simply begin to notice more clearly what your normal patterns and habits are. And over time, you begin to see that certain things work better for you and certain things don’t work quite as well. 

There will be members of our audience who are committed, hardened rationalists and atheists who find the idea of mindfulness practice a little bit. We will we and associate it with, I don’t know, the occult or Deepak Chopra or whatnot. Hey, what would you say to them? And B, is there a way of achieving of nudging oneself in the direction of what you are advising without cultivating a daily mindfulness practice? Or is that is that integral? 

Okay, well well, first, I’m I’m not trying to sell anybody on anything, first of all. So I’m not I’m not trying to tell people they should have a mindfulness practice. And to be honest, I I’m a little concerned about the way that the mindfulness movement has become a kind of pop movement right now and is being oversold. So I you know, I have my concerns about about that as well. But I think what I would say is that you don’t need the word mindfulness at all. You simply need to think about the importance of being attentive. That’s really what we’re talking about. Can you cultivate greater attention? I mean, we’re all aware how easily we’re distracted now and how our devices increasingly distract us. And if you feel that you want to cultivate greater attention and perhaps be less distracted and noticed those times when you’re distracted and then do something about it, well, then there are practices to help you with that. You know, forget the M word. You don’t need that at all. I mean, did did I answer that question? I think there was yeah, I can part. 

No, I think that was basically that was basically it. Do you need a mindfulness practice and. 

Right. Let me just say another word about that. I mean, basically what I’m advocating is that you just become more aware of what’s happening when you’re using your digital devices and apps. No, you don’t need a mindfulness practice. In fact, what in a sense, what what I’m saying is if you if you care enough to want to improve the what your relationship with your devices and apps, then use your devices and apps as the medium in which to cultivate greater attention. It’s that simple. 

How do you do that? How do I not once I’m on my device, then a little Facebook thing pops up and all of a sudden I’m down a rabbit hole. Then someone’s commented and now I’m commenting on that. And then a tweet pops up and so I’m down there. It strikes me as it strikes me that these that this system of engaging with information is just fundamentally antithetical to the kind of contemplative notes that you’re talking about. 

Well, no, I would. I personally don’t think it is fundamentally antithetical. It’s we’ve we’ve arrived at a particular set of practices that many of us, including me, fall into, you know, just because there is. Look, look, let let’s go back to food again. We know that there’s lots and lots and lots of sugary stuff out there. And probably there’s there’s a certain element of discipline and awareness that that’s required so that we don’t simply, you know, eat just all the junk food around us and drink all the sugary drinks. And so one of the ways to deal with that is simply, first of all, you need a certain you need intention. You need to decide, look, this is something I care about and I want to work on this, you know, so you begin to notice that you’ve already had one big Starbucks. Actually, I don’t drink big sugary Starbucks drinks, so I don’t remember what they’re called, but. 

But you’d have a Frappuccino or something. Yeah, exactly. There you go. You know, I I’ve already had one caramel frappuccino today. So let me I’ll notice when when I feel like I’m walking past Starbucks and I want to have a second one. If you’re intention that you’re establishing and renewing every day is I’m going to limit myself in some ways, then you’re that intention can help guide you. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to kind of fail and endless times and have a second or third frappuccino. But but just having that intention. The other thing that, by the way, that I think we can do is and I think this is really important is maybe we just can’t do this alone. Maybe we need to need to have a friend or a partner or a group of people who are coming together and saying, well, you know what, we’re actually committed. I see how I end up on these long JAG’s of running from, you know, one trigger to another. But I’d really rather I mean, it’s getting in the way of my getting my work done or even feeling good about myself at times. So you you could potentially covenant with with a group of friends and maybe you you get together in Starbucks, you know, once a week and you talk about what you’re learning and you draw strength from one another and you drink three caramel frappuccino as well. 

I feel like I feel like in the UK, I completely take what you’re saying if you want to extend the analogy about food. I almost feel like we are currently in a situation with food more akin to the digital environment of 10 or 20 years ago. And today’s digital environment is as if I had a vending machine in my house that was that was preinstalled when I got there and it was free. And the moment I pushed a button for a candy bar, no sooner than taking one bite out of the candy bar than a soda, I immediately dropped from the vending machine and I was able to take that soda. It’s like there’s a there is a financial incentive for Facebook to keep me on this site as long as possible. 

And I’m not sure how I would navigate my way around that other than I mean, I’ve lately been considering just taking a hiatus from social media for 30 days and seeing how that feels, because I don’t know how I would manage it during my daily life. I suppose I could turn off all notifications and pledged to myself that I’m going to take it once a day. But I don’t know other than putting in place rigid regimes like that. I don’t know how to work. 

Right. And by the way, I like your analogy and I’ve used I’ve used analogies like that, sometimes I’ll talk about the challenges that that students have because our our laptops are basically not only the place where where students are reading and writing their papers and so on. But it’s also where, you know, all the other stuff we’re talking about is present. And I’ve I’ve sort of my analogy has been it’s a little bit like sticking a box of chocolates right onto your device, you know, and saying, but I don’t want you to eat more than one piece of chocolate, you know, over the next over the next three hours. So very, very similar sense that that the the enticements are so close and so easy. But look, Josh, you know, I feel in a way that part of what we’re both acknowledging, I want to step back from this line of thinking for just a moment. I think you’re exactly right. And the very first step in all of this work is noticing exactly what we’re talking about here and what you are talking about. In other words, I don’t feel like I feel like the problem is is in a sense a lot bigger than just what do I do as an individual? And do I need to take a fast from social media for a month or something like that? It’s to look at the entire culture and to say it’s basically what’s been happening over these past decades is that in part through all these digital devices and the practices that go along with them, we’ve been breaking down lots and lots of boundaries. We’re breaking down boundaries that previously existed between the week and the weekend, between night and day. Right. And I feel like we’re in a very interesting and incense, exciting as well as dangerous period where we need to figure out as a culture to what extent are we going to build back in new forms of boundaries. Surely it can’t all just be about us as individuals figuring individual things out. 

And frankly, I don’t know how that you know, how that might go. But I do know I do believe at least that the very first step is the conversation that you and I are having and that I think, in fact, the last chapter of my book is is called a broader and Deeper Conversation. And it’s it’s my hope that we can begin as a society to have a fuller conversation about the extent to which we need to build in more boundaries, either as work groups, as families or as entire societies. And I don’t I don’t exactly know how that would go. 

But unless we can go beyond the kinds of conversations we tend to have today about features, you know, I love my iPhone, but I mean, how much how much time do we need to spend on what the latest iPhone features are or to what extent are we getting caught in these black and white arguments about digital is is going to save the world. No, digital is destroying the world. If we can begin to recognize that it’s a much more complex and that we’re caught in some things with some very powerful forces driving us, including, frankly, I think the tech companies having their own very strong interest in keeping us connected. Ultimately, as a society, which I hope we’ll be in a position to begin to figure things out so that the whole weight of it won’t simply be on you and me saying, well, do I really want to have that third frappuccino or not? But I don’t. I don’t actually know how to do it. I just know that it’s an important conversation for us to be having as we’re as we’re doing right now. 

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Let’s touch on the. Is Google making a stupid. Is all this digital technology good or bad, even though it’s it’s a somewhat superficial way of framing things that your book intentionally tries to subvert? I do think that you’re among among the few people who who probably have an interesting conversation contribution to make about the question of obviously minds are running faster and more. Well, maybe not. Obviously, I believe our minds are running faster and more nimbly as a result of the digital revolution than they than my parents or grandparents were when they were my age. That being said, I have to really work hard to force myself to sit down and read a novel for 30 to 60 minutes of an evening if I want to do that. And so the argument has been made that this that the pace of existence makes us quick thinkers, but not deep thinkers, that we’re less contemplative than than we used to be. I’m agnostic on that. I don’t know whether or not people in the seventeen hundreds really worth sitting around pondering the great, the meaning of life and and reading novels or whether they were just doing backbreaking labor and and went deeper than we are. Do you. Do you come down on one or other side of this divide. 

I’m somewhat conflicted about it. To be honest. I mean, I can make I can make several different arguments. I mean, first of all, I do think so. I’ll give you, you know, pieces of of the argument I have with myself around this. I do actually believe that this acceleration of life, which I think has been happening most dramatically since the Industrial Revolution, is indeed privileging, if you like, shallow or faster forms of intervention. 

And and I have a whole story and argument about how that’s been happening and education in particular, which I think is particularly dangerous. So so I do have some real worries that the contemplative, that the reflective, that the more thoughtful is being diminished. In a sense, it’s endemic to the very logic of our of our society. So so. And I can make that, you know, I can make a version of that argument, on the other hand. 

I mean, we have you can also say that part of what we’ve accomplished we are society, Western society has done over the last 200 years is to increase the number of people who are much more educated than ever before. Right. So so you could you know, I have I have articles and I have a talk I gave at Google under the title, No time to Think where I kind of make that the argument that that we are pushing out the reflective, the contemplative and the thoughtful. But then I can I can see pieces of that of that other argument as well. I feel like a better place, given that I that, you know, that I think it’s it’s not easy to make any kind of complete and full argument about this. I think the more interesting direction to go, at least for me, is not to say is it getting worse, but what do we really want and how do we and how do we achieve what we want? So, for example, I do feel that in today’s academic culture and I’m a professor at a university, I’ve been a professor at a university for the past 15 years. And one of the things that I noticed when I moved from the think tank, the Silicon Valley think tank, I worked at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to the University of Washington. And the information school where I teach was that I had clearly, in my own case, much less time to actually think as a professor than I did as a Silicon Valley researcher. And that was very, very upsetting to me. And so in my in my own case, I could see that there was less and less time, that there was there was there wasn’t the same priority for reading and writing and thinking. I was suddenly having to juggle so many things. And and what I feel that I have seen in the 15 years that I’ve been a faculty member and talked about and spoken with endless people all over the country and the world, is the sense that today’s university does not privilege deeper reflection, that there’s so much that one has to do and there’s the pressure to publish more and more. So regardless of whether or not it’s, quote, worse than it was 20 years ago or 50 years ago or 100 hundred years ago, I think the balance is off. And it really behooves us, I believe we think thinking and reflection and contemplation is important, too, to look at the forces that are making it difficult for us to to have that kind of life and then to figure out what to do about it. 

It depresses me a little bit that you say that that’s the case in academia as well, because I have spent about half of my career freelance and about half of my career working in companies like The Huffington Post and so on. And when I’ve worked in corporations, I’ve just been struck by how woefully inefficient they are in terms of constantly distracting staff with with minor things that don’t actually need to be addressed now or could be addressed by someone more junior than me. But G chat is the go to communication device. Emails are expected to be responded to within fifteen minutes. So any opportunity for for an ability to think more broadly or in more innovative ways about. About directions that the company might go in gets constantly squandered by the background din of tasks that need to be achieved. Do you think this is a cultural problem to fix or getting back to technology? Even if you didn’t fix the culture, you would surely be able to put in place? Technological tweaks and I’m sure Silicon Valley, some genius in Silicon Valley is working on this. But I mean, I can imagine, for example, an email that splits off into a bunch of different functions, things that need to be addressed now but aren’t urgent things that will need your attention at some point but don’t need to be addressed now and so on, so that we’re not constantly deluged by absolutely every single thing that anyone in the universe wants to reach out to us about. 

Well, of course, there are people thinking about those things. In fact, I mentioned one name in particular. 

Somebody who’s been getting a fair amount of tension lately is a man named Tristan Harris, who was at Google and he’s left Google. He actually also was a graduate student at Stanford. And had he and I had the same advisor, although decades apart. And I I’ve met him and talked to him a bit. And he’s at his interest is in the design of tools that could help people to have a more contemplative day and life. And he believes that part of what has to happen is that designers of digital tools need to begin to develop a stronger ethics of design, including an ethics that says, you know, our job is not simply to get people to be glued to our device, but we’re trying to help them to have a more a fuller, more reflective, more mindful if you if you like, life. So. So I think those I think those are interesting directions to go in. But I and I and I’m happy to see them happen. But I think if I think the larger problem really is the social and the political. And so, you know, it’s one thing to add certain features to email or to come up with with new forms of communication that maybe would slow things down. But without the support within our companies, you know, and and within our our universities that are privileging those ways of behaving, first of all, those tools aren’t likely to catch on. So so I think it’s it’s I think that the technological, the social, the political and also the individual and individual psychology, all of these are different dimensions of the challenge we face in figuring out how to make sure that that we’re doing things that are healthy and effective and that are are not only good for our own local organizations, but good for the world. 

This is a little off topic, but since you have a party in computer science and you’re a professor at an information school, I’d be interested in your thoughts. I’ve been paying a bit of attention in the past couple of years to concerns expressed by people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking about the potential for computers to to become increasingly sophisticated. You know, in a way that that makes them deeply intelligent, actually intelligent, and that we should be talking about the threats that that may pose to human civilization. If we had to bring artificial intelligence into our moral sphere and think about the things that they might be able to to outsmart us on. What do you make of that? 

Well, you know, I’ve of course, I’ve been reading the same kinds of stories and reflections that you have. I don’t have a really fully formed take on it yet. I think I’m less concerned about the big sort of sci fi vision of this, that, you know, that there’s going to be the singularity and machines are going to be smarter than us and we’re gonna become their slaves or whatever their playthings than I am. I’m less concerned about that than I am that when we as we develop smarter tools, they’re not value neutral, that they embody some of the values, if you like, intentionally or unintentionally of their creators. And so I’m more concerned about what we as designers and creators make, what what kinds of assumptions we’re making. I mean, a good example for me of that is just, you know, once again, we’re. Having is beginning to be a debate about as more as computers become more able to take on certain kinds of jobs. What does that mean for employment? And I really believe that that part of society’s role is to support and value every single human being. So I would hate to see a world. I would really hate to see a world in which more and more people are put out of jobs and don’t essentially have a living wage simply because the people who are running the show have decided that this is a way, you know, to build even greater wealth. So that’s that’s more the direction that that I worry about. 

Do you have any any sort of let’s just wrap up on this, do you have any sort of big picture advice for people to manage their digital lives at one at one extreme? I know a guy in L.A. who’s a stand up comic who got rid of not just his smartphone, but his cell phone as well. And just got a an old fashioned answering machine and a landline because he felt like he wasn’t coming up with as many good standup ideas as he used to when he just had to walk around not listening to anything and had to drive around not listening to anything, and that there was a value to essentially being bored. Presumably, we’re not all going to do that. What can we do? 

Well, you know, the message that I that I that I’m delivering in my work and through my book is that one size does not fit all. 

So, you know, I’m some people may want to give up their devices or give them up for a period of time. I think the single main message that I have to offer people is become more aware and be more intentional and make decisions. You know, observe yourself. Study. Study what’s what what affects these tools and devices are having on your mind and body and then try different things and then so so figure things out for yourself, but also figure them out with other people, not because you and your friends or your partner or your work colleagues are all going to come to the same conclusion. But because there’s a lot of strength and a lot of awareness to be gained by learning from other people and seeing what’s working for them. So I don’t have any simple message about this. This is the answer other than if you want it, if you want to live a better life. Pay attention to the conditions of your life and work on improving those conditions. 

The book is Monville Tech How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. David Lavey, thanks for being with us. Good to talk to you. You’re very welcome. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.