Back in the summer of 2008 — a long time ago, in Internet terms, two years before Instagram, and about the time of Twitter’s second birthday — the US writer Nicholas Carr published a now famous essay in the Atlantic magazine entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
The more time he spent online, the more he experienced the sensation that something was eating away at his brain, Carr wrote.
“I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he wrote.
Increasingly, he would sit down with a book, but then find himself unable to focus for more than two or three pages.
“I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text,” he wrote.
Reading, he recalled, used to feel like scuba diving in a sea of words. However, now “I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”
In the half-decade since Carr’s essay appeared, we have endured countless scare stories about the life-destroying effects of the Internet, and by and large they have been debunked. No, the Web probably is not addictive in the sense that nicotine or heroin are; no, Facebook and Twitter are not guilty of “killing conversation” or corroding real-life friendship or making children autistic.
Yes, the Internet is “changing our brains,” but then so does everything — and, contrary to the claims of one especially panicky Newsweek cover story, it certainly is not “driving us mad.”
Yet that gnawing sense of mind--atrophy that Carr identified has not gone away, and just recently in Silicon Valley it has stopped being taboo to admit it.
“I would go into a room to get something, and by the time I got there I’d forget what I was looking for,” said Alex Pang, a Stanford University technologist who had barely turned 40 when he began to feel that life online was melting his brain. “For someone who had got through life on raw brainpower, this was unsustainable and a little terrifying.”
Carr, like any number of technology skeptics, would probably have advised Pang to take a break: disconnect from the Internet and head for the mountains, declare a gadget-free “digital sabbath” one day a week, get rid of his smartphone, or never check e-mail at night.
However, Pang is a techno-enthusiast, to put it mildly, so his instinctive first thought was the opposite. What if there was a way to use the Internet — and all our Web-connected phones and tablets and laptops and games consoles — to foster rather than erode our attention spans and to replace that sense of edgy distractedness with calm?
This is the question motivating the embryonic movement known variously as “calming technology,” “the slow web,” “conscious computing” or (Pang’s preferred term) “contemplative computing.”
Its members hope that we might be able to perform a sneaky bit of jiujitsu on the devices that dominate our lives and turn the agents of distraction into agents of serenity.
Their inventions so far include wearable sensors that deliver rewards (“calm points”) for breathing well while you work, developed by Stanford University’s calming technology laboratory; iPad apps to help you meditate yourself into a state of super-focused concentration; software that lets friends decide collectively to disable their smartphones for the duration of a restaurant meal; and scores of pieces of “zenware” designed to block distractions, with names such as Isolator and StayFocusd and Shroud and Turn Off The Lights.