The Incertus blog has been gathering tumbleweeds for a while, now, and Brian's already mentioned some reasons why: he's been tweeting, po-editing at the Rumpus, and then there's just the exhaustion. My only excuse is the exhaustion. And the source my exhaustion is my own damn fault: it's the way I've been living my life.

Technology has been changing our brains for a long time, and overall I think that's great. In societies without writing, people can remember verbatim not just innumerable myths and legends, recipes and folk wisdom, but the receipts of commerce going back several years. I can't even tell you what my co-pay for a specialist is, and I've paid it several times.

But in the end, it's better overall to have writing than to have super-awesome memories. And we could all improve our memories if we really wanted to. But, ya know, Mythbusters is on, and I want to see them test the earwax candle while playing Bejeweled Blitz and watching my friends' Facebook status updates, although I'll really be thinking about the 50 things I need to do that I'm not doing.

In other words, just like so many others, my focus has decreased beneath the length of a tweet, and I've been sucked into the vortex of modern life in which tasks whirl about at the ends of my attention and the end of my every rope is frayed.

Because it's changing my life, I decided to do some research on the subject. It took me a while though, because I did it while doing 20 other things. ;) I've discovered that, contrary to popular wisdom, younger people who multi-task by habit are not "better at" it, not even at Stanford, and that by making ourselves so distracted we're increasing our chances of death. There's more: frequent multitasking so stresses the body it makes us age faster by pumping us full of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol also makes us gain weight. And when we do two or more things at the same time (or try to) we're less productive and the work gets done less well. Multitasking even shifts tasks to a part of the brain that doesn't retain memory, meaning you'll go through your work like an Ambien-amnestic, waking to discover you have no idea what you've read or done. It's all a big clusterfuck of best intentions gone horribly awry: as forgetting was brought to us by writing, all this was brought to us by technology too.

But while writing was probably worth the loss of our full memorizing ability, is being able to play games, chat with friends, and be entertained in multiple ways at the same time worth getting old, fat, incompetent, and amnestic before our times? And what of the corroding effect on our relationships? How many of us are now in love with someone who must struggle to put down his iPhone and laptop and whatever else just to look us in the eye?

I think, after all, having these fantastic technologies at our fingertips is less like the advent of writing or some other useful technology than it is simply the decadence of over-abundance. We are like children let into the eternal candy shop, and we do not know how to show restraint. There is a pain welling in our bellies telling us to slow down, to stuff fewer things into our faces, but everything tastes so yummy and there's always another treat we haven't yet tried.

In the Star Trek universe, they have the holodeck, a room where real-as-life computer-generated people, places, and things allow people to live novels, go skiing, or relax on an alien beach. It took a long time for Trek's authors to address the idea that some people might get addicted to that world, might not be able to show restraint. The suggestion is that most people could handle it; just one or two would have "a problem." But that flies in the face of what we know of human nature: in our world, few are able to show any restraint at all. If we had holodecks, only a few people would live in them, but most people would frequent them to distraction. Very few would naturally show restraint.

And that's where we are: a smorgasbord of delights abounds around us, and we're making ourselves miserable with them. Some say technology is changing what it means to be human, but so far, that's not true: nothing could be more human than the way we indulge, the way we sacrifice our long-term happiness to achieve short-term desires. If there is to be a change in human nature, it would be this: that we develop an extraordinary ability to self-control, a machine-like regularity in how we indulge or refuse to, in our ability to focus on a subject or task absolutely when we are required to. We would have to develop these new abilities, because the technology's not going away, and there will only be more and more, and soon.

So my goal is to grow as a human being, to evolve to meet the needs to the technology around me. That doesn't mean making myself more available to it; that means developing the ability to refuse. Hopefully I will slow my consumption, and I will do only one thing at a time, and I will be less exhausted, and I will have the attention to write a blog post longer than a tweet. That's what I hope.

Newer Post Older Post Home