The Mindfulness Racket

 Evgeny Morozov wrote an interesting piece at The New Republic that reminded me of something that bugged me about Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism — quite a few of the solutions he put forward were great for those with lots of time and money, not so much for those with neither. But at least Cal Newport was suggesting breaking the addiction cycle.

The embrace of the mindfulness agenda by the technology crowd is especially peculiar. Consider (Arianna) Huffington, whose eponymous publication has even launched a stress-tracking app with the poetic name of “GPS for the Soul”—a new app to fight the distraction caused by the old apps—and turned the business of mindfulness into a dedicated beat. Or take Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, who has warned that we need to define times when we are “on” and “off” and announced his commitment to make his meals gadget-free. There are also apps and firms that, at a fee, will help you enforce your own “digital sabbath,” undertake a “digital detox,” or join like-minded refuseniks in a dedicated camp that bars all devices. Never before has connectivity offered us so many ways to disconnect.

In essence, we are being urged to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction. Here the quest for mindfulness plays the same role as Buddhism. In our maddeningly complex world, where everything is in flux and defies comprehension, the only reasonable attitude is to renounce any efforts at control and adopt a Zen-like attitude of non-domination. Accept the world as it is—and simply try to find a few moments of peace in it. The reactionary tendency of such an outlook is easy to grasp. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once quipped, “If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.” And what a wonderful Kindle Single that would make!

CEOs embrace mindfulness for the same reason that they embrace all the other forms of the “new spirit of capitalism,” be it yoga in the workplace or flip-flops in the boardroom: Down with alienation, long live transgression and emancipation! No wonder Huffington hopes that the pursuit of mindfulness can finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism. “There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that these two worlds are, in fact, very much aligned—or at least that they can, and should, be,” she wrote in a recent column. “So yes, I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations—by emphasizing the notion that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America’s bottom line.”

There’s a dark irony to the way in which Amazon, for instance, would suggest I purchase more books along the lines of Digital Minimalism. The same goes for other tools of mindfulness — apps, courses, video. We’re being nudges to consume our way to a supposedly better life.

In cutting my ties with social media, and stepping off the technology upgrade treadmill, I feel I’ve already done myself a lot of good both mentally and physically. Yes, it may seem radical in this age, but is it? Does it just look that way because we’ve been nudged into seeing connectedness and new gadgets as progress in and of themselves?

As Morozov notes in his piece, critics of the ‘disconnectionists’ point to the presumption that it’s for the individual to change how they use technology. But at the same time, those same critics, in attacking the messengers and their message while offering no real alternative other than a hand-waving “something must be done about Big Technology”, aren’t exactly helping, and could be accused of cashing in just as much as those they’re criticising. There’s money in those newspaper columns, book deals and TED Talks, after all.

In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades. Hopefully, these movements will then articulate alternative practices, institutions, and designs. If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it, let’s disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.

I’m still making changes and course corrections years after starting my ‘digital detox’. There is no quick fix, and what worked for me may not work for others with different needs and duties. Part of becoming mindful is knowing when to stop reaching for another book, app or course, and start forming your own strategy.

Alan Ralph

20 May 2022 at 17:49

The GTD Racket

 This New Yorker piece by Cal Newport is an examination of GTD through its origins in the work of Peter Drucker, David Allen, and in particular Merlin Mann.

In the early two-thousands, Merlin Mann, a Web designer and avowed Macintosh enthusiast, was working as a freelance project manager for software companies. He had held similar roles for years, so he knew the ins and outs of the job; he was surprised, therefore, to find that he was overwhelmed—not by the intellectual aspects of his work but by the many small administrative tasks, such as scheduling conference calls, that bubbled up from a turbulent stream of e-mail messages. “I was in this batting cage, deluged with information,” he told me recently. “I went to college. I was smart. Why was I having such a hard time?”

Mann wasn’t alone in his frustration. In the nineteen-nineties, the spread of e-mail had transformed knowledge work. With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential—two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls—became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded. “E-mail is a ball of uncertainty that represents anxiety,” Mann said, reflecting on this period.

In 2003, he came across a book that seemed to address his frustrations. It was titled “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” and, for Mann, it changed everything. The time-management system it described, called G.T.D., had been developed by David Allen, a consultant turned entrepreneur who lived in the crunchy mountain town of Ojai, California. Allen combined ideas from Zen Buddhism with the strict organizational techniques he’d honed while advising corporate clients. He proposed a theory about how our minds work: when we try to keep track of obligations in our heads, we create “open loops” that make us anxious. That anxiety, in turn, reduces our ability to think effectively. If we could avoid worrying about what we were supposed to be doing, we could focus more fully on what we were actually doing, achieving what Allen called a “mind like water.”

I remember hearing about GTD first through interviews and podcast with Merlin Mann in the mid and late 2000s, although I didn’t get around to doing anything with it until the mid-2010s.

In hindsight, I’m glad that I didn’t get sucked in earlier, and that I didn’t get overly invested in the first few solutions I tried. As the article above notes, there’s no shortage of options for organising your life, but as Merlin Mann noted in his final blog post in 2011, ‘cranking’ is the problem not the solution. We’re putting the onus on individuals to fix issues that lie with organisation and society as a whole.

Alan Ralph

22 May 2022 at 17:23

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