There is much sturm und drang over the neurological impact of using ubiquitous technologies (e.g., Facebook, texting, web surfing). Two recent articles, the first by Robert Peluso, “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet, and the second, Robert Wright’s “Mind the grid” have inspired the following meditation on the phenomenology of fragmentation. This post argues that the fragmentation of consciousness induced by technology represents, neither a new development nor a conspiratorial threat against our attention spans, but rather is an accelerated continuation of trends that began in the 1950s as Americans switched to the screen from the radio. I also suggest that there is a “payoff” for the totally distracted that manifests as a boost to the ego. Hence, in the presence of this reward, we are reluctant to give up our technological interruptions because they make us feel more important. One possible antidote for distraction is a dose of mindfulness.
The new threat of fragmentation stems from the ability of information flows to reach us in places that were formerly “off the grid.” When there are no places to retreat and think deeply, we lose our ability to do so, not because we are plugged in, but because we do not unplug and rehearse creative thinking consciously in its own space. I begin with the authors who have inspired me and then propose corrective measures drawn from Wright’s NYT article and the power of insight meditation or vipassana.
Robert Peluso does an excellent job of summarizing the zeitgesit in his review of two representative texts,”Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” by Clay Shirkey (Penguin Press) and “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” by Nicholas Carr (Norton). While the first text points to the advantages of the collective acts of creativity, the second warns of a darker consequence for our ability to “dwell in thinking” in a Heideggerian sense. It is here, on the dark side, that we begin. Summarizing Carr’s case, Peluso writes: “Rallying data from neuroscience, psychology, media and literacy studies and more, he [Carr] lays out a wide-ranging and disturbing case for the deleterious effect of what he calls “intellectual technology” — computers, the Internet, social media and the like — on our ability to think, concentrate, remember, and contemplate. Ultimately, the author worries that technology is compromising our ability to be fully realized human beings.” Though valid, this is an old argument that reappears each time a neurological study confirms the reality that we are distracting ourselves to our own detriment. In short, Carr is recycling Heidegger’s discourse on the possibility for meditative thinking in a world filled with calculative thought.
Over half a century earlier in the late 1950s, Heidegger matches Carr’s lamentations on the speed of information bombardment.
This calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates. Such thinking remains calculation even if it neither works with numbers nor uses an adding machine or computer. Calculative thinking computes. It computes ever new, ever more promising and at the same time more economical possibilities. Calculative thinking races from one prospect to the next. Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself. Calculative thinking is not meditative thinking, not thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is.(Memorial Address, Discourse on Thinking, p. 46)
My point: communications technologies have been quickening the pace of information flows for quite some time, yet each new turn has the possibility of reaching into spaces that were formerly private, the spaces where creativity and innovation have time to grow and take root. The difference between the late 50s and the present concerns the interactive capacity of new technologies to engage us in a game of trivial pursuits where we do nothing but interact for the sake of communication itself. Baudrillard calls this phenomenon the “the ecstasy of communication,” information flows that self-perpetuate, link, repeat and retransmit the same data many times in a feedback loop without increasing our understanding of anything substantial.
Again, Peluso provides a helpful summary of Carr’s case: “Our ability to scan and assess data may have accelerated, but only by compromising the focused, “deep” mental work that builds meaning. Or in his own trenchant phrase, ’The smarter the software, the dimmer the user.’”(Peluso, Carr) Distractions, fragmentations and multi-tasking are nothing new. Television may be the first visual distractor guiding us away from the moment, but surely radio fulfilled some of our entertainments needs previously. Socrates castigates the poets and musicians for leading audiences away from deep considerations about virtue and meaning. Perhaps this is why Heidegger flees to the Black Forest to dwell in thinking and why we engage romantic notions of contemplative spaces “off the grid” to unplug. It is possible that, in part, the environmental movement owes the information revolution for the back to nature crowds who made Earth Day possible in the 1970s and beyond. However, I contend that these romantic fantasies remain empty love songs, an ode to thinking we have consciously abandoned in favor of the shallow benefits derived from calculative thinking.
In 1955, long before the information age, Heidegger documents the same trend:
There are, then, two kinds of thinking, each justified and needed in its own way : calculative thinking and meditative thinking. This meditative thinking is what we have in mind when we say that contemporary man is in flight-from-thinking. Yet you may protest : mere meditative thinking finds itself floating unaware above reality. It loses touch. It is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs
And you may say, finally, re: meditative thinking, persevering meditation, is “the reach of ordinary understanding. In this excuse only this much is true, meditative thinking does not just happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking. At times it requires a greater effort. It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen. (Memorial Address, Discourse on Thinking, p. 46-47)
Though Heidegger does not have the benefit of neuroplasticity studies to back up his claims, he does frame the issue in much in the same way as Carr. Other higher education articles question whether the humanities can survive the 21st century given that the type of calculative thinking valued by business is routinely chosen by students in contrast to deeper subjects in the humanities. We should instead ask ourselves why we choose the calculative over the meditative rather than pretending we are forced to do so in response to the bombardment of information flows. Hence, in Part II of this discussion, I contend that we choose fragmentation because it offers instant gratification and an immediate ego payoff. The antidote to counter distraction would seem to be creating a meditative space in our everyday existence.
Part II explores Wright’s insights and the benefits of mindfulness practice…
Links & References:
Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York, NY: SEMIOTEXTE FOREIGN AGENTS SERIES, 1988.
Carr, Nicoloas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company (June 7, 2010)
Heidegger, Martin. Memorial Address. Originally published in Discourse on Thinking. Accessed @ http://friends-of-wisdom.com/readings/Heidegger1955.pdf on September 7, 2010.
Peluso, Robert. “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, August 08, 2010.
Wright, Robert. “Mind the grid”. The New York Times, August 31, 2010, 9:00 PM.