How would you feel if your mind were free of digital distractions? Would life be better if you could enjoy breakfast with your family without worrying about the work emails flooding in (no doubt you checked your phone on waking anyway), and reach the office without updating three or four social media accounts?
Increasingly, we're being told that we need a digital detox to overcome our addiction to technology, but tech and mindfulness entrepreneur Rohan Gunatillake has a much more interesting idea: let's get tech to work for us instead. His proposition is also far better suited to the real world. We need tech to do our jobs, and it brings many benefits for our professional and personal lives, if managed well.
At the moment, he says, the web is making money by converting our attention into cash. Big companies understand how valuable attention is, but we don't seem to, and we need to wise up. "Instead of a digital detox, we need to develop our ability to change our relationships with technology," says Gunatillake.
"Moving to a desert island is a legitimate strategy in the short term. But you can't go on holiday all the time. If complete turn-off is your only tool, you'll just switch between bingeing and turning off. Similarly, meditation retreats in themselves are really valuable if they help you to go deeper, but if you spend too much time on a meditation retreat you will only be able to meditate when on retreat."
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
1/23 Bring broken smartphone back to life - as a robot
Do you have an old broken smartphone lying around the house somewhere? Then why not turn it into a robot? That's exactly what YouTuber Mehdi Sadaghdar did in a recent video, after his efforts to bring a destroyed phone back to life disastrously failed. Using the phone's vibrator, a coin battery, a simple switch, a few wires and the bristly part of a toothbrush, he managed to make a simple little toy that can skitter around a tabletop as long as the battery last
2/23 Detachable plane cabin
A Ukrainian inventor has proposed building airliners with detachable passenger cabins that could separate from the rest of the plane and parachute safely to the ground in the event of an emergency
3/23 FA announces it will host the Emirates FA Cup video game tournament
The FA has announced that for the first time ever it will host the inaugural Emirates FA Cup gaming tournament, with video game fans from across the world invited to compete for glory at Wembley Stadium connected by EE. Early rounds will take place in iconic locations in the stadium such as The Royal Box, the changing rooms and the players’ tunnel, with the two finalists set to play the virtual final using Wembley Stadium’s 82 foot screens as they sit in the centre circle. Gamers of varying ability will descend upon Wembley Stadium as the home of football transforms into an epic gaming colosseum set to turn heads and sweat palms in equal measure
4/23 Oculus Rift release date
Oculus has said that it is about to open pre-orders for its Rift virtual reality headset. Some have claimed that the hardware will be the device that will bring virtual reality into the mainstream. And it will start being available from 6 January 2016, the company has said. The company hasn’t said when the headsets will actually start arriving, or how much they will cost. It isn’t clear whether the company intends to announce more details before pre-orders begin
5/23 iPhone stock apps can be removed by just putting them into special folder
A new trick shows a quick way of getting rid of the stock apps that might be cluttering up your iPhone screen — at least for a while. The iPhone comes with a range of apps that are stuck on the phone, and can't be deleted like others. While some are key to the phone — like the Phone app itself — others like Stocks are less well-regarded. But the new trick shows how you can hide those unused stock apps with just a quick trick using some folders
6/23 CES 2016: Four big things set to be revealed
The CES 2016 gadget show is about to kick off, and nearly the entire technology industry has descended on Las Vegas to try and show off the future. Every year, companies and technologists attempt to show that they have seen what’s coming and that they will be there to offer it. Every year, a lot of people get it wrong. This year’s expectations are as big as ever. Every year, CES unofficially gets a big theme that everything’s supposed to be about — this year that’s virtual reality. There is also future for cars, smart home and wearables
7/23 Terrorists could use drones to attack planes and spread propaganda
A government counter-terrorism adviser has warned that terrorists could use commercially available drones to attack passenger planes. Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith, a security expert and adviser to the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, warned that small quadcopter drones could easily be used by terrorists for attacks and propaganda purposes
8/23 Goggle-Eyed Lemurs watch TV as part of their reintroduction to the wild
Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, UK, has installed Sony Bravia 4K TVs into its lemur and langur enclosures to show life-like footage to its primates as part of its ‘Back to the Wild’ programme. The charity will trial TV watching on Sony’s 4K TVs as part of this programme in a bid to make langurs more familiar with the new environment
Uber has added a lift-sharing feature to its app in London, allowing people to share their taxi with a stranger in return for a reduced fair. Users will be given 25 per cent off their journey if they say they will let up to two other passengers share their car. Drivers will then receive a message telling them that they’ll be picking up more than one fare, and can plan their route accordingly. London is the second European country to get the feature, after Paris. It was first launched in San Francisco and now most people who use the app do so with the feature
10/23 Attempt to build world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ends in disaster
An attempt to build the world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ended in disaster when the puzzle exploded as it was turned for the first time. One of the masterminds behind Coren Puzzle, a YouTube channel dedicated to custom puzzles, live-streamed the final assembly of the 22x22 cube. The video was the culmination of seven months of construction, which included a month of deliberation on how to build the mechanism at the centre of the device
11/23 New battery chip could let phones charge in minutes
The maker of a new chip claims that it could reduce the charging times of phones to a few minutes, and could prevent dangerous explosions. The tiny chip could be embedded into batteries of all sizes and monitor how healthy and charged they are. That in turn would mean that the batteries would become much safer and quicker to charge, according to the scientist that developed it. Unhealthy lithium-ion batteries can be at risk of exploding or catching fire, as well as gradually losing their capacity so that they run out more quickly. Those problems may become even more important as people move towards electric cars or other vehicles
12/23 Facebook on iPhone gets new fast-loading Instant Articles
If you've noticed articles on Facebook loading a little quicker recently, that's because the new Instant Articles have been launched to all iPhone users. Instant Articles load up to 10 times quicker than a regular article, and have some enriched features - such as unobtrusive autoplay videos, zoomable high-definition images and interactive maps
13/23 Halo 5 patch
Gamers looking forward to playing Halo 5: Guardians on its release on 27 October 2015 will have to wait to download a 9GB day one patch before the game's multiplayer mode can run properly. Those without the patch won't even be able to play multiplayer at all until it's downloaded, in yet another case of a blockbuster game needing a patch on the day of launch
14/23 New HTC Desire 626 handset launch
HTC has launched its latest Desire 626 handset with the Sense 7 software which automatically detects whether you’re at work, at home or on-the-go and alters its theme to suit your location. This advanced technology intelligently analyses your favourite photos to modify the look and feel of your apps, allowing you to modify the colour scheme and backgrounds – the ultimate in personalisation
15/23 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
16/23 Customers wait in line at the Apple Store in Paris to get their hands on the iPhone 6s
Several hundred camped outside the London store in Covent Garden. The 6s will have new features like a vastly improved camera and a pressure-sensitive “3D Touch” display
17/23 Bloodhound SSC: The most powerful ever made is shown off to the public
The car is displayed at Downing Street, when the team visited David Cameron to demonstrate the project
18/23 Lunar eclipse threatens Nasa technology
Artist's rendering of Nasa's LRO spacecraft, which will have to withstand a rapid drop in temperature during an upcoming lunar eclipse that could lead to it shutting down
19/23 Mobile phone bills could rocket up after Ofcom announced that the fees it charges to phone operators will be trebled
The regulator will now charge far more to phone companies for using the mobile spectrum — and though it says that fee will not be passed on to customers, experts have said that prices are likely to go up
20/23 New iPhone 6s rose gold
Apple has released a bright pink new iPhone 6s — likely the only way that you’ll be able to tell that someone has the new handset. The company released the new phone with much fanfare, but almost all of the changes — a new camera and pressure-sensitive display — were on the inside. The only new noticeable addition to the phone’s look is the very pink rose gold colour, and a tiny “S” on the back. The new handsets will be released on September 25
21/23 iPad Pro
Apple has launched a huge new iPad, which it hopes can bring the tablet to offices and designers. But it unveiled it with an Apple-designed stylus — an idea that was famously mocked by late Apple founder Steve Jobs
22/23 Apple TV
Apple has introduced the new Apple TV
23/23 Apple Pencil
Apple has introduced the new Apple Pencil
Gunatillake is making waves in the predominantly anti-tech mindfulness world for his opposition to the idea that we must compartmentalise tech, separating it from the rest of our lives. He warns against the dangers of this behaviour, known as "digital dualism", and promotes digital culture as a valid part of modern life, rather than a dangerous, untrustworthy intruder. "I dislike the term 'digital detox' because it effectively says that digital technologies are toxic. Those same technologies underpin our economy and our way of life and therefore, either as individuals or as a society, we are going to have a very hard time indeed if we continue to pathologise them. It is a highly unsustainable solution."
The alternative, he says, is "mobile mindfulness". This is a technique Gunatillake discovered when he moved to London in 2003 to work as a management consultant. He had begun to develop an interest in mindfulness and meditation and had met and studied with a number of teachers in what he describes as "classical, medieval, monastic institutions".
"But I was still enjoying my London corporate life, and my own challenge was how to make those things work together," he says.
So he started practising mindfulness exercises while on the train in the morning or while walking around the city, which led to the creation of his popular app Buddhify. "I made it for my friends who had come to me and said, 'I'm really interested in this mindfulness stuff but I don't have time, and it's too hippy.'"
While reading This Is Happening, Gunatillake's new book, which expounds his controversial approach, it is hard not to reflect on how much longer it takes me to read a book than it did a few years ago. Whether I'm reading on the bus, the sofa, or in bed, my phone is always with me, as is that damned reflex to check it on an absurdly frequent basis. Is that a text? Maybe my editor's replied to my email. Am I missing some brilliant gossip on WhatsApp? Who's posting what on Instagram?
I could go on. The technological distractions that interrupt my life and my work would make a very long list indeed. And even while I'm trying to ignore them and focus (focus!) on this book (which, by the way, is really interesting), I can't fully escape the niggle at the back of my over-busy brain that something is happening elsewhere that I need to be aware of.
I'm sure you empathise. Apparently, most of us check our phones around 85 times a day, twice as often as we think we do, and spend a third of our waking lives online in some capacity, according to a study from Nottingham Trent University, published last autumn in the online journal Plos One. What's more, the mindfulness bit adds even more time on top of getting through the text. Gunatillake is asking me, throughout the book, to take notice of all these distractions, to observe and accept them, and then try to return to the task in hand: reading. This is mindfulness, really – the popular technique that has wrought meditation from its spiritual master and given all of us access to ways to relax, detach from unwelcome distractions, and focus. Mindfulness is "knowing what is happening in our experience at any one time", writes Gunatillake.
This Is Happening works like an extension of Buddhify. It is full of useful mindfulness techniques, but as a book it has also provided Gunatillake with the space to share his theories on how to keep our tech use in line. I seem stuck at step one: I'm still reaching for my phone all the time. But at least I am being mindful of this behaviour. "Checking your phone frequently comes from a feeling that we're lonely, sad, distracted or restless," says Gunatillake. "The technique of watching the process of going to check your phone, and giving more attention to that emotional state, is a good start. When I was writing the book and required a lot of focus, I would check my phone a lot when I was frustrated with my work. The more literate we become with our emotional state, the more able we are to let those things be."
If this sounds like you, try the Inbox Addict exercise, which focuses on being aware, mentally and physically, of the actions leading up to checking your phone or email.
Is he fighting an uphill battle? The concept of the "digital detox" seems to be growing in popularity, but Gunatillake displays a Tigger-like positivity for our future relationship with technology. Not only does he promise that we can learn to control technology, but he sees a future where genuine human needs will be designed into everything on the market – a stark contrast to the current model of today's online "attention economy" where advertisers make money out of our fickleness.
The current generation of coders, developers and designers has, says Gunatillake, grown up with the constant buzz of tech in the background, and is primed to create products that will leave us happy and healthy. "As users, we need to be more vocal, too. If Google can build autonomous cars and put wifi on balloons, but says it can't solve bigoted comments on YouTube, it's not that it can't, it's that it's decided not to," he says.
And what of the older generation of meditation and mindfulness teachers, who Gunatillake respects, though he disagrees with their all-or-nothing approach? He is buoyed by the advice of a monk he met in Thailand: "I live in the forest so I teach a way that works in the forest. You live in the city and so you are practising in a way that works well for the city. Don't try and practise as if you lived in the forest when you don't. The forest style and the city style are both good. They take different routes but they both lead to where you want to go."
'This Is Happening: Redesigning Mindfulness For Our Very Modern Lives' by Ronan Gunatillake, (Bluebird, £12.99) is out now
Try the mouse Sweeper method
This technique is a game you can use when you want a break at work. Its genius is that it actually looks like you are still working.
Move the cursor around using your mouse or trackpad. Keeping your eyes, jaw and face relaxed, keep your attention on it as it moves, letting your ability to track the cursor be the most important thing in the world.
Then, while you're doing that, move your awareness out from the local detail of the cursor to the global container of the screen. Try not to look at anything in particular, resting instead with the sense of the screen as a whole.
Switch back and forth between the single-object focus on the cursor and the field-object focus of the screen. You can make the exercise more interesting/harder by doing this on a screen where you normally find distractions, such as a news homepage or your Facebook news feed.
Remember that meditation is about learning to fully understand what distracts us and what doesn't.