Digital mindfulness is about human values as design goal

By Martin Recke

When I first came across something called a newsfeed, I was immediately fascinated. This encounter happened back in October 1992, at Funkhaus Berlin. I looked into a CRT terminal displaying the stream of news from all the major news agencies. You could even search for news from the past. Incredible. As an intern turned freelance radio journalist, I could spend hours sifting through the newsfeed.

With this experience in mind, I saw e-mail and Usenet newsgroups coming into my life. All of a sudden, everyone with internet access could write something and distribute it to the world. Awesome. That quickly led to an explosion of stuff to read. But you still needed to sit behind a screen, limiting the amount of time and attention you could possibly spend. That changed with the Crackberry which turned e-mail into an addiction. Then came the iPhone. The rest is history.

Fast forward to 2018, and I can still spend most of my days with newsfeeds. But now these feeds are ubiquitous and always in my pocket. The old gatekeepers, like dpa, AFP, or AP, have been replaced by new gatekeepers like Facebook and their mysterious algorithms. Their feeds have been designed to maximise the usage of my time and attention, because that's what the new gatekeepers harvest and sell.

They are slicing my mind and selling the slices.

Digital mindlessness has been the design goal, at least implicitly, for these newsfeeds. They hijack our attention, while shortening our attention spans and leaving us with all kinds of negative side effects. That's insane, to say the least.

But over the last couple of years, the tide slowly started turning. Digital mindfulness has gained more and more ground. While the concept of mindfulness itself is ancient and deeply rooted in Buddhist meditation, the digital branch is a more recent phenomenon, and often used in a broader sense. A bunch of mindfulness apps like Calm helped popularise the idea, while at the same time sharpened the perception of the mindless practices the attention economy's oligarchs cultivate.

In the Valley, mindfulness and meditation have been on the rise for years. I don't think that happened by chance. Instead, the digital pioneers felt the need to counterbalance the effects of their own creations. The same impetus led to initiatives like the Center for Humane Technology, née Time Well Spent, and thus in turn to self-help guides on digital mindfulness.

But digital mindfulness, understood as a countermeasure for digital mindlessness, has a business aspect as well:

Now, brands will have to rethink how emotional connections are made in a time where people demand time well spent. The main question will be how can I better support people in achieving their goals as human beings, rather than how can I capture their attention? The brands that do this will be able to generate orders of magnitude more value from customers over the long term.

In tech, this debate takes place under the term ‘Time well spent’, rather than digital mindfulness. But regardless of the term, it is about human values as the central design goal, and the basic hypothesis is that this focus will be even better for digital business, rather than limiting it.

There is a playbook for the next Facebook, and whoever cracks this will reap huge rewards. While Facebook so far is predominantly paying lip service, Google and Apple at least started to introduce features for digital wellbeing into their mobile operating systems. That says a lot.

Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash