After working on this for a couple weeks, I’ve reached that familiar point with the contemplative computing article (or mini-monolith, as it’s well over 10,000 words) where it’s not yet completely finished, but I need to put it down for a little bit, and go do other things. I have a couple editors who are ready to kill me if I don’t deliver on other work, and it would be good to get a little critical distance from the piece.

This time I’m trying an experiment: I’ve put the article up on Google Docs, and made it public. You can read it here, though it may take forever to load, as Gdocs tends to choke on large files, so I’ve also posted a PDF.

The introduction is below. Naturally, comments are welcome.

Contemplative Computing

The phrase “contemplative computing” sounds oxymoronic. Information technologies today do many things, but they do not make us more contemplative. Instead, they interrupt and distract us; they throw up swarms of real-time data that obscure our long-term perspective; they encourage us to spread our attention across a range of activities and devices—Web pages, documents and presentations, emails, phone calls, text messages, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Some look to technological solutions (e.g., better filtering tools or “distraction-free” software) or better personal management (exemplified by the GTD—”Getting Things Done” movement) to give teem balance; a few take digital sabbaths, and simply leave their digital lives behind for a day a week. I believe, however, that we can create information technology that does not distract us from the world, but invites us to engage with it more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and profoundly. In this article I will describe what contemplative computing could be; why it is an appealing and achievable design goal and attitude to devices; and how we can get there. My argument will unfold as follows.

I first explain why contemplation is valuable, and how contemplative practices have been applied in fields as diverse as military training and psychotherapy. I then look more closely at contemplation itself: contrary to the popular perception of it as a solitary, passive state, I argue argue that contemplation is active, skilled, embodied, and social. From this, I develop a set of design principles for contemplative computing. These are intended for both designers and users, for neither have complete control over the way people use computers; indeed, contemplative computing requires being contemplative about computing– learning to think about how and why we use technologies in particular ways, and how to improve our relationships between devices. I explain how an approach to information technologies that emphasizes engagement, self-experimentation, and embodied cognition; that skillfully used spatiality and sparse design; that rewarded challenges, acknowledged obliquity, and allowed for mind wandering and reentering, would help us begin to deal with the problems created by today’s information technologies and our interactions with them.

Thus this article is an effort to demonstrate how we can design with values in mind [Harper, Rodden, Rogers, and Sellen, 2006]. The project also seeks to answer the call proposed by Levy to develop new means for contemplation in creative and scholarly life [Levy 2007] in response to growing time and productivity pressures [Menzies and Newson 2007]. As computers make their way into more and more parts of our everyday lives, we need to understand how tools initially built for the scientific laboratory or office may be ill-suited to the home or family; how the objectives of efficiency and optimization may not work in environments characterized by irreducible uncertainty and ambiguity. Given the ubiquity of computers and their power to influence our lives, it makes sense to think about how they can be designed and used to better promote our abilities to see, act in, and improve the world, and to improve ourselves.

Contemplation offers a variety of benefits. A contemplative stance can help people be more creative; deal with complex problems that require months or years to solve; and is essential to long-term happiness. Contemplation promotes both self-sufficiency and close, questioning observation of the world, and both are particularly valuable in this moment in the history of technology. We need to develop personal tools to better control information technologies, and to see how technologies that often are described as irresistible and inevitable are really shaped by human decisions and choices (or the failure to make such decisions). Contemplative computing can help with both of these urgent tasks.