XIX.4 July + August 2012
Page: 28
Digital Citation

Positive computing

Rafael Calvo, Dorian Peters

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We all wish that our kids, our politicians, and we ourselves could exhibit greater wisdom. We venerate cross-cultural heroes like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and seek to gain the insight required to take wise action in the face of difficult decisions. Researchers like Sternberg are adamant that it is beneficial, if not critical, to teach wisdom in schools [1]. Others have identified the evolutionary benefits of wisdom [2]. Moreover, in the past two decades, researchers in psychology and neuroscience have applied scientific rigor to the study of wisdom and its development. Although a precise definition of wisdom varies across time and cultures, there is clear consensus about common features [3].

Most conceptualizations of wisdom maintain that it is developed through personal experiences, indeed, experiences now transformed by computers. Whereas we once used computers, now we live with them [4]. The fact that they are now part of the everyday personal experiences that shape us as human beings has triggered a debate on how human values should be included in the design process.

There is no evidence that digital technologies, or the experiences they engender, are making us a wiser or happier society. In fact, some have highlighted the negative impacts that new technologies can have on minds and society (e.g., [5]). Sengers has noted how our drive for increasing productivity has led to a loss of control over our time [6]. Konrath and colleagues reported a 48 percent decrease in empathetic concern and a 34 percent decrease in perspective taking among college students in the past 30 years (most prominently since 2000), implicating social media among possible causes [7]. The reality is that technology will (and already does) have an effect on our development of wisdom, whether or not we are conscious of it. Therefore, isn't it our responsibility to add this area of impact to research inquiry, if not also to our design process?

We propose that in the 21st century our ambitions should rest not only in seeking the most usable, effective, and satisfying experience, but also in seeking to design an experience that contributes to human potential by supporting the components of wisdom and well-being. This notion can be framed within a new domain called positive computing. (See www.positivecomputing.org)

back to top  A Move Toward Positive Computing

A notion of positive computing could benefit HCI research by bringing together a number of related emerging fields of study. As an initial definition, positive computing could be described as the study and development of technologies designed to support well-being, wisdom, and human potential. With a nod to positive psychology, this umbrella could provide a domain for research into areas such as values-sensitive computing [8], digital therapies and behavioral interventions [9], as well as, more generally, the inclusion of well-being and wisdom into the experience design of all technologies. The idea is that even companies like Facebook and Apple should be evaluating how their products affect wisdom and well-being as part of the iterative design cycle. Positive computing places technology in the service of recent movements for greater happiness, "mental wealth," and human development. In this article we focus on the wisdom aspect of positive computing.

One could look at the deliberate inclusion of wisdom into the design process as the next inevitable phase in the evolution of human-centered design. But how do you begin to tackle a concept as elusive as wisdom? This is where recent work by psychologists and neuroscientists becomes invaluable.

back to top  Research Perspectives on Wisdom

Seeking wisdom is a viable contender for the world's oldest profession. Since at least as far back as Ancient Egypt, human beings across cultures have been using philosophy, spirituality, and science to understand and develop wisdom [10]. The so-called explicit-theoretical approaches to understanding wisdom try to develop a formal theory of wisdom to ground our understanding of how it is developed. This research has uncovered a combination of cognitive, emotional, and motivational constructs drawn from a comprehensive review of the literature [3]. The cognitive aspect can be described as a deep insight into self, others, and the world. This goes beyond factual knowledge and delves into understanding that everything is continually changing, and that truths are relative. The emotional aspect involves emotional intelligence and complex emotion-regulation skills. The motivational aspect is an orientation that transcends the self. A wise person has a desire to help others and balance interests of a greater good with those of the self and others.

We propose that an evaluation of impacts on wisdom be included in the "understand" stage proposed by Sellen and colleagues as part of a new, future-looking HCI paradigm [4]. Furthermore, this vision builds on the work in critical computing and reflective design [11] that argues designers should reflect on the values supported by their new computing devices and practices.

Let it be noted that we are not suggesting we create a wise computer. It is worth pointing this out because one can easily fall into the trap of drawing on personal values or context-specific conclusions and looking at how a technology might support these (a kind of furtive preaching). Any successful framework for including wisdom into technology design would need to make all conceivable efforts to privilege neutrality and focus on evidence-based wisdom constructs, while carefully avoiding designs to influence specific conclusions or judgments. There is no technology that can make you wise, but the tools with which we live can maximize our opportunities for gaining wisdom, or at minimum, avoid those features that seem to degrade it.

back to top  Components of Wisdom

As a nascent step toward the practical inclusion of wisdom into a design and evaluation process, we have created a list of common components emerging from a review of the literature on wisdom. This list could help us begin to evaluate how our current and future technologies might deliberately or inadvertently support these components. This list is by no means conclusive, and the boundaries it implies are, of course, merely conceptual, but we hope it will act as a useful starting point that can adapt and evolve as further research is conducted.

  • Intrapersonal skills: Self-knowledge or a deep understanding of oneself. This component relies on introspection, reflection, and self-criticism.
  • Interpersonal skills: An ability to communicate and interact well with others. This includes social intelligence, empathy, and compassion.
  • Change and uncertainty: An understanding of change and uncertainty involves a big-picture view, in part due to a consciousness of the longer-term and the inevitability of constant change over time (impermanence).
  • Balance: An ability to maintain balance among diverse interests and perspectives is evident throughout the wisdom literature. Sternberg defines wisdom as "an ability to balance intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extra-personal interests over the short and long term to achieve balance among adaptation to existing environments, shaping of existing environments and selection of new environments" [1]. Balancing these often-conflicting needs requires creativity. Concepts of equilibrium, moderation, and emotion regulation also pertain to this component.
  • Relativism: Dialectical thinking, or an understanding of multiple perspectives in all things.
  • Mindfulness: Conscious attention to the present moment. Our cultural values, such as expanding productivity and choice, have led to the design of technologies that fill every cranny of our life [6]. Yet we need time and silence for processing, incubation, and reflection on experiences.
  • Reflective insight: Wise individuals exhibit a reflective attitude and appreciate complex issues in-depth rather than superficially. Deep insight and understanding of complexity also rely on reflection, emotion-regulation, and dialectical thinking.
  • Social consciousness: Wisdom is largely defined by a selfless motivation to help others and take action toward improving the human condition. Terms like compassion, empathy, and extra-personal interests pertain to this component.

The italicized aspects above are those states and activities that could be, or already are, supported in some way by digital technologies. For example, reflection is an aspect of multiple components listed here, and there is already a growing field of study into computer systems that support it [12]. Also, investigation into how technologies such as systems modeling tools can be used to support understanding complexity is an established area within educational research [13]. Internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy [14] and other behavioral interventions, centered around introspection and intrapersonal skills, are burgeoning. A future technology that included wisdom into the design of the user experience might support reflection, provide multiple perspectives, reserve distraction to allow for sustained attention, or provide visualizations of systems, changes, or patterns over time.

When we approach mainstream technologies from the perspective of wisdom, whole new questions about the user experience emerge. For example, the advent of the Facebook Timeline interface brings to the forefront questions regarding the component change and uncertainty. The timeline visualizes changes in relationships, locations, and key personal events over time. When we build our time-centered profile, we are likely to reflect on life changes, identifying patterns that could lead to insight into our own behavior, thus supporting introspection and intrapersonal skills. Seeing our friends' timelines could help us gain deeper understanding of their contexts and motivations, supporting empathy and relativism. On the other hand, Facebook's Timeline is designed as a way to show ourselves to the world. Facebook is one of the many tools we use to create our digital identities, and people update their profiles with the expectation that others will notice. When status, self-image, and performance step in, the nature of any possible introspection must certainly be altered. In our profiles we are not inclined to highlight mistakes, regrets, or anything negative. As we design our past, ex-friends can disappear completely and random paths can be made to look directed. Therefore, as we focus on crafting the appearance of our history, we may be reinforcing illusions such as predictability, control, and permanence.

Similarly, Google Scholar allows researchers to see the impact of their publications on other people's work within a timeline. However, significantly, users are not forced to make their profiles public, and even when they do, there is less room for crafting the facts. These timelines can help us reflect on our professional histories (which, for most of us, are linked to our personal ones), as well as on those histories of our colleagues, suggesting support for introspection, reflection, impermanence, and a big-picture view.

Another fertile area for the study of potential wisdom-supportive features in current technologies lies in personal informatics, defined as "systems that help people collect personal information to improve self-knowledge" [12]. These systems can track our exercise routines, eating patterns, locations, and moods and synthesize them into feedback. Sophisticated visualizations and analytics can show us patterns and help us reflect on how behaviors and mental states are interdependent. These systems could support reflection, introspection, an understanding of impermanence, and an ability to maintain balance. As with any technology, these too can be used in a way that imposes barriers to insight by, for example, feeding obsessive or excessively self-critical thinking, but in principle they provide a view into patterns of behavior and experience that are otherwise relatively invisible, thus allowing for greater intrapersonal understanding.

The nuances of what makes these technologies work better or worse from the perspective of wisdom and well-being are still uncharted territory. What we are suggesting is that forging into this new area of research will contribute significant value to HCI, to our understanding of the mind, and to the development of human potential.

back to top  Future Steps

If we can design our technologies for ergonomics to avoid harm to our bodies, and design positive user experiences that promote productivity and satisfaction, it seems logical to promote our ambitions to the next level and design experiences that remove barriers to well-being and support the advancement of wisdom in humans and society.

We have proposed an initial list of eight components of wisdom, drawn from the literature, that might be used to establish a broader notion of user experience design that includes the support of wisdom. Sellen and colleagues state that "as HCI moves forward...the user, however well understood, is only part of a larger system...Much effort also needs to be expended on determining what is desirable within a place, an institution, or a society" [4], Perhaps, conceptualized as a move from human-centered to humanity-centered design, we can enter an era of positive computing that will see technologies consciously designed to support individual and collective well-being, intelligences, and wisdom—the optimum in human potential.

back to top  References

1. Sternberg, R. Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist. 2001.

2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rathunde, K. The psychology of wisdom: An evolutionary interpretation.

3. Staudinger, U.M. and Gluck, J. Psychological wisdom research: Commonalities and differences in a growing field. Annual Review of Psychology 62 (2011), 215–241.

4. Sellen, A., Rogers, Y., Harper, R., and Rodden, T. Reflecting human values in the digital age. Communications of the ACM 52, 3 (2009), 58–66.

5. Carr, N. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. WW Norton & Company, New York, 2010, 280.

6. Sengers, P. What I learned on Change Islands: Reflections on It and pace of life. interactions 18, 2 (2011), 40–48.

7. Konrath, S.H., O'Brien, E.H., and Hsing, C. Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review: An Official Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc. 15, 2 (May 2011), 180–198.

8. Friedman, B., Kahn, P.H., and Borning, A. Value-sensitive design and information systems. In The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. K. Himma and H. Tivani, eds. Wiley, 2008.

9. Coyle, D., Doherty, G., Matthews, M., and Sharry, J. Computers in talk-based mental health interventions. Interacting with Computers 19, 4 (2007), 545–562.

10. Robinson, D.N. Wisdom through the ages. In Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development. R.J. Sternberg, ed. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990, 13–24.

11. Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S., and Kaye, J.J. Reflective design. Proc. of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility. 2005, 49–58.

12. Li, I., Dey, A., Forlizzi, J., Höök, K., and Medynskiy, Y. Personal informatics and HCI: Design, theory, and social implications. Human Factors. 2011, 2417–2420.

13. Jacobson, M. Complex systems in education: Scientific and educational importance and implications for the learning sciences. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 15, 1 (2006), 11–34.

14. Spek, V. et al. Internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy for symptoms of depression and anxiety: A meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine 37, 3 (2007), 319–328.

back to top  Authors

Rafael A. Calvo is an associate professor of software engineering at the University of Sydney and director of the Learning and Affect Technologies Engineering research group (aka "Latte"). He has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and has worked at Carnegie Mellon University and Universidad Nacional de Rosario, and as a consultant for projects worldwide.

Dorian Peters is a specialist in user experience design for learning. She directs online strategy for the Faculty of Education at the University of Sydney. She is also a member of the Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning & Cognition She has designed for Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge University, Westpac Bank, ABC, and BMG Music.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The Path of Wisdom in Lantau Island, Hong Kong, is a series of carved wood posts with Chinese calligraphy of the Heart Sutra.

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