Nicholas Carr is ahead of his time again. The Big Switch nailed computing as a utility, long before “the cloud” came to mean pretty much the same thing. His latest book, The Shallows, explored the changes in our lives and minds caused by moving too much of both online — again before others began noticing how much the Net was starting to look like a handbasket.
Thus The Shallows comes to mind when I read Alice Gregory’s Sad as Hell in N+1. An excerpt:
I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.
In-person communication feels binary to me now: subjects are either private, confessional, and soulful or frantically current, determined mostly by critical mass, interesting only in their ephemeral status. Increasingly these modes of talk seem mutually exclusive. You can pull someone aside—away from the party, onto the fire escape—and confess to a foible or you can stay inside with the group and make a joke about something everyone’s read online. “Maybe you keep the wrong company,” my mother suggests. Maybe. But I like my friends! We can sympathize with each other and feel reassured that we’re not alone in our overeager consumption, denigrated self-control, and anxiety masked as ambition.
On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.
Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.
The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.
The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call switching costs. Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.
The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.
And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.
Try writing about the Net and tuning it out at the same time. Clearly Nick can do that, because he’s written a bunch of books about the Net (and related matters) while the Net’s been an available distraction. Meanwhile I’ve spent most of the past year writing just one book, fighting and often losing against constant distraction. It’s very hard for me to put the blinders on and just write the thing. In the last few months what I’ve succeed in doing, while wearing the blinders and getting most of my book writing done, is participating far less in many things that I help sustain, or that sustain me, including projects I’m working on, time with my wife, kids and grandkids, and this very blog. (Lotta white spaces on the calendar to the right there.)
On the whole I’ve been dismissive of theories (including Nick’s) about how the Net changes us for the worse, mostly because my own preoccupations, including my distractions, tend to be of the intellectually nutritive sort — or so I like to believe. That is, I’m curious about all kinds of stuff, and like enlarging the sum of what I know, and how well I know it. The Net rocks for that. Still, I see the problem. I can triangulate on that problem just from own struggles plus Alice’s and Nick’s.
Mom used to say, “Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” (Attributed, with some dispute, to Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Net feeds all three, but at the risk of dragging one’s mind from the great to the small. “What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?” Alice writes. (Would we ask the same about what we’re doing in a library?) Later she adds,
Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine. Almost every day at 6 PM my Google Alert tells me that an “Alice Gregory” has died. It’s a pretty outdated name, and most of these obituaries, from family newsletters and local papers, are for octogenarians. I know I’m being tidy-minded even to feel a pang from this metaphor, but still . . .
It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.
The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it. I started writing this piece when the book came out at the end of July, and I started unwriting it almost immediately thereafter. Zeno’s Paradox 2.0: delete your sentences as you read their approximations elsewhere. How will future fiction work? Will details coalesce into aphorism? I wonder if instead of scribbling down in my notebook all the familiar aspects of girls I see on the street, as I used to, I’ll continue doing what I do now: snapping a picture and captioning it, in the words of Shteyngart, “so media.”
I’ll grant that we have problems here, but is literacy actually being ruined? Is long-format journalism actually obliterated? The New Yorker is as thick as ever with six to eight thousand word essays. Books still move through stores online and off. Our fourteen year old kid still reads piles of books, even as he spends more time online, watching funny YouTube videos and chatting with a friend three time zones away. Is he worse for that? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway.
What I am sure about is this: Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are temporary constructions on the Web, like Worlds Fairs used to be, when we still had them. The Internet is a world where all four seasons happen at once. New sites and services are like plants that germinate, grow, bud, bloom and die, over and over. Even the big trees don’t grow to the sky. We need their fruit, their shade, their wood and the humus to which they return. Do we need the other crap that comes along with it those stages? Maybe not, but we go for it anyway.
Last Tuesday Alice Marwick gave an excellent Berkman Lunch talk titled Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Self-Branding in Web 2.0. The summary:
In the mid-2000s, journalists and businesspeople heralded “Web 2.0” technologies such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook as signs of a new participatory era that would democratize journalism, entertainment, and politics. By the decade’s end, this idealism had been replaced by a gold-rush mentality focusing on status and promotion. While the rhetoric of Web 2.0 as democratic and revolutionary persists, I will contend that a primary use of social media is to boost user status and popularity, maintaining hierarchy rather than diminishing it. This talk focuses on three status-seeking techniques that emerged with social media: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and life-streaming. I examine interactions between social media and social life in the San Francisco “tech scene” to show that Web 2.0 has become a key aspect of social hierarchy in technologically mediated communities.
I’ve been in and out of that scene since 1985, and I know personally a large percentage of Alice’s sources. One of them, Tara Hunt, provided Alice with some terrific insights about how the status system works. Tara also punched out of that system not long ago, moving to Montreal and starting a company. She has also been very active in the VRM development community, for which I am very grateful. She’s on a helluva ride.
Listening to the two Alices, Emily Dickenson comes to mind:
A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –
Speaking of which, here’s Bill Hicks on life’s ride:
The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.
“Shut him up! We have alot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”
It’s just a ride.
But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.
And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.
(Watch the video. It’s better.)
Social media, social networking — all of it — is just practice. It’s just scaffolding for the roller coaster we keep re-building, riding on, falling off, and re-building. That’s what we’ve been making and re-making of civilization, especially since Industry won the Industrial revolution. (That’s why we needed world’s fairs, to show off how Industry was doing.)
You go back before that and, on the whole, life didn’t change much, anywhere. Most of our ancestors, for most of the Holocene, lived short, miserable lives that were little different than those of generations prior or hence.
Back in the ’70s I lived in a little community called Oxbow, north of Chapel Hill. My house was one off whats now called Wild Primrose Lane, in this map here. In those days the bare area in the center of that map was a farm that was plowed fresh every spring. One day while we were walking there, I picked up a six-inch spear point (or hand-held scraper) that now resides at the Alamance Museum (one county over):
I brought it to friends in the anthropology department at UNC — associates of the great Joffre Coe — who told me it was a Guilford point, from the Middle Archaic period, which ran from 6000 to 3000 B.C. (The original color was gray, as you can see from the chipped parts. The surface color comes from what’s called patination.)
What fascinates me about this date range, which is similar to the range for other kinds of points everywhere in the world, is how little technology changed over such a long period of time. Generation after generation made the same kinds of stone tools, the same way, for thousands of years. Today we change everything we make, pretty much constantly. There was no Moore’s Law operating among the Guilford people, or anywhere, in 5000 B.C. Today Moore sometimes seems slow.
I don’t have a conclusion here, other than to say that maybe Nick and both Alices are right, and the Net is not so ideal as some of us (me especially) tend to think it is. But I also think the Net is something we make, and not just something that makes us.
Clearly, we could do a better job. We have the tools, and we can make many more.