Recently I’ve been thinking about how much time we, I, spend on the internet. I’ve thought about it before.
There was a time when I did not want a computer, whether it was a matter of being something of a technophobe or simply a general leeriness for reasons that I couldn’t quite explain, the idea simply didn’t appeal to me. However, we did get that first computer and eventually I learned how to use it pretty well. But how much internet time is too much internet time?
To say that we are a nation, a world, addicted to the internet is an understatement.
In her 2011 film “Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death and Technology”
Tiffany Shlain explores some of these ideas, from her unique perspective, constructing the film as an autobiography of sorts during the last months of the life of her beloved father, renown brain surgeon and author, Leonard Shlain. Her narrative begins with recounting a trip across country to see a dear friend whom she had not seen in some time. During their lunch, Shlain found herself overwhelmed with the urge to check her phone, admitting to eventually excusing herself from the table to go to the ladies room where she hid in a stall to check her emails, twitter feed and text people, thinking and chiding herself about it, wondering, “What am I doing?”
Shlain goes on to explain, through a very personal story, with wonderful narration by actor Peter Coyote through the less personal parts, how use of the internet actually rewires the brain, how dopamine is released with every click. While Shlain does not make this comparison, I was reminded of experiments done on lab mice, click, click, click, to get that fix. Shlain goes on to explain how this constant state of connectivity is creating a global thinking, what she calls “interdependent thinking.” She also covers the ideology of how literacy, left brained thinking and the like have typically lead to patriarchal societies and the suppression of women. While I do not agree with everything that Shlain puts forth, there’s certainly a lot of food for thought there.
We, my husband and I, had at times talked of how it was when we were kids, the evening news, the East Coast was a very faraway place, Europe seemed practically another planet, rarely did we hear about car chases that occurred out of our local vicinity, for something to make the National News, it had to actually be something. It made the world seem big, it made those stories that did make the news, seem important, because they were. Issues arising in foreign countries were presented as they related to us here, and then as they related to the world because here, meaning wherever you were, was the world. If a major movie star were photographed getting out of a car in a skirt sans undergarment, the story might not have hit the media for weeks, if it ever got to the media at all. Post war generations were appreciative the of problems of the day as they related to daily survival, from the Great Depression to the post WWII years of the Cold War to issues like the 1973 OPEC crisis, people understood the world differently, as a matter of how did the “news” affect them directly and how could it? “Problems” were viewed less globally, more individually.
|Rewiring our brains one click at a time.
I thought, as a matter of thought, “Am I supposed to be more worried about the riots in Egypt than the weeds in my own backyard?” And what I mean by that is thoughtfully this, what Shlain poses is the ideology of that connectivity, the idea that if it affects one of us it affects all of us through this connectivity and in some way this connectivity of the world via the internet is really just a reflection of that reality that we are all connected only now we can see it in a way that we never could before, one satellite photo and there it is, however…the reality, in asking that question, if I spent less time on the internet, on this “connectedness” and more time concerning myself with those weeds, with … a garden where I could grow some of our own food, our some flowers…wouldn’t that be more beneficial to the world? To me? Something I can do something about, verses something I really have little power over? If I cut down on my wastefulness, as an individual, doesn’t that benefit everyone a lot more than my awareness of things going on thousands of miles away that I have no ability to affect? These are generalizations to be sure however the gist of it is that doesn’t individual responsibility, in whatever way one is capable, help the group? It is also important to continue to ask these questions.
There were themes in Shlain’s promotion or proclamation of this new “interdependence” that I didn’t care for, that gave to me the feeling of all of us being one interdependent blob of humanity lacking individuality, frankly, there was something kind of “Shiny, happy, people holding hands.” ~ R.E.M. ~ to it and as a writer, that kind of bothered me. But there again, that speaks to individual experience as apart from asking some of the same questions, there’s little in Shlain’s experience or personal relationships that I’ve anything in common with. It’s important to note that because as an independent being, it matters. Though this is not intended to be a critique or review of her film, not at all, moreover a matter of looking at how much time the world spends plugged in. And me, as an individual, rethinking how much time I spend on the internet and other such activities.
Shlain provides this quote from her father, “We are the only species that knows we are going to die.” ~ Leonard Shlain
Meaning that while some animals may go off alone when they are ill or when their final days are upon them, humans possess conscious awareness of our own mortality. She also gives examples of what I will call the arrogance of mankind’s interference in nature in attempting sometimes to control it. During what was known as The Four Pests campaign from 1958 to 1962 in China, Mao Zedong undertook the eradication of rats, flies, mosquito and sparrows. When they killed all off the sparrows the locust population exploded, the results to crops were disastrous. She also talks about the dying honey bee population, how we have begun feeding honey bees the cheapest food source available, corn syrup, and importing honey bees from Europe. This reminded me of the many articles that I have read about the proliferation of soy in our diets and its many dangers, soy is very cheap to grow, it is, in effect, filler. Mankind has often lived without respect for the balance of nature, most markedly since mankind determined itself not to be a part of that nature but separate from it as beings capable of self-awareness…this is also expressed by Shlain as man trying to separate himself from nature, the irony.
But then, one must ask the question, is that the nature of man, in some way, and therefore somehow will it ultimately prove to be in balance with the nature of everything else? Is mankind a kind of ultimate checkmate for all of the other creatures and perhaps a very necessary one?
About the technology she offers…“Nothing vast enters society without a curse.” ~ Sophocles and, “What began as a way to improve life is now threatening to consume it.” Aha!
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently set new guidelines for “screen time” for kids.
According to their studies, children ages eight to eighteen spend an average of seven and a half hours a day using media for entertainment and that this increased web time has actually begun to interfere with verbal communication and personal interaction and relationship skills. They issued recommendations for children age two and under because apparently this is also an issue, parents introducing their children to tablets and computers use while those children have yet to be graduated from diapers. I am thankful that in my day it was still simply a matter of trying to set limits on television and video game time.
I began to feel very uncomfortable with these new facts knowing full well how my own internet use had sometimes eaten my life. I spent less time on the internet for several days, I noticed that when I got back online again, I didn’t like the way I felt. I didn’t feel as good as I had when I’d been doing other things. I thought…to paraphrase something from Napoleon Dynamite, “I don’t love technology.” I like technology, but I don’t love it, in a general sense. Specifically though, Shlain’s story illustrates the sometimes phenomenal benefit of advances in technology, particularly in the field of medicine. Technology was meant to be a tool at our disposal, something within our control, not out of it.
“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” ~ 2001: A Space Odyssey
I thought about how the internet has created the seeming demystification of nearly everything. The East Coast doesn’t seem so far away and what is it that has happened to our sensitivity as there is so much available to be outraged over at any given moment that again…are we missing those things closer to home? Those things that we might actually be able to affect? I thought about how it used to feel to go somewhere and be somewhere and not have anyone there be telling the world in that exact moment, “Here we are!” To take pictures of happy things that would only end up in a regular photo album for posterity, for joyful personal memory. I mean no criticism in that, it is the technology driven world we live in, only to comment on my growing awareness of it. There are also seemingly endless sources of inspiration and knowledge available twenty-four seven, and thus that click, click, clicking as the internet has the potential to rewire the brain, it is also, according to Shlain, an external extension of it, almost a prosthetic, if you will.
Being on the internet, after a time, there was this strange feeling, this thinking that I had to define myself according to the options presented by social media in neatly pigeon holed categories, ostensibly as identifiers for…other people? I realized that I didn’t or hadn’t thought about any of those things all that much in terms of explaining them to other people, that I was who I was and I didn’t worry about it but that really maybe I had experienced that in the “real world” too. What are your politics? Religion? Your position on the major issues? And if you cannot answer any of those questions concisely or are unwilling to, can you come up with something erudite, pithy, clever, to fill in those blanks so as to disarm those who feel that they need to know, so we can all feel comfortable? Is this any way to get to know one another?
I also realized that it was out of character for me to have concerned myself with it, trying to define myself in some way that was understandable or palatable to others, to the degree that I did, with such a preoccupation. I think that I wanted to or wanted that to be easy, as though I expected that something that took me years to figure out could be reduced to a simple equation for others. I’m really intelligent but I’m not Einstein, I had and have no simple E=MC2 to explain…me, other than maybe that somehow does because Einstein was that kind of smart. I’ve not ever been one to really use the full capacity of my phone as the hand-held computer that it really is, still I found myself in a moment of realization not unlike that of Shlain, hiding in the bathroom stall to text during a lunch with a friend that she had traveled cross-country to see and hadn’t seen in years, I thought, “What am I doing?”
With this came a lot of what I’ll call scattered thinking, keeping more than one notebook at a time, writing things down and forgetting where I put them, making the same list over and over again, inability to concentrate, trouble reading books which was something that had never happened to me before, I could plow through a few hundred pages of good book in a couple of days, worrying about things I had posted in the same way that previously was reserved only for stories I had written or conversational faux pas that would previously have been made only in the actual presence of maybe one or two people. The internet, is the constant stage. However part of the appeal for me in being a writer, not that being a writer is really something that I think anyone can choose or help, was in that it is largely a behind the scenes activity. Rock stars join bands because they want to be…rock stars, writers… it’s usually an individual activity, or lack there-of depending on how it’s going.
Could it be that what I was feeling were the effects of the internet on my neural pathways? The results of my brain being rewired without my even realizing it and in a way that I would not have approved of ? Studies have shown this to be the case, Shlain herself cites one such study that indicates that the I.Q.’s of those who became internet multi-taskers dropped as much as ten points. A 2007 study by UCLA Professor Gary Small indicates the same and worse than that, that within this rewiring there is often increased anxiety as well an increased inability to focus. The internet is rewiring our brains.
I thought, I really liked the way that my brain worked before the internet, back when I didn’t even want a computer. I loved my brain. My brain was AWESOME.
The truth is that my brain still is awesome, I still love my brain that figured out that it needs to spend less time on the internet so that it can rewire itself the way that I like it to be again.
While Shlain ends her film on a hopeful note with a positive regard for the future of technology in our world, I don’t know that I’m quite as certain about that or the ideas of interdependent thinking and, or living in the global technologically connected sense at least. Call me old-fashioned, I’ve made peace with that, I remember the real olden days before answering machines and pagers even, when being away from home meant that whoever it was would have to call back, and the world kept turning. For me, my opinion and belief is that independent thinkers and group problem solving are both a vital part of the balance and on a more personal level, learning to let go is essential to our individual growth and maturation. It is the “Think globally and act locally” ideology and that isn’t a bad one, only, perhaps there is some room there for defining what that means and I mean, I think I’m going to spend less time on the internet and more time pulling weeds, metaphorically speaking.