A new era of post-productivity computing?

Conscious computing allows technology to become a prosthetic for full potential.

Glenn Fleishman recently posted on software that disables bits of the computer to make us more productive and to minimize distractions. Programs like Freedom, Isolator, RescueTime, LeechBlock, Turn Off the Lights and others were mentioned, with more coverage going to Freedom, a tool that blocks distractions. Freedom users can choose to disable Internet access and/or local network access. Users claim that software like Freedom makes them more productive by blocking tempting distractions.

I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies over parental ones. Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.

Glenn was kind enough to call me for a comment as he prepared his post. We talked about email apnea, continuous partial attention, and how, while software that locks out distractions is a great first step, our ultimate opportunity is to evolve our relationship with personal technologies.

Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.

In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule. “Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Follow Twitter while working on PowerPoint, why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.” Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.

With technologies like Freedom, we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing and attention are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.

Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious Computing. It’s post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives.

Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.

Scientists, like Antonion Damasio, Daniel Siegel, and Daniel Goleman, are showing us that aspects of our intelligence come from sensing and feeling and that our bodies offer a kind of wisdom.

Here at #Foo10, Sara Winge has just pointed out that, for the first time she can remember, people are sitting in sessions, taking notes on notepads, laptops closed. Laptops are out of sight. It feels different. That’s another option. We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel.

How do we usher in an era of Conscious Computing? What tools, technologies, and techniques will it take for personal technologies to become prosthetics of our full human potential?

  • Tim Girvin

    Linda, as usual, fascinating post.
    Given your observations, I’m curious about your take on the iPad shift. While I don’t have one, to the notion of the cross-over to concepts of post-productivity and the attention factor that you note, what I’ve found — as you’ve noted earlier in some other remarks — people that have iPads seem to claim that this form of computing is changing their lives. Even the basic promotional premise of Apple’s marketing might presume to illustrate the positioning of the media tool in a new more casual manner. They’re sitting with it differently. Flying back from Minneapolis yesterday – caught in an overnight calamity of the storm-tossed minions spending the night there — users were lying on their backs, reading and noting the experience like people reading paperbacks. And I presume they were breathing better, too. Notes on my explorations, here: http://www.girvin.com/blog/?s=iPad. Of course, some of these reference your explorations, speaking of intentionality.

    wishing well | tim | old queen anne hill > seattle

  • Alex Covic

    The most important and least talked about aspect of our modern lives: the attention economy. (Our lifetime is limited. We have to intelligently organize the 24 hours we have daily for the things that are most important to us. All well.)

    At the same time, many people are unable to organize their lives, feeling the need to do more, see more, work more, consume more.

    No restricting *software* will help them in the end. Also, the very idea that some *magic hand* will help us to focus on the important things or help us decide what is what … is rather naive.

    “prosthetics for the mind” “Conscious Computing” – all sound nice (and that is what #Foo10 always turns out for people from outside = foobar wordsmithing) … but this always inherently demands an autonomous mind. An authoritative all-knowing voice, that we either have (ourself) or we trust, to make the right decisions for us.

    Managing the time in our lives we have – as old a problem, as it still is important today. Productivity (for whom, for what) vs Procrastinating – no technology will take away the decision from us.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    One of the elements of the story that Linda kindly links to in the Economist that there wasn’t room for was that an iPad is a single-task device, even when Apple’s form of multitasking arrives.

    I wonder if the iPad signals a new kind of device intended for attention, in that you cannot have five windows open, each demanded you respond or view a task. Switching among active, paused apps in iOS 4 (on the iPhone and iPod touch, and soon on the iPad) isn’t quite like having open windows.

  • kathy Sierra

    It’s been 15 years since Don Norman’s “Things That Make Us Smart” book… with the Amazon description (from a Forbes review): “…time for us to adopt a more human-centered perspective and to insist that informational technologies enhance and complement human cognitive capacities rather than undermine them.”

    We’ve been All About The Brain, while virtually ignoring the *body*. Computer-as-cognitive-helper had a nice long run of it, but I do think we’re overdue for things that make us not just *smarter*, but *better*. So, yeah, I want to see “Things That Make Us Better”. (and by “better”, I mean choose-your-own-upgrade: Awesome, Kick Ass, Healthy, Balanced, Brilliant (in the athletic beauty sense of that word), etc.

    The gadgets I’m currently using for this include my StressEraser, Motivaider, Garmin Forerunner, WiiFit, Balimo chair, and Sound Demon — a skateboarding vest with built-in iPod speakers (would be too long for a blog comment to explain why, but it does change your experience when the music you’re listening to while you ride is not just on your earbuds/headphones but in the environment as well. Of course, it can annoy the hell out of others who don’t fancy your playlist ;)

  • Scott Berkun

    Yikes – I wrote a longish comment here that appeared, and then disappeared. What happened?

  • Scott Berkun

    I find this whole line of thinking fascinating – and I’m looking forward to more.

    My lame pet theory is is based on the stereotype of geeks and makers. Most of us are not athletes. We’re not prone for whatever reason to depend on our bodies first, or consider them at all, so we
    overemphasize the mind and ignore the body. So much of our rhetoric is> about escaping the limitations’ of the body.

    I was an athlete first – it was the primary way I understood myself until later in my life. I don’t feel comfortable unless I exercise, and I think best only when my body has been put to good use. When I’m stressed or blocked it’s my body that’s the answer, not my mind. Or my gadgets.

    So I’m all for tools that help – but I’m biased – I’m convinced often the simplest, cheapest solution is to get people into a good Yoga class (not a gym, but at a yoga studio). Or get them to take up a sport. Go for a long walk every day (preferably outside, not on a treadmill). The body knows what to do for most of us when it’s put to work as our genes and neurology predate civilization – the benefits of putting the body first are more than any computer assisted technology is likely to provide.

    This is a rehash of one theme in John Medina’s excellent book, Brain Rules. He supports the argument with neuroscience and research, which
    I can’t do, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you disagree, you won’t find a more interesting, well presented set of counterarguments.

    I’ve come to believe the best technology I have for health is often just using the off switch.

  • Fred Stutzman

    I very much appreciate that Linda has shared her thoughts about Freedom and similar software packages (Disclosure, I am the developer of Freedom).

    I’ve posted a reply on my blog – with the title “Smaller, better, slower.” The general premise of my argument is that I believe our devices are out of step with our work practices. We think of the computer as a static device, but the computer has advanced to an extent that it actually frustrates work.

    In my post, I argue that we need to explore a different value set when considering how to enable productivity. I believe that the dominant logic of “bigger, better, faster” has failed us, and that we need to critically rethink how we approach productivity in the age of highly advanced devices.

  • Dorian Taylor

    I flatly suspect that we are running out of things to be productive about. Or perhaps more accurately, we have, on a societal scale, created what I can only characterize as a window for contemplation that has led to questioning what we even want to do. Productivity is predicated on efficiency, which itself is predicated on taking our objectives for granted. If we start to question our objectives, then it stops making sense to be productive.

    We can test this by entertaining what if we are extremely productive and efficient in an endeavour that we don’t fundamentally agree with. This quandary is a side effect of being a knowledge worker, or perhaps a wisdom worker. If I help my client or employer achieve their ends, am I arming my enemies? Am I gelding my own aspirations? Or if not outright gelding, am I postponing them to achieve a result for which I don’t have much enthusiasm? Can I even sequester the attention to identify my own aspirations in spite of my current obligations?

    Within this internal debate is a conflict, and conflict leads to vacillation, distraction and procrastination. Could it be that many of us, day in and out and at several scales, are constantly pitting our own ephemeral and inarticulable goals against concrete tasks we have taken on, whether avowed or implicit?

  • Linda, I enjoyed hearing you speak when you visited Dan O’Sullivan’s class at ITP this past week. The notion of computing supporting our whole being rather than just our minds is crucial for our health. Technology plays a central role in our lives and it continues to expand. It’s impact on our well being will be felt stronger, whether positively or negatively.

    As a diehard optimistic, I believe that we will be able to design new solutions that will enable technology to enhance our experience of the world rather than provide a less rich, though sometimes more manageable medium for our lives. I see complexity as one of the main challenges we will have to face in the struggle to achieve this.

    I look forward to hearing more more from you on this topic. And please do stop by ITP again in the future. FYI: your talk in Red’s class last year inspired me to focus on my breathing.

  • Very nice, I didn’t know about these programs. I get pretty distracted easily so I gotta check these out for sure.