Have you ever wondered if we are really in charge of our digital devices, or whether instead they rule our lives? A couple of years ago, I became worried enough about this question to gather some first-hand opinions in a conference session.
I asked a series of questions to see whether the folk present, mostly software developers, thought they were “dependent” on these appealing, engaging facets of our intensely mobile, network-driven lives. This superficially amusing analysis included asking whether people became fretful if they suddenly had no available network, if they cursed when they got a “low battery” message, or admitted to muttering darkly if someone talked to them while they were “busy” with their device? Lastly, and an important question for those seeking a Darwin Award, had they ever stood in the middle of the road while typing a message?
The aggregated show of hands was worryingly large, and enough to convince me that the balance between digital life and real-world life had become seriously skewed for these people. I really wish I’d had a copy of David Levy’s Mindful Tech with me to show to the audience, as a means of addressing their newly realised concerns.
Via a combination of personal narrative, research review and programmed self-help manual, Levy has created a timely guide to building an appropriate equilibrium between our “fast world” and “slow world” existence. The “fast” elements of everyday overload have evolved over the years, he tells us, from merely having too many emails to deal with – a classic source of office angst from the 1990s onwards – to the current harsh reality of a 24-hour, information-immersive culture in which the boundaries of work, leisure, relationships and career seem to blur into a finely diced digital smorgasbord. “Slow”, to Levy, encompasses the more practical, tactile, contemplative elements of our lives – which he embodies in his passion for calligraphy.
Exercises in exploring, and then managing, our digital lives form the bulk of the text. Based on courses the author has given to a variety of audiences – academic and professional – they give a thoughtful framework within which to evolve a personal understanding of our own digital habits. Thus armed, we are led by Levy through a discussion about what limits and craft skills we want to bring to bear in order to fine-tune our relationship with our digital selves.
This book is at once highly personal and intensely practical, and it convinced me – despite my suspicion of anything with the term “mindful” in the title – that it can play an important part in helping readers assess and address the extent of imbalance in their relationships with communications technology. If you are in a hurry, and by implication anyone who needs to read this book will be, you can gather a good feel for the material by flicking to the boxed items that summarise the exercises – a tactic that will almost inevitably lead you deeper into the text.
Like kittens, our endearing digital chums will continue to sucker us in as they make themselves increasingly indispensable and appealing – unless we keep our relationships with them in check and under review. This book provides a valuable, pragmatic template for doing just that.
John Gilbey teaches in the computer science department of Aberystwyth University.
Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives
By David M. Levy
Yale University Press, 256pp, £18.99
Published 25 February 2016