We Do Have a Choice

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I'm starting to see mentions pop up here and there about how excessive, undisciplined Internet and electronic gadget usage can change how our minds work, complete with scientific studies suggesting that physiological changes are happening to the brains of heavy users. The article, "Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price," in the Business section of the New York Times is a very good example.

The results from such bad habits (and the changes that go with them) can range from routinely "losing" enormous amounts of time by merely surfing, playing video games, and checking email all the way to "missing" things -- like "one of the most important e-mail messages of [one's] life" -- or starving important "real life" relationships of attention.

Despite my blogging, I would guess that I am probably less caught up in the problems endemic to the lure of electronic time thieves than many, and yet I've noticed myself becoming more productive, or generally enjoying things more than "normal" whenever I have far less time on the Internet than I normally do, as with the first part of our vacation last week.

The other shoe one knows will drop (if it hasn't already) will be for people to start calling for the government to limit the amount of time we can spend using electronic devices, as if these things are "forcing" people to become unfocused. To the contrary, I think that being aware of the problem, having a proper view of one's nature as a rational being with free will, being aware of the importance of a rational hierarchy of values to one's survival, acting on such information, and a commitment to monitoring one's progress is all one needs to head off or overcome such difficulties.

Correcting such a problem can be difficult at first, and the article offers an interesting biological suggestion as to why -- beyond simple questions of technique on such concrete issues as, "How does one best keep track of time when multitasking?" (Note: I find much wrong with many theories about how the mind works, such as evolutionary psychology, because so many assume determinism. However, I still see merit in considering how past evolutionary pressures may affect how the mind works. Also, I find plausible arguments to the effect that such Internet usage can "rewire" parts of the brain to an extent.)

The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain, one that technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated.

Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.
In addition to the kinds of consequences already noted for a lack of focus, there is an emotional component: higher feelings of emotional stress.

The above reminds me of the following description of pragmatism by Leonard Peikoff in his essay, "Pragmatism vs. America" (Ayn Rand Letter, vol. III, no. 16, May 6, 1974):
In the normal course of affairs, the pragmatists elaborate, men do not -- and need not -- think; they merely act -- by habit, by routine, by unthinking impulse. But, in certain situations, the malleable material of reality suddenly asserts itself, and habit proves inadequate: men are unable to achieve their goals, their action is blocked by obstacles, and they begin to experience frustration, tension, trouble, doubt, "disease." This, according to pragmatism, is when men should resort to the "instrument" of thought. And the goal of the thought is to "reconstruct" the situation so as to escape the trouble, alleviate the tension, remove the obstacles, and resume the normal process of unimpeded (and unthinking) action.
Given that pragmatism divorces man from his principles during the conduct of his daily life (to the point of making a rational hierarchy impossible), such a parallel should be no surprise. I would even say that pragmatism makes the challenges posed by the question, "How does one properly use this new technology?" much more severe by masking them and by turning self-correction into a trial-and-error process.

Just consider the following account, taken again from the Times article, just after it detailed how Kord Campbell missed a minor mistake that cost him $1800 over a six month period:
Mr. Campbell can be unaware of his own habits. In a two-and-a-half hour stretch one recent morning, he switched rapidly between e-mail and several other programs, according to data from RescueTime, which monitored his computer use with his permission. But when asked later what he was doing in that period, Mr. Campbell said he had been on a long Skype call, and "may have pulled up an e-mail or two."
And this reminds me of a passage by Ayn Rand -- from a wholly different context -- that seems especially apropos. This is from the second part of her essay, "The Establishing of an Establishment" (in The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. 1, no. 17, May 22, 1972):
Thus most men succumb to an intangible corruption, and sell their souls on the installment plan -- by making small compromises, by cutting small corners -- until nothing is left of their minds except the fear.
That is exactly what happens when one says something like, "Oh, it'll take just a moment to check my email," enough times during an unfocused period at the computer. The problem -- insofar as the new technology is the culprit -- is that such distractions are so easy to indulge and that such indulgence can appear to come at a negligible price. Timewise, it's inexpensive once, but the real, huge cost, is a short-term yanking from (or remaining out of) focus (which can contribute to wasting more time), and a worrisome long-term development of a habit of being less focused than one ought to be.

Of recycling, I once noted that, in terms of time lost in one's life, it is deadly. Look how much more so can going on autopilot be! Learning to resist the insidious temptation to do this posed by our myriad new electronic devices and Internet services is the key to ensuring that they enhance our lives, rather than slowly sapping them away.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Misuse or overuse of electronic devices, including the Internet, is definitely a philosophical problem resulting from lack of focus and lack of rational goals, and not a problem with the technological product. The same is true of two people tossing a wrench back and forth out of boredom and injuring themselves.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed, but it is much easier to screw around on the Internet than to do so in many other ways. It's also easier -- as the article shows -- to lose track of it or even to write it off as time "working."

For someone who is at all out of focus, I'd say the Internet is much more dangerous than many other things.

Stephen Bourque said...

Good post, GVH, and good point about the temptation the government will likely have to restrict online time to save us from ourselves.

Interestingly, the thing that I'm worried about is sort of the flip side of your point--namely, that the government might actually encourage the use of electronic gadgets for exactly the same reasons. For instance, government officials might push programs to get every school kid a laptop, to close the "information gap," etc. (Perhaps both limitations and incentives would exist at the same time; consistency is rarely a requirement of government policy.)

I don't mean to suggest there is a conspiracy to "de-focus" people; I'm sure many politicians have good intentions. But I always ask: cui bono? In the normal course of its meddling, a paternalistic government would surely find more of the sheepish pliability it requires from a population that is uniformly distracted. The last thing a welfare state wants is a population of independent, focused thinkers who will not passively accept the politically-correct orthodoxy. Distractions assist potential dictatorships more than they impede them.

Gus Van Horn said...


You raise two excellent points I wish I'd mentioned.

The article mentions children using laptops, and I have wondered myself about the advisability of introducing children to computers at too young an age. Making them never able to focus sounds like good reason to worry there, in light of the "need" to make all children "computer literate" as soon as possible.

And, yes, I would agree that the government would quite possibly end up offering conflicting "incentives" regarding computer use. After all, it taxes tobacco AND hectors smokers at every turn, does it not?