September 1, 2019 42

No Time to Think

No Time to Think


>>Good afternoon my friends. My name is Ming.
And I’m a Genetic Googler. It’s–it’s a delight to–it’s a delight for us to have Dr. David
Levy to talk to us about not having time to think. David earned his PhD in Computer Science
in Stanford University, it’s a small [INDISTINCT] down the street from here–in 1979 before
most of us were born. And then a funny thing happened on his way to his next career, he
had a diploma in ca–Calligraphy and Bookbinding from Roehampton Institute in London; which
is kind of funny for me because before I met David, I didn’t know that bookbinding was
something you had to learn. I thought you just put paper and staple it together or something
but no. Anyway, for more than 15 years, David was a researcher at the Xerox PARC where his
works centered on exploring the transition from paper to plastic–no, from paper to print
to digital media. As a professor in the University of Washington Information School since 2000,
he has focused on bringing meditation–sorry. Mindfulness training and other contemplative
practices to address the problems of information overload and acceleration and during the years–in
the year 2005 and up to 2006, he was the holder of the [INDISTINCT].
>>LEVY: [INDISTINCT]>>[INDISTINCT] Chair in Education and Technology
at the Library of Congress. And this is where Google expected in the Library of Congress
because we do make people who are cheerful whole year. We run nice. Anyway my friends,
I give you David Levy.>>LEVY: Ming, thank you. Thank you. I’m delighted
to be here. I really want to thank Ming for inviting me, only my second time here on the
Google Campus. I’m here to talk about a topic that probably needs no introduction. Does
anybody know–not know what this talk is about, No Time To Think? Does that register with
some of you? I–presumably, that’s why you’re here. This is a concern that has been growing
for me and has only gotten worse in the six or seven years that I’ve been in Academic.
Because what I have found is that the acceleration that the culture is experiencing is expect–is
affecting, I think in a profound ways even the way we are educated and the way we learn.
And it’s been after 15 to 20 years as a researcher at Xerox PARC, a “think tank,” it was really
very stunning and terribly upsetting to me to become an Academic and to find that I have
less time to think than ever before. The place I want to start is with a quote. This is a
few years ago, I was reading the biography of Barbara McClintock who won a Nobel Prize
for Genetics. Wonderful biography by Evelyn Fox Keller called the Feeling for the Organism
and in that book, as she–Fox Keller asked the question, what enabled Barbara McClintock
to see further and deeper into Genetics than other had–people had before. It took a decade
or more for her colleagues to begin to understand what she had understood, what she had seen
and to finally win a Nobel Prize. And the answer that Fox Keller gives is that Barbara
McClintock took the time to look and to hear what the material had to say to her. That
she took the time to be deeply connected to what happened to be the corn plants that she
was studying and there was this one story at the end of the book where McClintock goes
to Harvard to give a–to give a lecture and she explains to the students that this budding
geneticists, it’s really going to be important for them to take the time to look and to think.
And then the students say, “Where does one get the time to look and to think?” The students
argued that the new technology of Molecular Biology is self-propelling. It doesn’t leave
time. There’s always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current
research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance. I was really struck by that because
this is a story from 25 years ago and if there is that sense of the driving quality of the
technology 25 years ago, and not enough time to look, to listen, to think. Well then, what
would McClintock think were–she allowed to be alive today. Now, the way I want to go
into this is to start with–by looking at one particular, very famous article from Computer
and Information Science. How many of you know the article, “As We May Think” by Vannevar
Bush? Okay. So, some of you do. This is–Vannevar Bush, first of all, who–who lived from 1890
to 1974 was very famous in his day. He was trained as an electrical engineer. He was
the Vice President of MIT. He’s main research was in ana–analogue computing, before digital
computing was released–invented. But when–when he–the way he became famous was that, he
was President Roosevelt’s Science adviser during World War II and he was responsible
for creating something called The Office of Scientific Research and Development which
was the attempt to bring scientists, military people and academics together to solve problems
that needed to be solved in order to win World War II and he was so famous that he appeared
on the–on the cover of Time magazine in 1943. This is not what he is remembered for. What
he is most remembered for today especially amongst techies like us is a seminal article
that he wrote in the Atlantic monthly in July 1945. The article was called, “As We May Think”
and the reason this article is so famous is that he imagined what we now call hypertext.
And here a–here is the art–some of the central quotes from this very famous paper. He says,
“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file
and library. A device in which an individual–in which individual stores all his books, records
and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding
speed and flexibility. This is before digital computers or–or anything but, you know, giant
walls of switches and he’s actually imagining something like this being produced out of
micro film and what you see to the left is an artist rendition of what Bush was imagining
which he called the “Memex.” But then, he goes on to say, this device permits associative
indexing. The basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to
select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex.
The process of tying two items together is the important thing. So there is–there it
is, right? That’s the moment July 1945 when if you like, conceptually, the link and hypertext
are born and all of the people who have been famous for the–in this evolution of hypertext
all the way up to Tim Berners-Lee in the web acknowledge that this is the seminal place
where these ideas began for the–for the technical community. So this is very well known, especially
of people who were born–who are older than Ming is, let’s say. What is not so well known
and the part that I want to concentrate on from this article because I think it tells
us a lot about the situation that we find ourselves today. What’s not noticed so much
is exactly the larger argument that Vannevar Bush was trying to make. Why did he suggest
the creation of this device he called the memex? And his argument goes essentially like
this, he’s writing in July 1945, the war is coming to an end, he says, “The devastating
war is coming to an end in which science and technology have allowed people to deploy cruel
weapons against one another.” And he knows all about this because he and his organization
help develop some of these cruel weapons. The survival of the human race depends on
its ability to “Grow in the wisdom of race experience.” That’s a kind of archaic term
but basically, he’s saying we need–our survival will depend on our developing wisdom. If people
had better access to the record of human achievement, they would be better able to review their
shady past and analyze more completely and objectively their present problems. In other
words he’s saying, if we could make better use of the human record, we ought to be able
to survive as a race by developing wisdom because we have the time to think seriously
about the really hard and important problems. That’s his argument, it’s an–it’s an argument
about the importance of deep and targeted thinking but then he goes on to point out
that there are certain obstacles that today–today meaning 1945, are preventing people from making
the best use of the record and here’s what he says. He says, “There’s a growing mountain
of research. But there is an increased–there is increased evidence that we are being bogged
down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings
and conclusions of thousands of other workers, conclusions to which he cannot find time to
grasp, much less to remember as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary
for progress and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.”
So, in 1945 he’s identifying information overload and the specialization of disciplines as a
central problem that’s going to get in the way of using the human record for human prospering
survival in the growth of wisdom and that’s why he wants to create the memex. What he’s
saying is that if we had better tools we ought to be able to automate the more routine aspects
of research and this would free people up to develop to–to engage in more creative
thought. It’s a beautiful idea. He go–he distinguishes two kinds of thought. One kind
he says is kind of route and repetitive and routine, and another kind is mature or creative
and he says, “For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute but creative thought
and essentially repetitive thought are very different things for the latter there are,
and maybe powerful mechanical aids. I mean, look, here we are looking back more than 60
years later and we can recognize, you know, the world that you are so deeply connected
with and working on here at Google which is the realization that we can automate and semi-automate
many things in very powerful ways but this is Bush’s claim, there’s still room for the
human mind and for a different kind of thinking which he calls mature or creative. So, here’s–here’s
the question that this talk is meant to pose, what happen? We have this visionary work which
in some sense is–has direct influence on the development of hypertext, on the development
of the web and yet the sense of information overload has only grown in our culture and
it’s clear that we have less time to think than ever before. So, what happened? What
happened to this beautiful vision which–which has so far only partly been realized and what
can we do about it? And that’s what I want to spend the rest of the time on in this talk
talking about. And the way I want to move on is I want to contrast to some of what Bush
was saying with another thinker who was writing it almost exactly the same time as Bush and
who is not as nearly as famous as Vannevar Bush. And this is a man named Joseph Pieper
who was born in 1904 and died in 1997 who was German. So, he was on the other side of
the war. He was a catholic philosopher and theologian. So, Bush was an engineer and an
American and Pieper was German–a German theologian and philosopher. And in 1947, so, two years
later after–after Bush’s paper–which of course, Pieper wouldn’t have known about at
all because it wasn’t part of his world. Two years later, Pieper wrote a little book called
“Leisure: The Basis of Culture” which is still in print and he starts of by saying, you know,
Bush is actually–when he writes in 1945, the part I didn’t tell you is, he starts off
by saying, “What are scientist going to do now that the war is coming to an end?” We
viewed all these scientific thinking and manpower to help win the war but what kinds of peace–peaceful
ends should science and technology devote it’s [INDISTINCT] to and that’s what he then
goes on to talk about, human flourishing, the better management of the record, more
time to think and so on. In a curios way, Pieper is making a related argument because
he says, “What should Germany do now that we’ve been defeated and after all of the huge
moral lapses of the war?” The question is, what should Germany devote itself to? He can
see that Germany is in the middle of a giant reconstructive effort where people are working
very, very hard to economically reconstruct a country that has been destroyed as a result
to the war. And his answer is, people need leisure which sounds totally weird. So, let’s
look at–let’s look at an argument here. He says first of all, “The world of work is becoming
our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely and the demands of the world of
work become greater and greater, until at last they make a total claim upon the whole
of human nature.” So, he’s worried that Germany in this frenzy to reconstruct itself is going
to devote itself to this–to work and nothing but work. And then he asked; will it ever
be possible to keep or reclaim some room for leisure from the forces of total work? And
this would mean not merely a little portion of rest on Sunday, but rather a whole preserve
of true, unconfined humanity; a space of freedom, of true learning, of attunement to the world
as a whole. In other words, will it be possible to keep the human being from becoming a complete
functionary, a worker? So, he’s worrying that what–you know, all work and no play makes
Jack and Jill a dull boy and girl, right? And he’s really worrying that without this
notion of leisure, which I haven’t explained to you. I haven’t explained to you what he
means by it; that without this, that people are going to end up becoming less human, less
fully human. And then he goes on to say what he means by leisure. By leisure, he doesn’t
mean, you know, go watching the Giants or a Giants game or playing a round of golf or
playing video games, not that he necessarily would have been against any of those things
but what he–but he says, “Leisure is a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation
for accepting reality. Only the person who is still can hear. Only the person who is
still can hear and who ever is not still cannot hear. Leisure is the disposition of receptive
understanding of contemplative beholding and immersion in the real.” We–the notion of
leisure that he is using here goes all the way back to the Greek philosophers, it’s leisure
as quieting and stilling the mind becoming receptively available to the world, rather
than charging around and trying to do things to the world. And I suspect that everyone
of us has some leisure like activity in our world. For some people, it’s reading; for
some people, it’s gardening; for some people, it’s cycling; if we have time at the end,
I’m sure some of you can tell–can tell the rest what you actually do that has this other
quality which is that, it brings you to a greater sense of well-being and mental stability
and opens you up to the world and without this, you can’t hear, right? You’re so busy
imposing things on the world that you can’t actually hear. Incidentally, Pieper points
out that in–at least in English, the words school, scholar and scholarship all come from
the Latin scola, which comes from the Greek word which means leisure in the sense. In
other words school and scholarship are contemplative activities in which one learns to engage with
the materials. And then he goes on to say–and this is where he really, in a very interesting
way connects up with Vannevar Bush, because he also wants to talk about the nature of
thinking and he points out that the medieval scholastics distinguished between the intellect
as ratio, that’s a Latin word and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive
thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding, let me say that
again. Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting,
refining, and concluding. It’s that use of the mind to do that kind of thing whereas
intellectus refers to the ability of simply looking to which the truth presents itself
as a landscape presents itself to the eye. This has some very interesting similarity
to what Bush is saying. Ratio is the more connect the dots, balance your checkbook,
solve a problem, that’s in some sense easily solved by going from A to B to C. Bush calls
that Repetitive and Routine. Intellectus is the more creative form of thinking which you
can’t make happen but you can quiet down enough to allow things–to allow things to arise
in the mind. And so here’s my–here’s at least the punch line for the first part of this
talk. It looks to me like the Web and all these amazing suite of digital technologies
that we’ve created today are the best tools for ratio, the world has ever known. For searching
and researching, abstracting, refining, and concluding. And you know what I mean because
you’re right here at the center of the revolution. What happened to intellectus? While we’re
so busy moving, you know, Googling and clicking and assembling and all of that, what has happened
to what was both Bush’s and Peiper’s idea that as we move forward out of World War II
trying to solve the larger world problems, where is the space and time in which to get
quiet enough to think in deeper ways? Okay. So now, I’m going to try to tell you; to suggest
to you at least, how it is that I think some of these has come about that we’ve lost site
of one half of the equation of thinking. It’s–it’s such a simple truism of our lives today that
everything is accelerating, you know, we’ve had books like James Gleick’s “Faster: The
Acceleration of Just About Everything,” you know, Google faster and you’ll find plenty
of this stuff. What historians and social scientist though have pointed out that this
kind–that this acceleration that we’re experiencing today is not new. That it’s being going on
for the last couple of hundred years. As this particular quote says, “The general sense
of a speed up has accompanied modern society at least since the middle of the 18th century.”
Basically, with the rise of the industrial revolution in the–beginning in the early
19th Century; what you have is a new set of technologies, you have steam power that allows
our–the entire economic system to speed up. Once you can mechanize things with steam power,
you can speed up the mining of raw materials, you can speed up the manufacturing of goods,
the industrial revolution of course; you can speed up the distribution of goods to other
places who railroads and steamboats and all of that. So, the serious acceleration begins
with a new set of technologies. What I’ve become aware of is that there have been certain
periodic points over this last 150 years where there have been crisis of acceleration before.
Ours is not the first crisis if you like of acceleration. One of them happened in the
late 19th Century, what happened there was that–by that point, the railroads were in
existence, you know, serious manufacturing, industrial manufacturing was happening, people
began to realize that they didn’t have the management structures and skills to keep up
with the rate at which things were being produced or–and to keep up with distributed organizations;
if you think about it, the railroads were one of the first large scale distributed organizations.
How do you coordinate across all the different railroad stations and so on; and so, there’s
a crisis, what Bedinger has called the control-crisis in the late 19th Century where people start
freaking out and saying we don’t know what to do because we can’t manage things at the
speed of which they’re happening. And out of that crisis is born the modern corporation.
The idea of hierarchies, of job descriptions, of new document technologies; like the typewriter
and hanging vertical files and carbon paper; things that of course are now a legacy technologies
that we think–were the, you know, the killer apps if you like of the–of the late 19th
and early 20th Century. You also get the development of new genres of documents like, memos and
executive summaries and charts and tables so that–so that somebody sitting at the top
of the organization can actually monitor and try to control what’s going on. So, out of
that first crisis in the late 19th Century, we get the modern corporation on which we
still have with us. Something interesting that happens in the 20th–in the 1920s, things
are–it’s possible to manufacture more goods and to move them faster and by the 1920s;
industry leaders begin to realize that they’re able to produce more goods than people actually
want or need. What are you going to do, right? I don’t want to buy another refrigerator,
I don’t want to buy another car, you know, and all of that and so, what’s the point of
keeping–of going faster and faster and producing more and more if it’s not going to be–to
be bought? If you look at the literature of those days, what you see is a discussion,
a dialogue going on among industry leaders where one side is arguing, well let’s slow
down. People don’t want all this stuff, we’ll just, you know, we’ll crank the factory slower.
However, the other side says, “No, of course, we got to figure out how to move more goods
and services, right?” And they–and that’s when they figure out that you ought to be
able to stimulate people to buy more and that is the rise of advertising. Modern advertising
begins in the 20’s as a way to keep the economic engine moving faster and faster. Today, I
think we’re in another crisis which I’m–I have called an Information Environmental Crisis
and I’ll explain more of that then in a few minutes. Well, I think once again, we’re at
the kind of critical point where it’s beginning to look like, how much faster can we really
go? How much faster can we go as organizations? How much more can we take as individuals?
How much do people want and need? And of course this–this next crisis is being precipitated
by the brilliance of the work that started with people like Vannevar Bush and continues
on with–with all of you. We know the only too well that digital information could be
manufactured very quickly, it can be sent around at a speed of light and we can use
email and all kinds of other digital technologies as control mechanisms. So we have the possibility
of going–of doing more faster than ever before and the question is, is that what we want
to do and is it going to work? The problem that I think we’re beginning to notice and
I’m here, this is a quote from a Norwegian anthropologist named Thomas Eriksen, who wrote
a book called “The Tyranny of the Moment” in 2001. We’re beginning to notice a distinction
between fast time activities and slow time activities. He says, “When fast and slow time
meet, fast time wins. This is why one never gets the important things done because there
is always something else one has to do first. Naturally, we’ll always tend to do the most
urgent tasks first. In this way, the slow and long-term activities lose out. In an age
when the distinctions between work and leisure are being erased, and efficiency seems to
be the only value in economics, politics and research, this is really bad news for things
like thorough, far-sighted work, play and long-term love relationships. It’s also really
bad news for thinking because thinking is a slow time activity, you can’t” –and that’s
what Bush was trying to say, you can only speed up aspects of it. Thinking is a slow
time activity, you can’t speed up its creative aspects. You have to be receptive and available
for them to arise and so–and Vannevar Bush, you know, when he thought he had the solution
couldn’t foresee, I mean, couldn’t foresee an awful lot of what’s happened. He couldn’t
see–foresee that digital information would explode the way it has and he couldn’t foresee
that we as a culture would be spending more of our times metaphorically Googling if you
would like and less of out time actually creating the space and time in which to reflect. Okay.
So, let’s talk a little bit more about the nature of thinking. I’ve argued so far that
we have a kind of distinction between routine, ratio like thinking and more mature intellectus
thinking. This understanding is thousands of years old and it’s something that scientists
and artists and writers have known as you can see from some of these quotes. Here’s
Barbara McClintock, the geneticist, “When you suddenly see the problem, something happens
that you that–something happens that you have the answer before you are able to put
it into words. It is all done subconsciously.” Something’s cooking. Well, here is the mathematician,
Gauss, who reported solving a theorem, “Not by dint of painful effort but so to speak
by the grace of God as a sudden flash of light, the enigma was solved.” Or the composer Tchaikovsky
described how “The germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly and takes
root with extraordinary force and rapidity.” And even Lewis Carroll talks about how when
he was writing Alice in Wonderland and looking through the looking glass that they are made
up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came of themselves. We all know
the experience of being in the shower or the equivalent and so suddenly something arises
and what I’m trying to suggest to you, which is stuff that I know you know because you’re
all thinkers is that, there is–that our best thinking is a mixture of ratio and intellectus.
We need both. And we need to be able to put in the time to think things through but then
we hit a point where that kind of linear thinking isn’t going to–isn’t going to work and then
we have to let go and open up for something else to arise. There is another kind of thinking
though that we all are quite familiar with, which goes by various names and sometimes
called Mind Chatter. I remember the first time that I really noticed my own mind chatter.
I was–I was in my 20’s, I had woken up in the middle of the night, you know, go to the
bathroom and get a drink of water, something like that, and I heard my mind going. It was
going, “No. No, you know, when this happen and that and, you know, what about…” You
know, I was like, where, what is that? And it made me wonder if that’s part of what was
happening in my sleep, with, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. Does anybody not know what
I’m talking about here, you know, mind chatter? So. there is–there is another way that–a
mode that the mind operates in and for most of us, it’s going–it’s going right in the
boundary between conscious and unconscious life and sometimes it takes a kind of attempt
to quiet down and focus which is one of the things one does in meditation to really being
into notice how much of your cycles are being stolen by this kind of mind chatter. So, the
larger point then is that thinking takes time. Creative thought can’t be rushed but although
creative thought can’t be rushed, it can be nurtured. There are ways that we can learn
to quiet the mind, to tune it so that we can become more focused, so that we can reduce
mind chatter and so that we can be available to those subconscious processes that–that
are–where some of the deepest ideas actually come from. We can’t make creative thought
happen in other words but we can prepare the ground. And the question is, where in our
culture are we creating the ground? Where are the opportunities at the moment for us
to actually engage to–to return to this kind of creative activity? It’s one of the things
as I said at the beginning that has been driving me crazy about being an academic, is it I
feel that I am just going from, you know, multitasking, email to meetings to, you know–you
know what it’s like and it’s very, very hard. Except for this year when I have a sabbatical.
It’s very hard to sink down into these deeper reflect–reflective processes. Okay. So, as
I–as I move toward bringing these remarks to a close, I want to offer you a way that
I’ve been of framing the current crisis, which is, as a kind of information environmentalism.
We all know that the environmental movement is about 40 years old now. It began with Rachel
Carson’s famous book “Silent Spring”–thank you. And for 40 years now, a huge amount of
work has been done. That’s finally got us to the point where we realize the extent of
the crisis and the fact that we have to do something about it. But right at the beginning,
40 years ago, was the dawn of the understanding that unchecked urbanization and industrialization
were hurting the planet and the argument began to be made–well, that there are other kinds
of spaces–environmental spaces that have to be preserved for the health of the planet,
like, marsh lands and old growth forests and healthy oceans and so on. Today, I’m suggesting,
we may be at the beginning of a parallel understanding and movement as we come to understand that
information overload, media saturation, the claims that ruminative and mindless thinking
are taking on us is potentially of a–of a real crisis proportion. And that we need–then,
we may need to discover the kinds of spaces instead of marsh lands and old growth forests.
Maybe we need silence, maybe we need forms of sanctuary, maybe we need opportunities
for creative reflection and engagement. That would–that would parallel this earlier movement.
And if this is a useful metaphor, then we might think about the kinds of activities
that have been involved in the last 40 years in the environmental movement research, you
know, what is the nature of the problem? How widespread it is–is it? How much of the polar
caps are actually melting? Public debate, you know, even today, the debate goes on among
some people. Is there–how serious is global warming? Is it human made? Education and consciousness
racing, you know, kids learn in elementary school. They go out and look at their local
eco system and they–and they do recycling. Legislation and policy setting, technology
development, changes in soc–social practice like, recycling. These have all been part
of what it’s taken us over these last 40 years to get to where we are today, where we still
haven’t–we still know we have a major problem. But at least, more of the world is taking
it seriously and so. is it possible–I’m suggesting, that we are at the beginning of a similar
set of activities. How serious is this crisis of thinking and overload? How do we get it
up to the level of public debate? What are the consequences of it for productivity and
creativity? And I mean, look at some of the legislation like the don’t call list as an
example or something that has largely solve the one particular targeted problem which
was the, you know, telemarketing over dinner. Spam legislation hasn’t done the same but
then we have our spam filters. What else do have to do? If were going to honor the vision
that Vannevar Bush had for us. So, I’m going to suggest four directions. I’m almost done.
I have another five or six slides. I’m going to suggest four directions for research and
social activism. The first one, which almost sounds like, that may not sound like it’s
an activity but I really believe it is. Is that we simply need to become more aware of
the nature and the extent of the problem. We need to take it seriously. I mean, that’s
been part of the problem that we face collectively with regard to environment–the global warming,
you know. At some point, we have to say it’s–it’s more than just something I talk about around
the water cooler. You know, I’m so busy. I don’t have enough time to do this and that.
This wonderful billboard–I took this picture driving up 19th Avenue in San Francisco between
10 and 15 years ago. I thought it was such an amazing ad that I actually–I lived in
Palo Alto at that time, that the next day, I kind of–I drove back up just to take this
picture. It’s an ad for KGO Radio and it says, “Don’t drive around empty-headed.” And it
shows this guy with the top of his head off and I think what it’s trying to suggest is,
you don’t want to be empty-headed, so fill up your head with sports and news and weather
and all of that. And I used this just as an example of the messages that we’re getting
from the larger culture which are profound. Don’t be empty-headed. Don’t quiet down, keep
going. So, the extent that we can see–begin to see how powerful these messages are and
begin to realize that maybe they need to be moderated in various ways, I think we’ll be
on our way to doing something about it. Something else that I think we can work on is to design
physical environments that are contemplative in various ways. I haven’t seen enough of
the Google campus, but you have some lovely spaces here already. And I know from discussion
with Ming that there’s the possibility of creating some new kinds. There is something
about being in a quiet beautiful environment that has the tendency to bring us back to
a more grounded comer position and that I think encourages our ability to think and
to be more ourselves. This is an ad that appeared in the New York Times Magazine three or four
years ago and it’s for an IBM think pad ad–IBM think pad computer and it says, “In deep policy
on repose.” And then it gives the dictionary definition of how CNS [INDISTINCT] peaceful.
And if you look at what this ad is suggesting, it’s clear that you can take your laptop anywhere,
but you might want to take it to a place like the stacks or to the library which is one
of those places where traditionally people have found the sense of peace and repose.
So advertisers, of course, are on to some of this stuff, but there’s plenty of room
for us to think about how to change our physical environments in order to be more creative
and more effective. Not only should we able to think about our physical environments,
we should be able to think about our virtual environments as well. I mean, in a way, you
know, the open–the opening page of Google is actually uncluttered. That’s a very interesting
statement, right? But most of our computer activities where the, you know, the screen
is filled and it’s trying to catch our attention from all kinds of directions. What would it
look like to create not just sanctuaries from cyberspace but sanctuaries in cyberspace?
That’s a–that’s a whole topic that has really not been approached yet. This is the–this
is the beautiful reading room at the Library of Congress. Ming mentioned that I was–I
was the holder–I held a chair–I held the chair for an entire year at the Library of
Congress. This–I would go into reading room which was just steps from my office pretty
much everyday and I–all I had to do is to walk into that beautiful room and I felt myself
relax, I felt myself be more relaxed and more alive and more–and more connected. So I would
go in there to work and to read. But one of the things that I realized about the reading
room is that visually, it’s very busy. It’s got this magnificent dome. It’s got sculpture.
It’s got inscriptions all over the place and yet, at the same time, it’s quiet. It’s emotionally
and intellectually quiet. There’s got to be a secret there, you know, because maybe we
don’t have to–maybe we can have visually busy environments provided we understand how
to make them calm and how they can help ground us. So there’s a secret there and I just wanted
you to see this. I mean, many of us have this Bose Headphones, I have a pair. Look at–look
at the copy ad–the ad copy. Use it as a concert hall or a sanctuary. They try to say something
there, right? They’re calling to us to recover this and how do we–how do we get that in
our physical environments, how do we get it in our virtual environments? The last thing
I want to talk about is–related to those is, there’s the potential to design contemplative
information practices. How do we, you know, how could we do e-mail or for that matter,
instant messaging or pick your favorite online activity. How could we do those in more contemplative
ways? Well, I did–I did an experiment. I taught a course at the University of Washington.
I created a course called information and contemplation. By the way, the syllabus is
online should you be interested and I gave students the following assignment. I said,
I want you to keep a log of your email behavior for a week. But because we were already meditating,
we were–we were spending part of each class, paying attention to our breathe and the thoughts
that were going to our minds and what’s happening to us emotionally, we had that as a shared
vocabulary. And I said, what I want you to keep it a log of when you do your e-mail is
exactly those things. Tell, you know, say when you went online, what was going on through
you emotionally, what was happening in your body, what was happening with your breath,
and keep track of that, and at the end of the week, look back over your log and then
write one or two pages talking about what you discovered. And every single student discovered
by doing this form of mindfulness practice, that there were certain things that were happening
for them around e-mail that weren’t actually not what they wanted at all. So, people often
found that they went online when they were 1feeling anxious or bored, and that they got
more anxious when they were online longer. You know, a common experience for me is, I
just have to look at the inbox of my, you know, my e-mail inbox and what do I see there?
I see all the things that aren’t done. So, that’s interesting, right? I mean, it doesn’t
tell you how to solve the problem but at least it tells you that there’s some kind of disruption
emotional and maybe even body disruption happening. Another example of what a student discovered,
she realized that–and obviously there’s no e-mail in that–in that particular inbox now.
But imagine you are looking through your entire inbox. You know, and your eyes are just glancing
down. Well, think about all the different kinds of things from your–from all the parts
of your life that show up in your inbox. So, in the course of 10 seconds, you can be in
touch with, you know, your partner who wants you to pick up the dry cleaning, a meeting
that’s been scheduled that it actually–you don’t really want to go to. I mean, you can
go, you can cover your entire life in a scan of, you know, of 10 or 15 seconds with all
the emotional stuff and all the distracting qualities that come along with that. And so
this woman–this student realized that that was in itself disruptive and she started thinking
about how could she better filter in segment so that she wasn’t–that her entire life wasn’t
pounding on her every time she looked at her inbox. The larger point is, not that anyone
of this people is going to come up with the ultimate answer to e-mail, but each one of
us, if we bring some more thought and reflection to our practices like that, we can actually
make some discoveries from ourselves about what’s not working and how we could do it
better. Okay. Just to let you know, a little bit about what I’ve been up to. Four years
ago, I organized the conference on information silence and sanctuary which was wonderful.
I’ve been getting–I’ve been lucky enough to get funding from the McArthur Foundation
for these events. In two years ago while I was at the library of congress, I organized
a workshop, A Mindful Work and Technology. I taught this course at Information and Contemplation.
And in June, I’m organizing another conference that will be at the University of Washington
called, No Time to Think. If you want to see a little bit more about it, here’s the URL
for the site, depts.washington.edu/iql. So, part of what I’ve been trying to do is to
bring scholars, researchers, artists, religious leaders together to look at the nature of
this problem and to raise consciousness and hopefully to begin to create some kind of
larger research agenda. Okay. So, I’ve told you pretty much what I wanted to tell you.
Let’s go back to the great man himself, the inventor of hypertext. This is the last paragraph
of that famous article. “The applications of science have built man a well-supplied
house and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses
of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass
the great record–that’s a lovely phrase. To encompass the great record and to grow
in the wisdom of race experience. He, man, human beings may perish in conflict before
they learn to wield that record for their true good. Yet, in the application of science
to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage
at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome. This is to remind
you that this was the vision that Bush had which is I think a vision that in a lot of
ways Google has as well which is to really do good by organizing the record. And the
part of it that really if you want one summary slide is this. I think the next challenge
ahead–I mean, there’s always more to do in organizing the record but the next challenge
is to balance ratio with intellectus to figure out how we cannot only do a brilliant job
of searching and research–searching and researching, abstracting, refining, and concluding but
how we can create the space and time for thinking for reflection for contemplation and to actually
assimilate and work with all the information that’s available to us today. Thank you. Do
we have…>>Time for questions.
>>LEVY: We have time for questions. Is that a hand back there? No?
>>So, I’m only learning about you just now and heard about Xerox PARC and I’m wondering
if you would draw any parlous between Bush and Douglas Engelbart and as I’m just now
reviewing Bush’s thoughts I see how he is thinking about helping an individual think
and making the tools to help an individual think and I see Engelbart focus more on helping
communities of people work together. Any thoughts to that?
>>LEVY: That’s right. You’re absolutely right. Douglas Engelbart, by the way, who I think
there’s a picture in building downstairs somewhere of man with Engelbart is another one of the
luminaries in the story about the development of hypertext in the web. He–at SRI, at the
Stanford Research Institute, he developed a few–he developed the first type–the first
working hypertext system and in 19–I forgot what year it was, ’67 or earlier did this
amazing demo with windows on the screen. He was the inventor of the mouse by the way.
The mouse was not invented at PARC. And you’re right–oh, and by the way, Engelbart read
As We May Think and there’s a letter where Engelbart writes to Bush and it’s clear whether
Bush ever responded to him but Engelbart got really jazzed when he read this article. I
think he was in the Navy at that time. But you’re right. Bush seems to have been had
a much more solitary–you know, the individual working with his or her workstation and Engelbart’s
vision was of a much more collaborative environment. You’re absolutely right. What’s interest–what’s
also interesting is if you look–want to look at another one of the roots of the web, H.G.
Wells, the historian had this idea for what you call the World Brain. He didn’t have the–a
sense–I’m not sure he had a sense of what the technologies would be but his was an idea
in a sense organizing all of world knowledge whereas Bush didn’t quite have that idea.
He had more–the person at his own individual workstation putting links together and so
on. So, that was a very good point. Yes?>>Hi, David. Who is going to dispute you?
I mean, serenity, calmness, it’s all good stuff, right? But–and I thank you for the
good words about the Google homepage. At same time, I’m wondering how we can design spaces
that do support contemplation and this sort of sense of peacefulness and so on and particularly
in light of the sort of phenomena of flow and disruption of flow because we find that
even tiny little decrements increases in latency or decrements in performance can actually
really effect one’s ability to do work and you know very well that, you know, general–in
the response time actually really reduces your ability to–and engage you to a close
state. So, the question is, if it’s just a matter of slowing down, we’ll just give everbody
modems and we’ll slow everything down and that’s probably not what you want?
>>LEVY: No.>>So, what is the nature of the design of
sort of these kinds of places that support this kind of space for thinking?
>>LEVY: Dan, I don’t actually know the answer to that. I mean, that’s why that’s the kind
of research that actually needs to be done. But I and I think that what it’s going to
take is going to–it’s going to take PARC like experiments which, you know, we both
know what that was like for many years. It’s going to take experiments where people really
do try to build environments and see what happens, right? I mean, I don’t think you–and
I don’t think its one size does not fit all. You know, there’s work–I’m sure you know
some of the work–I mean, there’s work in Microsoft, Eric Horvitz and some of his people
have done stuff on how do you minimize interruptions or how do you develop a model of the user
in such a way that you figure out what the right time is. I mean, I think that’s interesting
work. But I don’t think it goes far enough to un–because it–because I think part of
what we need is a baseline shared understanding of some of these other states. See, I think–I–so
long as we–as we simply import the model of efficiency of efficiency–of efficient
effectiveness which is–I mean, now that this allows me to do this little piece. But we
don’t take seriously that there is another mode of relating to the world until–and until
the designers who are going to design for that are themselves experiencing that. I don’t
think we’re going to get–we’re going to get good answers so we actually need, you know,
we need the work that Ming is doing in bringing Norman Fisher in to get people trained in–excuse
me, not meditation but emotional intelligence. We need people–we need people who are willing
to talk with one another about the flow state experiences that they actually achieve maybe
on a hiking trail and it has to be legitimate to talk a bit that in relation to what happens
in the office. So–I mean, it’s the right question and I don’t have the answer. But
I think I see specially given the kind of background that we share with PARC, I think
I see how one could begin to actually investigate that kind of thing. Yes.
>>Hi. My name is Zunas and I just came from meditation which I lead [INDISTINCT] this
year and that’s a wonderful thing to do. I come from Europe. I come from Sweden, and
I live in San Francisco and I’ve observed and it become very clear to me over the years
that I missed something because wherever I am in the city, there’s no benches to sit
down. I can’t sit down and just observed what is. I have to keep moving. If I want to sit
down anywhere, I’m probably loitering according to the city law or something. And I really
want to have a ticket for loitering in US. I’m trying to get this, I’m not sure how I
need to do that but I think it’s very interesting concept because if you are sitting down and
being quiet and just enjoying life and not running around, you’re essentially loitering
in this culture or the American way maybe in the way I perceive it. I observe that I
can’t sit down and I can’t be calm and quiet about consuming. I can go to a café but it’s
going to be mostly inside and I’m going to sit there and I have to consume to stay there
and I’ll be bombarded by people consuming and it’s going to be TV’s on and is always
something trying to steal my attention. If I walk on the street there’s going to be people
asking me for signatures and if I’m loitering in California or–no, but nobody asked me
if I go in Sweden, I would like that. But–yes, this is a very interesting theme because it’s
built into the culture and also into the architecture of cities a lot and I would be very happy
if something could be done to think about these things on a broader scale and I don’t
know if you have any suggestions.>>LEVY: Well first, thank you. Thank you
for those excellent observations. I think it is in some sense been built into out culture
that, you know, that leisure is loitering or are certain kind of leisure is loitering.
The one institution that I think still is carrying some of these other relationship
to the world in our culture is libraries. You know, it’s so interesting because here,
you know, we all know look what’s happening on the web the–with digital libraries. But
at the same time public libraries are prospering in this country. And in San Francisco built
a new one and Seattle built a beautiful new public library and it’s retrofitting, you
know, the branches and all of that. The library–and especially the reading room remains a kind
of protective space in this culture and it’s a place where people can go–it’s not acceptable
to use cell phones typically in a place like a reading room and very often there isn’t
even wireless there. You might actually be there just to think or to write, you know,
or to read a book. So, I–that’s the place. I’m excited about, you know, as I think about
how do we move these ideas more broadly into the culture. My interest is in targeting public
library as a space. I mean, they’ve been hit very hard with, you know, needing to show
performance metrics and all those kinds of things and yet, the public wants to have those
secular open contemplative spaces.>>So…
>>What–last question.>>So, I had a pretty similar question. Are
there any cultures or countries that you think are better were set this kind of contemplative
thinking and like, you know, what features of the culture would be correlated with that
maybe like the internet use or mode of car use or…
>>That’s a really great question. And I don’t actually have a good answer to it because
I’m not that familiar. I mean, there are countries like is it Bhutan? Is it–that has, you know,
taken out–which is a Buddhist country that has taken on a notion of gross national happiness,
right? Which presumably I don’t know it would be interesting to look at how technology is
being used there, I don’t know. I think there are cultures that are even more frantic than
ours. I mean, I’ve spent a certain amount of time in Japan. And at least the parts of
Japanese culture that I have seen suggest to me where, where we’re going to be five
to ten years from now. We’re–you know, there’s even a term in–I forgotten. There’s the term
in Japanese which essentially means death by overwork. I mean, that’s how seriously
the notion has been taken. But you raised a very good question. I mean, it would be
wonderful. I mean, put that in a hopper for a kind of research direction that somebody
ought to find which is to look across cultures at how people are doing in maintaining this
other dimension of life. And maybe even–because, you know, I hope it’s clear to you and since
I’m wrapping up now, I’ll use this as my last sense or two. I hope it’s clear to you that
what I’m really saying is we have the opportunity to figure out how to do this with the technologies
as well. It’s not–it’s–surely, it’s not about pulling the plug but I think we’ve been
so focused on this more faster better. Everything has to be faster and more effective and efficient
in certain ways. That we’ve lost sight of the fact that we’ve cut out an entire dimension
that is not only central to what it is–to who we are as human beings but that’s central
for doing creative work. And that’s probably the argument that ultimately is going to win
because we want to do creative work and we want to do good work. And I don’t see how
we can do it adequately when we’re running faster then it’s healthy for us. So, I think
at that point, I will stop and say thank you all.

42 Replies to “No Time to Think”

  • Vidal Graupera says:

    Quite slow

  • John D. Sharer says:

    I first met Dr. Levy in 1970, when we were suitemates at our undergraduate college. Dr. Levy is one of the most thoughtful and profund thinkers I had ever met. From this talk, it is apparent that Dr. Levy still amply deserves that distinction.

  • Winsucker says:

    Tnx for that talk.

  • Mark Whiting says:

    Nice Talk.

    I think the answer he keeps seeming to look for is at least partially found in the act of creating, blogging, commenting and all the other aspects of content creation that exist and support the model he mentions a lot, information retrieval and sorting, which he also mentions, google supplies so well.

  • Freddie Cox says:

    Great talk. I have really enjoyed all of these Google Tech Talks. I feel this talks goes well with David Allen's and Merlin Mann's Getting Things Done philosophy to clear the runway so that we can get back to thinking at 40,000 ft.

  • Family Fun and Kids Entertainment says:

    After I got my Ph.d in Computer Science at Stanford. I decided to move to London to Write in Old Calligraphy and Bind Books… lol…

  • phxfreddy says:

    Read Feynman. Think Feynman.

  • Dmitry Sadakov says:

    Am I the only one that thinks this speech is mostly pointless?

    He doesn't define the "contemplating thinking" into something with a result. This is plainly not in our culture for a reason – it's called differently, known as "relaxing", it's an activity opposed to work.

    Watch the theory of play at TED instead.

  • slickbnx says:

    wtf is he saying !

  • DetJohnKimbel says:

    IT SMELLS LIKE POOP IN HERE!

  • vrshowdown says:

    well we have so many distractions these days.

  • notonewhit says:

    "Creative work" is almost an oxymoron, more typical: "creative play".

    Perhaps creativity seeks what's missing in what is here (the space for growth?). One preoccupied with work pops his head up and feels something essential is missing; one at play might equally feel unease in not working harder, more seriously. The whole talk somehow smacks of the neurotic structure it seeks to escape. The only suggestion: "balance" – a homeostatic term that belies the natural struggle.

  • notonewhit says:

    Let us work hard to find a way to make leisure useful to the means of production. Huh?

  • twebb72 says:

    You don't have to work hard to make time for leisure, and isn't usually a means of production. Its the typically the description, or outline, of the mechanism for production.

  • jayram78 says:

    Really a wonderful talk. The vision is grand and I really think this kind of idea will have much bigger impact in the future.

  • FroggEnigma says:

    Brilliant.

  • Redshift313 says:

    We have transformed from ***Human Beings*** into ***Human Doings*** !

  • ytertyu says:

    these kind of craps nowadays these idiots teaching at colleges ?? fuck …. you failed , levy boy

  • Iratikan says:

    This talk is very interesting.

    Our environment is becoming surrounded with more and more software and machines.

    We spend more and more time with computers. Do you spend more time with your spouse or with the computer?

    Not only that. We try to mimic software and computers. We try to act as them: fast and in a mechanic way.

    It is not just about thinking, it's about behavior. Are we behaving like humans or like computers or machines.

    What about the title "No Time To Be Human"?

  • maria gomez says:

    ….with the internet i don´t need to live near a big city…..and that is "time to think"…..and it is cheap to travel to any city if i need to…

  • shodanxx says:

    was watching this video

    "ratio" or "intellectus" ? I mean I googled this and youtube is providing the video feed
    but watching this felt more like "intellectus" and not information overload

  • bin1127 says:

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makres Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and ni play makes Jack a dul; boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

  • 耕平石村 says:

    but I should think this matter.

  • sting ray says:

    @blackacidlizzard how is the "something can't come from nothing" argument "self-defeating"? huh? its proof of something which will forever defy our logic

  • Phillip Marvin says:

    @comeonewtf Which means you just don't understand. Are you an academic? Because you sound like a 16 year old. If you want to know what he is thinking about I suggest a(nother) degree!

  • Phillip Marvin says:

    @comeonewtf Heh, I am a nerd so thanks for the compliment, but no I haven't yet been invited to speak at google. His point isn't that technology is bad. Take a cathedral for example, when you are there with only a few other tourists, everyone speaks very quietly because they can hear their own voices extremely well. If you fill that room with people then the echos will drown out an individual. If you design technology in a loud way then you wont be able to think… That's his point

  • Omnamah Shivaya says:

    But everyday is already 'Only listen if you choose to day'.

  • I Vinay says:

    Friends search for Jiddu Krishnamurti on Youtube and give few min of your time to explore how brain depends so much on knowledge and limitation of knowledge

  • miningorb says:

    Nociceptive pain may also be divided into "visceral," "deep somatic" and "superficial somatic" pain. Visceral structures are highly sensitive to stretch, ischemia and inflammation, but relatively insensitive to other stimuli that normally evoke pain in other structures, such as burning and cutting. Visceral pain is diffuse, difficult to locate and often referred to a distant, usually superficial, structure. It may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting and may be painfull.

  • badliferequiresvice says:

    some people choose to remain busy and very few people (at least in my experience) remain still. Stillness is still a luxury for most people. To remain connected to society and have the amenities that are required costs money, thus work or 'busyness' is required.
    The social environment has changed significantly.
    To gain information required for useful thinking in 'stillness' requires connectivity to information. To gain that in this society you need money and have to work for it.

  • badliferequiresvice says:

    some people don't have the opportunity or intellect to create situations where their wealth allows them to maintain this connection to current information. Or have circumstantial obstructions to it. Considering the average wage in Britain and the expected out goings of the average household leaves very little expendable income/time for stillness.

  • lakpa rai says:

    My family laughed when I told them I was going to lose weight with "Supreme Fat loss", but then I showed them the results. Go and google "Supreme Fat loss" to see their reaction. (You should see their faces!)

  • FatherElectric says:

    When I first saw the length of the video, I wished it were less than 7 minutes. After I finished watching it, now I know why.

  • Tony Stark says:

    like my father many scientists and thinkers were limited by the technology of their time

  • Lenny Mauricio Gomez says:

    that is awesome john –

  • Stephen Paul King says:

    What went wrong? The human ability to process data has remained a constant. Why are not machines being tasked to do data 'interpretation'? Is pattern recognition something that can be mechanized? If so, what prevents us from using it? Is it that we don;t trust the machines? If so, why?

  • Stephen Paul King says:

    Is quantum coherence a form of leisure? (j/k)

  • Stephen Paul King says:

    Information overload crisis? Solution: mechanize learning coupled with man/machine interfacing. Personal Agent tech.

  • Matt C says:

    "Paper to plastic"… way to perpetuate a stereotype

  • Malebitsa Timbuktu says:

    To have leisure is to practice liberty. Leisure is critical consciousness.

  • Malebitsa Timbuktu says:

    "It would be folly to set up a program under which research in the natural sciences and medicine was expanded at the cost of the social sciences, humanities, and other studies so essential to national well-being." – Vannevar Bush

  • Leeroy says:

    This talk prompts me to think about how the speed has to do with group competition. If you take a long view it's like from the moment the first band of hunter-gatherers encountered another band we've been in this frantic race for security. Developing weapons, growing our group's numbers, everything to make absolutely sure we're not at risk of being obliterated by the Other, by Unknown means.

    Another facet taking shape is just how much of our collective decisions have been shaped by communication and processing bottlenecks. "Pouring our mistakes into concrete". Even now when we have the big iron processing power required to take a step up qualitatively, we're still stuck with legacy habits and institutions, arrangements that arose from limited ability to coordinate people or simulate system dynamics. In the end that's wise, perching on this silicon-based computing branch isn't going to end well if we're sawing away at it with industrial civilisation's decline. But it's enjoyable to contemplate scenarios in which some of these bottlenecks are recognized and squashed.

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