Printed: 2017-06-23

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Supertasking and Mindfulness

Alex Nichols

Ethical Technology

September 29, 2014

In an age of unlimited access to information, coupled with an endless bombardment of stimulation from technology, I find it important to reassess our notions of bringing balance to what it means to be focused and present.

Currently, I am listening to Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris. The theme of the book centers mostly around meditation, and both the enormous and consistent efforts we ought to make towards recognizing what it means to be present, as, the compelling argument is made that, "How we pay attention to the present moment largely shapes our character." Similarly, "mindfulness isn't simply about thinking more clearly - but acting more clearly. A vivid awareness of what is occurring in one's body without grasping the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant."
As attractive as such statements may be, it is always easier to entertain such thoughts than it is to engage wholly in the practice aimed at emphasizing these insights. The bulk of the book also dives into philosophical statements acknowledging the limited scope we have on understanding and quantifying consciousness and it's relationship to meditating. Nurturing mindfulness and considering a perspective adopted to envision ourselves as being the entity experiencing consciousness, and feeling conscious, are some of profound ways in which Harris tries to shake up our sense of self and being in the world towards cultivating a more humble foundation.
Aside from fascinating explanations into the varying and complex understanding of what consciousness is, a great deal of the discussion in the book has forced me to consider the the other side of meditation and present-centered mindsets. For example, the effects of information overload in this increasingly accelerated age of not only mass consumption of goods, but of information.
This brings to mind, Daniel Goleman's book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. In it, he claims, "attention has come under siege, largely by technologies like email, texts, smartphones and the like. These invite the outside world to impinge on what had been private time when we could focus on what we need to do. While all these technologies have tremendous advantages, we have to learn to be more intentional about focusing – for instance, carving out a space in our day when we can concentrate without such distractions."
For all the praise and amazing capabilities of our technologies, it seems that Goleman's point prompts us to re evaluate what ultimate trajectory these distractions have conditioned our minds to seek out. That of course, being constant stimulation from these technologies. Similarly, In 2012 Psychology Today published an article exploring the idea of 'Attention Restoration Theory'. The basic idea seems to be that refraining from multitasking allows your brain to 'rest' and allocate more mental energy towards one/fewer activities (Sundam, 2012). 
Should it be encouraged for us to welcome the art of multitasking to eventually become master supertaskers? In an ideal transhumanist world, this might be the eventual desired path towards complete freedom and utopia, supported by helpful innovations to accommodate our mental resources in completing these tasks with the unparalleled efficiency. 
All variables aside, just imagining a world where we could, at the flip of a switch, jump from task to task at a furious pace, while presumably increasing our idea of productivity and happiness seems most appealing. But I have to pause at that very idea for just a moment. Is it productivity and happiness that we seek to gain in the future (whatever ideal one you imagine), or is it more the idea of the future bringing more of those elements than we could find right now?
Perhaps it is the case that we need to exercise how we could be happy right now, in order to enrich our perspective on what we're actually chasing. Moreover, my concern is that we are becoming increasingly conditioned to accept the mindset of continuing to look for happiness that we might think isn't possible right now. When in fact, we might benefit more from being aware of how that mindset came to be and look to implement one that aims at guaging our level of happiness presently.
Being aware of why we may be predisposed to have such feelings can relieve us of mindlessly craving more. Harris makes a critical point on this notion as well. He argues that learning how to tap into being happy, or as happy as we can be right now, can better serve us towards more authentic perspectives and endeavors in the future. Enlightenment after all, appears to have this powerful sense of unveiling an overwhelming sense happiness that is discoverable in the present moment.
So if we accept the premise that, because of this perpetual release of technologies thrusting us towards anticipating the next gadget, plus the search for happiness that will come in an ideal future, we subsequently become addicted to the mentality of the anticipation of experiences in the future versus those available with some fine tuning to our attitudes (e.g. through meditation) right now. There is a constant reservoir of evading power our clarity becomes polluted by in locking onto the idea of happiness and technologies in the future.
I'm not saying I have an answer or a firm position on multitasking as being a means to derail our concept of happiness and productivity, nor am I saying it is indeed the answer once we invent the right neural implants to accommodate such mentally taxing activities as extreme multitasking. Certainly, this is merely a small scratch on the complexity of these issues.
However, I am emphasizing that we try and consider Sam Harris's perspective on how we pay attention to the present moment, what this entails, and how this largely shapes our character. How do you think multitasking benefits your happiness and productivity or doesn't? My view is that it is hard to dodge the deep pit of tasks that we become flooded with day to day. With diligent practice, I believe mindfulness can assist our abilities to selectively remove and reduce tasks that are just an byproduct of mindless conditioning into thinking we are being more productive and happy, when in fact they are simply creating layers of noise to block out the more significant signal of training our ability to be present.
Shawbel, Dan; Daniel Goleman: Why Professionals Need Focus (2013)
Sundem, Garth; This Is Your Brain On Multitasking (2012)

Alex Nichols currently lives in San Francisco California working at Lyft. Attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver BC, he graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in philosophy where he studied under the tutelage of two pioneers in health and cultural psychology.


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