"More Better Faster!": How Our Spastic Digital Culture Scrambles Our Brains
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.
According to Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher, "leisure is a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear." Pieper, writing in the 1940s, worried about a world of "total work" that would make a "total claim upon the whole of human nature."
It's safe to say that that future has arrived. The very coinage of the term 24/7 and "real time" (usually as a virtue!) confirms the ubiquitous social reality of "total work." Fast-time activities absolutely crowd out slow-time alternatives. The now eclipses the timeless. And we are becoming diminished creatures in the process.
By coincidence, this week's issue of The New Yorker has a major article by Margaret Talbot on the use of "neuro-enhancing drugs" that are increasingly being taken to boost one's cognitive performance. There is apparently a large underground culture of people – students, business executives, poker players and others seeking a competitive mental edge – who take drugs like Adderall and modafinil to stay awake, alert and mentally engaged, especially for tasks that require sustained attention. The whole idea is to prolong one's productivity and efficiency.
Taking drugs to prolong one's productive engagement becomes a new way adapt one's very body and mind to modern demands for "efficiency." Why remain a normal human being when one can use chemicals to super-charge one's metabolism in order to meet the harsh imperatives of a college education, business negotiations, international travel and general multitasking? Defenders liken the neuro-enhancing drugs to drinking coffee. But that's a rationalization; no one really knows how safe these productivity boosters are over the long term.
The scary things is that we are slowly "papering over" the forms of human consciousness that we regard as gratuitous….yet which history has shown are essential to a meaningful life. We are sabotaging those inner capacities of consciousness that we need to be present to others and ourselves.
Yet this is no Brave New World imposed by a totalitarian state; we are "voluntarily" doing it to ourselves. While there is certainly a voluntary aspect to using neuro-enhancing drugs, in other respects our cultural norms of efficiency and busyness are encouraging this abuse. When your everyday life is saturated by email, cell phones, voicemail and texting, it's not a big leap to take a drug that will help you survive the "fast-time" norms of modern life.
In his lecture, David Levy called for an "information environmentalism" to help educate people about the myriad and aggressive forms of mental pollution afflicting our lives: advertising, telemarketing, junk mail, radio and TV, and various digital media. Perhaps we can begin to push back on the cognitive overload, he suggested, and recover some modicum of silence. That's the purpose of the "Do Not Call" list to prevent unsolicited telemarketing calls, for example.
We might also begin to design physical spaces with contemplative needs in mind (think of the Library of Congress' reading room, for example). Many businesses have discovered that they can make money by offering consumers the opportunity to "buy back" the quiet that has been taken from us. The Bose noise-canceling headphones are marketed in this fashion.
I liked how Levy put it: "We need the equivalent of old-growth forests and marshlands in our mental lives."
For more about David Levy's work on the topic of information overload and the need to recover contemplative mind, it's worth chasing down a special issue of the journal Ethics and Information Technology that Levy guest-edited in December 2007 (vol. 9, no. 4). Entitled "Information, Silence and Sanctuary," the issue contains six thoughtful essays on a topic that deserves far more awareness. Unfortunately, the journal is locked behind a paywall, so you may be university access to read it. Another person worth consulting is Ivan Illich, who wrote about silence as a commons.
Given the powerful economic forces that have a self-interest in colonizing our consciousness (marketers routinely talk about seizing "mindshare"), devising effective ways to protect our contemplative consciousness is going to be a formidable challenge indeed. But on the other hand, this is not a struggle we can avoid. The alternative is a jittery, jagged postmodern insanity.