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Some Reflections on Slow Technology

 
A few years ago, the meditation app I used was outmoded by an iOS update and the following warning appeared every time I used it.

A few years ago, the meditation app I used was outmoded by an iOS update and the following warning appeared every time I used it.

 

Most of the technology we use helps us do things better and faster. A car gets us where we're going with freedom and speed. A microwave cooks food in minutes, where if we used a stove or, even slower, an open fire, it could take hours. An email sends a message in seconds. If we were to put that message in the mail instead, we'd wait days for it to arrive. If we carried it by hand, or even on a pony like they used to, it could take a very very long time.

But valuing faster and better above all else creates a way of life that can miss out on life itself. For example, think of all the things you speed past in a car on your way somewhere. Or, think of all the things you might see and learn and do if you walked instead. Think of the learning that happens when you burn something you've cooked, or the primal and empowering experience of building a fire. Think of how differently you’d write an email if it took massive effort to get it to someone. Technology, which was born out of industry, war, and office environments, rightly prizes efficiency and function, but somehow we haven't fully integrated the fact that we live significant parts of our lives in homes and backyards, families and friendships.

A concept I've been reading about lately, slow technology, challenges these values and asks the question, what if we designed technology for the experiences we have while using it? What might change if we reconsidered the idea that everything needs to get done as quickly as possible? Lars Hallnäs, a well known researcher of slow technology, has a popular paper he wrote with Johan Redström called Slow Technology — Designing for Reflection. There's also paper that's barely been cited that I really like, On the Philosophy of Slow Technology. I’ve recently read both (plus a few others) and I'd like to use this post to share what I currently understand about slow technology — both as an exercise in my own learning and also to serve as a reference in the future when I discuss the concept in panels and presentations. Prepare to dive into some specifics here, but trust me to not be overly academic about it.

There are three concepts I think are important to understand when it comes to slow tech:

  1. Slow tech is not developed, it is enveloped.

  2. Slow tech values different things than we're used to.

  3. Slow tech may be beneficially frustrating.


DEVELOPMENT vs. ENVELOPMENT

When technology is developed, it is solution-oriented.

 

We have a problem:

getting from here to there

feeding ourselves

communicating w/someone far away

Technology solves it:

with a car

with a microwave

with an email

 

But when technology is enveloped, it is experience-oriented. We consider things beyond what it would take to send a message, feed ourselves, or get us here from there as quickly as possible. Instead of saving every bit of time we can, we intentionally fill it with playful, reflective, or profound experiences enabled by technology. With slow technology, we can ask how the experience of using technology enhances our lives. It's not what the technology does, it’s who, how, and what we are while doing things with it.

VALUES

When technology is enveloped, it's like we draw a big circle around our use of it and everything in that circle becomes alive and worthy. Hallnäs points out that normally, we don't value anything inside the circle if it's not efficient or functional, but he suggests that there are all sorts of valuable things inside. For example:

  • We might value understanding how the technology works and why it does what it does.

  • We might value how the technology inspires or requires us to reflect on it (or ourselves).

  • We might value being thoughtful about how we apply or use the technology.

  • We might value increasing our awareness of the consequences of technology.

  • We might value craft — our masterful and artful use of a technology.

When we value things like reflection or craft — when efficiency or ease of use is not our number one value — we design technology differently. In fact, we might design it to be purposefully difficult or mysterious. Why would we do this? Because the experience of being human is not a race to the end of our lives. We might consider designing technology and tools so that the use of them gives us meaning along the way.

BENEFICIALLY FRUSTRATING

Another well known researcher of slow technology is Will Odom. He wrote a paper about design called, Designing for Slowness, Anticipation and Re-visitation: A Long Term Field Study of the Photobox that explores what we do when we encounter and live with a slow technology.

The Photobox is a wooden box that sits in a prominent space in a home and every once in a while, it quietly prints a photo from the digital photo archive of the people who live there. They open the lid, look for a photo, and usually don't find one, but every once in a while (four or five times a month), they do.

Odom studied how folks experienced having the Photobox in their homes for over a year and he found that at first people were excited and eager to use the Photobox, but they soon became frustrated because of how slow and recalcitrant it was. This frustration lasted up to six months for some. Eventually, though, all households (admittedly there were only three), arrived at a place of acceptance and appreciation of the Photobox and its slow and random ways.

Perhaps more importantly than feelings like excitement, disappointment, frustration, and acceptance, were the lived experiences that accompanied them. First, users had to be with their emotions. Short of chucking the Photobox out a window, their impatience had no recourse with the machine. And when new photos arrived, some were surprised by images they'd long wished to forget and they had to experience that. One user began to put the photos under her pillow, another couple put them on their fridge. The device gave presence and potency to photos of a former life lived, enabling thoughtfulness and reflection — all arguably good things that may never have been possible with a “fast” approach.


THIS APP MAY SLOW DOWN YOUR IPHONE

While I tend to be cynical about technology doing much good in a marketplace that ruthlessly vies for our attention and manipulates our behaviors and attitudes (more on this joyful topic, soon!), the idea of slow technology is inspiring to me. It makes me wonder what it would be like to have technology on my side instead of constantly wrestling with it to achieve my goals of being self-aware, loving, and present to my life while living it.

The following papers might be fun to dig into if you’re the sort to do such things…

Hallnäs, L. (2015). On the Philosophy of Slow Technology. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae-Social Analysis, 5(1). Retrieved from http://www.acta.sapientia.ro/acta-social/C5-1/social51-03.pdf

Hallnäs, L., & Redström, J. (2001). Slow technology--designing for reflection. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 5(3), 201–212.

Odom, W. T., et al. (2014). Designing for Slowness, Anticipation and Re-visitation: A Long Term Field Study of the Photobox. In Proceedings of the 32Nd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1961–1970). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

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Introducing Contempla-tech

Mostly, I lament the unintended consequences of technology that make our devices and apps addictive and distracting. I feel vulnerable to their promise of connection, social validation, and self-betterment. While I am wary of the creepy advertising, mysterious algorithms, and indicators that my conversations and search history are being monitored, I still carry my device everywhere and often find myself mindlessly poking at it in hopes of a reward.

I have become especially complain-y and pessimistic about the viability of apps and devices that promise to make us more mindful. I have little hope that their values will survive uncorrupted in a market that requires them to vie for our attention, data, and reward-driven habituation. Yes, it’s complicated. Tech is good and bad and many points in between at the same time. But mostly, for me right now? It's pretty bad.

To balance my perspective, I have challenged myself to discover bits and pieces of technology that enable me to live a life I want to live — specifically, a life with more integrity and presence. By and large, these won’t be features a design team thought up and built, they'll be minor and unintended aspects of our apps and devices that invite, enable, or facilitate contemplative experiences without meaning to. Right now, I'm calling these features "contempla-tech" as in "contemplative technology.” As I discover examples, I'll document and share them here. Here's the first one.

Setting a password with intention

In 2014, I began setting a New Year's intention (as opposed to a resolution) at the recommendation of my friend Frances. I also decided to change my password to that intention so that I'd be reminded of it every day. It's worked beautifully. I've set five intentions in the years since and they’ve been a transformative force in my life. Typing out my yearly intention each day regularly reminds me of it, and I’m not sure how committed to it I’d be otherwise. If I had software that took away my need to type passwords, I would feel impoverished. Those pauses where I must type my password to continue have become an opportunity to remind myself to become the person I want to be.

An Invitation

Has technology surprised you by fostering slowness, presence, mindfulness, or compassion in your life? Was it intended or unintended or maybe a both? Please tell me about it.

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Mindful Email

I'm currently reading David Levy's book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, and doing the exercises recommended. The first exercise is called "Observing Email" and it instructs you to check email for a dedicated length of time (like 20 or 30 minutes), log observations you make, create personal guidelines from those observations, and then share what you learn, which is what I'm doing today.

Last week, I logged eight sessions across four days, which was over four hours of email time. I quite enjoyed logging my experience, especially during the first five sessions. I was less disciplined with ending my email checking in the last three sessions — I'd reach inbox zero and then keep email open instead of closing it and proceeding to another activity.

Here's a samplE of some of the observations I made:

  • Doing email feels like whack-a-mole.

  • Find myself in the middle of an urgent series of tasks: see something opportune, schedule it, inform the person of my commitment, repeat.

  • Feeling pressure to say yes to all the people that have requested my time.

  • When I dread the contents of an email, I want to postpone it/snooze it/do other things.

  • I need a notepad beside me while I check email to write down things I need to remember so I stay in email.

  • Feeling trepidation at responding to one email and therefore the recipient knowing I'm available and needing to respond to their other emails.

  • I am not at all paying attention to my body or posture.

  • Felt the desire to go to Facebook immediately after opening a message I was avoiding opening.

And here's a list of things I learned about myself:

  • I am in and out of my calendar a lot during email. It's hard to do email without it because many emails are about scheduling.

  • There are lots of things that can take me off task while in my inbox, especially newsletters and social updates that link to the internet.

  • Checking email can emotionally derail me.

  • Sometimes I dread email when the reality of my inbox is actually not dreadful.

  • I have a tendency to avoid emails that are long and complex and prefer to keep the ball in the air with shorter, more manageable email volleys.

  • Sometimes email involves using a number of different devices and websites.

  • Emails come in tides and waves. Sometimes they accumulate quickly, other times they seem to trickle in.

  • Email seems to be an emotionally "felt" experience for me, even though I have a hard time noticing my posture, breath, or physical senses.

The exercise also instructs you to read over your observations and synthesize them into guidelines. For me, this was the most helpful part.

Here are the guidelines I came up with:

  1. My email craft* requires certain tools:

    • a good calendaring app that does not require me to exit email to schedule things

    • a notepad and pen for jotting down tasks so that I can stay in email instead of following up on every task right away

    • my mobile device handy for certain information needs (sometimes optional)

    • a mouse because I enjoy using one (sometimes optional)

  2. Email can be an emotionally volatile space. I must notice my emotional state before opening my inbox and agree to the likelihood it may be altered by what I find (otherwise, I should check email at a different time).

  3. To keep distractions at bay, I need to close my email once I've achieved inbox zero and re-open it with intention.

  4. When people or newsletters email me things I'd like to explore, make a note of it instead of exploring right away. Similarly, when people request I do something, it's okay to make a note to do it and then email them to say I'll get back to them later.

  5. Treat lengthy or complex emails (or emails I must write but don't exactly know how to) as I do anything else I'd typically avoid: get them out of the way first, using a pomodoro if necessary.

 

I found this exercise not only fun, but also enlightening. I recommend it and am already considering observing social media time using the same methods.


* A note about craft: Levy argues that we should consider our digital life a craft like we consider woodworking or playing a sport. That it requires practice, certain tools, and refinement. There's an entire chapter about this coming up, so I'll likely blog more about it later, but I love the idea.

 

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