Five Minutes with Rafael A. Calvo and Dorian Peters

Today, for our latest ‘Five Minutes’ feature we have Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters the authors of Positive Computing. In the book, they discuss the emerging field of positive computing.

The title of your book is Positive Computing. How is positive computing defined? –Is there something that could be defined as negative computing?

Positive Computing is defined as the “research and development of technologies to support psychological well-being”.  The “positive” is a nod to positive psychology which seeks to promote optimal human wellness, rather than targeting illness. Because digital technologies are with us fairly continuously, they are ideally placed to support our well-being, and those factors that contribute to it, such as empathy, resilience, self-awareness and the others identified by research.  If those of us who create technology begin to take impact on well-being into account in the design cycle, we have the opportunity to effect large-scale positive change on the human experience.  That’s a pretty exciting prospect.

You say that a growing number of technologists have an interest in designing and developing technologies that improve psychological well-being. At the same time, you say that they have been reluctant to consider “the difficult-to-quantify and value-laden aspects of psychological impact”. How can technologists, whether they are researchers or developers, benefit from a partnership with the mind sciences?

Traditionally in computer science and engineering, we’ve tended to avoid emotion and focus on cognition and performance.  In the last decade however, we’ve seen a gradual blossoming of attention to humanistic interests such as well-being, emotion, and social good within the industry, but without a solid foundation to turn that interest into a change in practice. If we’re to seriously start evaluating and designing for psychological well-being factors, it’s absolutely essential we do so in partnership with those researchers and practitioners who have spent decades refining the methods and measures for this purpose. This means working with psychologists, neuroscientists and social scientists, who, in our experience, are very keen to work with technologists towards the very same goals.

It is said that mindfulness requires that we detach ourselves from our smartphones and laptops, and ignore the distractions that those devices constantly provide. How can positive computing help us live a more mindful life?

There are two parts to living mindfully in a digital world: our minds and the technologies. The first has to do with our own mind training, because focus and detachment from distraction does not mean disengaging from the world, but rather developing ourselves to a point where we have the self-awareness and equanimity necessary to remain focused and aware despite distractions. However, technology can make this easier or harder, and as we’ve said before, we should experience greater well-being because of technology, not in spite of it.  Therefore, as technologists we need to start seriously thinking about how we can design technologies that are conscious of, and actively supportive of, various states like mindfulness, self-awareness, focus and flow. Of course, those involved in creating technologies like “zenware” and mindfulness apps have already begun moving down this path.  In addition, many companies are recognizing the dissatisfaction caused by information fatigue and have begun to add features that filter or reduce notifications and visual noise. This is just the beginning.  As we learn more about how digital experience affects us and how to better design it, we can move towards a future in which technologies aren’t at war with our efforts to be mindful, but are fostering them.

You mention that positive computing with its promises of a happier, healthier life is easily hijacked for commercial purposes and misused as a new marketing buzzword. As a response to this you devote a part of the book to the question of a funding model that does not compromise with the human-centered ideal of positive computing. And then you introduce social enterprise. Why is social enterprise a well-suited funding model for positive computing?

All funding models, from traditional for-profits to non-profits, to the emerging B corporations, will benefit from contributing to the psychological flourishing of the people who are their customers or community through positive computing.  We highlight social enterprise because it has the advantage of being able to work at the speed of technology (something that, in our experience, can be more difficult for non-profit organizations and government agencies) and it is also free of the conflicts of interest that may arise if profit-increase is top priority.  Being able to focus on what’s most beneficial to human well-being, even when that isn’t what’s most beneficial to profits (and we believe the two will generally benefit each other) makes social enterprise a promising option for future technology companies.