I strongly recommend reading this: “The Edge 2010 Annual Question: How is the Internet changing the way you think?“, Edge: the world question center — 167 answers from an array of world-class scientists, artists, and creative thinkers. If you lack the time to read them, here are some of the most interesting answers to the 2010 EDGE question: “At the edge of thought“, Amanda Gefter (Books & Arts editor), New Scientist, 11 January 2010
My answer to the EDGE question: the effects of the Internet might be less than having a large fraction of our young people wearing earphones much of their waking hours, with music blaring into the their brains. Thomas Metzinger said it well, without realizing it. He speaks of the Internet, but his words apply much more aptly to Ipods. We have no idea the effect on the deveopment of personality and consciousness of having music piped into one’s ears many hours per day. We’re performing the experiment, the results of which might prove surprising (for good or, more likely, ill).
The core of the problem is not cognitive style, but something else: attention management. The ability to attend to our environment, to our own feelings, and to those of others is a naturally evolved feature of the human brain. Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life. We need attention in order to truly listen to others — and even to ourselves. We need attention to truly enjoy sensory pleasures, as well as for efficient learning. We need it in order to be truly present during sex, or to be in love, or when we are just contemplating nature. Our brains can generate only a limited amount of this precious resource every day. Today, the advertisement and entertainment industries are attacking the very foundations of our capacity for experience, drawing us into the vast and confusing media jungle. They are trying to rob us of as much of our scarce resource as possible, and they are doing so in ever more persistent and intelligent ways. We know all that. But here is something we are just beginning to understand — that the Internet affects our sense of selfhood, and on a deep functional level.
Consciousness is the space of attentional agency: Conscious information is exactly that information in your brain to which you can deliberately direct your attention. As an attentional agent, you can initiate a shift in attention and, as it were, direct your inner flashlight at certain targets: a perceptual object, say, or a specific feeling. In many situations, people lose the property of attentional agency, and consequently their sense of self is weakened. Infants cannot control their visual attention; their gaze seems to wander aimlessly from one object to another, because this part of their Ego is not yet consolidated. Another example of consciousness without attentional control is the non-lucid dream state. In other cases, too, such as severe drunkenness or senile dementia, you may lose the ability to direct your attention — and, correspondingly, feel that your “self” is falling apart.
If it is true that the experience of controlling and sustaining your focus of attention is one of the deeper layers of phenomenal selfhood, then what we are currently witnessing is not only an organized attack on the space of consciousness per se but a mild form of depersonalization. New medial environments may therefore create a new form of waking consciousness that resembles weakly subjective states — a mixture of dreaming, dementia, intoxication, and infantilization. Now we all do this together, every day. I call it Public Dreaming.
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