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Positive computing: The tech buzzword you need to know for 2015

Wearables such as those shown here at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show could potentially become the basis for a movement around positive computing. (Michael Nelson/EPA)

We usually think about technology making us smarter, more productive or more social – but not always more compassionate, wiser or happier. The “positive computing” movement, championed by Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters of the University of Sydney, hopes to change all that. Supporters of positive computing make the case that technology should contribute to well-being and human potential. And that’s a message that’s starting to attract interest in places such as MIT, Stanford and Google.

If positive computing takes off, it will be because the design of new technology has somehow lost its way. Technology now makes us distracted, busy and unhappy. People are turning away from social networks and finding ways to tune out the noise around them. Technology is making us stressed rather than mindful. All of that goes against what Calvo and Peters described in the July-August 2012 issue of Interactions magazine as what should be the higher calling of technology: “to support well-being, wisdom and human potential.” And this is a theme that is now the basis for their new book, Positive Computing: Technology for Well-being and Human Potential, published by MIT Press at the end of 2014.

Here’s one example cited by Calvo and Peters for their concept of positive computing – the Facebook Timeline. Facebook should be a place for all of us to learn from past mistakes, in order to become wiser and more compassionate. Instead of fostering personal growth, the Facebook Timeline enables us to create an illusory life that we ourselves begin to believe: “We are not inclined to highlight mistakes, regrets or anything negative.” We can edit ex-friends out of our memories instantly. In a worst-case scenario, Facebook subjects us to “algorithmic cruelty,” in which events and updates posted on our Timeline actually make us sadder rather than happier.

In many ways, positive computing is a natural outgrowth of positive psychology, which focuses on what makes people well rather than what makes people ill. This focus on the “positive” is perhaps best exemplified by Harvard psychologists telling us how to make our kids “kind” and “happiness” showing up in the titles of TED Talks. Now it’s designers, not just psychologists, who are talking about happiness. Combine ubiquitous computing with new thinking about psychology, and you have the basis for something potentially fundamentally new: a movement that focuses on ways that technology can make lives more fulfilling.

There have been attempts already to make technology serve a higher purpose. Arianna Huffington launched an entire movement around Thrive. Moreover, there is a whole cottage industry of apps and related experiences  (with names such as Mood Gym or Smiling Mind) promising to make us more compassionate, more empathetic, more mindful and even more peaceful. And most recently, Silicon Valley’s top technologists have been reinventing themselves as techno-philanthropists with breakthrough ideas of how to use technology to make the world a better place.

Going forward, the real potential for positive computing to make a difference in our lives is in the next generation of wearable computing devices. Wearables represent the first time that technology companies will be making computing devices that are designed to be worn on our bodies. Technology will become truly part of us, an extension of our physicality. That’s something that Apple recognized very clearly in its launch event for the Apple Watch, describing it as “Apple’s most personal device ever.”

One idea for how wearables might lead to increased well-being and mindfulness is in the current generation of fitness trackers and health devices. Designed to measure physical factors such as heart rate and the amount of sleep we get, they could theoretically become positive feedback devices for regulating moods and making us more compassionate. According to Calvo and Peters, these devices would not just be ergonomically well-designed and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, they would also lead to experiences that remove barriers to well-being.

Of course, positive computing has the potential to be misunderstood and misapplied by technology companies eager to jump on the latest bandwagon. You could imagine a tech company making positive computing part of a marketing campaign, similar to Beats signing up Pharrell Williams to do “Happy” commercials for a new product line. Or designers could misinterpret “positive computing” to mean just vibrant new colors designed to look upbeat and optimistic. Or, given the buzz around big data, tech companies might focus too much on designing powerful new algorithms that claim to know our moods, tastes and preferences.

However, there is a fundamental difference between a wiser computer and a computer that makes us wiser. What adherents of positive computing have in mind is fundamentally changing the way humans and computers interact. They argue that every technology can be designed by humans to perform a certain way. These experiences can be designed to increase satisfaction, to increase engagement, or to increase the ease of use.

Why not experiences which make us happier and wiser?

Rethinking the whole basis of human-computer interaction takes hard work, and most likely will have to include a fundamental re-thinking of how companies work and what their purpose should be. The good news is that there is already proof that a fundamental rethinking of user experiences around well-being is possible. George Mason University, for example, is becoming the nation’s “first well-being university,” rolling out a series of new initiatives to make everyday interactions more meaningful and to enhance “vitality, purpose and resilience.” That’s exactly the type of thinking that will be needed by Silicon Valley’s tech companies if they want to become champions of the positive computing movement.