Most of us are in a “toxic relationship” with our technology, believe Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani and fellow of the software product industry’s iSPIRT Foundation, Tanuj Bhojwani, co-authors of the book The Art Of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm In The Digital World.
Unlike many other books written about this toxic relationship, however, this one is by two people who love technology very much and are fascinated by its power to do good — and yet, are cognizant of the ways in which technology can overwhelm us. In this book, conceived over conversations during walks in the park in the middle of the pandemic, they dive into how this relationship developed and how it can be salvaged—sometimes by using the very technologies that keep us distracted and anxious. They call this ‘The Art Of Bitfulness’, an “awareness-driven environment design and habit change”. In a conversation with Lounge, Nilekani and Bhojwani talk about how we can cultivate the art of bitfulness. Edited excerpts:
From mindfulness to the Flow theory to sports psychology—there are several strands of thought that come together to create the solutions in the book. How did you go about bringing it all together?
Nilekani: We started with the premise that the thing about today’s technology is that the ease with which you can use it is also the problem. You constantly switch contexts and lose your focus and train of thought. And the key discovery we made was that we have three modes of operation in our digital lives: the create mode, the curate mode and the communicate mode. And those require three different mindsets. Mine has been a hardware approach. All my “create mode” work is done on my laptop, so that I know that when I am at my laptop, it’s when I am doing deep thinking work. The only communication I do is through calls and SMS messages—I don’t use any other products—which is on my phone. And for curate mode, I have my iPad, where I read and save things to read. So I have done it by physically having separate devices, and my mind automatically switches modes when I am on a particular device. But I have the luxury to do that.
When you have only one device, you can’t do that. In this book, we suggest ways to do this on a single device—often using technology itself.
Bhojwani: I want to add that one word in our subtitle—calm—is what we were aiming for and what we realised we were trying to achieve through our various systems, whether it’s Nandan with his different devices or me through slightly more complex software-based systems. We were optimising for calm. When you are calm, productivity follows. Productivity is a lagging indicator—we all chase it but it’s the by-product of calm. If you are able to keep your head about you, you will make good decisions, you will not be distracted, you will not waste time. Before I did this more intentionally, I just always carried this latent stress, right? I just always carried this feeling of ‘am I missing something?’ And as soon as that goes away, you can just do so much better.
Nilekani: The key to being calm is not to have a backlog. The moment you have a backlog you have stress.
So what else can we do to get rid of this latent stress?
Bhojwani: So in the book we have this one section about the ‘nuclear option’. That's where the tone changes a bit and we sound a little strict about what we are saying. Say you have all these links you have collected, interesting stuff that you want to read, and you have 30 tabs open, right? The nuclear option is this idea that at some point on a Sunday, every week, if you've not read it – just delete everything. If this thought makes you uncomfortable, then you are exactly the person who needs it.
Can the organising effort itself sometimes become a little overwhelming?
Nilekani: Absolutely. We say get rid of to-do lists. The idea should be to round off things as they happen—for example, I have a rule that between meetings I keep 10 minutes to finish action points that may have arisen during that meeting...call someone, send an email. So the moment you wrap up that activity, you close that box, right?
Bhojwani: In one chapter we talk about taking notes. We mention how (theoretical physicist) Richard Feynman had these notebooks going back years—he said he took them not to keep a record but to “work on paper”. The idea we took from this story is this: The act of writing down itself is a secret way of you paying deliberate attention. And in the online world, this slowly slipped away. I can always be on email, I can always be doing the thing—so why should I do a separate thing before doing the thing? But taking notes helps you be present, and it both saves time and helps you feel more calm.
In the book you recommend doing things that you like doing in your digital life – scrolling through social media, playing games – but doing it deliberately, even if you end up spending the same amount of time. Do you think that helps?
Bhojwani: Absolutely. Right now you're still doing it (spending non-optimal time on the internet) but what you also have is guilt, shame, self-blame. How is that ever going to get you out of this? I'm not ashamed to say this at all, the thing that got me through the pandemic is this YouTube channel where a guy solves Sudoku puzzles online. It's a very solitary, boring activity, but I find this guy who solves it on a screen for everyone to see and talks through it ridiculously calming for some reason. So the thing is all of us need something like that to get us through the day. The problem is most of the conversation around screen-time etc at some level blame us… ‘you need to be stronger, have more self-discipline’. I recently got a cat. The cat sleeps all day. Do you think the cat feels guilty about its lifestyle? No!
So the thing is when you have this ‘intention alignment’ you feel less terrible about the things you do. The idea is to be kinder to yourself instead of being in this vicious cycle where I am wasting time by doing something pleasurable, then feeling guilty about it, then doing a bad job because now I have less time, and then feeling guilty about that, and then doing something pleasurable to numb myself.
Nilekani: The book also makes you aware that the whole technology is designed to get your attention in a certain way, so you shouldn't feel bad about it. I play FreeCell on my phone — and the reason is that I don't want to learn a new game, I want to play a game where I don't have to think. I know how to play this damn game, and I play it over and over again. But what I do is I do reward myself in a sense. I say, 'okay, I'll clear 25 emails, and then I'll reward myself with a game of FreeCell. So at least it becomes a reward thing for me.
The book comes across as very non-judgemental, both towards technology and towards people. Was this intentional?
Nilekani: Look, to solve this problem, we can either do a blame game—for instance, a lot of people just blame companies and big tech, while others essentially tell people “you’re the problem, you have no self-control, you’re weak”. Really, it’s none of these things. We are what we are, and with all our weaknesses, strengths, we need to figure out a way to do this, because where we are right now, to believe that we can have a life without technology is impractical. And, therefore, we have to find a way to do things better with what we have. We have to accept that we are human beings, and therefore we need to come up with ways, create some systems so that we can carve out different models of working. The aim was to figure out these ways and not be judgemental about people and their frailties.
We have dramatically increased the penetration of technology…from no one having a phone to half a million people having a smartphone. But this digital hygiene part of it has never been spoken about in the Indian context, so our hope is that the book will help people step outside themselves and re-imagine a better relationship with technology.
‘The Art of Bitfulness’ seems more like a framework rather than a single book. Is it going to be an ongoing engagement?
Bhojwani: We do realise that while we have written down as much as we could in this book, if you think of all knowledge as water, a book is a frozen lake. A book is great to introduce the idea, because in an attention-bereft world, a book is that commitment you make to sit down and be introduced to the idea, but it's not really sufficient to keep practising bitfulness; for instance tomorrow there is a new app and you want to know how you can be bitful around that… so the minutiae of this, the practical details need an ongoing conversation about this, and we do have plans for blogs and social media handles that will take it forward.
Apart from the techniques you have devised, was there a larger goal to writing this book?
Nilekani: Apart from realising that we all struggle with technology and find ways to work with it, the other thing we realised is that this is as much a crisis as the pandemic or the climate crisis. It can also disrupt our lives. For the climate, we have both individual and collective solutions, right? At the individual level, we say “don’t eat red meat” or “avoid plastic”, and on a societal level, we talk about climate laws and reducing fossil fuel dependency. Similarly, for the pandemic we have both individual and institutional responses. But we felt that for this digital problem we don’t really have either an approach for what an individual can do nor do we have a social approach.
So the last part of the book is about this social solution, what we can do with alternative approaches, including crypto, and what we have been doing in India for the last 10 years, which is designing much more digital public goods that are open in nature, like UPI. We offer certain solutions that can be used to solve this crisis at a more macro level.