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Meditations on the Information Age

Meditations on the Information Age

Meditations on the Information Age -

Andrea Michelbach, a UW graduate student studying museology, demonstrates a sitting meditation technique she learned while taking Informatics 598. She said one of the most useful tools she learned was how to manage her online activities in a focused, non-stressful way.

Photo by Alisa Reznick

Meditations on the Information Age

Meditations on the Information Age

UW class combats distraction with mindfulnes

When the bell rings, professor David Levy asks his Informatics 598 students to focus their attention not on him but on their own breathing. 

The students sit upright with their eyes closed and their hands in their laps, focusing only on their steady breathing. Each time their minds begin to wander, they try to once again focus on the movement of their breath.

Levy, a professor in the UW Information School, is training his students to manage the flood of information they receive on a daily basis, much of which comes from technology. He teaches them mindfulness and meditation: two key skills in avoiding distraction. 

Most people are constantly being inundated with information from beeping phones, pop-up notifications, and emails. They check these social notifications constantly and often find themselves browsing on technology without being productive. 

Distraction in the Information Age is an epidemic, but Levy believes mindfulness can help. 

“We may not be in touch with how stressed and emotional we are when we’re online,” he said. “We can … take a minute to take a couple of more mindful breaths.”

• • •

The course begins with simple breathing and walking meditations. Students spend 15 minutes either focusing on their breathing or their slow steps as they walk through campus as a class. As the class progresses, students learn less-conventional forms of meditation. One of the most challenging is “email meditation,” in which students are tasked with spending 15 minutes on email, and only email. 

This is easier said than done. Email is something most people use every day, but it is rare that a person focuses exclusively on email without switching to other tasks.

Andrea Michelbach studies Museology at the UW and took Informatics 598, also known as Information and Contemplation, last quarter. As a graduate student, she is busy with school and research and spends a lot of time writing on the computer and managing her three email accounts.

“I thought of [meditation] more stereotypically as sitting on the floor with your eyes closed,” Michelbach said. “Meditating while using technology is definitely a new concept.”

The practices taught in class help students train themselves to be more attentive. After learning to become conscious of their breathing, many students are more aware of how their use of technology affects their actions, emotions, and posture. 

“With email, I think it’s easy to sort of be all over the place. I tried … just to email and to not switch over to news or check my phone,” Michelbach said about the email exercise.

Levy instructs his class to download a program called Camtasia, which records their actions on the computer. It tracks what’s happening on-screen as well as audio and video using the webcam. The assignment helps students understand how multitasking affects their minds and bodies.

“Watching [the recording] really made me realize how much, instead of kind of staying with something, my tendency is to switch,” Michelbach said.

Danny Stofleth, a graduate student studying communication, was surprised by his actions after watching the recordings he made. He said that seeing and hearing himself surf the Internet and respond to texts and people around him while he was trying to work on his computer gave him a new perspective.

“I don’t remember half of the stuff I did,” he said. “It was all reactionary. I needed to be more conscious of that.”

Classic meditation, combined with email meditation and multitasking awareness, trains students to understand why they are distracted and to be mindful of it in the future.

“Your attention becomes stronger, so you can notice shifts in your attention but not go there,” Levy said. “You don’t have to go to your cellphone just because it’s ringing or go to Facebook because you feel uncomfortable.”

• • •

Levy attends week-long meditation retreats twice a year. As a practicing Jew, he does not use technology on the Sabbath, which lasts from sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday. But Levy was not always interested in meditation. In his early twenties, he began to look for ways to live a more contemplative life. His search began when he went to a meditation retreat with a friend and didn’t like it. 

After earning his doctorate in computer science at Stanford University, Levy dropped everything and moved to London to study calligraphy and bookbinding, longtime childhood interests of his. He spent long, quiet hours focusing solely on the stroke of his pen. 

“I started to discover that simple practices like just sitting and paying attention to my breathing somehow felt very real and meaningful to me,” he said. 

In the ’80s, Levy returned to California to work at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. While he was there, he began to wonder how he could live a balanced life amid so much technology. In 2001, Levy became a professor at the University of Washington. Four years later, he received a fellowship from The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society to bring meditation and other contemplative practices into the curriculum. 

That is how Informatics 598 was conceived. Levy has taught the class three times and will teach it again in the winter. 

“As opposed to giving people a set of guidelines, it helps them find a strategy for avoiding distraction by paying attention [to] how technology affects their mind and body,” Levy said. 

• • •

After taking the class, some continue to practice meditation. All of the students are more aware of how technology affects them.

While Michelbach rarely practices breathing or walking meditation, she has become more focused on her posture and actions while working on the computer. She installed a “mindfulness bell” on her computer that chimes at scheduled times in order to help her stay aware of what she is doing and where her attention should be focused.

Stacey Morrison, a graduate student in library studies, took the class because she is studying how people are responding to the overwhelming amount of information and technology available to them. 

“Technology is supposed to make our lives better, but it’s making us more stressed out and more anxious,” she said. “How do we make it so it’s not a detriment?”

Some people are pushing back on their use of technology and “dumbing down” their smartphones to live simpler lives.

But Morrison said she doesn’t believe technology is a bad thing; people just need to learn how to use it without letting it take over their lives. 

The class also teaches students how to teach their friends and families that meditation and mindfulness are not only for people who wish to sit in silence for a week — an act the class refers to as “woo-woo.” Rather, it is accessible and applicable in the busy, technology-dominated world.

• • •

Levy and Jacob Wobbrock, another professor in the Information School, did a study of workers in a high-stress office environment. 

Wobbrock said that those workers who had undergone mindfulness-meditation training reported lower stress, had better memories of what they had done, switched between tasks less often, and spent more time on each task they undertook, all in roughly the same span of time as those who did not receive meditation training. 

“It seemed as if meditation training enabled people to more deliberately and purposefully choose how they spent their time. … rather than being pulled by incoming distractions this way and that,” he said.

For some people, mindfulness may mean meditation. For others, it may just mean understanding what emotions cause them to become distracted. Now that ringing phones and a constant flow of information often take over people’s lives, many can benefit from learning to be more self-aware.

“It’s not realistic that all of us are going to be that mindful all of the time,” Levy said. “But it’s possible to take a minute to breathe more fully and relax.”

Reach reporter Amy Busch at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AmyBusch2

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