Meditation Apps and the Promise of Attention by Design

Jablonsky, Rebecca
Science, Technology, & Human Values

This article demonstrates how meditation apps, such as Headspace and Calm, are imbricated within public discourse about technology addiction, exploring the consequences of this discourse on contemporary mental life. Based on ethnographic research with designers and users of meditation apps, I identify a promise put forth by meditation app companies that I call attention by design: a discursive strategy that frames attention as an antidote to technology addiction, which is ostensibly made possible when design is done right. I argue that attention by design is a promise unfulfilled. Meditation app companies construct attention as socially valuable by endlessly pointing out its purported opposite, technology addiction. Attention by design is promissory in that it keeps promising even when it doesn’t deliver what it promises, compelling the user to return to a practice that represents socially desirable traits that can never be fully acquired—and that often recede further from reach as the person becomes distracted by other obligations and communication mediated through the smartphone. Despite this broken promise, users believe they are becoming more attentive. The promissory attention designed into meditation apps reflects a new form of governmentality, in which users receive a mental nudge to reinterpret similarly designed experiences as different.