Howard Rheingold: Contemplative Computing (Kent Finley)

Advanced Cyber/IO
Howard Rheingold

Contemplative Computing

By / July 8, 2011 12:30 PM

Last year when Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows hit the streets suggesting that the Internet was frying our brains (see our coverage) I asked what we could do to build a less brain damaging Internet. Since then I’ve been too, well, distracted to pursue that line of thinking.

Fortunately Alex Pang, a visiting fellow at Microsoft Research Cambridge, actively researches this area. Pang proposes a new paradigm called contemplative computing. Today he gave a talk on the idea at the Lift France 2011 conference and has published a PDF of it. You can also find a rough draft of his paper on contemplative computing.

So can computers actually help improve our concentration and contemplation, instead of leading us into distraction?


The problem, as Pang puts it, is that “Technologies that were supposed to help us think better, work more efficiently, and connect more meaningfully with others now interrupt us, divide our attention, and stretch us thin.”

Pang suggests that we don’t have to choose between information technology and contemplation, and suggests contemplative computing as a new way forward. He describes contemplative computing as something you do, not a product. But the principles of contemplative computing could be extending to application design. “The problem is that today’s information technologies are often poorly-designed and thoughtlessly used: they’re like unreliable prosthetics that we have to depend on, but can’t quite control or trust,” Pang says.

In his Lift presentation, Pang encourages you to study your own habits, consider how you use technology and experiment with your own mind. But in his longer paper, Pang delves into the possibilities of creating software and technology that actively encourages contemplation.

In the paper he outlines give principles of contemplative computing;

  • Build awareness through DIY and self-experimentation
  • Recognize that we are cyborgs, and humans
  • Create rewarding challenges
  • Support mind-wandering
  • Treat flow as a means, not an end

You might be surprised to see “support mind wandering” on the list. But Pang makes a distinction between mind wandering and distraction, and points out the value creative value of mind wandering and day dreaming (for more on this subject, check out this article by Jonah Lehrer, though Lehrer doesn’t really make the distinction between distraction and mind wandering).

Pang touches on the idea of “zenware,” software that is designed to help us focus. In particular, he mentions WriteRoom and OmmWriter, full-screen text editors meant to help people write without getting distracted (we recently published a round-up of similar software).

But this approach to technology is not without its detractors. Productivity guru Merlin Mann argues that these technologies give the “misguided impression that their “distraction” originates from anyplace but their own busted-ass brain” and are actively harmful. Hence, the importance of contemplative computing as a practice rather than a product.

Never the less, I’m convinced that developers could do more to encourage contemplation within software. An excellent example comes from music software.  Ableton Live, in my experience, does a particularly good job embodying the principles of contemplative computing. It supports focus and flow for activities like beat slicing, mixing and editing, but gives the user the opportunity to “noddle” by playing with different combinations of effects, rearranging loops, etc.

That said, I have no idea what a truly contemplative word processor, inventory management system or social networking application would look like.

If you want to study this further, Pang maintains a blog on contemplative computing, and recently signed a book deal.

Image courtesy of Jordan Langelier

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