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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Retrospect: the Christian New Media Conference

I had intended to gather together a host of links so that those of you who weren’t able to attend the conference might get something of its flavour, but the sheer volume of material has overwhelmed me. In any case, I must admit I’m more interested in some of the questions the conference has thrown up, but first, I’d better explain my limitations. As a nun, my connection with the digital world is different from most people’s. My engagement stems from RB 53, Benedict’s teaching on hospitality, and a community commitment to ‘being hospitable’ online. It is an engagement hedged round with qualifications, notably the amount of time I can give and, to some extent, the subjects I can address (I know nothing about small children, for example). I’m not an expert in anything, but like most people who live a life of silence, I can ‘tire the sun with talking’. That’s my forte, and I’m sticking to it!

One of the themes that kept surfacing at the conference was the role of the #digicreative. I am all for beauty and technical excellence, but I found myself wondering more and more what a digicreative is and what he or she does. Creating content is more important than ‘creativity’ as such. One of the marvellous things about technological advances of recent years is that ANYONE, whatever their level of technical skill or artistic merit, can produce a blog or website with a host of features more or less out of the box. Having something worth saying or doing with the technology is another matter. I’d be very sorry if the Christian presence on the web and in social media ever got side-tracked into something secondary. I work on the basis that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. I tell myself that if I had the time, our web sites would be transformed; but I don’t, so they aren’t. Tough.

Another idea that interested me was that of the digital sabbath: turning off one’s phone and computer one day a week. We never do that here because we are, in a way, a ‘public organization’, but we do make it clear that we won’t necessarily respond to people instantly because we have other, and to us more urgent, calls on our time. We are, first and foremost, nuns and whatever value we can bring to our online engagement would disappear if we ever forgot that. But how does it work out for other people? To me, that need to switch off the phone, etc, suggests a degree of engagement I’ve never experienced. Is it possible that Twitter, Facebook and so on can become habit-forming? Is switching off the phone a way of reassuring oneself that one isn’t addicted or does it mean more focus on God and people offline? I’d love to know.

Perhaps the most important question the conference raised for me was purely theological. How does our online activity fit into and enhance our understanding of God and the Church? I came away with a renewed sense of the sacramentality of what we do online, in the sacred space that is the internet. It has been reinforced since by interaction with many of the people I met at the conference. I’d love to thank you all individually, but there’s one bit of ‘technology’ for which there is no upgrade: we’re stuck with the brains we are born with, and mine is unequal to the task. Thank you, everyone who was at the conference and made it so special.

Update
Here’s a link to some photos, videos, audio boos and blog posts on the Conference: http://bit.ly/nMBTO8

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10 Rules for Online Engagement

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in the Christian New Media Conference in London. I’ll write about the conference when I have had more time to digest what I learned. For now, I’ll just share with you part of my own contribution. I call it ‘Ten Rules’, but that is merely a nod in the direction of my monastic heritage. Like the ‘Ten Simple Rules for the Spiritual Life’ of Diadochus of Photice, these are merely guidelines, suggestions, for ensuring our online relationships are truly Christian. They make no claim to novelty: I am grateful to everyone who has helped define them.

Two points to remember as you read them. Before we go online, we need to ask ourselves why we are doing so and what our purpose is. A little reflection will show that the ‘friend’ model of online relationship I’m writing about is not suitable for every situation; and if you are wondering what the ‘friend’ model is based on, I can’t do better than quote St Aelred: ‘You and me, with Christ making a third.’

  1.  Pray. Bring Christ into the relationship at the very beginning, and let your prayer have more of the ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening’ than ‘Lord, open my lips that I may declare your praise . . .’
  2.  Listen. Engage with others, don’t preach at them. Know when to be quiet. It’s O.K. to have nothing to say!
  3.  Respect. Don’t abuse anyone or vent your anger online. It will scare off some people and make others feel uncomfortable in your presence.
  4.  Encourage. Give help when you can; affirm, compliment, if appropriate.
  5.  Spend time: you can’t build good relationships in just a few minutes. You have to be serious about wanting to build a relationship and prepared to commit yourself.
  6.  Share: not only what you are doing, but also what others are doing. This particularly applies to Twitter — don’t use it just for self-advertisement!
  7.  Be welcoming: you need people who disagree with you.
  8.  Be grateful: whingers are not very attractive, nor are those who take things for granted.
  9.  Be yourself: truthfulness is essential. ‘You’ online should be the same person as ‘you’ offline.
  10.  Love. Like prayer, it’s obvious, but unless you pray, unless you love those with whom you come into contact online, you’re wasting your time as well as theirs.

The digital revolution has created a new kind of eternity. What we do online is there for ever, so let’s make sure it is worthwhile and consistent with what we believe.

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St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.

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