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noun [uncountable]

software designed to block visual distractions on a computer so that it is easier to concentrate on what you are doing

'Perhaps every once in a while we should all dip a calming toe into a simpler working life. That's the idea behind zenware – offbeat software applications that deliberately eschew the busy, complex interfaces that most of us tend to use all the time.'

GIGAOM 28th January 2008

As I sit here writing this article, there are so many distractions on my screen trying to lure me away from my goal. I could check or send emails, take a contemplative look at the photos on my desktop wallpaper, grab a quick social media fix … and so the list goes on. But what if there was software available that helped me concentrate by eliminating all those magnets for my attention, so that all I could see on my screen was the task in hand? This is the philosophy behind an emerging technology known as zenware.

the goal of zenware is to eliminate all those fancy bits and pieces clamouring for our attention, many of which might look fun but are superfluous to our actual needs when we are working

In a market of fierce competition and the perpetual need to come up with something distinctive, software design has become increasingly complex. Designers have felt compelled to provide an ever-expanding pile of features in a visually appealing way – a whole set of bells and whistles which we're immediately drawn towards when we fire up an application. The new concept of zenware is an antidote to all that. Its goal is to eliminate all those fancy bits and pieces clamouring for our attention, many of which might look fun but are superfluous to our actual needs when we are working.

An example of zenware is an application for writers called WriteRoom, which overlays a screen with black and blocks out everything else, effectively eliminating all distractions and having a simple, core function of being a word processor. You can see an example here.

If like me, you're old enough to be a digital immigrant, it may seem like we've come full circle – I can definitely remember the days when 'computers' were actually just, and only just, word processors displaying green on black text! But what's interesting about the zenware idea is that it represents the desire to shift attention away from software and its 'wonderful' features and move instead towards the user and their needs as a human being. Zenware is one embodiment of a wider concept sometimes now described as conscious/contemplative computing or calming technology. The idea here is of technology which fosters, rather than disturbs, the peace, and helps us to stay calm and focused. Other inventions include smartphone/tablet apps to help you meditate into a state of concentration, browser apps that obscure everything apart from what the user is viewing, screen apps that dim the glare in synchronization with daylight, and even mobile phone apps which allow a group of people to collectively disable their mobile phones during a meal or conversation. Taking inspiration from expressions such as slow travel and slow food, this embryonic movement towards a kind of 'technological tranquillity' has also been dubbed the slow web.

Background – zenware

The term zenware dates back to the early nineties, when it was used as a general reference to software that has a calming effect. The zen- component relates of course to Zen, a form of Buddhism originally developed in Japan which is based on the idea that spiritual knowledge comes by emptying the mind of thoughts and focusing on only one thing at a time.

Original use of expressions such as contemplative computing and the slow web is associated with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Stanford University technologist and author of a recent book entitled The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul (Little, Brown, September 2013).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 3rd December 2013.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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