David Levy's new book helps the digitally distracted

Digital distraction, whether good, bad or indifferent, has been in the news for years. Stories consider its effect on the brain, work productivity, relationships, culture and the dangers of texting while driving.

Professor David Levy’s new book, "Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to our Digital Lives," encourages readers to find out for themselves whether their digital and device interactions are healthy or not. In his book, Levy suggests a series of exercises to help readers be more mindful of their technology use and to experiment by going without for a period of time.

Matthew J. X. Malady did just that and reported his experience in the New Yorker. After reading Levy’s book and spurred by the news report of a man walking off a cliff to his death while looking at his phone, Malady took a 72-hour break from technology. His conclusion: “I wasn’t dying to get my phone back or to access Facebook. I just wanted to get back to being better informed.” 

The suggestions in Levy’s book are grounded in research as well as his own personal experience with meditation. Levy and iSchool Associate Professor Jacob Wobbrock studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on multi-tasking. He trained his subjects, human resource managers in Seattle and San Francisco, for eight weeks in mindfulness meditation. The results showed that those who learned the techniques had lower stress levels and switched tasks less often. 

Yet new technology and the distractions they can cause are not new. 

As Levy notes in Tricycle Magazine, “There is a long history of people worrying and complaining about new technologies and also putting them up on a pedestal as the answer.”

“What is different is for the last 100-plus years the industrialization of Western society has been devoted to a more, faster, better philosophy that has accelerated our entire economic system and squeezed out anything that is not essential.”

Levy’s intention in writing his book isn’t to prescribe our digital behavior. What he is suggesting is the use of self-reflection to find out what is working – or not – for each individual. 

“Let’s investigate for ourselves when such states are healthy and productive and when they’re not. There’s not one rule that works for everybody,” Levy said in an interview with Ross Reynolds at KUOW.

“The work of mindfulness is to actually pay attention to what’s happening to your mind and body when you’re online. Sometimes those states are quite beautiful and healthy, and sometimes they’re not.”