Contemplative Computing

From time to time, someone asks how long I spend online. It is the wrong question. A better question would be, how am I online. My questioners often assume that the way in which they relate to technology, the way in which they use blogging and social media, must necessarily be the same for me, but I don’t think it is. The idea of  contemplative computing has been around for a while, but it is one that appeals to me because it complements my sense of the internet as a sacred space. I suspect that, like M. Jourdain babbling prose, I have been practising it all my computing life but it may be worth trying to tease out some of its characteristics.

A few years ago I noticed that when I checked my email, I found it quite stressful. I was reluctant to deal with the ‘difficult’ emails and so became tense. Yet that isn’t how I usually am with people or when I go to prayer — I am much more relaxed and ‘open’. Once I realised that and deliberately slowed down, the ‘difficult’ emails became much less troublesome. They were no more demanding than anything else. The problem arose from the fact that I saw checking email as something that should be done quickly. Our culture values speed, places a premium on ‘getting things done’, but monastic life works on different principles. Time is a gift to be lavished on whatever is necessary; and what is necessary may be as ‘unproductive’ as gazing at a cloud or focusing attention on a single word or sound. In other words, a more contemplative approach to the use of technology gradually transforms the experience of using that technology.

At #cnmac11 and subsequently, the idea of the digital sabbath came up again and again. Some people clearly felt that a regular break from using technology is necessary and beneficial, citing such positive goods as being more involved with family and friends, more attentive to what is going on around them and so on and so forth. One or two were frank enough to admit that they thought they had become addicted to their smartphone and having a ‘dry day’ from time to time helped them feel more in control.

There are two different issues here: [fear of] losing control and [fear of] losing focus. The connection is fear. If you are over 40, can you remember what it was like to use a smartphone for the first time? How anxious you probably were about pushing the right buttons, getting your text abbreviations correct, learning how to do smileys? It was a mildly alarming business and only when you felt master of the process could you forget yourself and actually enjoy using your phone to text, video or whatever. Then when your phone became like a fifth limb, a different anxiety came into play. What happens if the battery gives out or I misplace the phone, can I continue to function as normal? Am I too dependent? There we have fear again, which can only be allayed by a sense of control.

As any novice will tell you, the first lesson anyone learns in a monastery is that we are not in control. It is all right not to be in control. In fact, that is how we are most of the time, only we try not to acknowledge as much. Being in control is something our society admires, but it doesn’t take much to prove how illusory our control is. A break in the power supply, a failure of wi-fi access, and our wired world ceases to exist.

Lack of focus is another fear, but again, I think our problem arises from the fact that we have a very restricted way of looking at things. Much of my work is done at the computer and at various times during the day I respond to, or initiate, tweets on Twitter. It is not a distraction. If something requires concentrated energy, e.g. writing a letter, I switch Twitter off. At other times, my twitterstream is part of my work — as a community we are committed to using contemporary technology to try to reach out to others and are constantly exploring new ways of doing so: it’s a new twist on the old contemplata aliis tradere. The nearest analogy I can find to express this kind of multi-focus is that of playing in a string quartet. Every player must listen even when not playing himself, but the ebb and flow of sound doesn’t produce strain or a feeling of divided attention, rather it contributes to a sense of the quartet as a whole: the individual is taken up into the music created by all four. Silence, observing rests, is as much a part of this whole as actually playing.

Of course, I have a purpose in being online. I am not there simply to gratify curiosity or assuage boredom, so the question of focus may be easier for me, but I suspect many will be able to resonate with what I am saying. Just as lectio divina can be likened to Slow Reading, so a more contemplative approach to computing can be likened to Slow Living; and the amazing thing is, it doesn’t mean that we get less done (that concern with productivity again!) but that what we do is done better and more pleasurably. It may take a while, but I think contemplative computing may become more and more important to ensure that technology remains at the service of humanity rather than the other way round.

I should love to know what you think.

Update:
There must be something in the airwaves. I found this link this morning about a contemplative computing project: http://bit.ly/gtncVH

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15 thoughts on “Contemplative Computing”

  1. Sister, thanks for giving me more reasons to be online than just curiosity.

    In some ways, the internet is my window on the wider world, and a way of maintaining contact with dispersed family and friends.

    I also see it as a means of maintaining a Christian presence wherever I go, as while I’m not an evangelist in that sense, it’s clear that I’m a Christian and not shy about it.

    I was at #cnmac11 and recall the #digital sabbath idea, which I seek to implement by not being online so much at weekends, particularly Sundays.

  2. That post reminds me of the Jesuit and the Benedictine who regularly smoked and even left chapel during meditation to do so! They decided to seek permission from respective superiors in order to regularise their situation. When they met again the Benedictine was downcast – his superior had refused permission. While the J had received permission. What did you ask, inquired the Jesuit. “I asked could I could smoke during meditation” replied the Benedictine. “What did you ask?”
    I asked if I could meditate while smoking! replied the Jesuit

  3. A very wise post, Digitalnun and food for some real thought. I don’t have the smartphone problem as I’ve never needed or owned one and am not on Twitter or Facebook. But I do belong to several internet forums on various topics and my blog is very important to me. I shall ponder what you wrote and try to apply it to the way I use technology to stay in touch.

  4. Slow re-reading of my original comment to this post prompted me to delete it; on reflection, writing the comment was hugely helpful for me to understand more about myself, but wasn’t really following the thread of your post! So, in a weird way, the deletion is better than the comment. Thank you!

  5. Surely this links to the recent discussion of the making (see how I seize on ‘making’ rather than ‘production’) of altar breads. Both raise the question of attention and intention in working life.
    Thank you for the interesting link. I note all his examples are taken from Buddhist culture. If I were a more competent techie, I’d link you!

  6. Thank you for all your comments. My posts often have a theme running through them over a period of days but any value comes from your thinking about them and sharing your insights, which = Slow Blogging.

  7. Thank you for this. I have been forced into slow living (no control there) and during flat on my back periods, my phone has been a great distraction. It gives me a focus away from my problems, provides stimulus, prayer points (@VirtualAbbey compline at 7am maybe time shifting but still resonates) and very often a good laugh. In the same way as I thank the blood donors who keep me alive, the technicians who make sure the blood is safe for me, so also I thank all those who have given me the benefits of modern living.

  8. I am under 40 and yet feel obliged to say that I disagree with almost all this. I have no smartphone (I don’t even know what such a device is to be honest) and have no desire to have one. I have never used facebook or twitter, and have no plans to do so. My emails are limited to work related ones.

    I have to use the Internet more than ever now since I earn my living as a technical translator and need to consult sources and references that are only found online. The internet for me is a simple resource. I cannot possibly regard it as a sacred space.

    Unfashionable as my view it appears to be becoming, I think the Internet is not helpful for building human and spiritual relationships and is best regarded as a simple work tool. Of course, it is VERY useful and I for one couldn’t manage without it.

  9. A very timely post for me, having recently obtained my first smartphone. I can absolutely relate to what you said about the first days of having a smartphone and being quite anxious learning how to use it but then gradually relaxing into it (and btw, I am not over forty!). However, now that I know how to use it, I am faced with another decision – how to manage my usage. I have very strong feelings about this and in my first draft of this reply, I went on at such length that maybe I really should just start my own blog! But in a nutshell, I think we all need to be mindful of our internet usage: how, for how long and what content. The internet can be fun, it can be useful, it can be informative, it can bring people together and help family and friends stay in touch but it is a tool – what matters is how you use it. But also I think it is all too easy in this ‘digital world’ to feel pressure to be increasingly – or constantly – ‘connected’ whereas I do not think constant connectivity is a given from which any deviation must be a conscious opt-out. I think connectivity is a conscious opt-in, at least it has been for me. It is me saying yes, I think I want to interact with the world a bit more in this particular way.
    To finish I must mention the fact that are many online spiritual resources I have discovered (this blog included) without which, my spiritual life would be much the poorer.
    So each to their own but mindfully so.

  10. Thank you for sharing your insights. I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with ‘wasting time’ with a computer as such: if God had wanted machines, he could have created them. He didn’t: he created us human, with the capacity to laugh and cry and make jokes as well as work and pray and think Deep Thoughts.

    I think the Benedictine concept of mindfulness of God is very helpful when we come to consider how/when we use the computer. Any area of life that blocks out God needs looking at.

    Perhaps, David, you haven’t seen the potential of the internet for anything more than work because you prefer to compartamentalize, e.g. sacred and profane? My smartphone is a tool, but the uses to which I put it are more than work alone. (Hope that doesn’t sound rude, but I was surprised, as so often, by the vehemence of your comment. I’d genuinely like to know what you think.)

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