Technology


In Wall Street Journal article (which seems to have been trundled behind a pay wall) based on his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff writes about how technology is changing our sense of time:

Present Shock“Thanks to the Internet, we travel more on business not less, we work at all hours on demand, and spend our free time answering email or tending to our social networks. Staring into screens, we are less attuned to light of day and the physiological rhythms of our housemates and co-workers.”

The appeal of technology is that it serves to extend and magnify our efforts.  The steam engine and mechanical loom allowed a few men do the work of hundreds; the car and airplane moved us further and faster than our feet could; the phonograph and telephone threw voices far beyond what our vocal chords could achieve.  Each of these is a remaking, an expansion of the self.  As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, though, technologies that amplify the person also amputate the person.  The steam engine severs work done from muscular effort, the car disconnects travel from the movement of our feet, and the phonograph spews sound independent of the voice that originally produced it .  So, too, with computers and the internet, which cut our activities off from the cycle of day and night.   Using these technologies, we seek to abolish the limits imposed on us by circadian rhythms.  As Rushkoff puts it:

“But too many of us also aspire to be ‘on’ at any time and to treat the various portions of the day as mere artifacts of a more primitive culture–the way we look at seemingly archaic blue laws requiring stores to close at least one day a week. We want all access, all the time, to everything–and to match this intensity and availability ourselves: citizens of the virtual city that never sleeps.”

Unhappy are those to whom God grants all their wishes, though.  Rushkoff’s article emphasizes the inefficiencies in this way of doing things; I’m more concerned about the human cost.  The Centers for Disease Control have called  insufficient sleep a “public health epidemic.”  A quarter of US adults get insufficient sleep at least half of the time.  In a survey of adults in 12 states, 37.9% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving.  The 24/7 self is bleary-eyed and nearly stuporous.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw our selves as a synthesis of opposites.  We are, he says, a combination of finitude and infinitude.  When we emphasize one and deny the other, we are in a state of despair.  To deny that we can only do so much and to think we can ignore the daily sleep-wake cycle is to fall into the despair of infinitude, in which we imagine ourselves as being without limits. This is a dangerous illusion, though. Though our technology may be ever expanding, our abilities aren’t.  That being the case, let’s shut down computers/tablets/phones at night and get some sleep.

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The July 9, 2012 issue of Newsweek poses the question “Is the Internet Making Us Crazy?”  Tony Dokoupil, the author of the article, decides that, yeah, it’s messing us up pretty badly.  Dokoupil writes the following:

“The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.”

I’ve previously written about evidence that those who use social media tend to have higher levels of depression.  What about addiction, anxiety, and psychosis, though?  As for the first of these, Dokoupil cites several professionals to the effect that users can become addicted to the internet, and notes that China, Taiwan, and Korea have all included Internet Addiction Disorder in their diagnostic manuals.  Addictions experts still disagree about whether compulsive internet use is a bona fide addiction, but such usage certainly seems to closely parallel many of the diagnostic criteria used for substance dependence (use in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended; unsuccessful attempts to cut down; important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of usage).  Concerning anxiety, Dokoupil gives only suggestive evidence, primarily drawn from interview data on social media use gathered by psychologist Sherry Turkle (I’ve previously blogged about her work here).  Turkle’s subjects reported that living online—creating profiles to portray a desired image, having one’s mistakes documented via webcam, fearing that they will miss out on something—is exhausting.  As for psychosis, Dokoupil describes “Kony 2012” filmmaker Jason Russell’s descent into disturbance, and also reports that researchers at Tel Aviv University claim to have documented cases of “Internet-related psychosis.”

What I found most interesting about the article was not the compilation of internet-related psychiatric woes but the account of brain imaging research pertaining to internet use.  It’s astounding how quickly internet use modifies the brain.  Dokoupil cites research by Gary Small of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center.  Small found that experienced Web users had much different patterns of prefrontal cortex activity than non-users.  That finding alone doesn’t show anything about web use; the groups may have differed before any of them first went online.  However, introducing the internet to naïve brains and observing its effects would demonstrate a causal connection.  Small did this; he had the inexperienced participants spend five total hours online over the course of a week, then repeated brain scans on them.  Their brains had already been rewired.

The brain is quite flexible, changing to better meet the demands placed on it.  Those of us who spend considerable time reading have different brains from those who devote time to socializing or playing sports.  Heavy internet users have extra nerve cells in areas responsible for attention, control, and executive function.  Thus, the internet brain is one that focuses intently on the features of our environment, remains at a state of readiness, and is expert at planning, executing, and monitoring task performance.  However, heavy users have shrinkage of brain areas responsible for processing speech, memory, motor control, emotion, and sensory input.  Among other things, this suggests reduced abilities to relate socially and to construct a sense of self—verbal comprehension and dialogue, narrative construction, and feelings would all be affected.  A coherent self and meaningful relationships: are we willing to diminish these in order to become quick, facile information-processors?

In my recent post about humility, I observed that awareness of my eventual death helps me be less prideful and more humble.  Shortly after completing that post, I read a quote in Andy Tix’s blog discussing another benefit of thinking about death.   The quote was from Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.  Jobs said the following:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

The point is a good one: the thought of our mortality renders many of our preoccupations  meaningless or trivial.  Jobs mentions being freed not only from pride but from a variety of other constraints.  Anticipating death releases us from many of our fears—fears of what others may think, of our own discomfort or shame, of failure.   It is a scalpel that cuts away what is unimportant.

Jobs seems to have confidence that, once liberated from pride and fear, we’ll be able to discover what is truly important.  Later in his Stanford speech, Jobs gave the following advice:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Jobs seems to be saying that recognition of what is important comes from within us.  Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls referred to this as the “wisdom of the organism.”  Other humanistic psychologists have roughly the same understanding of our inner nature.  Thus, Carl Rogers claimed that “There is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfillment of its inherent possibilities.”  Abraham Maslow wrote, “If it [i.e. our inner nature] is permitted to guide our life, we grow healthy, fruitful, and happy.”  Jobs seems to agree that we possess an inner compass that serves as a prescient guide to how we should live.

It’s easy to think of counter-instances—people who followed their heart and intuition into a state of ruin.  The humanists might object that such individuals weren’t truly attending to their inner nature; there’s probably no way to determine whether such people were or weren’t.  As for Steve Jobs, his heart always led him in a particular direction.  Something about his nature repeatedly drove him to design innovative and user-friendly electronics.  Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, suggests that Jobs’ gift was not as an inventor but as a tweaker—someone who took existing technology and refined it.  The Macintosh,, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad were not original, but were improvements on products or concepts already in existence.  Jobs’ passion for creating the perfect phone or computer is much appreciated by millions of Apple devotees.

It’s hard to know whether what Jobs did was truly important; those who look back on his contributions in fifty or a hundred years will be in a much better position than we are to assess that.  He was certainly consistent in pursuing what he thought mattered in life, though.  The tendency to devote himself to the minutia of products, fussing with them until he was satisfied, persisted into his final days.  Gladwell, citing Isaacson’s account, reports that, as he was dying, Jobs repeatedly poured over the plans for Apple’s new headquarters building, changing the details again and again until they pleased him.  Then, in the hospital for the final time and deeply sedated, he ripped off the oxygen mask that the pulmonologist put on his face, mumbling that it was poorly designed and he wouldn’t wear it.  What mattered to Jobs was the well-designed and perfectly functional object, and he pursued it to the last.

I recently drove up to Washington, DC and spent a day touring museums.  I saw a couple exhibits devoted to Andy Warhol, fifteenth century tapestries celebrating Portuguese king Afonzo V’s conquests, and some of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.   The exhibit that had the deepest impact on me, though was    “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through January 8, 2012.  According to its website description, the exhibit is an examination of “the nineteenth century American belief

Peale's "The Artist in his Museum"

Peale's "The Artist in his Museum"

that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation.”  The exhibit is introduced by a self-portrait of 19th century naturalist and artist Charles Wilson Peale holding open a curtain revealing a museum of natural specimens.  Peale apparently did found such a museum where he exhibited a mastodon skeleton and other natural wonders.

The exhibit portrays significant technological advances of the age, including steam engines, railroads, and steamboats.  I was particularly struck by the section on railroads.  Included is the often-reproduced photograph of trains from east and west meeting nose-to-nose, linking the country by rail.  There are several paintings depicting trains chugging across the countryside.  Most of these show the train in the distance– pencil-thin and with a puff of smoke tethered overhead—an unobtrusive and innocuous addition to the landscape.  One picture titled “The First Train” shows Native Americans watching with wonder as a train steams across the prairie.  Another painting is probably more accurate in portraying the destruction that railroads brought in their wake.  A town is in the middle distance, smokestacks piercing the sky.  A train chugs up from the town; a barren field of tree stumps is shown in the near distance.  According to the curator’s notes, the artist was not lamenting nature being despoiled, but was instead favorably disposed towards the progress that the scene represented.

"The Waterworks"

The works included in the exhibit seldom give any evidence of conflict over the changes wrought by technological advances.  Some works dress these changes in noble garb.  A striking example is an 1825 sculpture by William Rush titled “The Waterworks” (I found the photograph of the sculpture here).  It is a celebration of the Fairmount Waterworks on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia.  The reclining woman represents the river; she’s dressed as if she were a river goddess from classical times.  Her hand is posed over a water wheel and she’s smiling, apparently delighted at having her waters flow through this mechanical device.  The faux-classical blessing given the water plant seemed pretentious to me, but it was apparently well-received at the time.  I researched the history of the Fairmount Waterworks and learned here that “it was celebrated as a prime example of the blending of nature and technology.”  A park was built at the site, and it became one of the primary tourist attractions in the area.  Rush’s sculpture was once displayed there.

The 19th century’s unabashed celebration of technology contrasts with the 21st century’s ambivalence over technological advances.  We may like the comforts and electronic gadgets associated with technology, but we recognize the Faustian bargain by which the pleasures of modernity come at tremendous cost to the planet, to those less fortunate, and to our souls.  That sense of conflict over technology has been present in our society my entire adult life (that is, since the late 60s), and I imagine it’s been the dominant response to progress since the world wars.

Claire Perry, who curated the exhibit, seems heavily influenced by this conflict.  She’s appears uncomfortable with the exuberance over technological wonders and the confidence in progress that was so much a part of the 19th century mindset.  I infer such discomfort based on her inclusion of some topics that have little to do with America’s “genius for innovation.”  For example, there’s a room of works portraying Niagara Falls; another room on buffalo, and a third room devoted to the trees of California, especially the sequoias. Why include these things?  The curator’s notes speak about American’s fascination with the natural bounty of the country and the belief that the vast American continent provided a suitable canvas for living out America’s destiny.  I think there’s more to Ms. Perry’s choices than cataloguing America’s fascination with abundance.  The pictures she chooses show buffalo herds being killed promiscuously and sequoias being logged to excess despite being unsuitable for construction.  Though she doesn’t say so directly, Ms. Perry seems appalled by such destruction in the name of progress.

Whether or not she disapproves of the felling of trees and buffalo, seeing images of such destruction had a powerful effect on me.  Pictures showing multitudes of wounded or dead buffalo in particular evoked horror and revulsion.  What sort of progress is this, to slaughter such magnificent animals for sport?  An even greater travesty was lightly touched on; the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans.  I came away from the exhibit troubled by our nation’s capacity for destruction and even more conflicted than before about science and technology.