22 June 2011

Splashing in the shallows

Apparently, at least according to the t-shirt of the cheese-monger in our local "I can't believe the Celtic Tiger is with O'Leary in the grave" delicatessen, there is some sort of ongoing kerfuffle in Libya. According to his shirt, he is willing to die to keep Libya free, a pledge probably unnecessary in central Dublin but nice to know all the same.

As I queued up yesterday to buy a sandwich I thought to myself, 'surely this can't be the same Libyan kerfuffle that started all the way back in February? I would have thought that millions in "aid" to the rebel forces, daily poundings by NATO, UN Resolutions and, above all else, a veritable El Nino of Twitter messages would have long ago broken the resolve of any embattled dictator, but apparently not.

Being under heavy medication and/or pain for an extended hospital stay is not the most conducive environment in which to watch epochal events unfold on 24-hour rolling news channels. The ongoing and patronisingly named "Arab Spring", and the horrendous earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan simultaneously transfixed me and passed me by, in that I was both glued to the screen by the immediacy of it all and yet now struggle to remember much of what I saw.

For much of my time in hospital I lived very much in the moment, focused on getting through the next few minutes between pain relief, the next hour or so between medications, making it to midnight and the last check-in by a nurse until 4:30am so I could try and get a few hours sleep. Focused so much on the Immediate, I found it almsot impossible to concentrate on anything; I could not read a book or more than a single article in a newspaper, I couldn't listen to more than a song or two on an album or talk with anyone longer than a few minutes. I just couldn't sustain the attention. I could, however, watch the same rolling footage on TV over and over again, passively, never really absorbing it, never really taking it in on anything more than the most superficial of levels.

In the last week or so I've been able to get back some of my focus, and reading once more has become a thing of pleasure. I just finished "The Shallows", by Nicholas Carr, a pop-sci/tech book examining the neurological effect that sustained Internet use has on us individually and collectively as a society. Carr's basic thesis is that the brain is plastic, in that it continues to grow and develop throughout our lives in response to actions that we carry out. Repetitive behavior strengthens some parts of the brain and an absence of other actions cause reductions in other parts of the brain. We have two types of memory, short term and long term, and both contribute to different aspects of our decision making processes. Internet use encourages growth in short-term memory and a corresponding boost to rapid decision making, but at the expense of long-term memory and, as we understand things better when they are stored in our long-term memory, our analytical abilities. Heavy internet users are capable of multi-tasking, but approach the same problem the same way when exposed to it at different times, with little learning from their previous experiences. The more we use the internet as a substitue for memory, as we become creatures of search and not retention, the more difficult it becomes for us to reason and explore complex arguments as our brains rewire themselves to focus on the instant and immediate.

This all sounded a lot like my heavily medicated hospital experience, and an entire society functioning under reactionary narcosis cannot be a good thing, but it would explain a lot, not least the ongoing NATO/US/UK madness in Libya and Afghanistan.

The Shallows is well worth reading if the Internets are your thing. It grew out of a 2008 article in The Atlantic entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid", and I think you all know my answer to that. The book expands on the article by focusing on the historical development of technological aids to our cognitive abilities, and the subsequent neurological and societal effects.

And yes, I am aware of the irony of summarizing a book on the dumbening effects of the internets in a blog post. But its not real irony, only internet irony. You'll soon forget it.

Photo: Libyan pro-revolutionary leaflet in the form of pre-Gaddafi bank note, as distributed in our local delicatessen.

"Is Google Making Us Stupid" from The Atlantic, July/August 2008
"The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember" by Nicholas Carr

Also serving as a good counter-weight to all the nonsensical articles that have appeared in the wake of the 'Arab Spring', about how the Internets have liberated the oppressed peoples of North Africa and calling for Twitter to be given the Nobel Prize (well why not, they gave it to Obama didn't they?) is an article in the March/April edition of New Left Review by Hazem Kandil on what actually happened during the Egyptian uprising. Gil Scott-Heron would have been disappointed to learn that the Revolution was, in part, televised.



At 2:29 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

You might be interested in 'The Filter Bubble' also..


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