Another way our world is changing, while we pay attention to trivial things…

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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20 thoughts on “Another way our world is changing, while we pay attention to trivial things…

  1. Aside from the loss of individual “attention”, well described by the writer, technologies like the I-pod kill “community”. “De-personalization” really means not loss of oneself but loss of one’s connection to other beings. What’s left is only a miasmal soup of visceral impulses, without values or priorities.

    Harpers’ writer Thomas de Zengotita has an entertaining book on how media shapes our experience — “Mediated”. And the ur-text for the last fifty years is Guy Debord’s “Spectacle”.

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  2. At the risk of incurring FM’s wrath by referring to oral tradition, may I point out that, according to Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato, Plato’s objection to the poets essentially was that poetry essentially caused Greeks to go around in some sort of non-lucid dream state.

    Note, however, that Plato has his detractors while the poets have their advocates. “The ancient quarrel between poets and philosophers” has lasted at least 2,500 years and – assuming humanity and civilization survive – most likely will continue for at least 2,500 more.

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  3. God, this post makes me want to barf. The internet is awesome. Are some people so bored or depressed they think it could somehow in anyway be bad? It is as cool as cars. Better than trains, baby.

    “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.”

    How do you know attention is so important? I only need fleeting moments of attention to satisfy my needs in my modern world, and relish that fact.

    Oh no! The industry is attacking us! Who wrote this stupid shit? Never in human history have normal people had the chance to enjoy themselves so much. I can get any movie, and book, any song, any food, any info, any anything… for cheap! Screw you fucking Amish POS. I bet this screwball is a jockeying government official who just can’t wait to impose their
    views on others.

    Everything is better BECAUSE of the internet. You’ll see.

    And speaking of all thos philosophers and blah blah blah. I don’t want to remember anything. I like that Google spells for me. I don’t want to pay attention to my handwriting or spelling or memory constructs. I just want it all to flow. And good too.

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  4. “Confusing media jungle”

    God, you can’t make this up! Who is this professor? What a dill-weed. Are you like 85 or something (No offense to 85 year-olds who are actually cool)?

    You’re an embarrassment to the English language and Western civilization.

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  5. Reynardine feels as though he ought to respond…but has some trouble putting his thoughts in order. Must be the iPod he has jacked into his head, wreaking its fearsome vengeance upon his neurons. But it’s either listen to 120 Gig of old folk songs or his tinnitus, or (worse) to the guy in the next cubicle jabbering to someone over the phone, or the the guy in the other cubicle conducting a conference call with his phone in speakerphone…or to whatever his boss is trying to say.

    I dunno, Fabius, but listening to music isn’t high on my list of factors contributing to the fall of Western civilization. Unless it’s rap, of course.
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    FM reply: Best of thread winner, easily. A contender for best comment of all time, along with that of a Roman mocking the idea that lead consumption might have deleterious effects. It’s awesome! Sweetens our wine, holds together our aquaducts, etc!

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  6. I’ve thought about this a bit, and I was inclined to say that the Internet hasn’t changed *how* I think so much as what I think about. But, that’s not entirely true. With more information available than a person could ever find, let alone process, the Internet has created a need for improved data filtering skills. Separating the wheat from the chaff has probably never been more difficult, and we, as a whole, are clearly still building those skills.

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  7. “You’re an embarrassment to the English language and Western civilization.” No, Jon, you are… with comments like that.. or perhaps this gem: “Everything is better BECAUSE of the internet. You’ll see.” Pre-pubescent logic — “I’m right because I’m right!!” What a tool.

    And is there really any call for this? “Screw you fucking Amish POS.”

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  8. People having shorter attention spans is also because of the huge amount of information. With so much accessible information (I think) most people want to read all of it and not stay on one spot the whole time. Even if that means a less deep and more shallow understanding.

    === Patience ===
    But the biggest cause of the shorter attention spans is related to the overall state of our generation regarding patience. Everything now has to be instant. Instant gratification, regardless of the long term consequences. Instant wealth, instant pleasure, instant love&sex etc.

    === Strength & Weakness , Independence ===
    We are better of with the Internet. Without which this excellent site would not have existed. However ‘the cloud’ has big weaknesses, which should not be overlooked. And once you are aware of them you will be more able to deal with or avoid them.

    Although the Internet itself was designed to survive a Nuclear attack, reliance on it blindly will not be possible. Its biggest ‘feature’ is that you are more dependent than ever. Although the power it gives you will be a mighty force-multiplier, the individual himself will be much more vulnerable.
    * Sites are not immortal. For example http://www.d-n-i.net/ :(
    * Privacy is an exception. No not only terrorists have to worry about privacy. A thief checking out when you are on vacation is one example. Others are. Datamining, profiling, (political)blackmail, (corporate)spying, identity theft etc. In some countries they are planning to implement GPS devices in cars (continuously tracking distance driven (and your position) for road-tax reasons) and Digital-Public transport cards, linking your personal information to your position.
    * Owners of sites having access and control over your uploaded data and ‘cloud’ programs. Of course promises (‘intentions’) are a factor. Capabilities however trump intentions.
    * “Beware of things given for free”. Everything has some price and if you are not paying in money than you are paying in something else.
    * “Beware of Freeconomics“, Alex Iskold, 26 February 2008
    * “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business“, Chris Anderson, Wired, 25 February 2008

    Strength is seen by some (primarily) as controlling others while some see it (primarily) as controlling yourself. When spice was more desired than gold, some tried to control the market to the extent of genocide and slavery. While others like the looked down upon Amish preferred to refrain from this “excessive luxury” and its negative side effects (excluding at least indirectly Manifest Destiny ~ Natives). I think some compromise between the two extremes is preferable and that balance especially applies to the use of new technologies including the Internet.

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  9. Music , hobbies , studies- accessible , cheap , worldwide – unite so many people regardless of where they live . I do see every day , though , a problem with small boys and portable wargame thingmyjigs. They are deaf and blind to their surroundings . The parents physically push them from A to B avoiding falling over C , like they were shopping trolleys.

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  10. In a future where this technology will creep more and more into our daily lives, resulting in the border between the online & offline world becoming more blurred, people will take their online behaviour and thinking more and more to the offline world and visa-versa.

    The Internet’s information and action force multiplier effect at the expense of loss of independence and privacy will result (in the extreme cases) in either suspicion, avoidance, resistance and rejection or intentional ignorance, indifference and acceptance of losing ones independence and privacy.

    Combine this online-offline blurr with the loss of independence and privacy in the online world and this results in people either fighting against this loss in the online world (like some occasionally already do now) or eventually even surrendering against this loss more easily even in the offline world. Meaning people will do things in public which would have never been excepted before the days of the Internet. Also a more docile public conditioned by this new mindset is a possible outcome (although this depends on many other more important factors as well).

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  11. The most interesting thing to me about all statements involving humanity transformed by technology is that this seems to have gone on forever, and people have not changed at all.

    This may be because as an underlying principle, technology only intensifies human nature, or anything, but does not change it at all. One can imagine preliterates complaining about books and newspapers ruining the real way humans should be, standing at three roads discussing one another’s personalities and business (trivia=Latin for three roads).

    It does seem in some sense to be true that people are absent in technological cocoons, for example on trains and subways, lost in their iPods, Blackberries, and cellphones. But next to them are people lost in books and newspapers. The difference if any being? How is the iPod anything other than a programmable transistor radio, a Walkman with more storage and random access?

    The Internet, what we do on these portable things, what is on cable TV… as what used to be in the yellow press, in pulp fiction and dime novels, in whatever time-wasting attention-consuming lowbrow mass culture there ever was… and of course the ‘opposites’ available in all eras… they reflect us much more than they affect us. That is why we build and buy them in the first place!
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    FM reply: How do you know that “people have not changed at all”? We know almost nothing about people before the previous two great tech revolutions: fire and writing. Julian Jaynes says that we’re changed much, fundamentally, in his provocative book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (1976). For a summary see Wikipedia.

    Update: As Greg notes below, my reply was not clear. The reply about fire and writing was in response to this sentence
    — “as an underlying principle, technology only intensifies human nature, or anything, but does not change it at all.”
    We can only guess about such things in the past, but there is tentative evidence that this is not correct.

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  12. I remember farmers complaining about these new “books”, and how they were wrecking their childrens minds. Jon is right.
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    FM reply: This makes no sense to me, even as humor. What is your point?

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  13. FM, I can’t see how introducing the time before 3001 BC is relevant to the points I made. Indeed, one would wonder if, assuming we did know more, the preliterate peoples, lacking the mental means to abstract sounds to symbols and use them to convey meaning… were fully ‘human’ in the sense that we are. All my references, certainly, were to literate man, beginning let’s say with ancient Egypt.

    And the things that bother many of us here, that in ways unite us in trying to find some sort of better way for this republic to operate… are fairly well precedented historically in this era, and hastened and intensified (but not fundamentally altered, is my point) by technology. The Bush years of deficit spending, borrowing, and a war against an emotion were nothing but the union of ‘panem et circenses’ with ‘Carthago delenda est.’ To a great extent the American public has done what the Roman public did… allowed empire and their own oppression in return for a percentage of the proceeds thereof, and more entertainment.

    The post that follows this one, from the RAND corporation about al-Qaeda, seems spot on to me. Treating these crimes as crimes, and these non-state organizations using intelligence and special operations rather than systems designed for state vs. state conflicts, is utterly lucid. And for most of a decade, proposing exactly that has been demonized by the warmongers and fearmongers who benefit from military-industrial corruption. So I assert again, if you want to fix this, follow the money. Divorce all the politicians financially from the financial and defense corporations. If this doesn’t happen, nothing else works.
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    FM reply: Greg’s point in the opening paragraph correctly points out that my reply to his comment #11 was unclear. I have added an update, that the development of early technology (esp writing) may in fact have changed human nature. Intense research on the few non-literate societies might shed light on this. Does anyone know of research on this question? If so, then its easy to imagine that modern technology (e.g., cell phones, portable music players, the internet) might do so as well.

    I agree that the analogy with Rome is apt — and disturbing. One detail: few Roman’s got “a percentage of the proceeds” from its conquests (even the soldiers had to fight to get land, a major cause of the social wars that ended the Republic).

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  14. FM reply: “Best of thread winner, easily. A contender for best comment of all time, along with that of a Roman mocking the idea that lead consumption might have deleterious effects. It’s awesome! Sweetens our wine, holds together our aquaducts, etc!

    I do believe that I recognize this as typically leaden Fabian humor. Nevertheless, I seem to have touched a nerve. Just when did you begin to hate music, Fabius? Or is it folk music in particular you hate? (Current song, because of course the whole world cares what I’m listening to: “Rifles of the IRA”, Wolfe Tones version.)
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    FM reply: That’s astute of you to recognize that I’m not very musical. But don’t “hate music” (I just bought Taylor Swift’s “Fearless”). Rather I recognize the power of music, some thing recognized by Plato in the pre-Ipod era. For a discussion of music’s role in our society I strongly recommend reading the “Music” chapter in Allan Boom’s “The Closing of the American Mind”.

    “leaden Fabian humor”
    Sad but true. However one of my new year’s resolutions is to work on this. By December “Saturday Night Live” will be stealing my lines!

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  15. Those wacky Romans, what a bunch of maroons! “Monsanto’s GMO Corn Linked To Organ Failure, Study Reveals“, Katherine Goldstein and Gazelle Emami, Huffington Post, 12 January 2010 — “In a study released by the International Journal of Biological Sciences, analyzing the effects of genetically modified foods on mammalian health, researchers found that agricultural giant Monsanto’s GM corn is linked to organ damage in rats.”
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    FM reply: Without knowing anything at all about this subject, my WAG is that this study will fail replication. 20 years from now everybody will laugh at the fears of genetically modified crops, like we laugh at early 19th century fear about trains.

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  16. Mikyo sez: researchers found that agricultural giant Monsanto’s GM corn is linked to organ damage in rats.
    I hereby declare a unilateral boycott on the word “linked”. What does linked mean, anyhow? “In the same place at the same time”? “One of the usual suspects”? “Some nutball believes this”? “Some organization finds this a profitable hypothesis”? If you can’t say “causes”—and prove it, then don’t bother.
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    FM reply: Great comment. Misuse of correlations — without substantive statistical evidence — has become epidemic. Another aspect of the innumeracy affecting our society. As we know less, we become more easily manipulated.

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  17. The trend on the interface between humans and technology is to decrease the time and attentional investments required to retrieve a piece of information. The downsides of this trend are as noted: a reduction in attention-management related skills in the population at large. The upside (for those of us who hone our hard-focus skills on the regular) is that our inputs of time and energy into information-exploration and knowledge unearthing yield vastly better results than they would twenty years past.

    FM reply to comment #18: “Misuse of correlations — without substantive statistical evidence — has become epidemic. Another aspect of the innumeracy affecting our society.”–FM

    I look at your thesis – that the internets are destroying our attention and QoL – and see alternate explanations. Firstly, humans live longer now, and we could chalk an apparent degradation of attention (which none of you baselessly speculating, shotgun-brandishing, lawn-guarding sages have proven actually exists) up to a development period that’s stretched out in proportion to our species’ increased lifespan (see: high school, college, the maturation period immediately after college when most of my peers will find themselves deeply in debt with no employment prospects, the world-shielded perpetual infancy of graduate school). If attention command is the hallmark of the mature Homo should it surprise anyone that the skillset takes longer to develop in an age of distractions (especially considering the great span of time our young are given to mature within these days)?

    None of the Edge thinkers really go far enough. Take for instance:

    “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.”

    This can’t possibly be a bad thing! The minds of the 6.7 billion excess humans on the face of this earth are remarkably inclined to living exclusively in the illusions generated by the corporate media state. This is a good thing, because it will make locking them into VR skyscrapers and harvesting their organs for the red-in-tooth-and-claw fighters who choose to remain behind a much less tricky ethical problem – provided we make the VR hookups good enough.

    The Dire Solution is only necessary if we ignore space colonization as the tool to reduce resource pressure on our home planet.
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    FM reply: I find this confusing. First, the quote of mine you give from comment #18 is unrelated to the discussion about affects of the internet (#18 responds to off-topic comment #17).

    (2) “which none of you baselessly speculating, shotgun-brandishing, lawn-guarding sages have proven actually exists”
    This is all clearly labeled as speculation, in advance of the facts. That’s an important step in planning, keeping our minds open about things to watch.

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