Count how many notifications you get while reading this review

Jonathan Hiskes

October 19, 2016

David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives begins with a description of a viral YouTube clip, which is fitting for a book about digital distractions. In the video, a woman strides through a shopping mall, eyes fixed on her smartphone, oblivious to her surroundings until she tumbles headfirst into a fountain. Just as quickly she climbs out and charges forward on her way.

The anecdote could come off as smug, a finger-wagging lesson for mocking the woman or scolding us all for fixating on our mobile screens. In Levy’s hands, the story has an invitational quality, typical of his gentle, humorous, empathetic book. To him, the clip illustrates the way so many of us struggle to find healthy roles for digital devices in our lives. He uses a Quaker saying: “The incident ‘speaks to our condition.’”

Living in the digital age, Levy says, has “continually exposed me to the challenges of living a life in the fast lane — the stress, the sense of overload, the sinking feeling that there is no end to the acceleration, and the continual search for better coping strategies.”

In response, he offers a series of exercises for understanding how our minds and bodies behave when we’re using email or Facebook (or choose your app). By becoming more aware of our thoughts, moods, posture, and breathing, he suggests, we can learn to function online in more healthy and effective ways.

Crucially, Levy doesn’t tell anyone what “healthy” and “effective” means for them. He leaves that to you to define. For some people, it means a greater ability to stay on task. For others, less stress or anxiety. For others, it’s a clearer sense of when to work and when to rest, rather than mixing both in a blur of procrastination.

The book is culled from his teaching at the University of Washington Information School, where for ten years he has a taught a course on “Information and Contemplation.” He also teaches professional workshops and conducts research on the effects of multitasking on office workers. The book is peppered with quotes from students ranging from undergraduates to mid-career workers.

“I have often described the experience of bouncing mindlessly along the Internet as an ‘Internet blackout,’” says one student. “Thankfully, instead of waking up on a dirty sidewalk with no shoes or money in Las Vegas, I just ‘wake up’ somewhere out there on the Internet. I’ll find myself looking at animated gifs of Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, and have NO IDEA how I got there.”

Levy also draws on his history working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the famed Silicon Valley think tank where the networked personal computer was invented. Living in the globalized-interconnected-competitive “Fast World” left him craving a “Slow World” practice to relieve his overloaded mind. He visited Zen meditation centers to try sitting cross-legged and following the path of his breath — and he hated it.

Then he tried calligraphy. The methodical pace of the practice soothed him, while the physical dimension kept his body alert. After earning a PhD in computer science at Stanford, he moved to London to study Western calligraphy full-time for two years. The devotion to a craft convinced him that the same contemplative focus could be applied to digital tasks.

“I would suggest that any activity conducted with concentration — even email or Facebook — can bring us into greater balance, inviting greater calmness and clarity,” he writes.

At the start of each exercise, he recommends a pair of brief breathing exercises to take note of your current condition, comparing these check-ins to stretching before a workout. The use of “mindfulness” could be a turnoff for skeptical readers, but Levy also gives permission to skip that part of the book entirely.

Instead, he dwells on a less mysterious concept: attention. The book is ultimately about how our attention works, how tech companies maneuver to capture it (more on this later), how all of this mental pinballing affects us, and how we might gain more control over where our attention goes.

The exercises themselves involve doing a thing — checking email, or multitasking — while noting when you’re inclined to switch over to another task. The first exercises tell you to behave as you normally would, following distractions however you like. The later ones challenge you to stay on one task, taking note as triggers arise and deciding to ignore them. One exercise involves video-taping yourself as you work. For me, the process revealed how much being online means facing a relentless series of micro-decisions about what to do next. I noticed how often I open five or six browser tabs at once, as if laying out a solitary feast, so I wouldn’t have to choose just one site to check at a time. The experience is both entrancing and draining.

Each of the five exercises is broken into six steps:

  1. performing the practice
  2. observing what you are doing and feeling
  3. writing it down
  4. consolidating your observations
  5. formulating personal guidelines, and
  6. talking about it with others.

That’s five exercises, each with six sub-parts, preceded by two breathing check-ins, spread over ten chapters and five appendices. The structure is needlessly complex. But that’s a minor quibble, more a problem with book formatting than with the ideas themselves — the exercises themselves are not difficult.

One of the book’s most refreshing themes is the reminder that we have bodies as well as minds when we’re online. Losing ourselves in a digital vortex can lead us to see ourselves as “brains on a stick,” forgetting to listen to our bodies’ signals. No wonder so many struggle with neck and back and carpal tunnel problems. (It would be fascinating to see a longitudinal study of Americans’ posture in the smartphone era. Are we turning into a nation of hunched necks?) Levy reminds us it’s possible to see our bodies as more than annoying sources of needs, demanding to be walked and fed and stretched before we can get back to our Twitter feeds. They are also, after all, sources of vitality. We can improve our mood through better posture and breathing and the like.

This is, essentially, a self-help book, but it is a very good one. In large part, that’s because Levy draws from deeper wells than vapid calls to “live your best life” or unquestioned praise of productivity, which so often typifies the lifehacker genre. Levy looks to his Judaism (his wife is a rabbi in West Seattle) to unpack the notion of Sabbath, a day of rest that gives order to the working week. In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is not meant for the sake of the working week — a recharging period to make us better worker-bots. Instead, we work so that we can rest, for the sake of our humanity. “The Sabbath…is a time to savor and appreciate our lives, to smell the flowers, literally and figuratively,” Levy writes. “We need time not just to do but to be.”

It’s a custom we might adapt to our tech lives. Levy doesn’t tell you what technology to give up, or when, or for how long. He invites you to reflect on those things yourself. He quotes several students describing the letdown of returning to Facebook and such after a period of “mindful unplugging,” finding that greater self-awareness drained the sites of some of their allure.

Levy maintains that there is a place for multitasking in our digital work, even if, for most us, multitasking really means rapid, inefficient switching from task to task. We rarely think of using computers as a craft like calligraphy, but Levy suggests it can be useful to imagine three stages of craftwork. The first is preparation — preparing tools, preparing your body, and establishing intention. The second is doing the work itself, while noticing choice points when we are tempted to switch over to something else. The third is finishing — noticing natural break points and deciding whether or not to stop; putting away materials; and deciding deliberately whether to rest, online or off.

That approach assumes you have the freedom to decide when your work session is done. That may be true for students and white-collar workers with some degree of autonomy, but not for shift workers who must keep their phone on in case of last-minute scheduling changes. The class and social dimensions of digital balance are begging for more attention. Mindful Tech treats digital distraction as a problem for individuals, to be solved by individuals. But it’s also a social problem. One worker can’t control a corporate culture in which bosses send emails on Saturday night and expect quick responses. The individualist frame pits your personal mindfulness strategies against the savviest social engineering that the Big Tech companies can devise. As Andrew Sullivan puts it in a recent New York magazine essay on digital distraction:

Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers — or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged.

Levy doesn’t engage this social dimension at length, but he does acknowledge it in interesting ways. He notes that, while the Sabbath was a religious institution, the five- or six-day work week was a political creation that took a hundred years of activism to establish. New technology, from the assembly line to Uber, has always required political organizing to bend its benefits toward everyone. We’ve decided that some behavior (texting and driving) is perfectly appropriate to regulate as a society. We might well decide to make more communal decisions, like a company establishing no-email hours on the weekend.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, has begun fruitful work thinking about design standards for the way tech companies should and shouldn’t manipulate our attention. In a post on Medium, he explains why LinkedIn’s constant notification pings are so obnoxious, and he shows why it’s in the interest of tech companies to be interrupting us more or less constantly.

Harris calls for the creation of a digital “bill of rights,” which may take political organizing to achieve. More humane web design would help us “put our values, not our impulses, first,” he says.

I’d love to see Levy take his future research down this path.

The last step of each Mindful Tech exercise — talking about your experience with others — would seem to be dispensable. Levy, a teacher at his core, argues that it’s deeply valuable. You’ll get more out of the book by reading it with a book group, a work group, a church group, an online discussion group, or such. These conversations are valuable in themselves, he says, not merely a means to an end.

“When we talk about the technologies, we are ultimately talking about our lives, and about their meaning and value,” he writes. “And when we come together to have caring and careful conversations about the place of the technologies, we establish an intimacy of connection that many of us long for.”

That longing for connection, oddly enough, is so often what bring us online in the first place. Talking about these things offline might bring us closer to what we’re really seeking.

Books in this review:
  • Mindful Tech
    by David M Levy
    Yale University Press
    January 12, 2016
    256 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Jonathan Hiskes is a writer in Seattle and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. Jonathanhiskes.com

Follow Jonathan Hiskes on Twitter: @jhiskes

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