Book Review: Creating a more meaningful relationship with our digital tools

Author David Levy believes we need to take charge of our online lives .
Updated 03 August 2017

Book Review: Creating a more meaningful relationship with our digital tools

Nowadays, successful people always seem to be living in the fast lane. Always super-busy and faithfully multitasking, they check their e-mails on their laptop and answer a call on their landline while sending off a text from their mobile. Can we still be happy and successful if we live in the slow lane? Are these two modes of being opposed to each other? Is new technology disconnecting us from one another and even from ourselves?
David Levy, a computer scientist, has lived in the fast world but he has always yearned for a quieter and more contemplative life. In the slow lane, he discovered the art of calligraphy, which requires time, patience and concentration.
Levy’s new book, “Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives,” is a reflection on our relationship with digital tools, social media, smartphones and the Internet. There is a growing awareness that digital devices hijack our attention and are even addictive.
We are now faced with the following dilemma, explains Levy: “Our devices have vastly extended our attentional choices, but the human attentional capacity remains unchanged. (Some would even argue that it has actually shrunk.) And so we must figure out how to make wise choices, and to figure out what constitutes a wise choice, so we can use our digital tools to their best advantage and to ours.”
Levy believes that our online activity is a craft; in other words, a task which should be carried out skillfully. Levy mentions that craft played an important role in everything Apple founder Steve Jobs accomplished. Jobs, Levy says, was also introduced to calligraphy, when he was studying at Reed College. He took a calligraphy class in which he learned about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations and about what makes great typography great.
“It was beautiful, historical, and artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating… If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts,” Jobs later explained.
Jobs made it a point to craft functional but beautiful products and, Levy argues, we should learn how to craft online practices that are efficient and purposeful.
One essential principle in this book is that we perform best when we are attentive and relaxed. However, when we are online, we are mostly distracted and not at ease. We automatically check our e-mails and Facebook before focusing on the task we are supposed to get done. We tend to be tremendously impatient — when a page fails to load quickly in our web browser, we cannot wait and instead move quickly to another task.
All of these micro-decisions are driven mainly by unconscious emotional reactions, which make us waste time and have a disproportionate impact on what will happen during the rest of the day.
Levy believes we need to take charge of our online lives. Once we decide to pay attention to the way we work and the choices we make when we are online, we are in a better position to act more efficiently. It is very easy to lose track of our priorities, because there are so many things ready to grab our attention. The best strategy to cope with so many tempting distractions is to be mindful so that we focus on what is important to us.
One major belief that prevents us from being mindful while we are online is that multitasking can help us achieve more in less time. Many educators argue that multitasking is a useful skill, particularly when it comes to modern technology.
However, there is a misconception regarding multitasking. We understand that multitasking means performing several tasks at the same time, but we commonly use it to mean we are switching between several tasks. The root of the problem is why we switch tasks. It can be hard not to look at a new message, or not to check who is calling our phone. The truth is that our thoughts, feelings and emotions often lead us to switch tasks unconsciously.
According to Eyal Ophir, who conducted a study on multitasking when he was a researcher at Stanford University, people who are heavy multitaskers may — in the long run — be training themselves not to focus.
“You teach yourself that something more exciting might be just around the corner, behind that notification, or the app on your mobile phone, or the e-mail you haven’t checked,” he said.
In other words, people who are constantly multitasking have different priorities. They are willing to give up the advantages of focus so they do not miss an unexpected but rewarding surprise.
Levy believes that it is possible to multitask in a calmer and more focused way. Whether we are online or not, our lives are a succession of moments determined by the choices we make. All we need is to make skillful choices and stay focused or shift our attention as necessary.
“I sense that we as a culture may be preparing to enter into a broader and deeper conversation about the place of all things digital in our lives,” says Levy. He worries about the effects of distraction, mindless acceleration and the loss of attentional acuity, but does not think that the internet is the cause.
In “Mindful Tech,” Levy encourages the reader to nurture habits of mind and body that can help us make good use of new technologies.
For example, a team of neuroscientists studied how our brains react to negative news concerning political candidates. The study showed that we react well to candidates whose opinions are similar to ours. When candidates voice unacceptable positions, brain centers concerned with emotion rather than reason are active. The study concluded that it is possible to ignore these unconscious reactions as long as we engage in honest self-reflection.
“Mindful Tech” is all about creating a more aware and more meaningful relationship with our digital devices.
“For two decades, I have been bringing people together to talk about the place of digital technologies in their lives,” Levy concludes. “What I have discovered along the way is quite simple: When we talk about the technologies, we are ultimately talking about our lives, and about their meaning and value. And when we come together to have caring and careful conversations about the place of the technologies, we establish an intimacy of connection that many of us long for.”


What We Are Reading Today: Governing the Urban in China and India by Xuefei Ren

Updated 10 July 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Governing the Urban in China and India by Xuefei Ren

Urbanization is rapidly overtaking China and India, the two most populous countries in the world. One-sixth of humanity now lives in either a Chinese or Indian city. 

This transformation has unleashed enormous pressures on land use, housing, and the environment. Despite the stakes, the workings of urban governance in China and India remain obscure and poorly understood.

In this book, Xuefei Ren explores how China and India govern their cities and how their different styles of governance produce inequality and exclusion. Drawing upon historical-comparative analyses and extensive fieldwork (in Beijing, Guangzhou, Wukan, Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata), Ren investigates the ways that Chinese and Indian cities manage land acquisition, slum clearance, and air pollution. 

She discovers that the two countries address these issues through radically different approaches. In China, urban governance centers on territorial institutions, such as hukou and the cadre evaluation system. 

In India, urban governance centers on associational politics, encompassing contingent alliances formed among state actors, the private sector, and civil society groups. Ren traces the origins of territorial and associational forms of governance to late imperial China and precolonial India. She then shows how these forms have evolved to shape urban growth and residents’ struggles today.

As the number of urban residents in China and India reaches beyond a billion, Governing the Urban in China and India makes clear that the development of cities in these two nations will have profound consequences well beyond their borders.