Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Response to: Wired for Distraction New York Times...

Yet again we have another article about the dangers of digital devices and the damage they are doing to our brains.   Is the world falling apart?

The debate over distractions in our modern world rages stronger than ever, as evidenced from the a recent article in the New York Times, entitled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.  As electronic devices proliferate, there is no doubt that now the average person has to cope with many things happening at the same time.  This is obvious.  There is no brilliance in stating this.

What is most fascinating about this New York Times article is that there is another article in the New York Times Magazine, dated November 21, entitled, The Attention-Span Myth, which seems to disagree with the doom scenarios being painted by the author of the former article mentioned.  The writer of the Attention-Span article, Virginia Heffernan is very insightful.
So how did we find ourselves with this unhappy attention-span conceit, and with the companion idea that a big attention span is humankind’s best moral and aesthetic asset? In other eras, distractibility wasn’t considered shameful. It was regularly praised, in fact — as autonomy, exuberance and versatility. To be brooding, morbid, obsessive or easily mesmerized was thought much worse than being distractible. In “Moby-Dick,” Starbuck tries to distract Ahab from his monomania with evocations of family life in Nantucket. Under the spell of “a cruel, remorseless emperor” — his own single-mindedness — Ahab stays his fatal course. Ahab’s doom comes from his undistractibility.
Brilliant insight Ms. Heffernan! She goes on to state:
In the 1920s, a decade before T. S. Eliot recognized being “distracted from distraction by distraction” as part of the modernist plight, Bertolt Brecht made the case for a “smokers’ theater,” which encouraged the audience to light up cigars during plays. Condemning his fellow Germans for being “uncommonly good at putting up with boredom,” he hoped that by smoking during a play — or pacing, talking, walking out — they could also cultivate individuality and ideally an immunity to tyranny. A healthy fidgetiness would keep them from sitting silently, sheepish and spellbound.
We think Ms. Heffernan is right.  Many students, in schools everywhere,  have become, "...uncommonly good at putting up with boredom."  Much of the problems of distraction in the classroom have to do with professors, or teachers, who have no gifts of presentation, or drama.  Sadly enough, many of them are bored with their own jobs, and it is revealed in the way they present their material.  Students, experts at reading teachers, through long years of practice, sense this boredom, and react accordingly.  But let us assume that there is truth, in what this technology is doing to our minds, as seems to be the case.

“What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” Herbert A. Simon

But what can we do about this phenomena?  There are only two three options.  The first option is to try to turn the clock back and reduce the use of these devices, perhaps by passing legislation regarding its use (such as is being done while driving).  This legislation, if done in draconian fashion, would produce an public outcry that no politician would wish to face.  It would mean trying to stop huge economic and social forces that have been unleashed by these technologies.  The second option, is to allow these technologies their due course, in an "free market," and let people adapt how they might.  The third option is more radical than the previous two.  It is that society must come to a realization.  The realization being that we must improve due to the demands of this new information society.  We must improve physically and physiologically.  Our minds, must come up to the challenge.  This kind of improvement is not just one of attitude, or willpower.  It is an evolution of our minds to a higher state of consciousness.  But despite, any physiological evolution of our brains, we must also use computer technology to control it.  We must become, part computer ourself.  We must merge in some manner with these devices.  We must become cyborgs.  While this may seem crazy to some, frightful to others and repugnant to many, it is the only logical resolution to the problem.

What is the problem?  The problem is that the way our minds work now, we cannot handle the avalanche of information coming at us every day, forget about in the next 10 years.  This pace of information will only increase.  Not just increase for us, but for the entire society.  Think about it?  Is there any other solution?  Barring some civilization wide disaster, or calamity, we are headed towards an age, that will make the distractions of this time, seem trifling.  What is even worse, if you wish to use that term, is that all the technologies are intertwined and interdependent.  You cannot isolate one, without affecting all the others.  The most important of these new technologies is the way our communications as a society have changed.  They are just beginning.  We are only at the dawn of this new age.

Once this realization comes to society, there will be a mad dash to make it happen.  It is here where the dangers will lie.  It is in this mad rush, that some details, will not be fully studied, and we may, as a society, will make serious mistakes, which will cost lives, and billions of dollars.  But, there is no other road to take.

This need for computer assistance, was seen early on in the most technologically advanced part of our military - fighter jets.  For a while now, it has been understood, that no human pilot, can possibly fly a modern jet alone.  The planes now used by our military, are in many ways unstable, and require thousands, if not millions of calculations per second to fly in a stable, controlled manner.  The pilot could never perform these maneuvers, be able to accomplish his military mission.  Thus, as he flies his plane, there is another digital, virtual, co-pilot, that flies the plane alongside.
The General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin) F-16, which entered service in the late 1970s and has been built in large numbers, was the first operational jet fighter to use an analog flight control system. The pilot steers the rudder pedals and joystick, but these are not directly connected to the control surfaces such as the rudder and ailerons. Instead, they are connected to a "fly-by-wire" flight control system. Three computers on the aircraft constantly adjust the flight controls to maintain the aircraft in flight and reply to the commands from the pilot. The F-16 is inherently unstable by design, meaning that it would fly out of control if the computers failed (which is why there are three of them). The designers made it unstable in order to improve its maneuverability. The computers constantly readjust the flight surfaces to keep the plane flying. Initially, pilots often referred to the F-16 as "the electric jet." But computer control systems have become so common that they are no longer unusual.
DARPA (Defense Agency Research Projects Agency), is developing computer assisted sniper rifle.

This is our model for the future.  We must have brain assistants, that are "virtual co-pilots" of our lives.  There is no other real option.  If the brain needs rest, our virtual co-pilot will take over whatever functions, we deem it capable of handling.  If your brains are overrun with data, our co-pilots will step up to the challenge, and assist us.  In the beginning, these devices will intercept data coming at us from the Internet and control it according to our tastes.  This will be first stage of our integration with machines.  But soon, we will be physically attached to it, perhaps in our clothes, or in a device which we will wear, most likely on our head, which will connect with the brain (not an implant).  

Members of our society, who do not wish to have these assistants, will become "dropouts," becoming less and less relevant to a society that not only uses this technology, but is totally dependent on it.  These dissenters will be culturally isolated.  They may even form their own groups and perhaps in the future, nations.  Although, it seems to us, that the nation-state, is becoming less and less relevant to our present world economy.

We agree with the Sam Anderson, author of the still classic article on distraction, entitled, In Defense of Distraction: Twitter, Adderall, lifehacking, mindful jogging, power browsing, Obama's Blackberry, and the benefits of overstimulation.  This article was published in the New York Times Magazine, dated, May 17, 2009, when he states:
This doomsaying strikes me as silly for two reasons. First, conservative social critics have been blowing the apocalyptic bugle at every large-scale tech-driven social change since Socrates’ famous complaint about the memory-destroying properties of that newfangled technology called “writing.” (A complaint we remember, not incidentally, because it was written down.) And, more practically, the virtual horse has already left the digital barn. It’s too late to just retreat to a quieter time. Our jobs depend on connectivity. Our pleasure-cycles—no trivial matter—are increasingly tied to it. Information rains down faster and thicker every day, and there are plenty of non-moronic reasons for it to do so. The question, now, is how successfully we can adapt.

Until our society comes to the realization that the information revolution cannot be turned back, that it is changing how we do everything, from education to playing tennis, we will have to hang on and make our mistakes.  But no amount of brain studies, concerns about teen minds and how they are being changed by using technology, will make ANY difference in the advance of this technology.  It is coming.  We have to meet the challenge and evolve upwards!  Any opinions on this?  Use the comments.

1 comment:

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