Why this Matters
Originally published January 29, 2016, “Thoughts on Technology After Vipassana” a 100-hour silent meditation. Vipassana means to “to see things as they really are.”
(9 months ago) After working for a tech company for 6 months, and completing a 10-day Vipassana meditation, I had many thoughts about technology and how it affects our lives and our futures.
First, let me explain the concept of Vipassana. The word itself means “to see things as they really are.” The meditation is for 10 days in silence, with 10 hours a day of meditation, with no eye contact or writing. In true silence, I was left with only observing my deepest thoughts and subtlest experiences.
After 100 hours of meditation on my own mind and body, I have one large question: how can we develop technology that is healthy for our minds and bodies?
First, what is healthy?
I observed that I had a lot of anxiety and attachment to my social media accounts. Did my Instagram get enough likes? Is anyone reading my Facebook posts? Even during the retreat, I was crafting new blog posts in my mind or thinking about which pictures to post to Instagram. These thoughts were in my subconscious, and very unpleasant to experience.
A new trend tells me that I’m not alone in this experience. Last November, a young Instagram star “quit social media” revealing that her “dream life was a sham” and how psychologically damaging it was for her. In the end, in her video, she is pleading for people in tech to “make an app that is not based on social approval, that’s based on quality. I’ll promote, I’ll use it, and I think people will really love it.”
It took a very deep silence for me to realize just how obsessed and attached I was to social media — and I’m not even that active on social media, and I only started using it in my late teens. It makes me wonder, how strong is the attachment and obsession in people who have been using social media since they were young? How are children and teenagers’ minds being affected?
Second, what is the nature of mind?
I realized that my mind is LOUD. And uncontrolled, and sometimes violent and aggressive — and bossy, and abusive, and simply exhausting.
Anyone who has sat down in silence and found themselves uncomfortably bored has this experience. And the constant use of technology means that we are never bored, we are never in silence, and our minds are always active — from when we wake up to when we go to sleep. Our mind is king.
In this interesting blog post from Melting Asphalt called Neurons Gone Wild, it posits that the mind is a group of autonomously “selfish” neurons. So sometimes one group of neurons can actually work against the benefit of the whole — like an aggressive tyranny or a harsh dictatorship.
From Vipassana, I discovered that even my most subtle thoughts I can feel in my body. This gave me a huge insight, because the reverse is also true: every sensation in my body is connected to a thought. Which brings the question, just how separate are the mind and body?
So what’s the matter with how we create now?
In the tech field, we create products that people enjoy using. In order to make money, we create products that people crave using. In general, we generate a feeling of addiction, by attaching user’s core identity and feelings of self worth to numbers.
And we do it all subconsciously.
The human mind is only capable of holding on average 7 items in working memory. This means that we are only aware of around 7 thoughts — with all the rest of the thinking (managing heart rate, respiration, emotional responses to facial expressions, reactions to subtle app designs) are underneath our conscious awareness.
Arguably, the most successful advertisers, marketers, or designers understand that most judgments and decisions are made subconsciously — and that most people are pretty much the same under the hood — so they can manipulate responses in a predictable manner to sell a product or create a feeling of craving and addiction for a certain product.
How can we create healthy and profitable products?
In my job as a UX Designer and Product Manager, I have to use my empathy and understanding of how the mind works to create enjoyable apps to engage and keep users. For the company, users are dollars, and engaged users are more dollars.
However, as a human — I can’t in good faith design products that create addiction and foster craving and FOMO in people, especially young children and adolescents.
So as one of many creators in technology, I raise the challenge to all creators: can we figure out a way to profit from engaged users by fostering enthusiasm, joy, and health?
Let’s do it. 🙂
Thanks to Ahmed Bouzid for your thoughts and response. I enjoyed reading your perspective: from childhood in Algeria, to getting into computer science before it was cool, and then raising a child. Ahmed is the founder of Witlingo which brings voice technology into homes across devices.