Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Staying Connected

Adam Gopnik has written an insightful and well informed essay in the New Yorker entitled, 'The Information'. In it, Gopnik discusses and categorises some examples from the recent wave of books on internet technology and its impact on human society and psychology. One of the most interesting points Gopnik makes is that identifying the disorienting, disruptive and even destructive burden of technology on our lives is an assessment by no means new to writers and social commentators. Gopnik asserts, quite rightly, that the same sorts of concern have arisen throughout human history with the advent of almost every new technology - especially that which enables the dissemination of information.

Gopnik points out that it looks like we only ever feel this near-crippling need to fret over the disastrous influence of technologies when they are new. It is oddly true, in fact, that once technologies have been superseded in some way, we treat them with nostalgia and benevolence. On the paranoia which arises with every new invention, however, Gopnik writes:

"We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it's true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don't seem remotely capable of producing it."

In other words, we freak out. Unnecessarily. Gopnik refers to our syndrome as a kind of hypochondria, and I for one think that's a pretty apt analogy, considering the flood of commentary on these issues which is so dominant in the media right now (this blog included). There are plenty of fretting articles with titles like "The Dark Side of the Internet" which evidence this 'hypochondria'. But surely this reactive sense of fracture is part of our over-burdened evolutionary mentality? Our brains recognise that something has changed, quite fundamentally, about how we behave, and as such prompts us to think long and hard about it as a kind of defence mechanism. And it could be argued that that's our brains' way of saying, "Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, yeah? I was doing just fine before you bought that new iPhone you little creep."

That's our brains' way of saying, "Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, yeah? I was doing just fine before you bought that new iPhone you little creep."

But while Gopnik alludes to some of the historical parallels to this phenomenon, and examines some of the arguments of internet observers who either celebrate or bemoan the web's hold on our daily affairs, the author doesn't quite go as far as examining the character of that hypochondria among the public. This is crucial, I believe, and it's the point where parallels with past technologies begin to become strained.

At the start of this year, I wrote an article for this blog entitled, "Could You Quit the Internet?" and more recently I commented on Alex Tew's 'Do Nothing for 2 Minutes' web page phenomenon. This was after having logged a marked uptick in the number of advocates stepping out and echoing what the web sceptics and, as Gopnik terms them, 'better-nevers' were saying about the inordinate amounts of time we spend connected to the digital universe that surrounds us everywhere. The habit of finally giving in to deep insecurities about the time we spend engaging with that digital universe has only continued to become more common over the last two months. One project I'd missed before is Offlining.com - a project set up by digital marketing gurus Mark DiMassimo and Eric Yaverbaum. The website encourages visitors to make 'offlining' pledges; that is, committing to 'switching off' for a given period of time in order to re-connect with the real world and experience it without having to tweet or blog about it, or spread proclamations of opinion on Facebook.

To cite two more examples, my eye was caught by this Technology Guardian interview with Drive Angry actors Amber Heard and William Fichtner in which both stars discuss their dislike of certain technologies' perpetual presence in their lives as well as aspects of those technologies which they say they couldn't live without. Even more prescient is the cover story in the latest issue of UK magazine Stylist. The piece encourages readers to get in touch with their offline selves, concentrate on 'mindfulness' (with handy tips for how to do so from 'mindfulness coaches') and engage better with life as it passes by, choosing to feel, see and understand rather than immediately tweet. One psychotherapist comments that giving in to the urge to post online about any given experience removes the "reflective" stage from that experience, immediately transferring it instead to a productive moment; a digital squeak for attention.

The fact that this article exists is fascinating to me. It's full of strange bits of advice from the aforementioned mindfulness coaches who suggest that we take extra time to consciously reflect on as much of our daily experiences as possible, whether they're boring or enthralling. This comes across as corny new age whimsy, but people clearly feel that there is value in signing up to it. The readers' debate for the article, online here, is full of comments from web users all collectively saying "Yes! I too feel as though I spend too much time online!" - and missing the irony inherent in admitting so via the web. Some of the comments are simply amusing, and demonstrate the extent to which polarised ideals have perpetuated our social consciousness:

"Living in the now if [sic] find myself more and more wishing i was living in the then! Thoughts of life on a farm, picking my home-grown vegetables and collecting my chickens freshly laid eggs, its an image that makes me smile with content."

Inconsistencies aside, I actually think all of this offers material worth reflecting upon in the wake of Gopnik's assessment of recent literature on the subject. Part of Gopnik's approach was to point out that inaccurate summaries of history have led, in the writings of some, to the overblown conclusion that the internet presents totally new upheavals and totally new dilemmas. In many ways it does not. However, what we are seeing now - and surely this is indicated partly by the very existence of Gopnik's survey - is the growth in our exponential desire to examine the impact of technologies introspectively.

That innate need to question perceived 'fracture' in our lives which Gopnik referred to briefly is in fact probably the whole point. The volume of users of internet technology, and the time they spend using it, is greater than the volume of users of television sets in a comparable era. There must be breaking points, even if we accept that the digital revolution is neither inherently good or bad. And this move towards assessing the character of our lifestyles, while also not entirely new, seems to be more and more pressing. Just as yoga has become popular among city-dwelling workers who feel compelled to escape the pressures of their professional lives and re-connect with ideas of nature, body & mind, and human origin, so too may the 'mindfulness cult' become an important part of our wired future societies. With projects such as Offlining.com, it's fair to say that that trend; towards a world where our activities and ideals are increasingly compartmentalised into online and offline modes, has already started.

That trend; towards a world where our activities and ideals are more compartmentalised, has already started

But it's that abstract, indeed esoteric, question of the value of experience which is really crucial here, and which I think could have been addressed more by Gopnik and others. It does seem true to say that the richer we are, the more connected we are, the more prone we are to anxiety over our experiences and indeed the 'meanings' of our lives. As such, by weighing up the differences between a digitally-'enhanced' experience and a strictly analogue one challenges us to define what it is about experience itself that we value. What makes it? What do we want to take away from it and how do we best secure our memory of it? Of one thing there is no doubt: technology has made us ask those sorts of questions a lot without, seemingly, providing much in the way of an answer. Organisation, communication, dissemination, amplification - these functions we have mastered in spades. But as to locating the nature of our selves... Well, there's no GPS yet for that.

 

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