by Barry Chudakov on January 29th, 2011

Gadget Angst

It was autumn of 1939, a time W.H. Auden would commemorate as a “low dishonest decade.” Ludwig Wittgenstein and his young Cambridge student and friend, Norman Malcolm, were walking along the Thames when they saw a newsvendor’s placard announcing that the Germans were accusing the British of an assassination attempt on Hitler. Wittgenstein thought it was likely true; Malcolm said such a thing was impossible because “the British were too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhanded, that such an act was incompatible with the British ‘national character.’” Years later Wittgenstein wrote to Malcolm:

. . you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends. 
 
Wittgenstein might have had in mind such dangerous phrases as this, found on the Apple iPhone 4 web page:
 
Multitasking. Give everything your undivided attention. 

 

Multitasking, www.GadgetCage.com, all rights reserved.

 
Wittgenstein’s conversation and correspondence with Malcolm point to something that can improve our thinking about an important question: what if the best approach to our gadget-filled lives and identities is to confront our conflicted use of those communication tools and our contradictory behaviors with them—without seeking to make the conflict disappear? 
 
Various writers [*] are trying to square this circle by citing evidence that our brains are affected and compromised by our gadgets and the Internet. This widening school of commentary details how our brains are reacting to our tools and how these tools in turn are likely affecting various behaviors and performance indicators. There is great value in these approaches, especially as they point to the importance of mindfulness, contemplation and meditation. Yet many of these thinkers gloss over a crucial recurrence: since the 5th century B.C. when Socrates complained that writing would weaken memory, we have experienced bouts of cultural déjà vu, periodically revisiting the same dilemma—newer tools displace older ones, affecting everything from personal habits to social structures.

There is another problem as well. Our tools have always exerted control over the ways we think, but we tend to notice this only when newer tools show up. Marshall McLuhan was able to articulate the dynamics of the Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) precisely because television arrived to signal we were leaving it. Likewise, Leonard Shlain later argued that scribes became priests and new religions emerged in which the god began to supersede the goddess. He saw the left-brain dominance biases of the alphabet more clearly as the “global image economy” gained ascendancy (1998): “Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs.”

 

Literacy, self-initiated, 1997, Winterhouse Studio, all rights reserved.

 

Book Swap: The Tool Becomes the Thing

One such cost is that literacy is now so embedded in the fabric of our thinking that we have forgotten (or can no longer see) how we exalted the vehicle that made us literate. Consider, for example, the connection between the book and the religions it spawned. The church would not exist without the book, the sine qua non that each church deemed sacrosanct. The book, like the Internet today, bred a social order. Sacred religious texts were typically kept and interpreted by male priests—a gender hierarchy that is still with us (today every Catholic leader from the Pope to the parish priest is male). But these books were cause for more than ritualizing liturgy. The history that followed the holy books was an adventure in testing the boundaries of pristine reason, as lethal conflicts caused by disagreements over books became commonplace. Yet the frequent bloodshed accompanying the Reformation that culminated in the Thirty Years’ War did not raise outcries that the poor combatants were deluded, their brains unduly influenced by the books that launched the wars. And destructive conflicts were far from the whole story. “The fruits of Christianity were religious wars, butcheries, crusades, inquisitions, extermination of the natives of America and the introduction of African slaves in their place,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer. But of course these weren’t just sacred books; they were sacred cows.

When the tool of the book arrived, it not only codified narrative and wisdom; it gave them form. The eventual ubiquity and permanence of this form has been well noted; but we might ask why this worldview narrative moved from the status of divinely inspired to become something else—a truth so supremely correct that to challenge its correctness was to be labeled infidel and could (and still can) trigger a death sentence. Christianity called it Holy Scripture. Islam used similar terms for the Qur’an, Hinduism for the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita, and Buddhism for the sutras. How did the book move into this position of absolute supremacy? The answer, while complicated by numerous religious sects, may be summarized in three points.

 

Holy Bible, Flickr, AndreCookMartins, all rights reserved.

 

First, as Italian researcher Lucilla Cardinali asserts, once a tool is in our hands it becomes part of us, part of the so-called ‘body schema.’ Anthony Chemero, a cognitive scientist at Franklin & Marshall College profiled in Wired magazine adds: “The tool isn’t separate from you. It’s part of you…. The thing that does the thinking is bigger than your biological body …. You’re so tightly coupled to the tools you use that they’re literally part of you as a thinking, behaving thing.” In other words, we unwittingly entrain with our tools, just as our body clocks first entrained with the rising and setting of the sun.

Next, new tools tell new stories and supplant the stories that came before. Today, for example, new-tool narratives abound: the Internet is an information weapon, Twitter is an American plot to destabilize foreign governments, romance is dead as outrage mounts over hookups and breakups that no longer happen in person but instead we contact (or dump) the significant other via Facebook, texting, voice mail, instant messaging, Skype, or Justin.tv. (With 40 million Americans as members of dating services offered over the Web, and 140 million doing the same in China, this is not an insignificant narrative.)

And third, the book’s impressive form—the writing down of the thing—presented the theory of the case: this is the way the world works, this is how it began, this is how it will end. You need not leap as far as Shlain who said that the alphabet created left-brain domination and this in turn built domination hierarchies that debased the goddess, which in turn denigrated and denied women. The key cultural narratives that followed in the wake of literacy, the narratives that built a myriad of male-dominated social structures from church to school to armies and corporations—did diminish and deny women and these narratives became unassailable in theologically conservative church cultures that viewed the Bible (or the Torah or Qur’an) as the authoritative word of God.

Seeing the book from the meta level of how it was used (rather than solely from the literal level of the content between its covers) is central to understanding why we feel such angst today about our tools. With the advent of holy texts and the rise of the great world religions, the book as a documentation of holiness became the thing of holiness itself.

 

 

The tool that connects also disconnects. iPhone, Flickr, Florin Hatmanu, Creative Commons license.

 

In other words, holiness took on a Metalife in the form of the book. Today, after a century of rapid technology and tool innovations, this is happening to us again in a welter of new guises. Our tools not only become the staging area for interactions, they can stand in place of those interactions. As a result, connections, friendships, exchanges, even relationships may not happen entirely (or at all) in so-called real life but instead may be played out on smart phones and other mobile devices.

As Ilana Gershon documents in Breakup 2.0, these devices transpose to become the thing of friendship or connection itself, while also frequently becoming a third place where those connections are severed. After surveying 1100 people, NPR discovered that even after marriage, counselors and therapists are seeing more couples for whom the thing of intimacy is being challenged and detained by the always-on intimate connectivity of the iPhone and BlackBerry. This was confirmed by a study commissioned by Staples that showed that 60 percent of small business owners spend more time holding their phones (“phonemance”) than the hand of their loved ones. And now our tools and technologies stand not only in place of our interactions, but stand in place of us. Congress is currently taking up the question of “whether or not someone’s online persona is an extension of themselves … or just a collection of bits that can be bartered away for access to fee email or a social network.”

Here is Sherry Turkle in a recent interview discussing her concerns about a generation whose tools represent not only an intermediary between themselves and a situation, but a living surrogate for the situation itself. Ms. Turkle is worried that as the book became the the thing of holiness, experience itself may be supplanted by a Metalife of experience, in this case simulation:

For some purpose, simulation is just as good as a real. Kids call it being “alive enough.” Making an airline reservation? Simulation is as good as the real. Playing chess? Maybe, maybe not. It can beat you, but do you care? Many people are building robot companions; David Levy argues that robots will be intimate companions. Where we are now, I call it the “robotic moment,” not because we have robots, but because we’re being philosophically prepared to have them. I’m very haunted by these children who talk about simulation as “alive enough.” We’re encouraged to live more and more of our lives in simulation.

 

Screenshot, Call of Duty Black Ops, www.pinoytutorial.com, all rights reserved. Sales of Call of Duty have now reportedly reached over $1 billion.

 

Games now not only emulate the thing of social interaction; with competitive multiplayer features they become the site and essence of it. Many friends no longer get together in traditional settings like a movie theater or cafe, instead, as reported by CNN, they “huddle around the living-room game console, or strap on a headset and chat online with friends across town or across the country over some gunfire.” “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” has netted more than $1 billion in sales worldwide since it came out on November 9 2010. Bobby Kotick, the CEO of game publisher Activision sings the body electric: “These games can be as integral to the social lives of young people, especially males, as any other form of digital communication.”

But what does integral to our social lives mean exactly?

Our immersive technologies and simulations have never been so involving, so life-like. While being careful not to make premature cognitive commitments, we ought to ask ourselves whether we are headed towards robotic moments that we neither intended nor wanted.

Our intent and focus are in a scrum, facing off against the logic and intent of our tools: is this feeling or experience authentic, or has the tool become its surrogate?

 

The Navigator’s Paradox

Given that understanding, we realize the real problem with today’s gadget angst is that the focus is too narrow, the time frame too immediate; an essential part of the story of how we engage with our tools is being left untold. This context blindness sees the conflicts of our tool adoption in different trappings from one generation to the next, making few connections among these trappings, and so we, Promethean gadgeteers, suffer a recurring torment: things are going badly wrong. While this may be true at some level—say, concern over a higher level of distraction as we endeavor to pay continuous partial attention to a variety of gadgets—it is imperative to understand such issues are endemic to our picking up tools.

 

Augmented reality navigation for Android Smartphones, Navigon, www.phandroid.com, all rights reserved.

 

Tools change the thing itself, as well as anyone or anything that intersects with it. But that is not the story we continue to tell ourselves. In fact we tell ourselves the same story over and over. While the effects are different from story to story, at a meta level (the quandary of our brains and bodies responding differently to newer tools and their effects) the real story is déjà vu all over again:
 
“We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid. They are the world of our making: the world of the image….We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.” Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, 1961, p. 5-6.
 
What they recognized was that life itself was gradually becoming a medium all of its own, like television, radio, print and film, and that all of us were becoming at once performance artists…. In short, life was becoming a movie.” Neal Gabler, Life: The Movie, 1998, p. 4.
 
“In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, 2010, p. 224.
 
“Throughout this book, I’ll explore whether people are becoming like MIDI notes—overly defined, and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer. This has enormous implications: we can conceivably abandon musical notes, but we can’t abandon ourselves.” Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, 2010, p. 10.
 
Deeper than the soundless collision of older and newer tools is the inherent distortion in any tool. While we are using tools to view (and filter our view of) the world, we are adapting our thinking and our lives to something inherent in the tool that wasn’t inherent in us until we started using that tool. Said another way, our thinking starts to mirror what we are thinking through. Assuming all communication tools are thinking and attention guides, here then is the essential paradox: the tool that guides you will also mislead you.

Instead of trying to resolve that paradox, suppose we view it as serving to teach us deeper truths, showing us the ‘important questions of everyday life’? In short, we typically tend to look past—or rail against—these contradictory features of our tools. Wittgenstein spoke of this as “the superstitious fear and dread … in the face of a contradiction.” We would be far better served instead to walk around this paradox thoughtfully, and then—rather than trying to resolve the paradox—embrace it. But what does it mean to embrace the contradiction rather than resolve it?

 

The playful paradox: our creations and tools turn on us. From kpamum's blog, found on davrobin/drawing, all rights reserved.

 

Tools of the Trade-Off

I believe it means a revolution in the way we think, teach and then act as we use (and are confounded by) our communication tools.
 
Not only do we adopt our technologies, we mirror their logic in our thinking and behaviors. When newer tools arrive we begin to see the collision between the dynamics and values of an established tool (or set of tools) and newer tools in our midst. Understanding that, the issue itself changes. We see that this tool-using paradox is a recurring constant, like the mathematical constant of pi. To use tools consciously we must hold multidimensional (and often contradictory) views of them in our mind at once. Only then do we fully understand and appreciate the trade-off: what we are doing and what is being done to us.

Mitchell Stephens described newer media options as the rise of the image, the fall of the word, options that ushered in the global image economy. This economy celebrates women in various ways, but it is an uneasy celebration. While ubiquitous images can show women as independent and alluring, images’ effects are complex and conflicted. A few years ago Naomi Wolfe wrote: “For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.” She argued persuasively that the oversupply of pornographic images has debased actual experience, has in fact diminished the thing itself, the mystery of another, live person. 

Or consider the root of literacy, reading itself. Until newer media options were in our midst we could not see the contrasting effects of consuming different types of information. Jamil Zaki, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who studies the psychology and neuroscience of social behavior, writes in Scientific American Mind that for the first time in the past 10 years the number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent, with the sharpest decrease occurring among college-age adults. Zaki then cites studies that may link reading to empathy. Psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand others’ emotions. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic. While it is too early to explain this fully, something appears to be happening at the meta level of reading: above the content is another kind of socializing, even civilizing, dimension that we may be seeing more clearly as reading is declining in our society. Said differently, reading about others changes the thing itself, changes our relationship to others.

In our schools we teach the alphabet; we do not teach the alphabet effect. (McLuhan summarized that effect when he wrote: “By the meaningless sign linked to the meaningless sound we have built the shape and meaning of Western man.”) We know how to work our Blackberry; most of us do not know how the Blackberry works on us. We glorify utility: if we can find an immediate use for a tool, we are satisfied; if the tool provides multiple immediate uses, we adopt it readily; when we build social institutions around the tool (as we always do—the church, school and government are built around the written text), we deify it.

 

Tools of the trade-off. iPhone 3G v.s. iPhone 4's Retina Display, Flickr, Yukata Tsutano, Creative Commons license.

 

 
Rapid technical advancement combined with a speeding up of our tool adoption brings a (perhaps unwelcome) obligation to realize what we are doing when we use these tools: the smarter we make them, the smarter we must be about them. (I am not attributing intelligence to these tools but I am using ‘smart’ to indicate multi-level functionality as well as metadata algorithmic tracking and statistical analysis features.) For this reason I propose a joyous embrace of paradox. Instead of romancing or demonizing them, to fully understand our tools we must embrace the realization that our tools are usefully bi-polar: we are then better able to see the tool doing two seemingly contradictory things at once—guiding and misleading us.
 
Because these tools inform our education—what we know and how we know it—a very practical application of this understanding is education itself. We would be wise to present all tools as extensions of our minds and bodies, and bringers of new narratives. We would then be encouraging students to embrace their inherent contradictions, and thus use them truthfully and more effectively.

In other words, when we’re teaching our kids to use communication tools, from the alphabet to the iPad, we might remind them:

The tool you put in your hand, you will put in your mind 

The tool that expands your mind will also limit it (we see this limitation more clearly when new tools ‘prove’ that limitation)

The tool you think through (i.e., an alphabet, a Blackberry) will alter your thinking

The tool you use will also use you

The tool that teaches you will also trap you (it is always arduous to see around the corner of the context you’re in)

The central issue here, we can now see, is the thing itself. That thing may be your focus and attention, your identity, your reputation; it may be friendship, love, sex, your relationship with a teacher, the arc of your life, the hour of your death. All these essential human issues are (and always have been) profoundly affected by our tools, and now we can see an accelerated blurring of our identity and intent played out in real time, from YouTube and YouPorn to Facebook and The Digital Beyond.

As the thing itself is in question so are we: is my digital profile me? How much am I or is my sex life affected by regularly watching videos of other people have sex? Am I hungry or am I stimulated to hunger by my avatar? Is authenticity merely an option, like digital versus paper statements from the bank?

 

'It's your fault that we're trapped here!' The Exterminating Angel, www.rottentomatoes.com, all rights reserved.

 

But rather than rail against this old dilemma, seeing it in various ways at various times gives us a unique wisdom about how to deal with it. Essentially, the thing itself is always at risk in the presence of our tools.

Spanish filmaker Luis Bunuel’s parable, The Exterminating Angel, brilliantly describes the trap of adjusting to (and so not seeing) our immediate surroundings. A group of people are at an evening party. When it comes time to go home, they discover they cannot leave. Somehow, inexplicably, they are trapped at the party. Finally, after much melodrama and consternation, they devise a way to leave. They then go to the church to give thanks—and discover they cannot leave the church. This, in essence, is our paradoxical life (I call this a Metalife) using communication tools.

A perspective that incorporates multidimensional contradiction allows us to see beyond the utilitarian function of our gadgets and digital destinations. Without embracing the paradox of these communication tools we will continue to unduly worry ourselves about—and so not fully appreciate—the inherent ambivalence of our tools.
 
Déjà vu all over again will not improve our thinking.

 

 

We are in (at least) two minds about our gadgets. Credit: In two minds, Flickr, brancusi7, all rights reserved.





 

 

 

[*] A short list of ‘gadget angst’ books and articles:

Books

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
Hamlet’s Blackberry
iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind
Married to Distraction
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future
The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
You Are Not a Gadget

 

Articles

Google Is Making Us Stupid and Smart at the Same Time?
How Good Software Makes Us Stupid
Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Life in the Slow Lane: a Tech Detox Experiment
Mind control: Is the internet changing how we think?
Your Brain on Computers: Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime
Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain

 

 

 

 

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