M I N D CH A N G E THE ODYSSEY OF OUR TIME
‘The illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship’ Words ~ Vanessa Austin Locke Illustration ~ Steven Wilson at Breed London
25/06/2012 08.02 “Sunshine…on your back. I’ll bring you an apricot and a sweet cup of coffee.The corridor bends. I see the small hairs in the smallest small of your back…the long ones above your eyes.Timetimetime x sink.”
one that will be familiar to most of you.The Internet explosion is one thing, but the social Internet explosion is quite another.We’re all fairly familiar with inhabiting a 2D world, but what happens when we start co-habiting in a 2D world?
This is the first thing I see upon waking. It’s a message from a friend. We’ve been engaged in an instant message dialogue for nearly two years. The conversation is often non-lucid, sometimes it stops for days or weeks following a tiff, sometimes it’s frantic and produces hundreds of messages a day.The conversation is over 400,000 words long. It’s The Odyssey of our relationship. It’s uninhibited, ugly, revealing, narcissistic, voyeuristic, eloquent, frightening, comforting and incredibly precious. It shares links to music and articles, it’s illustrated with images from our lives…a photo of a page from a Bukowski book…a flower so close up you can’t tell what it is…his tattooed arm looped around with wire, part way through some task.The sight of my iPhone screen flashing a message from this particular friend on the particular app we use (WhatsApp) has a physical effect on my body now. It’s like the lurch you got as a teenager when you saw the boy or girl of your fancy walk by without noticing you. A heightened awareness, a racing heart, a sensory prickling. The sound it makes calls me like Pavlov’s dog. I’ve been trained, by my machine, to respond. I’m compelled to read it right away and I reply immediately, no matter where I am, who I’m with or what I’m doing. No. I reply almost immediately. I shape my impulsive response into something considered, yet all the while pretending, as the recipient will pretend on receiving it, that it’s unrehearsed and ‘real’. And while I’m forming a response (and I’m always forming a response), my mind is elsewhere. But where is my mind?
Turkle is the author of Alone Together, and in a talk on TED.com she says, “When I ask people what’s wrong with having a conversation they say, ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.’” That has, on the very day I write this, been backed up by Ofcom’s annual communications market report, which reveals that sending a text has overtaken making a phone call, with 58% sending daily texts and 47% making daily phone calls. The report, which you can read online at stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk, begins with this statement: “Text-based communications are surpassing traditional phone calls or meeting face-to-face as the most frequent ways of keeping in touch for UK adults.” Turkle continues later in the Ted.com talk, “We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere.” She refers to these new kinds of relationships as “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”.
25/06/12 08.04 “Timetime. Time to start again. Why, thank you for my coffee, sunlight and apricot Methuselah…Good morning.” 25/06/12 08.07 “Good morning.”
She continues, “Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are”.What have you noticed over the last decade? Does your mind feel different? Do you compulsively check your phone and computer? Have trouble being alone? Is there a deficit in your attention? Do you feel like you’re on cheap speed? A bit ADD? Have you ever tracked your activities online? Seen how you jump from one link to another to another, become distracted as a message pops up, begin another task, forget what you were doing? How many browsers are open at the end of your day? What does the patchwork of your online life look like? How’s your memory? Do you ever find yourself furious beyond reason at your inanimate device when it slows down? Perhaps you’ve cried when it’s broken? How many different points of contact do you make in a day?
Co-habiting Imagine And so we begin our day together. I’ve come to call him Methuselah because I can barely remember a time without him, yet we meet perhaps two or three times a year, and when we do conversation is awkward, strained and stilted.We don’t translate into 3D.While Nicholas Carr, author of the controversial essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? and the recently published and acclaimed book The Shallows, is still very much engrossed in individual experiences of the effects of the internet on the brain and psyche, psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle has started looking into something which, to my mind, is infinitely more complex. This other, 2D time and place we inhabit is
Baroness Susan Greenfield is a writer, scientist and broadcaster, and author of ID:The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century and, most recently, You and Me. She believes that we’re experiencing cognitive overload. She calls it ‘mind-change’ and makes the pithy comparison to climate change. At an IQ conference she gave a talk entitled The Internet and Mind-Change and gave us a neuroscientist’s perspective on what’s happening to our brains. She began by defining the term ‘plasticity’ which means ‘to be moulded’ and made the case of how sensitive our minds are to change.This is where neuroscience and psy-
chology meet. An experiment was conducted by Alvaro Pascual-Leone in which three groups of people where subjected to three different tests. The first group were put in a room with a piano and asked to stare at the piano. The second group were taught how to play scales on the piano. The third group were asked to imagine they were being taught scales on the piano. The results for the first group, the ‘control’ group, showed that the brain was unimpressed, but the results for the second group, the ‘physical practice’ group and third, the ‘mental practice’ group, showed remarkable similarities. What this experiment illuminates is that the impact our fantasy life has on our prefrontal cortex (the cognitive part of our brain) is practically the same as the impact actual events have. And thank God metaphysics, defined from the Greek metá (beyond) and physiká (physics), is finally back on the table; Aristotle called it “The Queen of sciences”. At last we can stretch our philosophical legs again. Too long have we lived in a world dominated by fundamental scientists peddling ‘facts’ as if there were such a thing. We’ve taken so much wisdom from Ancient Greece, but we’ve discarded its mythology and banished it to a world of fairytales and fantasy. Well here it is, fantasy – practical reality as far as our brains are concerned. Baroness Greenfield finishes this section of the talk with a flourish, quoting Arvid Carlsson who developed L-DOPA Therapy for the treatment of Parkinson’s - “Thinking is movement confined to the brain.” The Empathy Equation Greenfield goes on to discuss the loss of senses we experience in a 2D world. We’re down from five to just two; sound and vision. When you talk to someone, words have 10% of the impact, eye contact and body language are responsible for 55%, voice (tone of) takes up 35% and then there are the smaller impulses that pheromones and physical contact cause. Could the isolation of our senses be causing our collective empathy to decrease? A link is yet to be made as far as I’m aware, but a study from the University of Michigan of over 14,000 college students shows that empathy has been in decline for 30 years, and that decline has accelerated in the last decade. “The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years.To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University” – Jamil Zaki, Scientific American. Indeed, there was a little flutter in the press back in March of this year when researchers at Western Illinois University made links between “socially disruptive” narcissism and people with a lot of Facebook friends. Greenfield wonders, with the hint of a twinkle in her eye, if those who compulsively update their status and Tweet mundane banalities are facing an existential crisis. The Ritalin Generation Greenfield rounded off by discussing a cycle of excitement, addiction and rewarded experienced in a high-speed 2D interactive environment, which releases dopamine (the brain chemical that is released by
sex, chocolate and addictive drugs), propels the cycle and inhibits the cognitive dimension of the prefrontal cortex. This means our reactions become sensory, impulsive and compulsive, and remember that in a 2D world we’re restricted to two senses.This is a similar mindset to a child or a schizophrenic. Greenfield describes this process as “the moment…where sensation trumps cognition and hence the screen, with its premium on strong sensation, will trump cognition”. It could easily be argued that we are being trained by our machines, as one might train a dog to seek random rewards with a clicker. Her argument even has the support of Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, who has said “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information…is in fact affecting cognition”. And just take a look at the increased use of methylphenidate (Ritalin), used to medicate our little darlings when they can’t keep still for fifteen minutes, and when they’re not self-medicating in front of the very screens that may be causing their attention deficit.There’s a vicious cycle for you. Chatting to Greenfield, I ask her to give a forecast of what she thinks we can expect to see more of in the future. On the plus side she predicts good working memories, higher IQs and faster processing. But on the down-side she envisages a fragile sense of identity, shorter attention spans, low-grade aggression, living in the ‘here and now’ (the hippies might like that one, but really, we wouldn’t get much done) and increased vulnerability to manipulation. She leaves me with a statistic from a National Trust report, dryly dubbed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. The statistic is this: children’s roaming space has shrunk by 90%. That means that the space in which children play, run, climb trees, ride bikes and so on has been abandoned. Can you guess where the children are? Where is their 10% of space? Greenfield knows. The time spent on various devices by US children between the ages of 13-17, as reported by their parents in September 2010, was 30+ hours per week. And as she points out to me, that little plus sign could rise to anything. The kids are living in a 2D fantasy metropolis and they’re beginning to call it home. Fantasists So, are we all becoming fantasists? The obvious (and most fun) example to look at here is sex. The Internet has made pornography hyper-accessible. In fact, it’s not only accessible, but unavoidable. It pops up when you’re illegally downloading films, it appears in your Facebook stream, and young boys and girls are exposed to things that most people in previous generations would never come across in their entire lives. Everyone knows what a snuff movie is, a few unfortunate people will know what I’m talking about when I say ‘Mr Hands’ (if you don’t, do yourself a favour and don’t Google it, you’ll never be able to un-see it). Wolf-gagging is passé, basic bondage, anal sex and spanking are, quite literally, child’s play. Now a young 24-year-old male has been so over-exposed to graphic pornography that the only thing that gets him off is a girl throwing up on his penis. You think I’m exaggerating. I’ve done my research and you don’t have to dig very deep into the sexual psyche to discover how fantastical we’ve become. What might be worrying is that we risk sacrificing our cognitive elasticity. Once something’s impressed the prefrontal cortex, with a heavy smack of dopamine (sex, chocolate and drugs), it’s not likely to be un-impressed.Turkle thinks that, “We’re letting it take us places where we don’t want to go”. Could it be that we’re giving ourselves incrementally accumulated PTSD or similar on a huge scale? I can imagine that we might see a new disorder enter the ever-expanding
in our minds for all of this? Cramming everything in, we’re missing everything, our synapses are frying, like our computers when we’ve just got too many programs open. How long will it be before the cognitive overload Greenfield speaks of goes boom and we detonate? Will it be a big boom, or lots of little ones? Has it already begun? I’m pretty sure mental health figures are still on the rise.They usually are in the UK. The rat race was never so fast or so furious. We’re chasing the dragon. And of course, everybody knows, the dragon can never be caught.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders within the next few years. Something like Online Attention Trauma Syndrome (OATS to its friends) doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility. And of course, we must keep in mind that psychology is still a relatively young practice. What we don’t know about the human mind will fill many libraries in the future and a phenomenon as huge as the Internet can’t fail to have a profound impact on the brain. What’s even more interesting in terms of fantasy – staying with pornography as the example – is that we’ve started to make our own.The increased narcissism mentioned earlier is reflected in the use of things like the Mac programme Photo Booth. Have you taken an amateur photo of yourself and uploaded it onto Facebook? Most people have. Sharing saucy pictures of our own naked bodies with lovers, prospective lovers or even strangers met online is fairly common practice now, even if we won’t admit to it.We look through our friend’s holiday snaps on their iPhones cautiously, our friend snatches it away and scrolls past images of her naked lover or indeed images of herself, taken by herself for her lover, before allowing us to continue. Everyone in the group titters and passes knowing looks. Are our inhibitions down or up? Putting a technological barrier between yourself and your lover creates a very useful smokescreen, allowing us to titillate and fornicate in ways that we might not if our lover were beside us because we have complete control. Just look at the online dating boom. Imagine having video sex on Skype, at the end of which you don’t have to engage in pillow talk, make your excuses and scurry off into the night; you can just close the lid of your laptop and your partner is gone.
Urban Decay I have a dead friend on Facebook. She’s been dead for three years, yet her Facebook page remains. I visit it occasionally. People have left tributes, like flowers at a grave.There’s always a little flurry around her birthday and the anniversary of her death. Occasionally, an overcome friend has let their desperation, grief and rage rip. I scroll down to her last activity. I have to scroll quite far now. And there I am, at the moment she stopped. And I want to clean up, like the scene of a crime. I want to bury her, put her away, close down her page, give her last rites. And all over this metropolis we call the Internet there are these abandoned, unfinished sites. The 2D urban decay of our online world has begun. I have a deactivated Facebook page where another me, another life, floats, suspended at the moment I abandoned it, like the Marie Celeste. My dead friend stands, an abandoned building in a constantly expanding sea. Her Timeline has ended and I hear Virginia Woolf say with wistful bitterness, “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories”.
But are our brains being impressed as though we’ve actually done the things we’re fantasising about with the audio/visual aid of various multi-medias? And how’s our empathy doing in all this? Empathy, the thing that makes us humane. Turkle believes, “People experience pretend empathy as though it were the real thing”. When we’re fornicating with our lover in our 2D world, are we interacting with them, or ourselves? Is our empathy engaged? Can it be fully engaged through the barrier? Or are we watching ourselves bouncing off our absent companion, then reflected back to us through the screen? Mesmerised by our own sexuality, our own joy, our own sorrow, our own success…are we becoming soft-core megalomaniacs? Take the compulsion we have to express information now for example. The Tweet, the status update, the email that one person needs to see, cc’d to everybody. Wasn’t there a time not so very long ago when we would sit with our thoughts until they were processed and ready to be expressed? Now it seems like we feel a sort of rising panic, a need to purge our foetal ideas, the flora and fauna of our lives, like a two year old whose first egotistical tantrums scream “I exist! I exist! I exist!” Turkle sums it up neatly by saying, “I share, therefore I am”.
Listen Turkle the psychologist and Greenfield the neuroscientist are worried, and while I see their concerns I’m also inclined to look upon all this as an evolution and rapid adaptation to a new mental environment, but one we should certainly begin to have a wider conversation about. I find Turkle has a wonderfully sensitive, optimistic and human approach however as she explains, “That feeling that no one is listening to me is very important in our relationships with technology”. And who is listening, while we’re all so busy making our own noise? She reminds us that, “Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology”. She finally encourages us to, “Listen to each other, including to the boring bits. Because it’s when we hesitate, or stumble, or lose our words, that we reveal ourselves to each other”. 25/06/2012 11.57 Methuselah…I’m for bed. Goodnight. 25/06/2012 00.09 Woman…I wish you were here. I’d tell you a story about a horse and a terrace and a house made of origami.
Archiving We’ve begun to archive ourselves and others obsessively, becoming fixated on this or that. I predict a rise in fetishism of every kind. Just look at the Facebook Timeline initiative, or Apple’s syncing fixation, all the apps for us to make notes with until we have notes of notes of notes. Nothing must go unrecorded. Time is eluding us and we must rush, gather it all, not let anything slip away, we mustn’t forget all the things; the things we need to do, the things we’ve done, moments we’ve had, the feelings we’ve felt, the films, the songs, the articles… But aren’t we supposed to forget some things? Is there really room
Methuselah doesn’t really want me there. He wouldn’t tell me a story. Turkle hits the nail on the head once again when she says, “Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy”. What Methuselah wants from me is hassle-free proof that he matters and that he exists, as I do from him. But this proof…it’s no kind of proof at all. Methuselah does not matter. Methuselah does not exist. And neither do I.