Fragile Pulse: A Meditation App

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As N. Katherine Hayles has argued, the proliferation of digital media has radically transformed the ways in which we pay attention, privileging a kind of frantic and promiscuous “hyper attention” over the sustained “deep attention” traditionally solicited by long-form print media. “Fragile Pulse: A Meditation App” invites the reader to consider the ways that computational media may indeed cause what has been called “digital distraction” but may also be used in the context of regimes of self-care and self-quantification to increase our capacity to pay attention deeply. While tools for measuring, testing, and training for one's body and mind are widely popular (from the Fitbit to meditation apps like Headspace), the theme of self-care is generally peripheral to the electronic literature community. “Fragile Pulse” takes the form of a digital text/web application that encourages the viewer to pay attention to attention. Using data from the webcam and microphone, it quantifies the reader's bodily stillness and quietness. When the reader is still and quiet, a calmly pulsating text unfolds on the screen, guiding the reader through a meditation. However, when the program detects movement or noise above a certain threshold, signaling distraction, the screen becomes filled with “stray thoughts” generated on-the-fly via a natural language processing. Visually, these stray thoughts (shards of hyper attention) cover up the meditative text, blinking and wiggling to further emphasize their status as distractions. Echoing the way that digital/social media can foster anxiety and depression, this text generation system models the way a mind can slip from harmless distractions to anxious obsessions. Only the viewer's silence and stillness dispel these computer-generated distractions and re-launch the human-authored meditative text. This piece thus raises questions not only about attention but also about the ways that digital technologies of self-care enforce regimes of (sometimes extreme) cognitive and physical discipline.

Hayles, N. K. (2007). Hyper and deep attention: The generational divide in cognitive modes. Profession, 2007(1), 187-199.

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Vian Rasheed