This is about the 4th or 5th article I’ve seen suggesting that increasing technology use is undermining our capacity to focus. I’m afraid to say I’ve found it somewhat borne out by my personal experience. But this post isn’t about me.
It’s about the striking fact that increasingly, we “spend the vast majority of each day staring at, interacting with, and deriving satisfaction from glowing rectangles.”
We could, if we wished, lament this as modern decadence, or else minimise it, as a transitional phase, the first shock of information technology on unprepared humanity that will be corrected in time.
But I’m going to suggest, jokingly but mindful that much truth is said in jest, a different interpretation – that this is a tendency towards the more-or-less total abolition of the human individual, and that we should welcome this.
Because what does it tell us, that humans should become so enraptured with, get so much pleasure from, ‘glowing rectangles’? Remember, these rectangles don’t give pleasure via. taste, or smell, or stimulation of the skin or the muscles. They give pleasure via. manipulation of information.
Everything you do on a computer, with the possible exceptions of 1) listening to music, and 2) looking at porn, gives pleasure, if at all, by allowing the mind to manipulate information. Information technology allows us cerebral beings to largely ignore the skin-bone-muscle user-interface we’ve used for so long.
But if the human mind finds its greatest satisfaction in the manipulation of information, then isn’t the best image of a human utopia one of people endlessly communicating, passing information between each other and processing it? Forget eating, fighting, walking, athletics, waving our hands and noses and entrails around – we’ll just be plugged in, because that’s actually what we want.
But should this grand network be merely a disorganised and chaotic one – indeed, could it long remain one? Or should it not rather tend towards organisation as an overall information-processing system, connecting its parts so as to function as a whole. But that, my friend, is just a larger brain – if human brains are fit by nature to get pleasure from information-processing, then they are fit by nature to be components of a larger brain.
And this puts the much-reported downsides of our increasing communicative powers in a new light. Suppose it’s true that many people find it destructive of concentration, of attention span or even creativity. These are precisely the virtues that our brains need in order to function as independent units.
Do we demand that our individual neurons display creativity or focus or deep thought as individuals? No – we recognise that they don’t need that because their relations to each other supply it instead. Similarly, what if technology weakens ‘focus’ because, in preparing us for our role as components of a larger brain, it makes focus obsolete?
Should we be frightened by the possibility of our subsumption into a greater brain? Clearly we are – when a ‘hive mind’ appears in fiction it tends to be sinister, terrifying, a wave of ‘mindless’ robots or insectoid monsters. But maybe this is just prejudice.
Why would a larger, stronger, smarter, more confident mind be more vicious, more grim, more voracious, than we are? Why shouldn’t it, instead, be more wise, more playful, more inquisitive and friendly, more interesting and creative, etc.?
But maybe our real fear is what things will be like ‘for us’. Well, what is it like for your right hemisphere at the moment? What is it like for your cerebellum? Are they unhappy? Do you regret that you deprive them of their independence? I don’t.
Moreover, if the driver of this process is how willing people are to spend time looking at glowing rectangles, shouldn’t be suppose that this experience, and what’s most attractive about it, is the best guide to the end result? That would suggest that being a small part of a large mind is, phenomenologically, like playing a very well-designed game, or exercising a well-developed skill – the sort of completely ‘absorbed’ attunement to an evolving task in which we forget ourselves entirely. (Forget ourselves, and remember ourself?)
That suggests that it will probably be lots of fun. So perhaps we should welcome our transformation from the paltry individuals we are into a 10,000-times greater individual, who will probably be less neurotic and have better taste in music than we do. Perhaps we should encourage it: people of the world, unite!