Monday, June 20, 2011

Why are you doing what you are doing right now?

Civilization forces us to adopt artificial, nonhuman goals, and to engage in activity that serves ends that are not in our own interests.  This much is obvious.  What might be less obvious is the extent to which this corrupts our moment-by-moment experience.

If you catch a wild animal and put it in a cage, it is not uncommon for the animal to do something that seems entirely out of context.  A captured squirrel might start building a nest, for instance.  Psychologists refer to this as displacement activity.  The squirrel’s natural inclination is to escape its imprisonment and run away—that is its number one behavior of choice given the context.  But it is unable to satisfy its natural inclination, and rather than do nothing and stew in its nervous juices, it runs down the list in its behavioral repertory until it finds an activity that it can perform within the limited confines of its immediate situation, and does that instead.  Displacement activity is a form of anxiety reduction.   

Caged wild animals are not the only creatures who engage in displacement activity.  Humans living within the confines of civilization continually encounter situations in which oppressive rules, social expectations, or the restrictive physical environment prevent them from engaging in their behavior of choice at any given moment.   Eating can be a displacement activity for some people.  Numerous forms of Internet distracturbation may be more common.

There is a higher-order class of displacement behavior that some (Ted Kaczynski, for example) have referred to as surrogate activity.  Civilization prevents us from pursuing many of the goals that would be natural for us to pursue if we were hunter-gatherers, goals that are tied directly to our immediate community and our relationships with others as human beings, goals that would be entirely consistent with our evolved behavioral predilections.  And so we adopt surrogate goals and pursuits, ersatz goals offered up by the machine, pursuits that are never entirely fulfilling but that leave us with the illusion that we are doing something meaningful.  These can include anything from organizing a fundraiser to developing nanotechnology—in fact, virtually all activity in industrial society that is not directly related to biological necessity (and even much of that) is surrogate activity in the broader sense: activity that we engage to accommodate the design of the system rather than the design of our own beings. 

So, why am I writing this?  Whose goals are being served?  What is it I’m not doing instead? What personal goals has my captivity forced me to abandon—or worse: what goals have I been prevented from ever even considering as possibilities?

Monday, June 6, 2011

On the homogeneity of mediated experience

From Benjamin Barber's book, Consumed:

"Those seeking the sanctuary of electronic screens and headphones may imagine themselves seeking out the diversity of what is offered in games, films, music, and eluding the sameness of the outside world; yet bought electronic content is far more homogeneous and limiting than the actual pluralism of our natural life worlds, even if for some people it also feels more vivid and “real.” At their best, movies cannot be more heterogeneous and varied than the real worlds they aspire to capture.  All of Hollywood at its best is not the equal in variety or originality of a single summer day’s walk in a public park.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Drowning in the shallows

Reading Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows.  Carr’s main thesis is that interacting with technology leads to physical changes in the brain.  He is specifically focused on internet technology and how spending time online changes the way the brain processes information.  One side-effect is that you lose both the patience and the cognitive skills for the sustained linear processing required for reading good old fashioned books.  He goes on to suggest that that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nothing new about this.  A similar book might be have been written about the brain changes elicited by the invention of cuneiform, or the alphabet, or the printing press, or the telegraph, or television, or the automobile, or…

There is also nothing surprising in his endorsement of the prevalent myth that technology is progressive, inevitable, and (after some minor loss or sacrifice) ultimately good.     

What bothers me most is that throughout the book he talks about these brain changes as if they represent changes in our species’ brain.  Although he is quick to point out that the mechanism of transmission from generation to generation is cultural—through changes in experience, expectations, and education—he nonetheless talks about how the human brain worked differently 30,000 years ago, as if the brain changes caused by the internet represent a facet of our biological evolution.

The brain changes he refers to are a response to changes in culture.  And they are changes that have happened in just the last generation.  And they are changes that don’t occur until you spend some time actually interacting with specific technology.  And there are still quite a lot of people who do not have access to this technology.  And the technology the next generation will interact with is likely to be substantially different from what we are interacting with today.   

So how can Google-induced brain changes represent changes in the human species

The brains of children born in the 21st century are not different in any meaningful way from those of children born 30,000 years ago.   The difference is entirely one of context.  A newborn brain in 2011 expects something quite different than what it experiences when it gets plugged into the modern techno-culture.  It is a brain that will have to first be domesticated.  It is a brain that will have to be conquered and colonized and programmed and anaesthetized.  Before we even start to talk about what has to happen to the brain in order to acquire the specific conceptual skills it needs to navigate the logic of cyberspace, the brain first needs to be civilized.  And the evidence that the civilizing process is not entirely successful fills our prisons and pharmacy shelves.  

There is perhaps a more disturbing problem with Carr’s insistence that techno-induced brain alterations reflect a change in our species: it completely ignores the fact that industrial civilization is not the only mode of existence on the planet.  There are people who continue to live in societies grounded in an oral tradition, people who have no use for writing, let alone Wikipedia hyperlinks.  But these are ignorant pre-literate people living backward—subhuman—lives, so the fact that the brains of these people are different than the brains of the rest of us real humans doesn’t really matter.   

It seems to me that the claim that our communication technology is causing a change in the human species relegates non-literate indigenous folks in the Amazon and elsewhere to a subspecies classification.  Hell, with the accelerating rate of technological change, if these few remaining oral societies manage against all odds to stick around for another generation or two they may actually qualify as an entirely separate species—a species of human that can select mating partners and engage in courtship without electronic mediation and reproduce without the intervention of fertility treatment or pharmaceutical erectile assistance.

For Carr (and far too many others) it is an obvious and undeniable fact that civilization is the greatest of all human creations. Civilization is our species’ highest achievement; it is the realization of our evolutionary manifest destiny, the material bloom of our superior intellect and ingenuity.  And its present iteration, our high-tech global industrial society, represents the leading edge in the progressive development of the human species that began in the forests and savannas of Africa five million years ago.  Civilization not only provides us with uncountable and undeniable benefits, it is the foundation and source of everything that is grand and sublime about human nature—to the point where the terms we use to describe what is counter to civilization have become invective: primitive, vulgar, barbaric—uncivilized. Life outside of civilization’s benevolent embrace is, as Hobbes famously proclaimed, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and for the technology-saturated, Viagra-popping, Facebook-addicted, tweeting urban inhabitants of the twenty-first century, literally unthinkable.