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Lions Roar : May 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2013 66 the content of a medium is just “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch- dog of the mind.” We have to notice how we are being affected by the process of texting, calling, posting, linking, searching, and scanning. More than just creating distraction, our grow- ing addiction to the Internet is impairing precious human capacities such as memory, concentration, pattern recognition, meaning-making, and inti- macy. We are becoming more restless, more impa- tient, more demanding, and more insatiable, even as we become more connected and creative. We are rapidly losing the ability to think long about any- thing, even those issues we care about. We flit, mov- ing restlessly from one link to another. It may seem like we’re in the process of discovery, but many stud- ies now show that multimedia environments—with links, photos, videos, bottom text crawls—don’t encourage learning and retention, because so much information overloads our circuits. Nicolas Carr, in his compelling book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, describes us as minds consumed by the medium. “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire deliv- ery of competing messages and stimuli.” He quotes Seneca, the Roman philosopher from two thousand years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” The Internet, by design, gives individuals the capacity to fragment information and use it how- ever they choose. Today, there are hundreds of mil- lions of personal filters operating at cyber speed, taking others’ expressions out of context, selecting parts they like, and constructing selves for public viewing. What’s being created is millions of individ- ual identities, brilliantly displayed. What’s being lost is a sense of collective identity, of the shared mean- ing that transcends the individual and brings coher- ence to a culture. We’re losing the capacity and will to enter into each other’s perceptions, to be curious to see the world from another point of view. Our insatiable appetites for self-creation and self- expression have transformed us into twenty-first- century hunter-gatherers. We’ve become addicted to where the next click might lead us, so we keep hunt- ing incessantly. Overwhelmed by inputs, caught in our self-sealing cycles, we devolve into self-manu- factured people driven apart by rigid opinions and lonely for acceptance, into hungry ghosts grasping for the next new thing to satisfy us. I chose the word devolve very carefully. The most dire consequence of this instant-access, information-rich world is that it has changed the very nature and role of information. In living sys- tems, information is the source of change; Gregory Bateson defined it as that which makes a difference. Information no longer plays this mind-changing role. No matter how reputable the science, or how in-depth and thorough the investigative reporting, no matter the photos and evidence, we sort through the information with our well-formed personal filters. Information doesn’t change our minds; we use any report or evidence merely to intensify our assaults on the other’s opinions. When we aren’t interested in disconfirming information, when we fight to protect our own opinions rather than work together for a reason- able decision, the world becomes unpredictable and random. It seems as if there’s no order, but it’s we who are the source of the chaos. When we don’t think and discern patterns, events seem to come and go out of nowhere. We don’t prepare for natural disasters; we mock leaders who take time to make decisions as “indecisive”; we refuse to read well-developed analyses; we criticize complex legislation for its page length. At work, we demand five-minute presentations and elevator speeches to “get” whatever the issue is. If something complex requires more time to understand, we’re too busy. Just like the radio operator on the Titanic. The world, of course, is neither random nor cha- otic. It’s our lack of thinking that makes it appear so. Before many disasters, the information is there that could have prevented a tragedy. After a disaster, I wait to see how long it takes to reveal the informa- tion that was suppressed, the voices of warning that were silenced. This is always the case. Before the economic collapse, a few people saw the illusion for what it was (and were able to profit from the meltdown). One year before Katrina, the federal government had simulated just such a catastrophic hurricane, but officials failed to do the prep work specified in their action plans. PHOTOBYJAMESSEBRIGHT/MILLENNIUMIMAGES.UK