September 17, 2012

The ‘Presence’ Project and the ‘Be Here Now’ Box: Digital Media and Family Attention

Category: Digital Citizenship
rows of people working on their laptops at night

Enthusiasts and skeptics agree that digital media are attention magnets. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that one in six Americans admitted to bumping into someone or something while texting, and a video from a mall surveillance camera that showed a woman falling into a pool while she attended to the screen of her phone has been viewed four million times. Every professor in the world now faces students who no longer look at the professor, other students, their notepads or out the window, but gaze fixedly at their laptops. Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, warned about the dangers of divided attention and Cathy Davidson’s book, Now You See It, presented a more sanguine view of the way our digital practices affect our attention. In my own recent book, Net Smart, the first of the five essential social media attentions I covered was…attention. Now that more of us have been talking about the need for attention literacy, I was heartened to see somebody doing something about it.

The Presence Project came to my attention when I helped judge the Learning, Design, and Technology Program student projects at Stanford. Two graduate students “who feel passionate about developing tools for modern families,” sustainability-focused designer Kyle Williams and Emily Goligoski, a researcher in Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, created a digital and tangible toolkit to help families talk about, explore, and do something about their attentional choices around digital media.

When Williams and Goligoski say “toolkit,” they mean a real physical box, along with the exercises they provide to families: The Be Here Now Box is a literal, physical tackle-box-like case containing a set of attention tools.howard.32.375

Each box contains:

  • A wooden “cloud meter” that collects attractive personalized wooden tokens that each family member uses to activate and deactivate the Internet, a physical manifestation of a time management agreement worked out by the family;
  • A template for a written “Internet allowance” that family members agree upon and post publicly in the home;
  • A wallet card with “ideas for great uses of offline time created by young adults, for young adults;
  • A kit to make a musical instrument out of a pencil and soldering tool.

The kits, intended to inspire discussion about family members’ use of digital media in the context of their collective values, have been distributed to families, their experiences are being reported, and new generations of kits are being planned.

In this video I spoke with Goligoski about the project and its intentions:

Banner image credit: DeaPeaJay