There is much sturm und drang over the neurological impact of using ubiquitous technologies (e.g., Facebook, texting, web surfing). Two recent articles, the first by Robert Peluso, “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet, and the second, Robert Wright’s “Mind the grid” have inspired the following meditation on the phenomenology of fragmentation. This post argues that the fragmentation of consciousness induced by technology represents, neither a new development nor a conspiratorial threat against our attention spans, but rather is an accelerated continuation of trends that began in the 1950s as Americans switched to the screen from the radio. I also suggest that there is a “payoff” for the totally distracted that manifests as a boost to the ego. Hence, in the presence of this reward, we are reluctant to give up or disruptions because they make us feel and more important. The antidote remains a dose of mindfulness as it has for the past 2400 years.
The new threat of fragmentation stems from the ability of information flows to reach us in places that were formerly “off the grid.” When there are no places to retreat and think deeply, we lose our ability to do so, not because we are plugged in, but because we do not unplug and rehearse creative thinking consciously in its own space. I begin with the authors who have inspired me and then propose corrective measures drawn from Wright’s NYT article and the power of insight meditation or vipassana.
Robert Peluso does an excellent job of summarizing the zeitgesit in his review of two representative texts, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” by Clay Shirkey (Penguin Press, $25.95) and “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” by Nicholas Carr (Norton, $26.95). While the first text points to the advantages of the collective acts of creativity, the second warns of a darker consequence for our ability to “dwell in thinking” in a Heideggerian sense. Summarizing Carr’s case, Peluso writes: “Rallying data from neuroscience, psychology, media and literacy studies and more, he [Carr] lays out a wide-ranging and disturbing case for the deleterious effect of what he calls “intellectual technology” — computers, the Internet, social media and the like — on our ability to think, concentrate, remember, and contemplate. Ultimately, the author worries that technology is compromising our ability to be fully realized human beings.” Though valid, this is an old argument that reappears each time a neurological study confirms the reality that we are distracting ourselves to our own detriment. In short, Carr is recycling Heidegger’s discourse on the possibility for meditative thinking in a world filled with calculative thought.
Over half a century earlier in the late 1950s, Heidegger matches Carr’s lamentations on the speed of information bombardment.
This calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates. Such thinking remains calculation even if it neither works with numbers nor uses an adding machine or computer. Calculative thinking computes. It computes ever new, ever more promising and at the same time more economical possibilities. Calculative thinking races from one prospect to the next. Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself. Calculative thinking is not meditative thinking, not thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is.(Memorial Address, Discourse on Thinking, p. 46)
My point: communications technologies have been quickening the pace of information flows for quite some time, yet each new turn has the possibility of reaching into spaces that were formerly private, the spaces where creativity and innovation have time to grow and take root. The difference between the late 50s and the present concerns the interactive capacity of new technologies to engage us in a game of trivial pursuits where we do nothing but interact for the sake of communication itself. Baudrillard calls this phenomenon the “the ecstasy of communication,” information flows that self-perpetuate, link, repeat and retransmit the same data many times in a feedback loop without increasing our understanding of anything substantial much like the Tower of Babel.
Again, Peluso provides a helpful summary of Carr’s case: “Our ability to scan and assess data may have accelerated, but only by compromising the focused, “deep” mental work that builds meaning. Or in his own trenchant phrase, ’The smarter the software, the dimmer the user.’”(Peluso, Carr) Distractions, fragmentations and multi-tasking are nothing new. Perhaps this is why Heidegger flees to the Black Forest to dwell in thinking and why we engage romantic notions of contemplative spaces “off the grid” to unplug. It is possible that the environmental movement owes the information revolution for the back to nature crowds who made Earth Day possible in the 1970s and beyond. However, I contend that these romantic fantasies remain empty love songs, an ode to thinking we have consciously abandoned in favor of the shallow benefits derived from calculative thinking.
In 1955, long before the information age, Heidegger documents the same trend:
There are, then, two kinds of thinking, each justified and needed in its own way : calculative thinking and meditative thinking. This meditative thinking is what we have in mind when we say that contemporary man is in flight-from-thinking. Yet you may protest : mere meditative thinking finds itself floating unaware above reality. It loses touch. It is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs
And you may say, finally, re: meditative thinking, persevering meditation, is “the reach of ordinary understanding. In this excuse only this much is true, meditative thinking does not just happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking. At times it requires a greater effort. It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen. (Memorial Address, Discourse on Thinking, p. 46-47)
Though Heidegger does not have the benefit of neuroplasticity studies to back up his claims, he does frame the issue in much in the same way as Carr. Other higher education articles question whether the humanities can survive the 21st century given that the type of calculative thinking valued by business is routinely chosen by students in contrast to deeper subjects in the humanities. We should instead ask ourselves why we choose the calculative over the meditative rather than pretending we are forced to do so in response to the bombardment of information flows. Hence, I contend that we choose fragmentation because it offers instant gratification and an immediate ego payoff. But first a few words in favor of creating a meditative space in our everyday existence.
Robert Wright offers solace to those who still hold to the value of meditative thinking and the romantic notion of unplugging from the technological world of communication. In two separate articles for the New York Times Wright explores the value of insight meditation and credits its insistence on silent meditation for helping him to observe his reactions to the ecstasy of communication.
Like many meditation retreats, this one emphasized “mindfulness,” which involves a calm focus on the present moment — much the kind of focus that is said to be endangered by the infinite regress of distractions and disruptions brought to us by digital technology. And this awareness of the moment includes awareness of your internal states; you’re supposed to carefully examine your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions. So when you come back from a retreat and plug your newly mindful mind into the grid, the subtle sources of the grid’s power seem more salient.(Minding the Grid, NYT accessed on 9/7/2010)
Carr, Heidegger, and Wright have all done us a service in pointing to the difficulty of unplugging from the grid to engage are more meditative sides in deep reflective thought. The dark underbelly that no one mentions is that we voluntarily choose the grid over meditative thought because it helps us to satisfy the hollow demands of the Protestant work ethic and reifies our ego with a sense of importance. According to the contemporary worldview, someone with a strong work ethic is constantly busy and never sleeps. People complain about working 60+ hours a week even in times of a deep recession.
I contend that we choose to fragment our consciousness by plugging in because it reinforces the narrative that we are busy important people with plenty of requests for our time and opinions. Being constantly plugged in reifies our sense of self and tells us that we are productive citizens even if we can’t think too deeply about the implications of our fragmented productivity. The “false productivity” of multitasking ensures we will do many things, but perhaps none of them well. For a sample of the anti-multitasking research see Ron Ashkenas’ “To Multitask Effectively, Focus on Value, Not Volume.”(Harvard Business Review, September 10, 2009) Ashkenas notes a study that “found that multitaskers were actually quite ineffective at managing information, maintaining attention, and getting results. Compared to study participants who did things one task at a time, they were mediocre.” Nevertheless false productivity and fragmentation of conscious attention have a great payoff: both activities make us feel better about ourselves.
The phone that constantly buzzes with an arriving text message reaches out to tell us we are important and that someone cares what we are doing. This is far more intuitively appealing than deep meditative thinking which can reveal the hollowness of these interactions and their inability to enhance our happiness or satisfaction with personal relationships. On the other hand, contemplative thinking, or meditative thinking, forces us to confront these uncomfortable issues head on which explains why so many people are uncomfortable with silence throughout the day. Silent cars and homes are filled with multiple distractions ranging from television to YouTube in an effort to bombard us with the trivial and direct us away from the significant facets of human existence that have the potential to increase our satisfaction.
Becoming a fully realized human being means understanding what we value and why. In the Socratic sense, it means leading an examined life, one that consciously engages us in activities we find meaningful and relationships we value. Deep meditative thinking requires us to confront our real lives (RL) and admit that there is some contradiction between our idealized notions of a contemplative lifestyle and the realities of an always on cell phone that demands attention for the most banal of text messages. We choose fragmentation because it helps consciousness avoid the unpleasant discordance between what we say we want versus what we actually do with our lives. No one wants to admit that they spend all of their free time tracking Twitter followers or updating friends on Facebook about the latest family vacation, but both serve as nice distractions from the reality that meaning and satisfaction cannot be derived in a world of ubiquitous presence. It is only by unplugging from the 24/7 culture that we can look critically at its unreasonable demands.
On a phenomenological level everyday realities demand that consciousness live in a series of fragmented moments often unconnected by anything other than their rapid succession and ability to disrupt whatever thought stream is currently in progress. Perhaps the type of the Vipassana meditation advanced by Thich Nhat Hahn can be of help here: when a text message arrives or an e-mail bell chimes, we can stop just for a second or two to note our reaction to the disruption itself by thinking silently “disruption.” In that second we can take the time to decide whether or not we want to give in and cede the meditative contemplation of “disruption” for the more banal content of the arriving message. With some practice, by noting these spaces in-between, the buzz and the grab for the phone, we can recover a sense of meditative presence even in the realm of fragmented information flows.
To conclude, it is neither the computer nor the cell phone, nor even the Protestant work ethic that can pull us away from a mindful existence. Rather it is our own choice to surrender control to the demands of constant interruption and assaults on mindful contemplation of the now. Each time we give in, each time we surrender, we may be damaging the brain’s neuroplasticity and our ability to live deeply in the present in exchanges for empty realities that will fade only to be forgotten by dusk or the coming daylight. We are not unwilling victims of some informational bomb, but rather willing participants in the dismantling of our ability to creatively connect with both our own thoughts and those of the people in our presence. We exchange the now for the “future” in hopes that the next piece of information will bring some peace or reassurance that we matter, but alas we are fooled each time by the call of the banal striking out to pull us away from those ideas that could really change the world. The answer: tune in, unplug, practice mindfulness and drop out. It is our only hope for seeing the present as it is and not as we wish it to be.
For more information on Vipassana/mindfulness techniques, see: