Negativland was asked to be guest editor of MAGNET this week, which poses a challenge to such a large collective of members with extremely disparate tastes and obsessions. Members Peter Conheim and Mark Hosler came forward to share what’s been on their minds lately and, indeed, what’s informed their thoughts and work over the years. The group’s new album is entitled It’s All In Your Head and, being entirely about faith, monotheism and why humans believe in God, comes packaged inside of an actual King James Bible. And while religion and intolerance are posing the biggest and toughest dilemmas facing the world today—well, excepting that climate business—Negativland will focus instead this week on such things as sounds, pictures and books. And the impending death of everything due to digital technology.
Mark Hosler: New technologies enter into our lives (like, say, the ability to digitally copy and replicate things, and make new art and music that way) and, as a society, we do not tend to have very in-depth or thoughtful conversations about just what these new technologies might mean for us and our lives and well being. What if, for example, upon the invention of the automobile, someone told us “Well, yeah, you do get to be mobile in this amazing new way, and see and do all kinds of things you never saw or did before, and you’ll get all kinds of goods brought to your doorstep that you never could get ahold of. But, well, see the trade off is that it will tend to atomize and fracture your communities and alienate you from one another, you’ll build your entire modern living infrastructure around the use of them, you’ll destroy your air quality, about 40,000 of you will die each year in accidents in them, and your country will repeatedly go to war and bankrupt itself to get the energy stuff you need to run those things. Oh, and yeah, I forgot, it will contribute in a major way to the end of your entire planet due to the climate change that those auto emissions cause. So enjoy that car, OK?”
So, just what is that harmless digital device, the one you hold in your hand right now and are using to read this article, doing to you? To all of us? Nothing? Something? Could using it possibly be chaaaaaaaaanging you at levels we are not aware of? Check out The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr for some well-researched and thoughtful answers to that question.
In his very-easy-to-read book, Carr convincingly argues that Western civilizations’ now ubiquitous use of all these iDevices is a sea change in how humans think and relate to the world and to one another, one that goes beyond the ways that are commonly understood. It’s a change, he suggests, that is as sweeping as the invention of the book. Drawing on research into brain science, brain development, and neuroplasticity, Carr finds much evidence that the technologies we use to find, store, and share information are literally rerouting our neural pathways, and dramatically and even physically changing our brains. The author is no Luddite, but offers what is ultimately a damning and very disturbing perspective on where these machines seem to be leading us. It’s surprisingly scary stuff.
The prefrontal lobe is where we store our short-term memory, and the hippocampus is where we store our long term memories. Our devices and how we use them fill up the short term memory part of our brain with more noise and useless neural trash (more cat videos, please!) than ever before in human history. Our brains love the “hit” of instant information and novelty, and can’t resist it. The short term is useful for when you need to keep some piece of information in your head for just a few seconds. Maybe it is a number that you are “carrying over” to do a subtraction, or a persuasive argument that you are going to make as soon as the other person finishes talking. It’s useful for survival, but it is no good at distinguishing important long-term information from the noise and trash we fill it with. The long-term memory part of our brain, the hippocampus, does that part, especially when it gets information in a slow drip from things like reading books or writing essays. It’s where we thoughtfully sort through information to make smarter long-term choices about our lives, who we love, where we live and work, who we vote for, what our economy ought to look like, when to go to war, what laws we may or may not need, etc., looking at the big picture and into the deep future. Neuroscience tells us that the more we use the short term, the larger it gets. And the less we use the long term, the smaller it gets. (Yep, our hippocampus is actually shrinking and our prefrontal lobe is actually getting bigger! This factoid kinda blew my mind.)
The impact of this is huge and quite weird to learn about, though it is something I have often intuitively thought might be true, especially when I observe how people use their devices in public spaces. Our brains and even our physical behavior is being modified by these things, as if we are willingly turning ourselves into some kind of human/machine Borg-like hybrid. Or like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. We still look kind of human, but what are we becoming? I know that sounds a bit extreme, but read this book and decide for yourself if this what we want for ourselves and our world. I think it’s a discussion very worth having. If our long-term memory is vanishing, and our short term is full to bursting with useless distraction, how in hell do we run our lives, our cities, our states, our countries and our planet, and commit to the hard choices we clearly need to make as a species if we are to save ourselves? Essential, zoom-out-to-the-big-picture reading, The Shallows is one of the most thought-provoking and startling things I have read in many years.