“Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.” ~Theodore J. Kaczynski (a.k.a. ‘The Unabomber’)
Flawed, to a depth unlike any other beast in the animal kingdom, human beings rapaciously despoil their own environment and continue to conduct activities that appear to threaten the very existence of the biosphere – our home, planet Earth.
Through the latter half of the 20th century an insatiable technological race to develop weapons of mass annihilation resulted in nuclear standoff among a handful of belligerent nations and an incongruous co-operative policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.). That dire policy still stands today, a shadow cast unthinkingly over all human endeavour and indeed life itself.
The very idea that humanity willingly chose to pursue a scientific course that delivered the capacity to destroy the world many times over should be breathtakingly troubling, yet inspires relatively little comment. From the very same tumultuous technological crucible that produced the enduring madness of nuclear weaponry came a more recent development – the Internet. The online world promises an ‘abundance of riches’ (as its techno-evangelists constantly assure) but it also has a profound (and profoundly under acknowledged) dark side.
Birthed from the Pentagon’s desire to be able to maintain communications through the early stages of a nuclear assault (by spreading the electronic and telephonic communications load over a labyrinth of interconnected routes and servers), what we today call the Internet (which at one point was called ARPANET) was shepherded into existence by D.A.R.P.A. (the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in partnership with the scientific, academic and corporate communities.
In these times of giddy techno-utopianism (sleekly designed Apple products are fetishized throughout our entire culture, social media is worshipped as the new frontier in community ‘cohesion’ and ‘inclusive’ communication – to name just a few examples) it would seem important to remember that the architecture of the Internet (and all the associated soft and hard-ware) was parented by a nexus of the Military Industrial Complex, the Secret State, the Corporate Leviathan and deliriously utopian elements of the scientific and academic worlds.
Many have noted the deleterious relationship between humankind and technological development, where humanity acts as virtual slave to a misdirected and essentially unstoppable scientific progression.
Though now used as a term of derision, the original Luddites rightly feared the impact of encroaching technology on their livelihoods and sought means to disable it. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Marshall McLuhan also addressed and questioned mankind’s enthralled relationship with technological innovation. For whom shall be the servant and whom shall be the master?
The New Dark Age of Mediocrity & Narcissism
Since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press five centuries ago, the linear/literary mind has evolved and shaped prodigious developments in art, science and culture. We may now have entered an era of far more seismic – though not necessarily positive – changes. Acclaimed neuroscientists like Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel suggest that the Digital Revolution’s hyper-stimulating and overtly transient landscape may be responsible for ‘re-wiring’ our neural circuitry to a more ‘efficient’ and industrialised state (producing more, more quickly) that also downgrades our capacity for concentration (the locus of education) and even wisdom.
Writer Nicholas Carr warns in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains that “the seductions of technology are hard to resist” but, as German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, the advance of technology dictates that a new, superficial “calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practised as the only way of thinking.”
Carr also notes that a raft of recent research indicates that the “more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion and other emotions.” Bombarded by endless linked options and stimuli, we reduce our human qualities and become more machinelike – simply fleshy automata.
Most online experiences are mediated by algorithms that expedite efficiency in searching the web, comparing products and offering connections to calculated similar content. They advance easy options, rarely subjecting us to the discomfort of a differing opinion or intellectual challenges (as may happen in the real world). If the World Wide Web is an infinite digital library, search algorithms are most likely to fill that library only with volumes chosen to please us. An endless feedback loop of gratifying, self-serving opinions and subtle reinforcement – a mirrored cubicle of refracting self-reflection, an echo-chamber of recycled automatic sound bites. An apocalypse for the enquiring soul.
A cursory scan of Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr will produce mountainous evidence that we are enduring The Age Of The Ego. Current digital technologies have been designed by fevered armies of psychologists to appeal to the very weakest flaws in human nature – self-obsession and flagrant narcissism. Can there be a sadder, more alienating device than the ubiquitous ‘selfie-stick’? Surely the end is nigh.
Another question posed by Carr was, “Is Google making us stupid?” Forever distracted by the digital avalanche, research and voluminous anecdotal evidence suggests that we are already drowning under the online tsunami – vast amounts of information at our fingertips, yet unable (or unwilling) to analyse, prioritise, sift and evaluate – we simply consume and regurgitate.
Obesity of the Mind
Richmond, Virginia author Matthew Crawford proposed in his book The World Beyond Your Head that we are seeing a social crisis as more and more people lose touch with physical reality and escape into the online matrix.
According to Crawford: “Figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the centre of contemporary capitalism. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness.” In the clamour to advertise in every mental space (and monetise every social interaction), we are fast losing the room to think, be creative, be playful – to ponder. “Attention is a resource, convertible into actual money,” and we need to reclaim our own senses and resources, “because when you talk about attention, you’re talking about the faculty by which you encounter the world.”
Crawford continues… “the media has become expert at making irresistible mental stimuli” and systems are designed to encourage “playing till extinction,” a cognitive science and “social engineering project” facilitated by “mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations.”
Crawford has found respite, peace and fulfilment in discovering working with his hands again – between writing projects he restores vintage motorbikes in a local repair shop and eschews the seductive online experience.
The Creeping Tide
A creeping tide of evidence now suggests that the online experience itself (aside from the content) may also affect direct cognitive damage.
Research conducted in 2012 at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (in Wulan, China) scanned the brains of 35 men and women (between the ages of 14 and 21). Those classed as suffering from Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) were shown to have notable changes to the white matter of the brain (the nerve fibres/connections) compared to those that did not suffer from IAD. The researchers noted “abnormal white matter integrity in brain regions involving emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control.” The neurological damage observed shared “psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders” and was comparable to the effects seen in alcoholics, drug addicts, video game addicts and those with other behavioural afflictions.
As a multitude of libraries close (or partially divest their collections to make room for the ubiquitous computer terminals and Wi-Fi routers) scholars from University College London conducted a five-year research programme examining evolving reading and research habits. They logged the activity of visitors to two popular research sites (one a British Library site and one the portal of a UK educational group) that offered journal articles, e-books, and other information. The study found a notable “form of skimming activity” as students and researchers bounced from one source to another, rarely reading more than a page or two and almost never returning to an earlier source. As the study concluded: “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
What is suggested here is a ‘pancaking’ of intelligence, as cognition is spread wider, but also thinner, with a more superficial comprehension and understanding.
The deluge of multitasking and ‘multi-screening’ (having numerous windows or devices open and active at once) is, according to scientists, shattering focus and rewiring our brains. Eyal Ophir, after stints in Israeli intelligence and the airforce, joined Stanford University in 2004. He sought to challenge (through research) the traditional view that the human brain can only competently process a single stream of information at any given moment. Devising tests involving the timed comprehension and filtering of patterns of red rectangles from patterns of blue rectangles, what Ophir and his colleagues found shocked them. Those who identified in the study as ‘multitaskers’ were significantly worse at sorting the shapes and thus filtering out what was deemed as irrelevant information. Also multitaskers were shown to be less efficient at juggling problems, taking longer to switch between simple tasks. It’s possible that technological overload may be confusing the brain’s systems for determining priorities, marking every form of digital stimulation as urgent, creating a haze of constant, buzzing panic and distraction.
A study conducted at the University of California indicated that constant interruptions from email alerts and pinging phones contributed significantly to stress levels. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University, noted that stress hormones can affect short-term memory loss and promote debilitating mental ‘fog’. According to studies conducted at the University of Utah, only a fraction of people (possibly around 3%) are capable of operating calmly with regular digital disruption.
Numerous studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators now show that ‘hyper-texting’ (the ability to click highlighted sections of text linked to sources or further information) actually decreases comprehension significantly. Interestingly, even the appearance of a hypertext (whether clicked or not) erodes understanding by offering the disorientating opportunity for distraction. A 2001 Canadian study tasked subjects with reading the Elizabeth Bowden short story ‘The Demon Lover’. The control group read the story in traditional linear text, the test group read a version dotted with hyperlinks. It took the test group longer to read the story and they were an extraordinary seven times more likely to report ‘confusion’ in their comprehension of it. A further 2007 academic review of related experiments concluded that bouncing between digital documents and linked pages seriously undermined understanding. Today’s Internet landscape of pop-up ads, competing videos and flashing, bouncing images can only yield to more mental maelstrom.
As pointed out by Nicholas Carr:
“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”
The available pool of information entering our working memory is referred to by psychologists as the ‘cognitive load’. The Internet turns this steady ‘drip’ of ideas into a ‘blast’, overwhelming our limited cognitive abilities and thence disabling vital components of them. As Carr noted, “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”
The Long Shadow of the Surveillance State
In June of 2013 the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden seized headlines around the world. Snowden confirmed what many have long suspected: built over decades, we now exist under a vast and omniscient surveillance infrastructure. Ostensibly constructed under the rubric of combatting ‘terrorism’, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the real target is domestic dissent and any and all threats to capital and authority.
Much like Jeremy Bentham’s 19th century design of the guardless prison (the Panopticon), today’s admitted (and much publicised) Surveillance State leads directly and unequivocally to mass self-censorship and reflexive self-regulation.
An Oxford University study conducted by Jonathon Penney reported a notable ‘chilling effect’ on the Internet habits of American adults directly related to the Snowden revelations. Monitoring Wikipedia searches after June of 2013 (the date Snowden surfaced) Penney noted “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al-Qaeda’, ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban’,” as compared to prior to that date. Page views continued to decline over a year, suggesting a “longer-term impact from the revelations.”
“This is measuring regular people who are being spooked by the idea of government surveillance online,” Penney opined. “You want to have informed citizens. If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”
Other research from MIT indicated that “users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the US government,” and a recent study conducted for the US Department of Congress noted that respondents reported that “29 percent of households concerned about government data collection said they did not express controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or security concerns.”
The ‘chilling effect’ has also spread to the legal profession and substantially impinged on press freedoms. A 2014 report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch was based on interviews with lawyers and journalists “covering intelligence, national security, and law enforcement for outlets including the New York Times, the Associated Press, ABC, and NPR.” According to the report, it has become apparent that lawyers, journalists and their sources are now considerably more fearful of surveillance and their ability to protect sources and attorney/client privilege. Examples cited include:
“[Journalists’] techniques ranged from using encryption and air-gapped computers (which stay completely isolated from unsecured networks, including the Internet), to communicating with sources through disposable ‘burner’ phones, to abandoning electronic communications altogether… As with the journalists, lawyers increasingly feel pressure to adopt strategies to avoid leaving a digital trail that could be monitored. Some use burner phones, others seek out technologies designed to provide security, and still others reported travelling more for in-person meetings. Like journalists, some feel frustrated, and even offended, that they are in this situation. ‘I’ll be damned if I have to start acting like a drug dealer in order to protect my client’s confidentiality’, said one.”
If the Snowden revelations were, perchance, designed to stun, cower and silence the general population (and perhaps even potentially problematic professions) for the advantage of the Security State, then one can only marvel at their resounding success.
In April of 2014, speaking at a St. Petersburg media conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the Internet dubiously as a “CIA Project.” Despite the expected howls of denial from the dutiful Western press, it should be noted that Putin is a former KGB official and probably has some inkling of what he speaks.
In a remarkable (and remarkably overlooked) piece for The Medium (entitled ‘How The CIA Made Google’) journalist Nafeez Ahmed charted the labyrinthine connections between the entire functional architecture of the Internet and the National Security State. Not only entwined through injections of start-up capital and seed funding, the ostensibly ‘private’ mega-corporations of the online experience (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo et. al.) boast an extraordinary overlap of board and executive personnel with the Security State (NSA, CIA, DIA, DoD etc.) but also a co-operative and synergistic culture that appears more like a corporate family structure than an adversarial private/public relationship. Likewise, the CIA’s capital investment arm (In-Q-Tel) has been there since the beginning for Facebook (a fact curiously absent from the Hollywood version) and the entire spectrum of social media appear to be nothing less than an extraordinarily enthusiastic data harvesting and social engineering project (data being delivered willingly and on an incredible, in fact, unimaginable scale).
Theodore Kaczynski (the notorious ‘Unabomber’) wrote a remarkably prescient document circa 1995 called ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’. In it, the author (‘F.C’ – assumed to be the convict Kaczynski) decried the apparently endless march of scientific technology to dehumanise and demean humankind and separate us from the ‘power process’ and the fulfilling fundamentals of human survival.
Kaczynski may have been a terrorist or murderer – but he was certainly no armchair hypocrite – calling in his manifesto for “a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.” And he had admirers in unlikely places, famed Silicon Valley alumni Bill Joy allowing that, “As difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw merit in the reasoning in (Kaczynski’s writing).”
Indeed, perhaps it is time to turn our backs on giddy techno-utopianism and revolt against our fevered technological servitude (before we become too stupid, disempowered or lethargic to do so).
Time to wind back, or even destroy, our Internet addictions, turn off the candy-coated Information Superhighway and reclaim some vestige of our flawed but fleshy independence before we are subsumed in a deluge of mediocrity and totalitarianism. Before we are Pokémon Go-ed into a virtual net of moribund surveillance capitalism.
But who, dear friends, has the courage for that?
David Thrussell is a poet trapped in the body of a hillbilly. Or a hopeless romantic hidden in the twisted frame of a dark electronic musician. Late at night Thrussell fantasises that actually he lives next door to Hieronymous Bosch in Medieval Europe and has hallucinated the whole dreadful modern era while suffering from acute ergot poisoning. We are not entirely convinced that this is not the case. The world knows him (if it knows him at all), as the creator of a seeming multitude of obscure recordings (Snog, Black Lung and Soma among others) and film scores. He has written previously for Wax Poetics, Fortean Times and numerous other publications.