I’m afraid my career as an indefatigable Luddite continues apace.
A couple of years ago I wrote about Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows (Entrepreneurship: To Tweet or not to Tweet), which posits the rewiring of our brains by way of technology and social media. (Carr first became alarmed when he found himself increasingly unable to concentrate when he sat down to read a book, because of his longing for and growing addiction to the peripatetic excitement of his pinging computer.)
Now comes Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Hardcover Press, 2013) (The title is a riff on Alvin Toffler‘s Future Shock from the ’70s.) We’re becoming addicted to what Rushkoff calls a “dopamine squirt,” the ego boost we get from our Twitters, Facebooks, emails and texts. This leads to a compulsive immersion in the scittering superficiality of keeping current and cool on social media. According to Rushkoff this is stress inducing and, more importantly, creativity killing. I certainly agree that we are becoming committed to a sort of always-on, live-streamed reality show which is taking us into creatively shallow, spiritually thin cultural waters.
In other words, technology is turning us into dull-eyed, unpresent I-Zombies. Rushkoff feels we are losing the gift of revery and connection to our fellow human beings, as well as to brain processes that summon non-rational revelations and “aha”s.
This was brought home to me when I was in Dallas on business last week and found myself a bit lost and late to my next appointment. I looked for some friendly, authoritative face to approach for aid. But as I looked around I found every person I saw, shuffling vaguely along fully immersed in their personal private technology Idahos, inured to any person or thing around them. I didn’t want to rudely interrupt, but I was annoyed because I needed some directions, dammit! This made me think about how much present richness and human feeling we sacrifice for an ersatch virtual reality. (I increasingly feel the same way walking down Broadway in New York when half the folks bump into you while texting, rather than taking in the infinitely unique international culture and urban magnificence constantly on display in my never boring city.)
We are often simply losing our real-life experience, our existential present, in order to miss nothing our machines bring us. Jaron Lanier, who popularized the term “virtual reality,” writing in his book You Are Not A Gadget (Vintage Press, 2010), says this:
“Information is alienated experience. Stored information might cause experience to be revealed if it is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does indeed contain information of the kind that objectively exists….But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.”
Our “eureka” moments may be being sacrificed for a mess of pottage—that mess of pottage being our present experience of superficial sledding on an omnipresent sea of technological connectedness.
So please don’t ping me with a cute picture of your Labradoodle. I may be busy thinking. To quote Nicholas Carr again, “Any kind of thought process that requires focus on one thing is what is being disrupted, and, unfortunately, another thing brain science tells us is that the process of paying attention, paying deep attention, activates a lot of our deepest thought processes. Our long-term memory, the building of conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, all of those things hinge on our ability to pay attention” Thank you, Nicholas.