The Interwebs: Electronic Insanity and Mental Environmentalism
Are your heartfelt attempts at being genuine, authentic and
intimate with other human beings, or even your self, being
dashed by addicts having conversations with invisible people?
Finding it hard to read 4 or 5 pages, let alone a whole novel,
unless it's something from the Young Adults genre? Well,
since the 1997 AOL sign-up boom, which was followed quickly by
the emergence of social networking websites, massive file
sharing, and high quality streaming video, a dialog has been
brewing from all participants, "Is the Internet playing with
our brains?" Recent studies and publications seem to be
tilting the meter from "likely" to an emphatic, screaming,
At the forefront of this discussion is Nicholas Carr's recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains. Carr points out that any advancement of technology, but especially those of communication, have a naturally occurring rewiring effect on thought and behavior. Marshall MchLuhan, Neal Postman, and other popular media-technology analysts anticipated this mass effect many years ago, though few could've anticipated the computer would go from being the size of a few school buses to fitting in the corner of our pockets so quickly. The Internet and the psychosocial dysfunctions that accompany it seem to have crept up on us all like a psych-brain virus with a decade long incubation cycle. Or, an incremental assault on thinking and being.
We can now step into computer or gamer addiction support groups the same way a drug addict does. "Digital Depression" was identified some time ago by Dr. Peter Honey who noted, "the profusion of communications technology (mobiles, email, blueberries, wireless PDAs and laptops) are contributing to a rise in employee stress levels, currently affecting 64% of the working population," and that was back in 2003. Since then, the landscape has been numbingly dotted by WI-FI, Android, Internet televisions, and the advertising/social networking behemoth Facebook, which, if ranked as a country, would be listed as the world's third largest nation (also sporting a 14 billion dollar price tag). It's hard not to feel like an insect in an expanding electronic colony.
Our very personalities, what defines us as who we are (socially speaking), seem to be degenerating into a miniature Internet, with no time allotted for reflection on just what it is we actually are -- what "holds" this experience of being together. The persona itself has become a kind of hyperlinked body, connecting to whatever the latest crap we lapped during our last surf, or we drop into the bits in our personal meme hall of fame when there happens to be an uncomfortable silence.
A study from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, "24 Hours: Unplugged," asked 200 students on the campus to give up all media for a full day and blog on private Web sites about their experience. Student reaction showed addiction-like withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, misery, and being jittery, the authors wrote. It's no surprise that conversation is also falling into an abyss of flippant snark, data regurgitation, and monocultural babble (enter Quagmire's "Giggidys" here) alongside the clockwork like dialog dongs of "Umm," "Huh?" and "What happ'n?" So too our relationship to the self as well as the outside world is becoming a desperate realm of agitated ghosts. This is well illustrated in the deeply unsettling documentary "We Live in Public" which stands as a modern textbook account of the depth of psychological unease and violence that can befall individuals when they become the center-point of their own 24-hour CCTVed, digital utopia. Even Charles Manson pointed out how grotesquely juvenile the consciousness of a culture is that requires movies to see the obviousness of our shared plight -- "Avatar" anybody?
We now gobble food and relationships as carnivorously as we gobble data -- without stopping to actually taste, savor, enjoy, and digest. We move on to the next brief satisfaction. The public declaration of one's "availability" speaks something nasty about who and what we assume relationships are: "...soft, strong, and disposable," as Madeline Kahn said in "Clue." It's getting to the point where one may wonder if Oscar Wilde would have enough toner to finish printing the satire our digital selves are worthy of.
In this swelling info-orgy more people from all walks of life are finding it necessary to disconnect. Bill McKibben noted that, "In the case of the so-called information society, it may be the largest psychological experiment in history." Arianna Huffington and Ellen Kunes, have drawn attention to this problem with the "Unplug and Recharge Challenge." They write, "We're addicted to our personal digital assistants...Thankfully, we're both on the road to recovery." Carr points out on his blog Rough Type, "James Sturm, the cartoonist who has taken a four-month sabbatical from the Internet, continues to write (and draw) about his experience as one of The Disconnected." Outside of Sturm's welcomed soldiering, another answer may lie in Maggie Jackson's "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," which closes with a chapter of her at a meditation retreat in Colorado, through which she attempts to reclaim her attention. It seems that alongside the Internet and the kind of world culture that monetarism allows for -- differential advantage, Gulf Oil spill, political ego-worship, porn-driven advertising, slavery and suffering -- we are coming into a few realizations, and the need for real active change on a personally subjective and a socio-global level is needed now more than ever. This is coming as we begin to realize that our minds are not only being diabolically shaped through language, media, social manipulation, technology, and catastrophe, but also that we haven't even "met" our own mind. As the band Salon of Refuse puts it, we're far too busy with our "Faces to the screens."
The summer edition of Kalle Lasn's Adbusters, "The Whole Brain Catalog," calls for a historic new movement, dubbed, "Mental Environmentalism." The need for this new movement springs from a disturbing prediction from the United Nations: "Mental disease will be bigger than heart disease by 2020." Lasn's article "Ecology of Mind: The Birth of a Movement," outlines "an introduction to some of the mental pollutants, information viruses and psychic shocks we have to deal with daily." This invigorating article ends with a call to subjective arms. "As more people trace their anxieties, mood disorders and depression back to the toxins in our mental world, the first murmurs of insurrection can be heard...we are witnessing the birth pangs of the quintessential uprising of the 21st century...What begins here today will be known as the environmental movement of the mind."
NASA physicist Thomas Campbell's "My Big TOE: A Trilogy Unifying Physics, Metaphysics, and Philosophy" is a worthy handbook for this "Mental Environmentalism" movement, as it not only derives quantum mechanics and general relativity, but also opens the reader to the universe that is experiencing this universe. Campbell's 900-page mind-expanding slap-in-the-face offers one a kind of map of consciousness and subjectivity -- how to easily unload one's accrued mental baggage and move deeper into one's own individual awareness to discover, as he calls it "Big Truth." MBT also outlines the logical, scientific measures an individual needs to take to become a powerful, mobile vehicle in the deep oceans of consciousness rather than a helpless life raft baking to death on the surface.
Ways to break the digital compulsion besides the obvious (God forbid) turning off the toys?
- Limit (or better yet cut off) caffeine and sugar intake. Yes, it's heresy but we're metabolically attempting to recreate 3G with this incessant chemical suckling. It's thoroughly destroying our attention. This means folks will have to read tiny labels.
- Attempt meditation formally, informally (naturally), or through binaural beat audio technology -- which will no doubt become a hugely popular new drugless form of achieving deep relaxation and profoundly wondrous altered states of consciousness once the kids pick it up. Maybe try that ancient Buddhist practice of sky gazing.
- Take heed from "Fight Club." Listen rather than sitting there, pre-loading your turn to speak, like a butt sitting at the thin end of a needle's prick.
- Look deeply into someone's eyes for an evening rather than a screen.
- Talk to a stranger for no real reason -- save for maybe the fact that they are also another living corner of reality, walking along the very same mystery that you are.
- Date a new person you didn't meet online.
- Live without going onto Google for a while -- it blows the mystery and ends the personal, subjective investigation. It's the difference between looking at a field guide to North American insects and digging in your own backyard to find out for yourself.
- For you readers, try Adyashanti, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Thomas Campbell; all these authors' works are dedicated to un-programming the mind.
Internet addiction, digital lifestyles, living inside screens, cultural programming, entertainment distractions, and the constant flow of data maybe returning us to the deeply relevant suggestion mentioned half a century ago, "Wouldn't you love somebody to love" (other than yourself)? Mental Environmentalists, start looking inwardly and outwardly, and don't give up. The answer is already there, smiling.
Image by jurvetson, courtesy of Creative Commons license.