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Q&A: Linda Stone, former tech exec, on conscious computing

Q&A: Linda Stone, former tech exec, on conscious computing

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Linda Stone, who spent 16 years as an executive at Apple and Microsoft, talks about the effect technology has on our health and productivity.

The first iPhone was released six years ago. The first iPad only three years ago. Amazingly, we interact with these glowing prosthetics as much as (if not more than) we engage in old school tête-à-têtes.

When it comes to our overall wellbeing, what are the consequences of this massive shift?

Linda Stone, who was at the epicenter of computer technology in the early years of the Internet, has tried to answer this inquiry -- at least, in an 'ask more questions' Zen-like way.

Stone spent 16 years at Apple and Microsoft –- and much of that time in executive positions. She helped build the developer community in the 1990s and pioneered multimedia at Apple before working under former Apple CEO John Sculley on special projects. After pioneering social media at Microsoft, Stone was the Vice President of Corporate and Industry Initiatives under CEO Steve Ballmer.

Now, as a writer and consultant, Stone uniquely brings the discussion of technology back to the body, studying what "conscious computing" might look like -- and observing what it definitely doesn't look like along the way.

I sat down with Stone to talk about how our approach to our work affects us -- in both a discursive and physical way. Today is an age of connectivity and Stone urges us to ask, "What should I be connecting to, and how?"

You’ve held executive roles at Apple and Microsoft. Tell me about how you transitioned into researching our behaviors around technology.

When I was at Microsoft I started looking at what happens to our attention when we’re working with technology. Soon after this, I began researching on my own. One of the questions was: Are people managing their time or their attention? I did a fascinating set of interviews on management of time and attention and how this related to burnout.

How do you differentiate between managing our time and managing our attention?

The people I spoke with who worked in office jobs typically said they managed their time. Many of them had taken time management classes and had things carefully mapped out during the day. This included everything from how many minutes were spent in meetings, on email, on the phone, and with their children. Almost everyone who said they managed their time reported being overwhelmed and feeling burnt out.

When people reported managing their attention, they reported more flow states. It was really interesting. The people who were most likely to say they manage their attention –- artists, CEOs and surgeons -- actually described a process of managing a combination of time and attention.

Many executives and CEOs said that if they didn’t manage their attention, they found they would deal with the little things and miss strategic opportunities. They said this was something they had to learn when they moved into the CEO position.

What exactly is a state of flow and why is it important that we find one?

I need to give credit to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his brilliant work on flow. One of his books is called Finding Flow: Engagement with Everyday Life. It’s a phenomenal book.

What happens in a state of flow is you are concentrating, but not in a stressed way. It’s the same kind of attention you see in children when they’re engaged in self-directed play. When you watch 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-year-olds building blocks, you see they are fully engaged in the moment.

When you encounter a surgeon in a flow state, they are working right in the moment. They can notice something and change direction. If they simply stuck to the plan, they might begin a procedure and miss a new lesion, for example. In this flow state we are at optimum creativity. We are not bored, but we’re also not anxious.

Let’s talk about your work on the physiology of technology. What makes bringing technology into the broader conversation about wellbeing important?

Here’s what I noticed. As I was researching the differences between managing time and attention, I just so happened to begin taking a breathing class. I was dealing with a respiratory infection and my doctor wanted me to study a technique called Buteyko breathing.

Every morning, before sitting down at my computer, I would do 20 minutes of breathing practice. I noticed on day one, within five minutes of sitting down, I was holding my breath.

At that point I embarked on a study. I observed people using technologies –- a computer, iPhone –- and looked at what was happening to their pulse and heart rate variability and what that indicated about their breathing.

By early 2008 I came up with the phrases “email apnea” and "screen apnea" [which are interchangeable]. We tend to breath-hold or shallow breathe when we sit at a laptop. The computer becomes animated and we become less animated. Our shoulders and chest cave in, we sit slouched for extended periods of times. And it’s impossible to fully breath in that hunched posture.

When you are shallow breathing or breath holding cumulatively day after day, your body goes into a chronic state of fight or flight. You tend to crave carbohydrates and sweet foods because they give you energy to outrun a tiger. Seriously. Our thoughts turn to, “I need to get this done! I can’t get this done! Will I get this done?”

There’s another piece about the physiology of technology that hasn’t been talked about much to date. The effect sitting at computers has on our lymphatic system.

Lymph is pumped through our bodies with the movement of our feet and calf muscles. All this sitting is making it difficult for our bodies to do what it needs to do for natural detoxification.

Where has this research led you?

I started to notice that there was a tremendous amount of discussion around disconnecting. I find something about this conversation really troubling. It sounds like the conversation around dieting that doesn't work: “I shouldn’t eat the cookie. I shouldn’t eat the cookie. I shouldn’t eat the cookie.”

When we think, “It would be great to eat an apple,” we do much better. Understanding which behaviors we want to build into our lives, rather than which behaviors we want to take away, is much more effective.

So how can we have a conversation about what we connect to? This will get us away from “Don’t touch the computer! Put the phone away! Don’t eat the cookie!” That’s a lot of 'don’t' to live with.

What is your take on our obsession with productivity? There are so many programs out there that take a parental approach to our self-micromanaging. Freedom, Isolator, StayFocusd … You take a much more embodied approach. Where would you like this conversation to land?

The 20th century was all about productivity. Man as machine. Man as faster and more productive. We were so excited by the industrial age. ‘More, faster, more efficiently’ -- that was the conversation.

And that was what we measured -- on the job and in our own lives. How many things on my list have I done? Our whole conversation was about output and quantity. I believe that the 21st century will be a return to what humans do best –- and this has to do more with engagement and flow, less with output and quantity. We have robots that are going to take over a lot of those ‘more, faster, more efficiently’ jobs.

Now is our opportunity to tap back into what’s unique about the human spirit. Instead of the mantra being “I need to be more productive,” our mantra could be, “I want to be more engaged. I want to connect with what matters and disconnect from the rest.”

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure