Thursday, April 21, 2011

Alex Pang's Contemplative Computing articlefesto, take 1

Alex Pang, the researcher at MSR Cambridge whose work I've previously sweated just a bit, has recently (okay a month ago) published the first draft of a big article about what exactly he means by "Contemplative Computing." I want to call it a manifesto but he hasn't used the m-word so I won't either.

I quite like the article! I am glad that he is/was employed by Microsoft; I think he's got an approach towards creating technology that will help us improve our minds, and being at MSR means some of this could actually happen.

Some good quotes (and I'll attempt to weave them into a summary if you don't want to read the whole 60+-page article):

Intro, and what's wrong
"... 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."

"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)."

"The Web is not frustrating because it does nothing but destroy your capacity to think; the problem is that it brings the promised land within view, but keeps it out of reach." It makes some kinds of knowledge work easy- like searching for the answer to a simple question- then makes you think "oh so all my work should be so easy." You reduce the time it takes to look up the year that Star Wars came out to literally 3 seconds (from at least 3 minutes in an encyclopedia) and feel like you should get a 60x speedup in everything else too. When writing your paper or app doesn't get 60x faster, you feel like you're losing out, and start surfing the web in hope of making up for lost time.

What is contemplation?
"Here, I define contemplation to be a form of detached, calm engagement." This is important. It's not just calm. It's that wonderful state of oneness with the machine (or with the musical instrument, or pen, or tennis racket).

And "detached" is important too: it's not (necessarily) video-game sucked-in-ness. You have the ability to monitor your senses and reactions, to be as aware of your own mind as you are of the guys around the corner with rocket launchers. "Detachment of one's emotions or ego doesn't prevent immersion in the moment; it's a precondition for it."

Anyway, is "contemplation" another word for Csikszentmihaly's "flow"? It's been a while since I read that book, but it feels the same.

"While Csikszentmihaly wanted to understand how optimal experiences make for more complex and satisfying lives, readers of Flow in the Web and game worlds have tended not to ask questions like "How can we design computers in ways that let users experience flow throughout their lives" but rather "How can we use flow to make e-commerce sites stickier?""
Amen, sir! We must be careful if we seek to use these powers for any ends other than to better our lives! It's like martial arts: while you learn karate, you get a lot of powers. But as Mr. Miyagi knows, you don't learn karate to kick someone's ass.

Possible solutions
Pang then posits a few hypothetical pieces of software that could achieve this goal of contemplation.
- Proust is a writing software (or mode in MS Word) that removes distractions. I'd try it, but I don't just sit and write often enough to know if this would be useful. And when I do, it's often right here in Blogger and I have to find a bunch of links anyway.
- Quixote is a search tool that ... does a lot of things. "It's more like a space in which you search for and organize information..." Because, as I mentioned before, most questions are more complicated than "what year did star wars come out?" Imagine a mode to Google where you could search for N things and mind-map them out in a useful way.
- Sensei aims to bring together all the data from various lifelogging sources to help understand what causes contemplation.
- Xuanzang, though, was the most interesting: it's a tool to promote mindful wandering. You seed it ahead of time with high-quality things that you'd like to read/see/watch/hear while taking a break from concentrating on work. Cue it up, start going through these things (mindfully of course), and then after a few minutes, it asks you if you're refreshed enough to start working. This one had the highest product of awesomeness * doability.
To me, Sensei and Quixote sound wonderful, and at least a decade in the future. I'd be thrilled if someone were to start on either now.

Man, there's even more I could write, but this post is getting long and I'm super tired. Read the article if you're interested, it's only 60 pages.

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