Over the last couple years I’ve lost about fifty pounds. As nerdy as this will sound, while I was a fat kid and spent my adult life overweight, it was only in the last two years, when 1) I started to worry that it was now or never– that my condition in my 40s would determine how long I would live and what kind of life I would have, and 2) I could make it into as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one, that I managed to take off the weight.
By cerebral I mean this: in order to get past the various things that had kept me from losing weight in the past, it was necessary for me to read a lot about nutrition and dieting, dive into the literature on obseity and satiety, and think about how what I’d learned from behavioral economics could be applied to weight loss. At a certain point, I realized that the challenge of losing weight was a classic futures problem: complex, uncertain, requiring all kinds of near-term tradeoffs for long-term benefits, and hard to sustain. Maybe, I wondered, my training as a futurist help me lose weight? Conversely, could I learn something about futures problems through the experience of losing weight?
I think the answer to both is yes, and I’ve written an article– available as a PDF— that explains those answers in detail.
The piece is also kind of personal because it’s a bit of an intellectual pivot. On one hand, it’s the first article that draws on my reading on mindfulness and contemplative practices, and tries to applies that work to futures. There are lots of futurists who have been interested in meditation and Eastern religions– it’s at least as common among Bay Area futurists as 5.11 Tactical shirts— but not much explicit use of the idea of mindfulness as a tool for thinking about the future. Partly, I think, it reflects a certain suspicion that writers on contemplative practice display toward thinking about the future, a suspicion that I try to argue is misplaced. But I’ve come to believe that mindfulness and attention to the now is an essential starting-point for seeing how the future could unfold.
On the other hand, mindfulness and contemplation is a big part of what I’m going to be working on next year at Microsoft Research. I’m going there to start a project on contemplative computing, a form of computing that doesn’t fracture your attention and capacity to think long thoughts, but protects and supports it. It’s become clear that, in our headlong rush to become more connected and accessible, we’re accidentally eroding our capacity to think about complicated problems for long periods. For stockbrokers, pundits, ER doctors, elementary school teachers, and other people whose lives are all about speed and instant reaction, this may not be an issue at all; but for people who are creative for a living, the destruction of our ability to concentrate is a great loss.
Some people have tried to deal with the problem by going off Facebook, taking “digital sabbaths,” and otherwise taking a break from digital devices and the digital world. While I certainly understand the impulse, I don’t like it, for a few reasons. First, in the long run it’s impractical: a movement designed to give us a break from our mobile devices and laptops is going to have trouble dealing with a hyperconnected world of pervasive computing. Second, I actually like being connected, and don’t want to live without my digital augmentarium. Third, while I’m as much in danger of being distracted by the Web and Facebook as anyone, there are also times when I can use devices to be creative and reach that mental state of “flow.” Finally, the digital sabbath movement implicitly accepts the idea that information technologies have to be this way, and that humans and tools are opposites. In contrast, I buy Andy Clark’s idea that we’re natural born cyborgs, and my instinct is that the future will offer great opportunities to design information technologies that are better able to support concentration and contemplation– in other words, to learn how to create tools that help us be better, more focused cyborgs. Figuring out what those tools could look like, and how to design them, is the big task I’ll be taking up in Cambridge.