‘MINDFULNESS’ and ‘software’ are words rarely found together, yet smartphone applications designed for mindfulness proliferate. Computers and their software, fashionably shunned as the root of our distraction problem—our mindlessness—have been turned to its treatment. Satisfying an overbearing user-demand to help control and regulate our attention, applications like Headspace are making headway popularly and financially. With over 66,000 downloads on the Google Play Store in January 2018, the trend seems exponential.
But, the treatment of our ailing attention spans via our devices still maintains dependency on those attention dividing devices. And as Marketing Professor Adam Alter of New York University writes in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked:
“There’s a study that was done asking people, mainly young adults, to make a decision: if you had to break a bone or break your phone what would you prefer? Forty-six percent of people would prefer to have a broken bone than a broken phone.”
The social-demand for such studies and books is in-itself revealing. As dubiously generalisable as its finding may be to the rest of us; it does represent a disturbing cultural shift. A shift that has a backlash from Justin Rosenstein, the Facebook ‘Like’ button creator, who The Guardian reports have abandoned Reddit and Snapchat. And from anti-“hijack” campaigns like Time Well Spent. A charitable organisation whose website describes them as: “former tech insiders and CEOs who intimately understand the culture, business incentives, design techniques, and organisational structures driving how technology hijacks our minds”.
At first thought, then, the attempt to remedy our compromised attention through the very device that captures our attention can seem misplaced. Because, in the context of holding a smartphone – a brain is bound to be triggered by desire and expectation for split and partial attention. Such triggers arise whether from an anxiety-inducing message, notification, or the mere presence of a dormant phone. Our brain structures and their reward systems have long-been altered, as neuroscientists like Daniel J. Levitin advocate; and studies repeatedly conclude.
Disturbing, yes. But while there is a distinct irony and a touch of naïve optimism in these mindfulness applications, arguably they do give hope. Partial attention results in impaired working memory. Partial attention is caused by an overextension of attention over time in feeds and updates and in visual-space overcrowded by multiple apps, tabs, devices, dormant in any handheld.
Even just holding a familiar feeling smartphone has the temptation to stray attention. And logic dictates that without the hazard – the phone – there is no risk of distraction. No phone means no opportunity to compulsively check our phone status.
However, it is precisely the overwrite of compulsively distracted attention, the therapeutic retraining and replacement of those distraction trigger through mindfulness applications, which offers a plausible treatment for smart technology-induced addiction.
We inevitably use our phone daily. So rather than impossibly demote technology from our hands and therefore minds, by integrating focused attention—where we only focus on one task, mindfulness—with our phones is the best course of treatment. Mindfulness applications offer the chance to train a less distractible, mindful, relationship with our smart devices,
Afterall, to convert people to mindfulness practice, it’s precisely the efficiency of enterprising software that can have (and is having) far-reaching effects at a lower price for busied consumers. Those who turn to a mindfulness app are those that most need some form of mindfulness in their lives.
If our relationship with devices is to blame for mindlessness, then reconditioning that relationship into feasible mindful mutuality rather than infeasible separation is surely a more mindful yet happily plausible future.