I started this website, mindful.technology, about (you guessed it) mindfulness and tech. But what is mindfulness? What is technology? When you combine these two terms into “mindful technology” / “mindful tech”, what is that?
What is technology?
Everyone knows what technology is, but it’s not that easy to describe or define. It’s an abstract term. Technology is about tools, and the knowledge to create and use those tools. When I talk about complex devices such as smart phones, tablets, laptops, smart watches, and complex networks like the Internet you probably associate these with technology, because they are some of the most modern tools we have which through their introduction are reshaping society and the way we live our lives. But the car, the steam engine, the table, and the chopstick are tech too: they just seem less interesting at the moment because they’ve been around for a while. The coverage on this website relates to the modern technologies which are having the most impact (and primarily the technologies that most people are directly exposed to and interacting with on a daily basis).
What is mindfulness?
Most people would not be as clear about what mindfulness is, or what it means when mindful is applied as an adjective. Like technology, these are abstract terms. To people who have explored and practised mindfulness (and the related meditation), it is quite plain what it is. As with technology, it is always possible to debate mindfulness and go into philosophical discussion about it, but people who have practised it will have a fairly good grasp of it.
For others, however, it is not so clear and perhaps seems like jargon, or just a hyped term. To properly understand it, mindfulness needs to be experienced, practised, and explored. But even if you’ve not intentionally explored it, everyone has experienced moments of mindfulness. These are moments when you are totally present and aware. When your attention is fully focused on the present moment and you are not lost in worries about the past or future. Perhaps you experience this when you go on holiday, when you exercise, or when you take a bath.
Mindfulness can be used as an adjective (“mindful”) when you apply it to particular activities, for example, mindful walking, or mindful eating. These are common practices to bring your full attention to the present moment. You can also practise mindful cleaning, mindful gardening, mindful work, or mindful hugging.
What is mindful tech?
The phrase “mindful technology” (or “mindful tech”) was something I came up with independently, but I quickly discovered others were using the term too. It implies practising mindfulness whilst using technology, using tech to support a mindfulness or meditation practice, or (re)designing technology to aid mindfulness.
Many modern technologies are pretty much the opposite of mindfulness. They are designed to distract. Commercial pressures mean that businesses creating apps or websites need to capture your attention as much as possible, in order to sell adverts or get you to pay for their service. It’s all too easy to lose awareness whilst using modern devices, even for those who have regularly practised mindfulness and meditation (I’m speaking from personal experience).
A wider movement
“Mindful technology” was a term that made sense to me having explored mindfulness. But I have discovered that a lot of people and organisations are talking about the same thing, only they are sometimes using different terms.
Some call it humane tech. The Center for Humane Technology (previously Time Well Spent) was founded by Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google. Tristan is credited with initiating efforts within Google to consider the effect of their products on user’s well-being. There is now a Humane Tech Community, with popular forums and local gatherings around the world (I attend Humane Tech London).
Some call it digital wellbeing or digital wellness. Towards the end of last year, Google launched their Digital Wellbeing dashboard for Android, which helps users monitor their phone usage and set limits. It is similar to Apple’s Screen Time for iOS, which I reviewed recently.
Digital health and digital fitness are related areas. The focus of digital health is healthcare delivery, and digital fitness is more about using digital technology to support physical fitness. For all round health and fitness we also need to look after our mental health, and mindful tech plays a role here.
Some call it digital mindfulness. Since 2015, Lawrence Ampofo has been hosting the Digital Mindfulness Podcast. Now with over 100 episodes each chatting to a different expert, there’s no shortage of discussion to catch up on.
Susan Greenfield, a distinguished British neuroscientist and member of the House of Lords, calls it Mind Change, a comparison with climate change which proposes that our daily environment in the digital age, where many people spend hours of interacting with a screen, is changing our brains in significant ways, and could lead to concerning changes to our behaviour. 10 years ago, she raised this topic in the House of Lords and provoked a hostile response, but would anyone doubt this today?
Others call it digital minimalism. Although the term has existed for some time, it had a recent boost with the release in February 2019 of Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Cal Newport had already contributed to thinking in this area with his early book Deep Work, which was focused in particular on how we can produce our best work, but this new release takes a more holistic approach, re-assessing the use of technology in our daily lives.
Many terms, one movement?
In the Spring of 2019, its not clear to me which of the above terms, if any, is going to stick. It seems to me that they are all talking about tackling the same challenge, although the emphasis and approaches with each term differs slightly. Will the community eventually settle on a single term? Does it matter if it doesn’t?
On the one hand, having all these different terms can make it more difficult to be aware of everything that going on. Pockets of community emerge using one term, perhaps being unaware of other pockets using another term. I notice this even when monitoring the analytics for this website: people tend to discover this website when searching mindful technology, but rarely the similar term mindful tech, or any of the other more distinct terms.
On the other hand, it’s surely part of the natural process for an area that is still emerging. Having a number of overlapping communities may increase the chance of someone discovering one of them. It may also make it more accessible, for example if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with one term (eg. “Mind Change”, which may make some people uncomfortable due to the comparison with climate change), they can use another.
Given that we have all these terms, it’s helpful to have a guide. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this article – it’s the guide I would have liked to read when I first started this blog. I’ll be updating this article in future if other terms emerge. Do let me know if I missed one!