Mindfulness and the device paradigm

For the past year, Paul Miller (The Verge) has been engaging in a ‘radical living experiment’, going without the internet for an entire year. The irony of this experiment is that Miller writes for a publishing company that deals extensively with technology news. over the past three months he’s been disconnected from the internet, he’s adapted to things like reading books, engaging in conversations at coffee shops, using a telephone… The things we used to do in the 1980s before the internet hit the mainstream.

In his latest post on The Verge (Miller still uses an internet-disabled computer to write, prints his stories, and gives them to his editors), Miller shares with us his goings on of the past three months. In particular, he writes that there is a difference between ‘disconnecting’ and ‘disconnected’–despite his ability to adapt to life without internet, the realization is greater that being in the present moment requires knowing not just how to do it, but also why to do it. One point that Miller expresses is that “There’s still nobody on the computer waiting to love me, and I just have to deal with it.”

It’s almost as if this experiment has helped Miller re-engage with what Albert Borgmann (1984) called ‘focal things and practices’. These were the things that required practice to help create intimate connections with objects. Over the past several years, we’ve used the internet (and social networks, in particular) to try and improve social relationships. And yet, the device paradigm has superceded our ability to foster relationships without anything but the computer. Instead, we’ve relied on an intimate connection with our computers to do the bidding of our social relationships. And when we realize that we have 1400 friends who could care less if we’ve ‘disappeared’ for a month or three months or so, we do feel inconsequential.

As Miller learns though, what the internet giveth–that is, to say, an easy fix to boredom and the perception of alleviated social stress–the internet also taketh away our ability to know exactly what those focal things and practices are. When faced with the present moment, we don’t know how to occupy it with just ourselves.

Some recent research by my colleagues and I (forthcoming at Journal of Public Policy and Marketing) found that mindfulness practice helps fulfil this deficiency in our understanding of how to use the present moment. A common substitute for stress relief–eating disorder–can be aleviated by implementing formal mindfulness practice in daily life. Additionally, we found mindfulness also reduces stress levels. In a society that typically looks at solutions to fill time, mindfulness ends up filling purpose. Yes, the computer could possibly be used as a focal object, but if we forget why we’re using that object, our reliance on it only intensifies further. Mick and Fournier (1984, JCR) also find that an avoidance strategy to cope with the “technology paradox” is no better than a confrontative strategy to reduce stress and conflict caused by the paradox.

Indeed, I suspect Miller is starting to find the balance in his life. I suspect he is gaining more of a sense of purpose as he grapples with his inconsequentialism. I suspect he will have a greater appreciation for the focal thing and practice his computer lets him accomplish. And I suspect that this will achieve more for his ability to know why it’s “time to get back” versus when/how  it’s time to get back.