February 18, 2016
David Levy addresses digital overload in ‘Mindful Tech’
David Levy is a professor in the University of Washington Information School and author of “Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to our Digital Lives,” published in January by Yale University Press. He answered a few questions about the book and his work.
You have for years now worked on issues of digital distraction and finding a good balance between technology and personal experience. In what ways does this book bring together and further those efforts?
This book draws upon more than a decade of research and teaching I’ve been doing at the iSchool. My interest has been in finding what I call contemplative balance — how to use our digital devices and apps to their best advantage and to ours.
Most immediately, the book draws upon a course I first created and taught 10 years ago called Information and Contemplation, which gives students (undergraduates, masters, and doctoral students) the opportunity to study and reflect upon their online lives, to write about what they’re discovering, to make helpful changes, and to discuss and share what they’re learning with their classmates.
The course has been very successful — students love it and learn a lot — and so I decided to make the exercises from the course, as well as the philosophy behind the exercises, available to a larger audience both within our educational system and beyond it.
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Your writing and research on using technology mindfully come after many years as a Silicon Valley researcher. What caused your shift in professional interest, back then?
In the early-to-mid 1990s, I was a researcher at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the famed Silicon Valley think tank. That was a time when the Internet was becoming a publicly available utility and when the public was beginning to use email regularly. Cell phones were coming into use, as well as answering machines and call-waiting.
I started noticing, first within myself, and later in others around me, a concern over information overload. It felt like life was speeding up, not always in helpful ways, and our exciting new information and communication tools seemed to be leading some of us, at least, to feel a bit overwhelmed by all we had to do and manage. So I began reflecting on this, wondering whether it was true, and if so, what could be done about it.
In 1995, I wrote my first reflection on the topic, called “I’m Not Here Right Now to Take Your Call: Technology and the Politics of Absence,” in which I wondered if these very tools, which clearly had a role in connecting us to one another, might not also be disconnecting us — from ourselves, from one another, and from the world.
Email remains the “common coin of the realm” of workplace communication, as you write, but it can be burdensome and distracting. You suggest the Email Observation Exercise, where participants observe their own movements and emotions while conducting an email session, then look for patterns. What can be learned from this, and what is the value of then discussing those observations with others?
The Email Observation Exercise is the first exercise I developed for my Information and Contemplation course when I created the course 10 years ago.
My idea was pretty simple: If we could notice the effects that email was having on our minds and bodies, we might discover ways to make improvements. If we could see, at the very moment we were using email, that something was stressing us out, for example, this might suggest ways to be less stressed out, or to manage that stress better.
I was delighted to discover that the exercise actually worked! By paying attention to how they were breathing (shallow or deep, holding their breath at times), to how their posture changed, to the quality of their emotions, and to the way their attentiveness varied, my students began to notice bottlenecks in their email practice, and this immediately suggested changes they could make.
I discovered that people learn a lot by doing their own, individual observations. And this learning is amplified when they get to talk about their discoveries with others. Group discussion helps individuals to solidify their own understanding (they hear how others perceive their discoveries). It also lets them hear what others have learned, which can suggest further changes they themselves might want to make.
We should be careful, you write, about the assumptions we make about people and their relationship with the digital world. You write, “I am convinced that our current story about the differences between digital natives and their parents and grandparents is wrong (although I certainly wouldn’t claim that I have the definitive proof).” Why do you feel this is a mistaken notion?
For the past 10 years, I’ve been in conversation with undergraduates all over the country. When I’m invited to other campuses to give talks and lead workshops, I often ask if I can be a guest lecturer in one or more classes.
I use these visits as an opportunity to discuss with students their attitudes toward their digital devices and apps. And what I’ve found, consistently, is that students express a variety of reservations and concerns about their online lives that largely parallel what many adults also say, including a worry about being online too much and about getting too easily distracted. (To be clear, though, they definitely appreciate their digital tools. They’re not trying to get away from them, but rather are wanting to figure out how to use them in more balanced ways.)
So I think we’ve been fooled into thinking that those in the “born digital” generation, because they’ve grown up with digital devices from an early age, don’t have concerns about them.
How have interactions with your students over the years affected and informed your views about our relationship with the digital world?
None of the work in “Mindful Tech” could have been done without my students. I’m very grateful to them for their willingness to join me in exploring their relationship with their devices and apps. One major thing I’ve seen is how each student comes to his or her own discoveries, and no two people reach exactly the same conclusions. This is very important — it means that one size does not fit all, that there is no single set of universal guidelines. I’ve also seen how much additional learning comes not just from students’ own discoveries but from the discussions they have with one another.
This book, you write, is about “establishing a more intimate — a more careful and caring — relationship with and through our digital tools and devices.” That said, what would you like readers to take away from this book?
The main takeaway is that to a much greater extent than we’ve realized we can take charge of our digital lives. We have many more choices available to us about how to use our digital devices and apps than we realize, and by paying attention to how we use them now, we can discover how to use them in healthier and more effective ways, as well as when to abstain from using them.
What’s next in your work?
I put aside work on another book (working title “No Time to Think”) to write “Mindful Tech,” and now I’d like to finish it. The book is a historical and philosophical exploration of the acceleration and overload we’re all now experiencing. I also would like to give more workshops around the country in which I offer the exercises and teachings from “Mindful Tech.”
For more information about Levy and his work, contact him at 206-616-2545 or firstname.lastname@example.org