“Technology is like a chair – if you sit on it for too many hours, it’s not good for you. You won’t prohibit using chairs just because people sit on them for too long. However, as a chair designer, you need to design your chair better if you want people to be healthier”. Professor Rafael Calvo leans back into his chair as he sips his refreshing drink in an unusually hot London weather.
He has just presented a seminar on Positive Computing in UCL, attracting a group of engineers, psychologists, educational specialists and other people interested in the impact of technology on our mind and well-being. Rafael Calvo is the ARC Future Fellow, Engineering at the University of Sydney, and a co-author of the book called Positive Computing: Technology for wellbeing and human potential. Positive computing is an interdisciplinary field that sits between design, computing, psychology and social sciences and explores how technology can help us be more human, and not more computer-like.
“The main thing that applications and computer programs should do if they want to help people change their behaviour is support their motivation and help create this motivation. Technology is an environment and so it should create an environment”, Calvo says.
This is quite an innovative idea for the tech world, where most app developers are primarily concerned about engagement of the user, and not their motivation. Candy Crush the game is a good example of a game maximizing engagement – it adapts to how much you play it; so if you stop playing it, it gets easier, and if you spend a lot of time playing it, it gets harder. Whereas engagement is important, Calvo says, we should also focus on developing other sides of the human brain, and especially social emotions.
Productivity comes second
Most tech developers today also see humans as efficient and productive machines, which to be fair is not the most typical human aspect. So they build products that encourage the sense of achievement, and sometimes overachievement (like catching up with emails, buying something or tracking via wearables), and help release dopamine that is also known as an anticipation and addiction hormone. Only a few build their products to encourage contentment and affiliation, like expressing gratitude, empathy or praise to others.
Even when websites want to encourage their users to praise each other for something, they often choose speed over psychological benefits (see example of Linkedin vs Yammer from Calvo's presentation).
Nowadays technology doesn’t take into account people’s well-being. When companies choose to make interventions to influence behaviour of their users, they often do so by just redesigning the product to prevent a negative impact, rather than encouraging the positive. For instance, Facebook can offer you automated solutions on how to block a person who is abusing you (i.e. unfriend/block/report them), but it’s not designed to encourage people to be nicer or more supportive of each other.
What Calvo proposes is to build a generation of new apps and games that will promote well-being, social connections, empathy and help us to, even further, develop the qualities that we traditionally consider human.
How to remain sane At the end of our conversations I ask Calvo about what allows him to keep a healthy digital routine and remain human in the computer age. Here are the four things he finds works really well for him: 1. He keeps separate business and personal email accounts and only subscribes to anything on his personal one, so that he doesn’t get distracted when working. 2. He has specific days for certain types of activities – Monday is the meeting day, Tuesday is the writing day. 3. He uses delayed emailed function, downloading his emails only once an hour. He also does all the admin stuff only in the afternoon and uses mornings productively. 4. He keeps phones and laptops outside of the bedroom, and says that removing the TV from the living room and replacing it with the projector helped a great deal to reduce the time his kids watched TV. The very removal of a physical device helps you become less distracted.