Popular meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm are radically reconfiguring the mental experiences of millions of people around the world, by offering short, easily accessible guided meditations. The message put forth by these apps seems profoundly simple: Change your experience to what’s happening in your mind, and change your experience to the world. Yet the imperative to improve one’s mind is deeply political and tied to cultural expectations for productivity and happiness that are fueled even further by the latest “consciousness hacking” technologies.
The Internet has a long history in the practice of transforming consciousness. As Fred Turner has shown, counterculture and technology culture began a fruitful exchange in the 1960s. Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Network reimagined computers, which were previously viewed as militaristic, to be essential tools for personal development and community building. They also turned to what Turner calls “small-scale technologies” such as psychedelics, music, and lighting effects, to create communal experiences that brought people together in a shared network of consciousness.
Meditation apps both distill and transform the contemplative techniques passed on by generations of secular and religious meditation leaders, through the application of new media. Soothing sounds and an artificially rendered “natural” landscape greet users as they open the Calm app, opening a portal to a more relaxing state of mind. Headspace visualizes mental activity and meditation techniques with short, animated videos that instruct viewers how to think about their minds in a new way. “Sleepcasts,” a new form of podcast endemic to meditation apps, use vocal, musical, and audio recording techniques to gently lull listeners to sleep. These techniques thus not only encourage users to develop a “mind over matter” mentality, in which the mind is presumed to be powerful enough to control external circumstances, but also create new spaces and intersections between mind and matter, as consuming new media and working on the mind become one and the same.
The application of new media to contemplative practice and the pursuit of mental health surfaces new dilemmas when it is controlled by billion-dollar companies committed to their own economic growth, rather than to creating a shared community of consciousness. In challenging times characterized by an uptick in mental health issues, meditation apps are increasingly advertised, and even provided for free, as a convenient way to ease mental distress. Media and critical technology studies scholars are in a unique position to research exactly how these tools shape the spaces between mind and matter, and assess whether this shift in collective consciousness is for better or for worse.