You gotta do something to it to keep it interesting, and for me that’s often doing something you’re not supposed to do, like making things too loud, fucking it up with some dirty space echo or tape delay. Like, people are so hyper-stimulated nowadays, you gotta do something extreme to make ‘em pay attention. -Ty Segall
It can sometimes feel like the hyper-connectedness and perpetual information overload that define digital life have taken some of the mystery out of our experiences with art and the spontaneity of our encounters with other people, flicking on an overhead fluorescent light in a world previously made up of shadow.
Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains reads like a scary science-fiction novel. Carr had a hunch that the internet was making it difficult for him to sit down and read a book. Beyond a couple of paragraphs, his brain began craving distractions. Deep concentration, contemplation, reflection; these may be things of the past. Delving into the field of neuroscience, Carr turns to the evolving theories of brain plasticity to explain why this might be so.
Carr’s central thesis is that the medium is just as important as the content in shaping our intellectual development. It was Marshall McLuhan who suggested our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify’. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies. The carpenter holds the hammer in his hand, it becomes part of his body, but that hand can only perform tasks using that hammer. The use of binoculars lengthens the field of view, but blinds the viewer to what’s nearby.
Today’s young people are, in fact, so wired that they perceive changes on their phone like a sixth sense. Says a 26-year-old lawyer: “When there is an event on my phone, the screen changes – there is a brightening of the screen. Even if my phone is in my purse . . .I see it, I sense it. . . . I always know what is happening on my phone.”
Like Greg Foyster, I’m able to refer to 2004 as the ‘old days’ without a hint of sarcasm:
Back in my day, 2004, a phone was a phone. You used it to call people, and maybe send messages. Now a phone is an MP3 player, a camera, a web browser, a personal organiser, a USB stick and a detonation device for tech-savvy terrorists. You hold one in your hands and wonder what the fuck you’ve just bought. With its touch screen face, Cyclops eye and electronic orifices, the iPhone looks like a tiny digital alien. It scares the crap out of me.
The great myth of multi-tasking has been exploded. Carr says that when our brain is overtaxed, we find ‘distractions more distracting’. Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. And here’s the brain-melting clincher: in this highly-distractable state, we become mindless consumers of data. (*shudder* A little creeped out? You should be.)
Carr suggests that the concerning bit is the potential for long-term consequences for our memory. The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas. The more alarmist scenario contends that when whole populations begin to outsource these cognitive tasks to a gadget, human memory is relegated to the evolutionary scrapheap. But unlike an appendix, or an extra set of ribs, we actually need our memory. When there is a battery failure. Or some other unforeseen outage. (Technology, after all, is reliable. In at least one important sense: it’s guaranteed to fuck up)
So if the hand that holds a gadget is ‘numbed’, then the hand poised with pencil may be an aid to understanding and memory. When her eyesight began to deteriorate in 2003, Australian artist Betty Churcher set off around the world to visit her favourite works of art once last time; Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Courbet and Cezanne among them. And in order to imprint them on her memory she sketched them. “With everything I have drawn I can now close my eyes and reconstruct the picture in my mind’s eye, line by line and paint-stroke by paint-stroke.”
In his 2010 piece Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, Malcolm Gladwell took some of the more ardent advocates of social media down a peg. In highlighting the Twitter revolutions in Iran and Moldova, he suggests, they mistook the medium for the message. The sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement had substance in ways that Facebook and Twitter ‘activism’ could only ever dream of. In his criticism, Gladwell is blunt: social media “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
Because kids are now spending a lot more “screen time” in front of televisions, computers and hand-held devices, I can envision a near-future in which time offline will take on the significance that “tummy time” has for babies. While a subdued, distracted child may be preferable to a boisterous one, the former is not necessarily healthier for it. Getting into the natural environment has been shown to significantly decrease stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure. International research has also shown that children with ADHD and ADD cope much better in the classroom after 30 minutes of outdoor play.
Lining up for Pilates class at the gym is legitimate cause for a bit of people-watching. As the previous class streams out the door the first thing many of them reach for is not a bottle of water, but their phone. What has been happening in the world of Facebook in the 50 minutes since they last consulted their screen? When we have welcomed technologies into the very interstices of our lives, the process of weaning off is a daunting prospect. But already there is a growing number of voices attesting to the benefits of a tech detox. The creator of meetup.com – the concept first came to New Yorker Scott Heiferman as a response to an increase in neighbourly-ness post September 11; he describes it as a way to “use the internet to get off the internet – and grow local communities”.
Writer Nina Karnikowski was an inveterate multi-tasker who undertook an experiment in Buddhist mindfulness. On day two of her mindfulness week, a colleague returned from a month’s leave, having managed to pen an entire non-fiction book. She churned out a thousand words every day, while resisting the temptation to connect to the internet to “cross-check facts”. During her week of mindfulness, Nina discovered such benefits as, “First, my senses were heightened”: it is possible to listen to a piece of music with your whole person. “Second, I was connecting with people better”. She fought the urge to document her dinner with her husband, and resolved to simply be present with him while they ate. “Third, I got a lot more work done.”
The filmmaker Miranda July, working on the script for her second feature film, was trapped in a hopeless cycle of self-googling that only exacerbated her creative block. Picking up a copy of the Penny Saver, she set off on an unplanned detour: she decided to meet with some of the people who were using this decidedly old-school forum for connecting. She shares some of their stories in the book It Chooses You.
I have often felt Facebook and me were a bit of an odd fit. I don’t think of myself as particularly adept at narrating my own life as it happens. I’m also shy; the decision to share a thought or development with my Facebook friends has always been agonising, to a greater or lesser degree. Each disclosure has felt like a transgression, out of all proportion to the momentary blip that it likely represents for those reading it. It’s dawning on me that my decision to blog, and throw caution to the wind, is uncharacteristic in someone purportedly so reserved (But then again, reassurance will be restored by a quick check of my Stats page. Yep, no one reads this thing. Phew.)
I’m also sick of living a double life. Not that maintaining an online persona has been particularly taxing. Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together is a study of human relationships with technology, and the subtitle says it all: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The high-school and college students that she interviewed agonised over the crafting of their online avatars in ways that made me squirm. Because they sort of reminded me of myself. Says 18-year-old Brad:
You get reduced to a list of favorite things. ‘List your favorite music’—that gives you no liberty at all about how to say it.” Brad says that “in a conversation, it might be interesting that on a trip to Europe with my parents, I got interested in the political mural art in Belfast. But on a Facebook page, this is too much information. It would be the kiss of death. Too much, too soon, too weird. And yet . . . it is part of who I am, isn’t it? . . . You are asked to make a lot of lists. You have to worry that you put down the ‘right’ band or that you don’t put down some Polish novel that nobody’s read… What does it matter to anyone that I prefer the band Spoon over State Radio? Or State Radio over Cake?
In the words of Brad, things like Facebook make you think that it really does matter.
While it would appear that I’m putting Facebook on notice, I’m nonetheless trying to be realistic about how my 2013 is going to pan out. I suspect that the year is going to involve a lot of sitting in front of screens: I’m undertaking an Honours year, and the aim is to churn out a 14,000-16,000 word thesis over a roughly 9-month period. When theories of tobacco control begin to leave a stale taste in the mouth, and the stationary, blinking cursor on a barren page starts to resemble a ticking time-bomb, Facebook may very well be my saviour, a lifeline to a world containing other people, to ‘society’. If I would prefer my scalp to remain on my head rather than underneath my fingernails, then I figure a time-out strategy involving a bit of harmless Facebook-cruising and Solitaire can’t hurt, right?
I’m sure that Nicholas Carr would be most unimpressed with such a pathetic rationalisation.