BG 284: Contemplative Technologies

Episode Description:

Mike Redmer is a freelance UX designer and mindfulness coach. His most recent project, the ReWire App, is part of a growing field of technology designed to assist the end user in attaining greater degrees of concentration ability and contemplative awareness.

In this second part of their conversation, host Vincent Horn discusses with Mike the subtleties of contemplative design and the current state of contemplative technology. Vincent relates details of his experience with some of these technologies at the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference, and he and Mike discuss the mixed potential each sees in the future of ubiquitous computing.

This is part two of a two part series. Listen to part one, ReWiring Meditation for the Digital Age

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Vincent:    Now, that we’ve talked a little bit about ReWire I want to kind of expand the scope of the conservation to explore some topics that we talk about a lot you know when we hang out. And I think they’re really important for people who are interested in this intersection that you mentioned between contemplation meditation and technology.

So the first kind of broad question or area that I think is worth exploring is sort of this question around: can, and if so, how can technology enhance practice? I mean you’ve talked a little bit about how you sort of designed ReWire to try to enhance concentration training etc. But in a broader sense like how can technology enhance practice or are we sort of deluding ourselves into thinking that this extremely powerful force, which you mentioned in the beginning, this sort of has our attention constantly glued to it?  Like can we really use that to enhance our attention when in fact it seems to be degrading our attention? So anyway, I’ll just throw that out there and we can sort of just explore.   But any initial kind of thoughts on that?

Mike:    Yeah. I mean I think it’s something that everyone thinks about whether they admit it or not. I mean technology is something that we’re constantly interacting with. I think most people are asking themselves the question like: am I spending too much time online or am I glue to my phone too much or am I tweeting too much or whatever? But I think it’s something that, the way I look at it and how technology has evolved to this point is you know its early days.

And I looked at us as modern people as kids with a new toy and kind of going ape-shit over this new toy and all the cool things that it can do and how we can be connected to someone that’s so far away in all of these different ways and how we can express ourselves in all of these different ways. We can interact, and it’s something that we’ve not been able to do before.

So it’s very new, and because it’s new, and that tends to be the emphasis these days is what’s the newest new. It’s ain’t about the new. It’s about that new new.

Vincent:    It’s about that beta new. Like when is this coming out of beta?

Mike:    Yeah.  You know I was watching a series on Udemy called “Behavioral Design” and one of the guys was talking about how they’re using behavioral engineering in a lot of the design of new products. And one of the ways that they create addictive technologies is doing many many different things. But one of the things is something called “variable reward”, which they did two experiments with two different rats.

One rat when he pulled the lever they would give him a portion of food, just one portion. And the rat ended up pulling the lever three times a day just whenever he was hungry. The other rat they gave him what was called the variable reward, which means he would pull the lever sometimes he would get less than a portion, sometimes he would get more than a portion, sometimes he would get one portion, sometimes he wouldn’t get anything.

And the rat just stood there all day pulling the lever. This is a rat. I mean with a very tiny brain. So, this is very deeply baked into our biology this kind of mechanism. And so the design of products is using this to create technologies that create addictive behavior. So you can see that variable reward system at play in Twitter or Facebook. You know these streams that you’re scanning and you’re saying to yourself “good, good, bad, good, good, bad. That’s good. Share.”

It’s all this variable reward system. And the other thing is the infinite scroll. So there’s no end to it. You scroll forever and there’s endless variable reward content there for you. It’s kind of the downside of technology is that we’re learning so much about how we’re programed that companies are optimizing their products to be more addictive so that we’ll engage more with their product because that’s kind of what their goal is.

Vincent:    That’s how they’re measuring success often is like how much are people using it. And there’s not really a question of whether or not the amount of usage is based on addiction or if it’s based on something else.  [laughter]

Mike:    Exactly.

Vincent:    There’s no differentiation there.

Mike:    Yeah. And that’s why for us as people who value contemplation and understanding ourselves and having tools and techniques to do that, I mean I think it’s more important than ever for people to have some kind of a practice to know these subtle, you know if your subtle desires are being manipulated.

And why are you engaging in this particular behavior all the time automatically? You know when you see that notification on your phone or that little no. 1 next to your app or whatever. Like what is that feeling like and what is that drive to want to open it and know what’s there and just explore that a little bit?

Vincent:    So we can sort of in some sense make a practice of it and yet that doesn’t change the fact that most technologies are still designed this way. So that brings up the question for me, and you know our mutual friend Rohan Gunatillake has a nice phrase which is like: we haven’t really started designing technologies yet with the mind in mind.

In some ways, I think contemplative design which is what you’re practicing with ReWire, basically, is like it is actually looking at the states of mind that the technology induces in the person using it. Is it actually helping cultivate certain states or is it sort of feeding addictive patterns?

It seems like there are very few technologies like that that are actually designed with the user’s state of mind in mind. I mean it’s really uncommon. But that doesn’t mean to me though, and I think this is where there’s a lot of confusion about can technology enhances practice, is that because most technologies don’t that they can’t.

And I just wonder if there’s really just been a lack of people in that space who really put a lot of energy and attention into it. I mean obviously some have, but I’ll be curious what you think about that.

Mike:    Yeah. I mean at least in the UX space I’m hearing people talk about that a lot, and the whole ubiquitous computing or kind of interfaces receding into the background until you need them. And I think Google Glass is an interesting up and coming product that might have the potential to do something like that. Aside from the fact that people are going to look weird wearing them, me included.  [laughter]

Vincent:    You especially.  [laughter]

Mike:    It’s just because of my weird shaped face. But I think that those type of technologies I’m really seeing as a potential for us to chill out a little bit with the constant interface with this kind of lifeless hardware contraptions. It’s like you want to go somewhere, you got to pull out your phone, unlock it, navigate through the thing, open you know…

Vincent:    It’s such a pain. [laughter]

Mike:    It’s such a pain. [laughter]  First world problems.

Vincent:    UX designer speaking here. [laughter]

So let’s talk about Glass a little bit, because I think this is sort of an emerging technology. And it will have ramifications for this whole I guess we could call it an emerging field. I’ve been calling it contemplative technology. I’ve heard other people use mindful technology.

Mike:    I like that. I like that phrase.

Vincent:    I mean to me contemplative technology sort of encapsulates this broad practice of using technology and services in some sort of contemplative end. But Glass, I mean this is going to be an important part of an emerging trend of what we call “wearable computers.” Google is making this sort of audacious claim that Glass, and this is from the lead product designer who is talking about this on The Verge in the video interview that they recently did, which I’ll put up a link to in the notes.

And he was saying part of the problem with technology is what we’ve been talking about is its constantly distracting us. And so they’re trying to solve that by putting this thing on your head and this piece of glass right in front of your eye. But they’re being serious. Like they’re trying to solve it by what he said bringing the technology closer to your senses.

And you use this term “ubiquitous computing”. Amber Case who gave a keynote at the Buddhist Geeks conference she talked about this trend toward computers becoming so ubiquitous, so everywhere.

And they’re becoming smarter in terms of communicating with each other, kind of knowing what we’re trying to do. You know the Nest Learning Thermostat is a great example. Like an early version of this.

Mike:    Yeah or Google Now.

Vincent:    Or Google Now. These sort of technologies that have basically like learning algorithm in them so they’re basically learning from your behavior and then offering things up or doing things without you having to tell it. So they essentially recede into the background except when they’re needed.

And it seems like that’s the philosophy behind Glass. That said it doesn’t seem like there’s anything inherent in the technology that will keep people from sort of continuing to develop addictive apps. Like everyone’s worst fear is Google ad popping up everywhere in your visual field.  [laughter]

Mike:    It’s an advertiser’s wet dream.  [laughter]

Vincent:    [laughter]  Exactly. So yeah. So in my mind again it comes down to this issue like even something amazing like that, like Glass, even if it could potentially recede in the background, you still have to develop and design applications and software that will let it recede into the background. What’s your thought on sort of these emerging things like Glass and contemplative tech? How do you imagine?

Mike:    One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of contemplative tech is technology that can assist us in becoming more aware of what’s actually happening in the moment. You know I have a background with Shinzen Young in Vipassana meditation. And so that’s kind of my orienting perspective when I think about being present to whatever is happening in your sensory experience.

And I think with something like Google Glass I can see, because it knows where you are it knows, you know, it has a sound sensors. Your phone has sound sensors if you’re in loud environment, quiet environment, if you’re moving, if you’re stationary. You know with the camera they can sense how much movement is going on in front of you. And all of these are very important variables that one could design some kind of a contemplative app to kind of instruct the user based on what’s happening to pay attention to different aspects.

Especially with some of the bio-sensors that are coming out you know if you’re feeling stress in a particular situation. Your heart rates going up or what have you. So I mean there’s all kinds of applications like that and you know it’s going to go through the same phase that the smart phone did where people are constantly looking to above you and to the left of you. [laughter]  And you’re going to have to be like hey are you listening to me.

But the other cool thing is that now you can take photos and you can take videos and you can record life moments that are really important and really precious and enhance the human experience in easier ways that don’t get in the way of your natural interacting. You don’t have to pull your phone out of your pocket and hold it up and everybody gets weird about getting a picture snapped or whatever.

You know there’s good things and there’s bad things. And I think it’s important for, no. 1 I think it’s really important for designers who are designing these type of technologies to maybe think about adopting some kind of introspective practice, because it can really influence your products and your designs. And I hope that a lot of the tech companies and that kind of thing, I mean Wisdom 2.0 is a great example of the tech scene kind of getting hip to meditation and this kind of thing.

It might be to varying degrees that they’re interested. But they’re interested and I think that’s what’s important to carry the conversation forward.

Vincent:    Okay. Really cool. And then in terms of looking at some other, I just want to sort of explore some other emerging technologies and sort of maybe just touch on how they might be related to his whole contemplative tech emergence. And a couple that come to mind one are EEG headsets. There’s like a whole host of different EEG stuff coming out. Like InteraXon has the Muse. Judson Brewer who I had on the show talked about his Go Blue headset. There’re a number of other headsets coming out.

And some of them are being desired at least with some awareness of what’s we’ve been talking about different mind states. Go Blue is specifically coming out of meditation research. So, that’s sort of one whole category. Then there’s something that hasn’t really come out fully in the US, but its being sort of tested I think for depression in Canada in particular which is the trans-cranial direct stimulation technology or TCDS.

Mike:    Oh, you nailed it. Good job, dude!  [laughter]

Vincent:    This is something I heard about mostly through Shinzen. So I was thinking we could touch on that one a little bit too. And then there’s probably a whole host of other ones. Especially the brain interfacing technology that’s sort of are kind of around the bend, I mean in terms of we’re looking 5 to 10 years. Probably these are going to be accessible and powerful.

Mike:    Yeah. I would add one more to that too, neutropics. More powerful kind of better neutropics is another interesting potential contemplative technology.

Vincent:    So basically popping pills. [laughter]

Mike:    Pill popping. Pop pills and blow your mind. [laughter]

Vincent:    It’s a good thing there’s no testing board for meditators like there are for professional bikers. [laughter]

Mike:    Yeah. I know. I’m sorry. You’re enlightenment is invalid.  [laughter]

Vincent:    So yeah. Let’s talk about some of these things because now we’re getting into devices that like, at least in the case of EEG and TCDS, like they interface directly with your brain. So it’s getting to some really crazy stuff. And the cutting edge of meditation research is right now sort of really looking at, really looking at the brain and kind of what’s going on in states of meditation in the brains of advanced meditators who have been doing it for decades.

What happens in the brains of meditators who have been doing mindfulness for eight weeks? And they’re sort of learning a lot at this point about what’s happening in the brain. And it seems like a lot of that is now sort of being translated into useful information for these EEG headset makers and software developers. BrainBot is another one that we’ve sort of mentioned.

Mike:    Yup. They’re doing really interesting stuff.

Vincent:    A couple of guys in San Francisco who were meditation researchers who then went on to create this company that’s doing an EEG headset. So yeah I’m really curious. I tried InteraXon when I was at Wisdom 2.0.

Mike:    Oh you did. The Muse?

Vincent:    The Muse. I tried the demo.

Mike:    How comfortable is it? That’s what I want to know.

Vincent:    It’s actually really comfortable. I had a sort of demo unit on. But the normal one looked pretty comfortable as well. Its four channels. There’s like two channels in the frontal lobe and then two channels next to it.

Mike:    Nice.

Vincent:    It’s cool because it’s designed in a way that it’s not so ugly. It’s sexier than the Glass. [laughter] It looks like a headband basically. And it was actually really cool. The EEG headset that I’d used before that you and went in on was a one channel.

Mike:    That was a NeuroSky.

Vincent:    That was a NeuroSky. And it was pretty simple. I have to say at this point, and I’m not sure if it’s the EEG hardware or if it’s the software, but I haven’t been super impressed by EEG stuff yet. But I have a feeling that at least with the Muse that a lot of it was the software.

A lot of it was like terminology: like what do they mean by focus and what do I mean as a meditation practitioner by focus?  How are those different? What are we measuring? I mean there definitely seemed like there’s a correlation between something internal and the external feedback, but it wasn’t clear to me that anyone has quite nailed it with respect to meditation.

But I suspect that probably someone will in the next few years. I mean someone is going to start to dial in and see correlations between these brain frequencies and be able to have sufficient hardware to tell if you’re in a certain state and then to give you feedback on it.

Mike:    Yeah.

Vincent:    I mean that’s pretty incredible. That would be a pretty big deal in training the mind.

Mike:    Totally. Yeah. It comes back to that importance of feedback. And I think that’s one of the really important things that these brain readers are doing. You know some of them, it might be just a little kitschy and whatever, you see the NeuroSky brain reader with the cat ears or whatever that go up and down. I mean it’s completely pointless. But I think the important thing that it’s doing for people is kind of calling attention to the fact that your subjective states are changing.

And they can see in real time how their subjective state is affecting whether it’s dials on a screen or its ears going up and down. And I think that is really really important for people. Because one thing that meditation kind of has going against it is that the benefits aren’t necessarily seen very quickly. So if you’re overweight and you want to go to the gym and you want to put in the work after a couple of weeks you can see the difference and everyone else can too and that’s a big motivating factor.

With meditation there hasn’t been up to this point a way to see: okay I’m getting better in a certain aspects. So I think these brainwave readers, if people can play games with each other and put themselves in particular states of mind really well and kind of beat their friends, it’s going to perk their interest I think in being like: wow there’s this whole smorgasbord of different mental states that I can conjure up and what other kind of stuff could I do?

And I think in the contemplative space I think all the research that’s coming out is really interesting because they’re showing that different types of meditation produce different types of brain states. And Zen meditators are showing different brain readings than nuns or someone doing Vipassana. So there’s this whole variety of mental states that we have access to.

And I think it’s really going to be interesting to kind of pair these two aspects up, the meditative research field and these kind of hardware companies that are building hardware and software that can detect different states. And I really think what BrainBot is doing is really cool too in terms of trying to marry some kind of experience between those two that’s actually helpful for people who are more interested in meditation. So yeah, it’s fascinating.

Vincent:    Yeah. It’s really interesting because there’s something that Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and technologist, he has a term for this which is the “false pretender”. That usually with technological innovations you tend to have something that’s sort of appears on the scene and you’re like that’s it. But then it ends up being a pretender and there’s something that emerges after that. That’s the real deal. It actually does what you sort of have hoped would happen.

Like the car phone is a perfect example. It’s a false pretender of the cellphone. And I sort of wonder often times if: [are] many of the kind of contemplative technologies that we’re looking at now are either really really archaic early first versions of what will eventually become mature or they are sort of false pretenders? It seems like that, in my mind, is the phase we’re in.

It’s like we’re in a very early phase of these technologies actually being more helpful than if you just sort of sat down and try to meditate by yourself or if you just use a book for instance, which is itself a technology.

Mike:    Right. I think that’s the point is that its never been easier to learn about meditation and to actually do a practice and have kind of a scientific validated research studies saying yes meditation is doing these things. It’s for real. And that’s really exciting.

I think you’re exactly right. Its early days still. I think what it boils down to is how can we be more present with our experience in whatever degree that that’s happening.  So sometimes I think people can get this, I don’t know, maybe more traditionally minded people can have this very adverse reaction to technology, and we should just shut off the internet and close our laptops and go meditate in cabins. And that’s fine for some people. But what I think is important is that we’re able to be present with whatever is happening in the moment, whether we’re on our iPhones or we’re not on our iPhones. Whatever technology can help us do that I think is good.

Vincent:    It’s a great point because a lot of technologists describe technology as an extension of our senses. You know Marshall McLuhan talked about technology as extending our senses.

In that sense like if meditation is about becoming aware of what’s happening in the sensory field, you know, in the senses then shouldn’t we also be bringing awareness to the extension of the senses? Like isn’t in some ways technology like sort of the fifth foundation of mindfulness.

They’re traditionally four but then now we have this whole way that we’ve extended our experiencing out beyond the four walls that we’re normally contained in. Even though we’re still experiencing them in that way.

Mike:    Yeah, I mean impermanence happens whether you’re chopping vegetables or watching a movie or meditating or…

Vincent:    Facetiming.

Mike:    Facetiming or Facebooking and Faceplanting [laughter] whatever is going on. Those fundamental aspects of reality are happening. And I think it’s just about bringing wisdom to technology. That’s so important. We’re not going to get anywhere by all these contemplatives running off into a cave somewhere and waiting it out. It’s like we really need to get in there and bring our perspectives to bear on what’s being created.


Mike Redmer

Mike Redmer is a freelance UX designer and mindfulness coach living in Boulder, CO. His most recent project, the ReWire App, came out of a desire to utilize technology to make meditation fun, easy, and profoundly effective.