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Can you have a healthy relationship with your phone? Mindfulness could be the key to stopping technological misery

'I don't expect we will be able to magically turn Instagram into a positive mental health platform. But at least it can be less s***'

Andrew Griffin
Saturday 24 February 2018 20:07 GMT
Throwing your phone away and going to live in the woods might be attractive – but it's also a failure
Throwing your phone away and going to live in the woods might be attractive – but it's also a failure (Getty Images)

You take your phone out of your pocket, probably not thinking about even doing so, look at it and immediately feel miserable – but there you'll stay, scrolling and scrolling, more and more miserable. Just a few minutes later you'll probably put it away and then do it all over again. And you'll repeat that cycle, every few minutes, over and over until you go to sleep – a sleep probably disturbed by the fact that you feel compelled to look at your phone when you wake up from it.

None of this was inevitable. Technology wasn't supposed to make you miserable; it didn't have to be built around hijacking your attention, taking it hostage and selling it to the highest bidder.

Indeed, it wasn't always this way. And it could easily stop being, according to Rohan Gunatillake, who – as well as creating mindfulness apps like Buddhify – speaks and writes on the application of techniques from meditation and mental wellbeing in technology.

Gunatillake is an optimist and a romantic. But he's also a person with a rigorously practical approach to using technology with a focus on mindfulness: he offers a range of very useful techniques that will subtly change the way you relate to your phone, turning it from a source of guilt and pain to potentially something actively healthy.

That practicality doesn't limit the scale of his ambition or dreams for what the future of technology could be. The internet didn't need to look this way, and it could stop looking this way relatively easily – but it will nonetheless need a rethinking of the very ways that the industry and its money is structured, changing the entire assumptions that power the biggest companies in the world.

That might come in small ways, like switching to platforms that are slightly more concerned for our wellbeing. And it might not mean following technology into a state of meditative bliss – but instead just being made slightly less unhappy by the technology that demands we use it all the time we can.

“I don't expect we will be able to magically turn Instagram into a positive mental health platform,” says Gunatillake. “But at least it can be less shit – it can be neutral.”

Fixing your approach to the internet can come in two forms, each of them potentially valid. The first is the most obvious and popular, though also the most extreme: throwing your phone in the bin, at least temporarily, and committing to a digital detox. “I think that's important, even if it's in micro – only for a weekend, or just setting boundaries” like keeping your phone out of your bedroom, says Gunatillake. “That's important because the less dependency we have on devices the better.”

But we still need to use our phones. “As a mindfulness guy the second strategy is the most exciting: how do you actually include technology in your wellbeing? So I teach techniques where you use your phone to practise meditation.” There are ways technology can make you more present, not take you out of the current moment.

“So, for example, you'll often read those really cheesy headlines that say, 'the latest research shows we check our phone 200 times a day'. For me that's 200 times a day there's an opportunity to practise mindfulness,” he says, taking his phone out of his pocket and demonstrating a committed approach to actually considering why he'd done so.

“There's a really simple technique – just one of many – which is when you're using your phone, can you be aware of what it feels like to use your phone while you're using it?” That sound very ordinary and very uninteresting – but it's something like the sort of thinking usually taught while doing meditiation, if only with a slightly more 21st century spin. “We're just using this sensation,” he says, pointing at his phone, “ras opposed to the breath.

”When you do that, every app becomes a mindfulness app. And even if you still find yourself scrolling through YouTube or Instagram, because part of your awareness is present, you're less likely to get stuck doing it“ and fall into a wormhole for an hour, he says.

”The idea that we can use our phones for physical wellbeing is obvious,“ says Gunatillake, pointing to apps like Strava or the activity tracking of accessories like the Apple Watch. ”Now we're having a moment with this first generation of mindfulness apps that these devices can be good for mental wellbeing – we're just in the early stages of that“.

It can be tricky – and dispiriting – to realise that the reason companies aren't doing these things is because they know they'll lose money if they try. But such thinking can also be wrong, says Gunatillake.

His company, for instance, began to think about examples of mindful design that wasn't about even changing the business strategies of companies. ”There's nothing good about having a red circle showing you've got 1,000 emails,“ for instance, but designing instead so that the text on the app's icon gets heavier as you get more messages gets across the same information without the same damage being done to your wellbeing. ”Notifications are an engineering solution but have an emotional response that don't really serve the purpose,“ says Gunatillake – and it's exactly that disconnect that much of the damage done by technology arises from.

Ultimately, it's going to be difficult to convince companies they need to stop using these techniques. They might be damaging to users, but they're far from damaging to the companies' bottom lines. Attention traps like infinite scroll, or the techniques that YouTube uses to keep you stuck on its site longer than you even realise, make people feel bad – but they make YouTube's shareholders feel very good.

So some of the work to bring tech companies towards this kind of work will require a kind of activism. It can be incredibly powerful just to know what techniques are being used to trap you – Gunatillake likens it to a magic trick, whose power wears off once you understand how it works – so just telling family and friends about them can be important. People with platforms can use power to affect change, as happened recently with the YouTube communities' challenges to loot boxes and even how that site itself works.

There's a growing recognition among companies that this sort of thing is important. Technology companies and workers are obsessed with learning the techniques themselves – many of the most powerful people in the industry dabble in meditation, and often commit to it with almost monk-like intensity – but it's not actually finding its way into the products.

”The most obvious example is Jack Dorsey – he tweeted that he'd been on a 10 day retreat, and people immediately replied saying that's all very well, but shit's still going down on Twitter and you've not done anything about it.

“For me this is an interesting disconnect – a lot of people in Silicon Valley are actively into mindfulness and meditation, but it's not affecting product. It's purely being seen as a personal wellbeing thing.”

This sort of tech industry was never inevitable – indeed, the early days of the internet had few of the same problems. But just a few important decisions and trends made the internet what it is today: the decision to make “free with advertising” the central funding model of the internet, and the industrial-level rollout of in-app purchases and loot boxes as perhaps its only viable competition. Just as those models were never guaranteed to happen, they're not guaranteed to stick around.

Getting rid of them will probably be a matter of small victories and softening the edges, rather than considering it like a war. Netflix isn't going to get rid of its infinitely autoplaying videos, but it might make some small tweaks to how they show, for instance.

What would it look like, for instance, if YouTube were encouraged to agree to some wellbeing metrics in addition to measurements of engagement or the amount of money they're making?

That's comparison shows the danger of this sort of movement: it could become something like organic food, where only the most well off can pay for the privilege of not having their health undermined. That option already exists on YouTube, for instance, which offers a service called Red that among other things turns off the ads. And it shows the danger of running into niches, too, so that healthy food is only available in the internet equivalent of Whole Foods – “you can point to a graveyard of products that tried to do something more pro-consumer and failed”, Gunatillake warns.

But food offers a way out, too. We once ate a lot more badly than we do now – and we were once a lot less bothered about the fact we did so. Now we have food printed with nutritional values – what if we did the same with technology companies, printing just how much a serving of YouTube can undermine your concentration. “We need a Jamie Oliver moment – to go into a chicken factory” and demonstrate the conditions there in a way that the chef and food activist did. “I think we need to find our champions for that mainstream conversation, but it can feel very geeky and technical – one part of it is geeky and technical.

”But ultimately it's about people of all ages feeling a bit shit. We all know that experience – this emptiness when we scroll – but we still do it. It's actually really empowering to understand that's happening because you've been made to feel that way.“

The people who know that seem to be coming to that realisation, too. Jack Dorsey can only go on so many retreats; eventually the technologists' time meditating at the weekend will have to come into their working week, too. The very fact that they refuse to steadfastly to do so could be a demonstration of how close we are to a breakthrough.

”When they really look at the problem, they see they've built an empire on the carcasses of our attention,“ he says. ”That's the reason they're billionaires – when you look at that, it's terrifying, and I'm not surprised they're in denial.“

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