September 02, 2008

No Time to Think

Dear Friends:

"No Time to Think" is the title of a lecture given a few months ago by David Levy of the University of Washington at the Google Corporation. I found it very thought provoking, and wrote Prof. Levy a response. Thought you all might be interested in this. First, here's the link to the lecture:

And here's my response:

Dear Prof. Levy:

Someone recently sent me the video of your March lecture on the matter of information overload. I thought the history of the problem, as you presented it, was terrific. (I cover some of this, BTW--esp. the control revolution, rise of the corporation, and rise of advertising--in my book "The Twilight of American Culture".) The case you make for the need for quiet space, related to creativity, is obviously an important one.

I also enjoyed the photo you reproduced of the billboard in Northern California, telling us to "fill your head." I teach at a university in Mexico City, and 2 weeks ago was driving through town with my dean (dept. of humanities), when we passed a billboard ad for cell phones, which had the caption--in English, for some reason--"KILL SILENCE". Says it all, I thought. My dean suggested that I was "fixated" on the matter of cell phones pervading our culture. Later, I realized that this was to frame the topic upside down: it's the *culture* that's fixated--on cell phones and related toys; I'm just pointing out the fixation. But from the world view of a fixated culture, of course, I'm the one who is going to appear "fixated". (Depends on where you are standing, I guess, as Archimedes showed us long ago; Tom Stoppard, more recently.)

I've slowly been working on a book over the past couple of years tentatively titled "Progress and Its Shadow." Meanwhile, I discovered that someone named Eric Cohen beat me to it (sort of--although I have yet to read the book) with his own title, "In the Shadow of Progress." In addition, the last couple of years have witnessed a fleet of articles on the subject of backlash--that multitasking and all of these toys actually *decrease* productivity (to the tune of a lost $650 billion to US industry in 2007). Thus there was a recent article in The Atlantic on "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", and a number of essays on the detrimental effects of multitasking.

The real problem I see in dealing with the shadow is, I have to say, something I feel you missed in your presentation, namely, that technology is not neutral. We commonly believe that it is merely a tool, like a razor blade: you can slice salami, or your wrists; it's a matter of choice. But as writers from Herbert Marcuse to Marshall McLuhan have shown, tech is very far from neutral; it changes the environment in which we operate, until the medium becomes the message. (In Marcuse's language, modern tech is "purposive-rational"; it shatters the context.) Hence, when you talk about creating "contemplative space" within a virtual setting, or of having people bring their laptops into quiet areas of a library (and how is it, that libraries now have to have "quiet areas"? I thought the idea of the library was that it be *entirely* quiet)--well, these are really just technological fixes, it seems to me. And they won't work: you bring a laptop into a library, and ultimately it becomes a different sort of place. The problem with the yogic response, of being a "lotus in a cesspool," so to speak, is that eventually what you get is not a transformed cesspool, but rather a dirty lotus. Or to put it another way: sure, you can read the work of Lao-Tzu online, but this is not what a virtual environment is designed to do. People don't lose weight from diet cheesecake, and the physical environment is not going to be saved by hybrid cars. Your solutions, noble though they are, will eventually be overwhelmed by the context, by the nature of the technology and the momentum of a culture based on expansion and innovation.

By way of comparison, consider the history of our solutions to previous overload situations, such as the control revolution, or the rise of advertising: the remedies were worse than the disease, don't you think? Corporations are now destroying the planet, the worker, or the possibility for a healthy way of life; advertising is--well, no need for me to elaborate on the manufacture of false needs, I'm guessing. We now have three choices regarding the information overload problem, inasmuch as these intermediate possibilities you are suggesting--halfway houses, really--finally won't (imo) change the larger picture.

The first would be legislation regarding the use of technology in public. For example, there are 5 contemplative areas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY--or used to be, anyway. Now, people sit in those spaces and talk on their cell phones, destroying the ambience for which the spaces were originally designed. The problem with legislation is that no one is willing to enforce it. The guards certainly don't care; and the Met can't afford to lose "customers". Legislation regarding the use of cell phones in cars (the source of a huge number of auto accidents every year) has been notoriously ineffective. Nor will it stop the multitasking that goes on at work, quite obviously--employers think it's groovy, even though it's actually costing them millions or billions of dollars every year. I think it's a good bet that the world described by one of the authors you cite, Thomas Hyland Eriksen ("Tyranny of the Moment") will continue unabated, at least for the next few decades.

The second is to physically alter the brain so as to adapt it to hyper-busyness, multitasking, and the new technologies. Francis Fukuyama discusses this a bit in "Our Posthuman Future," and other scholars, such as Maryanne Wolf at Tufts, has written about how digital technology is actually rewiring the brain. Human identity, after all, has not changed in the last 100,000 years (when Homo sapiens sapiens 1st appeared), since the physical brain has not changed in that time period (this being a time span too short for biological evolution). So the "answer," much like the rise of the corporation or advertising, is to force the human being to be like the technology. Prozac, in effect, has already been doing something of this sort, and it should come as no surprise that 2/3 of the anti-depressant drugs consumed in the world are consumed by Americans. This is the Brave New World "solution"; sad to say, I think it is likely.

But it doesn't preclude the 3rd solution, namely, that the whole system, the arc of capitalism itself, from the Commercial Revolution of the 16th century to the Tech-Communications Revolution of the 21st, will finally break down. This strikes me as being *very* likely, and the whole literature of World Systems Analysis (Wallerstein, Chase-Dunn, et al.) supports this view. After all, we didn't leave the Middle Ages voluntarily; it was no easy passage--in fact, the Plague was probably the least difficult part of it(!). This too has been heavily documented by hundreds of historians, and if these sorts of major transitions are any guide, what we shall eventually go through will be nothing short of catastrophic. And I suspect that solution #2, physically altering the brain, will be part of this process. A recent review of one of my books, "Dark Ages America," states that the core of the book is the argument that "the empire we so greatly desire is the destruction we ultimately obtain." That summary seems relevant to the matter of solution #3.

Thank you, in any case, for a stimulating lecture, and for allowing me to bend your ear (eye?) in response.

With kind regards,

Morris Berman