"More Better Faster!": How Our Spastic Digital Culture Scrambles Our Brains
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One of the more pernicious enclosures of the commons is the enclosure of time and consciousness. It's pernicious because it is so subtle and rarely discerned. When commercial values such as productivity and efficiency become so pervasive and internalized, they crowd out other ways of being. Our very sense of humanity -- full-bodied, spontaneous, spiritual -- leaches away.
All of this was brought home clearly in a provocative lecture that I attended yesterday evening. It was called "No Time to Think," by David M. Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington. Levy gave a chilling historical overview of how American society has become enslaved to an ethic of "more-better-faster" and is losing touch with the capacity for reflection and intuitive thinking. In an overweening commitment to constant doing and making, analyzing and thinking (which, let us note, are important human activities), we can too easily close off access to an entire realm of consciousness that is at least as important, our capacity for reflection.
Levy's research is focused on why the technological devices that are designed to connect us also seem to radically dis-connect us. As Levy puts it, "We now have the most remarkable tools for teaching and learning the world has ever known. How is it that we have less time to think than ever before?" Although our society supposedly prizes creative thought, it in fact gives little respect to the intuitive and the contemplative.
The "information society" has a certain frenetic mindlessness to it, one that takes Henry David Thoreau's famous line in Walden to a new level entirely: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." Twitter may be all the rage, but surely there is something pathetic about the ascendance of Twittering as our unstructured, person-to-person social time dwindles away.
This trend has only accelerated, and become more internalized, as more and more digital technologies have become incorporated into our daily routines. Email, cell phones, text-messaging, voicemail, Facebook, instant-messaging, Twitter, and of course the World Wide Web – they all serve useful roles. But I also realize at times that the digital communications apparatus has transformed our consciousness in some unwholesome ways. It privileges thinking that is rapid, productive and short-term, and crowds out deeper, more deliberative modes of thinking and relationships.
According to Thomas Eriksen of the University of Oslo, author of Tyranny of the Moment, the electronic environment systematically favors "fast time" activities that require instant, urgent responses (email, cell phone calls, etc.) Such stimuli tend to crowd out "slow time activities" such as "reflection, play and long-term love relationships," said Levy.
Levy pointed out that this dynamic has an especially perverse effect in academia, which is supposed to be somewhat insulated from the larger society so that students and scholars can think more broadly and with longer range perspectives. But in fact, universities mirror the rest of society, and the dwindling time to think is as much a problem within the academy as anywhere else. As instrumental, short-term, applied goals take center-stage, our society has less access to the wisdom and complexity that deep, reflective thinking can provide. This is a major loss.
The ancients had a word for it: "leisure." In the original sense of the word, leisure was not a consumer-oriented activity like golfing or movie-going, or even "relaxation." It involved having time to ponder and reflect on the world. The words "school" and "scholar" have their etymological roots in the Greek and Latin words for these activities, Levy noted.