One button to silence all distractions: the latest in ‘conscious computing’


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “One button to silence all distractions: the latest in ‘conscious computing’” was written by Oliver Burkeman, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 9th October 2013 15.51 UTC

One day, with a bit of luck, someone will invent a device that silences loud-talking office colleagues whenever required, perhaps using mind-controlling parasites. In the meantime, a Canadian company called CanFocus is seeking funding on Kickstarter for the gadget shown in prototype above: a physical button, 3.5 inches wide, called MyFocus. In its default state, they explain, it sits on your desk and glows green. Press it, and it turns off all your incoming messages – emails, tweets, calls and the rest, on all your devices, mobile and desktop. It also glows red, serving as a highly visible signal to annoying co-workers that you're in "do not disturb" mode and that efforts to engage you in conversation might be met with the terrifying rage of Thor himself.

"Our founder works out of Israel and he has a button in Toronto," Paul Chipperton, of CanFocus, told Mashable. "When he goes on red in Tel Aviv on his smartphone, we can see in the office in Toronto in real time that he's on red and we don't make any effort to contact him." Obviously, you can't force a human to obey the red signal. But you could imagine this working well in a large office where everyone had a button, creating social pressure to respect "do not disturb" time.

If it manages to do what it promises – and the prototype doesn't yet play nicely with Facebook or Gmail, it seems – MyFocus could prove a major development in "conscious computing", which I wrote about for Guardian Weekend back in May. Too often, attitudes towards distraction and loss of focus in the age of the internet fall into two camps: the zealots, who simply deny there's any problem, and the sceptics, who think the only option is disconnecting, at least somewhat, from the web. There's much to be said for that second position, but conscious computing offers a third possibility: what if we could harness digital technology to cultivate attention, focus and calm?

In my piece, I looked at web-blocking software like Mac Freedom, meditation apps like Rewire, and the fantastic F.lux, which causes a "sunset" on your screen when the real sun sets outside. But it's a fast-growing field, and plenty more has happened – or just come to my distracted attention – since then. Here are a few links worth your time. (Don't click them if you're supposed to be focusing on something else!)

Calm.com is a nicely designed site and app to help you meditate (or just take relaxing pauses from work). Rest is even simpler: a bare-bones Mac app to prompt you to take regular breaks, preferably by getting up.

How I turned my iPhone into a simple, distraction-free device: a good basic guide to voluntarily limiting your smartphone's capacities, and what it feels like when you do. Read it alongside 11 ways I'm trying to achieve a sane relationship with the internet.

• I enjoyed this two-part edition of the Buddhist Geeks podcast featuring the creator of ReWire, Mike Redmer: Part One: Rewiring Meditation for the Digital Age and Part Two: Contemplative Technologies. (Buddhist Geeks is also planning a Contemplative Technology Conference in San Francisco next year.) If you're more interested in the daily challenges of focus than in meditation specifically, read Linda Stone on Maintaining Focus in a Maddeningly Distractive World, an interview by James Fallows.

Focus @ Will purports to deliver "attention-amplifying music channels scientifically designed to engage with your brain's limbic system". I'm not going to attempt to assess the neuro-claims made on the site. But it's true that there's a real problem with listening to your iTunes library on shuffle or to Spotify while you work: those songs are likely to be the ones you really enjoy, which isn't much good if that distracts you from the task at hand. How did Focus @ Will affect my limbic system? I've no idea, but the music did seem to help me concentrate a little better.

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