Jon Mitchell sets out to identify and explore the ways in which we can develop a more thoughtful relationship with technology. Rather than only using our technological devices as a medium for connecting with the world, he recommends we rethink our relationship with technology, and see it as a resource that allows us to have a more intimate and personal relationship with ourselves and the world around us. Mitchell offers concrete practices for streamlining and improving the way we use technology in our daily lives.
Writing in a relatable, conversational, easy-to-read style, Mitchell draws on his years of experience as a tech journalist and mindfulness practitioner to propose a rethinking of both the design of technology and its use.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
What is your work?
What are you doing today?
It’s a hard question.
It seems simple at first. Let me just check my list We all keep some kind of list, whether paper, digital, or mental, of what we have to do. What we’re doing today should be right in front of us.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. Just because a task is on the list doesn’t mean we’re doing it today. Some tasks we can’t avoid, but others can be kicked merrily down the road or pushed guiltily to tomorrow. That question What are you doing today? is loaded with problems. We may answer it earnestly in the morning, but by evening our answer might be wrong.
Yet we all have to try and answer the question every day. What are you doing today? is staring us in the face the moment we wake up. We want to have a good answer. It gives us a sense of purpose to know what we’re doing. We can lose our worries and doubts in action. When we know what to do, we are part of an active world. When we don’t know what to do, we feel alone.
But we are not alone.
There’s something else that can help us figure out what to do. Something else that wants to. For more of us each year nearly half the world already there’s a being in our lives who wants to know what we’re doing today even worse than we do.
The relationship between person and computer is not even a generation old. At first, the computers didn’t know how to have a relationship with us. Now, they do. We’re the ones out of our depth in this relationship now.
Computers have the simpler job in this relationship. They know what they want from us. They know because we tell them. Computers want exactly what they are told to want. That’s easy. But we have to know what we want from computers first, so we can give them the right instructions. That’s harder.
So far, in the vast majority of computer-human relationships, what we’ve told computers to want is to help us with that hard question: What are you doing today? They’ve gotten very helpful. Computers help us remember what we’re doing, they help us find new things to do, and they help us to do them. They help us any way they can. Computers are so helpful, they can help us in opposing ways.
For example, your computer can help you remember what you’re doing today by showing your tasks on a calendar. Let’s say your next task is to write a message to your team. Your computer can help you do that by opening a new application in a new window, letting you focus on your message.
But while you’re writing, someone else sends you a message: “Want to get pizza for lunch?” Your computer receives that message, and it does exactly what people told it to do: it delivers the message to you right away. The computer just wants to help you figure out what you’re doing today. But by following its instructions perfectly, now it’s interrupting you. It’s stopping you from doing what you’re doing.
That’s no help at all. But the computer is just doing what you asked it to do. It’s helping you in two ways at the same time. Is that not what you meant? Do you and your computer have a communication problem?
Then you’d better figure out how to explain yourself better. That’s the foundation of any healthy relationship.
Maybe it’s uncomfortable to think about your computer or computers this way. It’s an inanimate object. It has an off button. It may have some kind of intelligence, but it’s not a human. It’s not even an animal. How can it have a relationship with a person? That’s too intimate.
But aren’t we intimate with computers? We communicate with them through touch. Sometimes we talk to them. Sometimes we gaze at each other. Computers are there for us during intimate moments. They facilitate our human relationships. They teach us wonderful things about our world. They monitor and protect our health. They help us with our hardest work.
Computers also offer us endless distractions. They indulge our vanity and our laziness. They disembody us and dehumanize us, turning flesh-and-blood people into flat boxes full of stereotypes. But they only do that to us because we tell them to. We’ve given them bad jobs to do.
Our relationship with computers is certainly not one between peers. For now, at least, computers are more like employees than friends. They follow our instructions and do prodigious work. We may buy a computer or an app because of something we like about it, but ultimately, our relationship with a computer and its software is defined by how well it does the jobs for which we’ve hired it.
How do we know what jobs to give our computers? Some of them are obvious. It’s our computer’s job to do hard math problems for us. It’s our computer’s job to send email or browse the Internet. But when we’re not careful, we give our computers bad jobs, often unconsciously or by accident. Is it our computer’s job to help us procrastinate in some addictive game? Is it our computer’s job to make us feel insecure by browsing our exes’ photos? It is if that’s what we told our computers to do.
If we want our technology to help us, we have to be better managers. We have to hire the right tools for the right jobs. If you don’t know what jobs you’re hiring for, ask yourself this:
What is your work?
Ah. There. Suddenly, we aren’t talking about dry business stuff anymore. Now we’re asking about life and meaning and purpose. Your work is the impact you make on the world. Whether technology helps you or hinders you in that work is in your hands. Work can be dry, sure. It can be boring. It can be painful. So we should accept help. Technology is here to help us. That’s why we created it. We just have to use it that way.
Technology is part of life. It’s there with us. If our life has spiritual meaning to us, technology is part of it, just like water and trees and animals and oxygen. We’re here on Earth to do our work, and we’ve invented technology to help. If we want to hire technology for spiritual life, we have to give it spiritual jobs.
Spiritual work, spiritual jobs
All technology stories are about work. But the word “work” has many layers.
In the lowest-down, most physical sense, any force acting on any body is doing work. That’s why we invent any technology, to help us increase our impact on the world. That’s the sense in which work is the subject of every story of technology.
In the economies of human societies, work is usually discussed on a more abstract level. Work is the activity people do for monetary compensation. The market places a value on many kinds of work, denominated in money, and people try to find a job doing one of these kinds of work, so they can make money and survive. In high tech societies, technology stories are largely concerned with work in this sense, showing how new inventions and innovations can make people and companies more productive, efficient, and profitable.
You are not reading one of those stories.
This story is concerned with work of the highest human order. How can technology enable us, as individuals and communities, to do our greatest possible work? Not our work as a cashier or a machinist or a doctor or a writer, but the hard work of being a good person. This is the kind of work we can do all the time, whether in our jobs, with our friends and families, with strangers on the street, in the airport, on the highway, at the hospital, anywhere. It’s the work of being present to the needs and wants of other people and ourselves, too so we can help each other thrive and be happy.
The meanings of these words are colored by our various traditions, upbringings, and social environments. Religions and moral philosophies are defined and distinguished from one another by the different values and practices they prescribe for a good life. But we have to translate across these lines in order to live together as neighbors. In a diverse and deeply interconnected society, there are best practices we can share to help us do our spiritual work, however we define it for ourselves.
The task before us is to identify the qualities of good spiritual work for ourselves, as well as to isolate the bad kinds, the spiritually harmful kinds of work in which we nevertheless engage as we tread through the world. This is an ongoing evaluation requiring practiced mindfulness in all our work. Once we have a well-developed sense of good and bad work, we can apply the power of technology to help us reinforce our practice and discourage distractions.
This is sometimes an uphill battle. The technologies we use day to day are sometimes not designed to help us do good work. Indeed, some of them are designed to distract us. We will examine the reasons for this in later chapters. That may seem insane now, but as we’ll find, the language of technology is always reasonable enough to understand. And once we understand why some technologies are designed for distraction, we are empowered to find better solutions.
But even distracting technologies can be used for higher purposes. The kinds of distractions provided by the Internet are often nevertheless intended to connect us with other people. That connection can still be used for spiritual work; any human connection can. It just takes practice.
A spiritual relationship with technology is one in which we, the users, can apply technological powers for their highest purposes in our spiritual work. But what exactly is spiritual work?
I’m going to propose three categories of activity that comprise spiritual work, underlying all personal beliefs and terminologies. You don’t have to accept them or use them explicitly in your practice. They’re just categories I find useful, like those we sometimes use in meditation for “labeling” our thoughts, making them understandable and familiar to us. I think they’ll help you get better at your work.
My three categories of spiritual work are:
MAGIC, MEDITATION, and PRAYER
Each of these categories will get its own section of the book, as I explain how technology can help enhance our powers in each of them. But here are some basic definitions:
Magic is spiritual work that unleashes our personal power upon others and the world. It’s how we exert influence on people and situations. Magic is the most volatile kind of spiritual work, the kind that can do the most harm if we are not careful. But magic is also spiritual work that can amaze us with how much good we can accomplish.
Meditation is spiritual work that improves our attention, awareness, and concentration. It helps us act with a clearer mind and with more awareness of the situation and the people in it. Meditation makes us less prone to distraction and mistakes.
Prayer is spiritual work that opens us to the infinite potential and possibility of the world around us. It helps us remember that we’re a part of something greater, giving us hope and keeping us aligned with global goals. Prayer guides us to set good intentions and trust in the greater whole to help us realize them.
We already have all these powers within us, in our minds and hearts. But technology can enhance all of them. With the right tools and the right skills, we can vastly improve our spiritual work through our grasp of technology.
What is a technology?
We won’t get very far in our budding relationship if we don’t first develop a good sense of what technology actually is.
The word “technology” is often used as a shorthand for a specific kind of technology computers, smartphones, other Internet-connected devices, and the software we run on them, too and indeed I’m using it that way in this book. But I’m just doing that for convenience. Before we get too far, I want to offer you a much broader definition of technology, one that fits onto computers and such, but which links them to many more, older technologies.
I define technology similar to Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants?. He describes the technium as a realm, far more than a subcategory of human activity. To him, it’s more like the seventh kingdom of life, alongside plants, animals, fungi, and the various kinds of microorganisms.
Kelly traces the word technology back to its Greek origins, and the word turns out to be surprisingly rare. It merges two ideas: techne something like art, skill, cleverness, or ingenuity and logos words or speech or literacy. Kelly finds it knit together by Aristotle into technelogos, but it’s unclear in context what the word means. “Is he concerned with the ‘skill of words,’ or the ‘speech about art’ or maybe a literacy of craft?” Kelly asks. Technology wasn’t a term used to describe wheels and gears and cranes in ancient Greece.
Then the word goes dormant for a while, until the Industrial Revolution. By then, its meaning is tangled up with other conceptual inventions, like art and craft and culture, and technology was revived to describe the new, now exploding realm of products and processes invented through scientific research, industry, mechanization, and automation.
But these unbundled terms don’t satisfy Kelly. He thinks there’s an animating force surrounding all these words that explains the way these human inventions reorganize the world and information about it in ways that themselves produce new inventions and reorganizations. He reluctantly (but wisely) coins a new term, the technium, to describe that sphere of activity and uses it the way people use “technology” to describe whole systems, like I have been so far. To Kelly, the word technology can refer to a specific technology, like radar, but he wants a new word to encompass technologies and all their self-amplifying effects.
I don’t think we need to go that far here, but I highly encourage you to do so someday (you can find my favorite books and stories in the appendix). Mountains of words have been written about the species- and planet-level impact of the technium, but I don’t want to get bogged down. Let’s stick with technology itself. Rather than talk about trends and economics and populations, I’d like to focus on how to examine the individual relationship with your technology. What does technology mean to you? Which technologies do you use for your own purposes?
So in that light of the technology choices you personally make, let’s define technology.
We’re okay with computers as technology. We’re also okay with cars, microwaves, electric razors, and other things we plug in. What about typewriters? What about books? Are we starting to leave the comfortable category of technology? What about meditation? What about language?
I think all of these things are technologies. And it doesn’t take a uselessly broad definition of technology to get us there. It only takes a simple one:
Technology is the application of knowledge to affect our world.
Whether it works just once or changes things forever, any method or process or system we use to change our environment is a technology. The technology is not just the hardware; it’s also the software that runs on it. If a program on your phone counts, a program in your mind counts, too.
Yes. Resist. It’s okay if you don’t buy it. Let’s look at three examples of things that would count as technology under this definition, and we’ll see if we feel better by the end.
Language does two basic things: it gives structure to our thoughts, and it allows us to express them. It’s not the only way to do either of those things, but it’s a very good way. Shortly after humans developed language, pretty much everything changed for us. Most importantly, we could communicate much more clearly with each other. We could plan, we could cooperate on complex tasks, we could even discuss abstract concepts. This gave us a much more profound sense of what was going on in other people’s heads.
Immediately, our economic relationships changed as we became able to collaborate on more interesting things, and our social relationships changed as we developed much more sophisticated ideas about personhood. These transformations happened simultaneously and built on each other. Language changed the world. It changed our inner worlds directly and immediately, enabling us to find new ways to change the outer world, new technologies.
This is the reproductive quality of technology that provoked Kevin Kelly to discuss it like a form of life. This example also demonstrates what tech people mean when they use the word “platform.” Language was a new platform on which we could construct many more technologies and applications. Before we invented language, it didn’t exist, and none of the technologies that it enabled were possible.
You’d agree that a programming language like Objective-C is a technology, right? (Even if you don’t know what Objective-C is, I bet you still believe me.) Well, why do we call them languages? Because they give structure to the programming environment, and they allow programmers to express their programs.
There’s nothing inherent in the hardware of a computer that gives rise to Objective-C. Objective-C is a logical invention of humans that takes advantage of the properties of computers for new purposes. That’s just what human languages do with the properties of brains. I’m not saying that brains are computers, minds are programming environments, or that thoughts are programs, only that in both examples, the thing we’re calling a language serves the same function. So if Objective-C can be called a technology, can’t English, too?
Table of Contents
What is your work?
Spiritual work, spiritual jobs
What is a technology?
Talking past each other
Jobs to be done
Plans and places
Desk job: a guided meditation
How I wrote this book
The value of disconnection
In a relationship
Doing your chores