This is your brain on the Internet

Our love for glowing rectangles has completely transformed how we relate to the physical world

Topics: Cluster Mag, The Internet, Psychology, iPhone, addiction, ,

This is your brain on the Internet (Credit: Illustration by Molly o.)
This article originally appeared on Cluster Mag.

When I’m riding the L train underneath lower Manhattan, I practically start to shake with anticipation as we approach 6th Avenue, where everyone with an iPhone knows 3G service magically resumes.  We all reach for our devices simultaneously, but as relieved as I am to scroll through my Instagram feed, there’s that corresponding pang of guilt.  We’ve all been so fixated on this idea of screen addiction being indicative of the “big problem” with technology; I know if you’re reading this you’re probably self-conscious about how much time you spend staring at glowing rectangles, too.  So why are we so anxious about our love for the screen, and what exactly is this constant connection doing to the way we relate to the world around us?
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Wired-up writers have mobilized a lot of braincells recently exploring the split between online and embodied life, arguing over the potential for real connection, meaning, and engagement in the network.

For some it’s a question of signal decay. The medium that facilitates these types of connections adds noise to the line. Many modes of communication—gesture, intonation, pheromones, psychic energy―aren’t accommodated by text-based messaging or Skype chats. The bandwidth is literally too narrow.

For others it’s a question of the types of behavior that these digital channels engender. Transmissions are quick and cursory, attentions spans are reduced, users aren’t paying attention to any one message because they’ve got six windows open at once. And everybody knows multitasking is not only making you depressed but preventing you from doing any one of those tasks well. Which is making you more depressed. Vicious.

Detractors point to the ease with which you can form wildly aggressive opinions while you’re safe behind the screen or carelessly retweet a link to some article that you didn’t actually read. Two words: flame wars. Look at how little is required of you to reach out on someone’s birthday. A simple “HBD bro” on their timeline will suffice. These digital counterparts to IRL activities—having an argument, sharing an article someone wrote, saying happy birthday―have less emotional weight in the network.



And for many, it’s about proximity; presence and absence. The fun of sharing, liking, chatting across the digital ether could never compare to the exhilaration of touch, smell, the feeling of bathing in someone else’s intangible physical aura.  But beyond the individual concerns that have driven us to wring our hands sore over each new technology, it’s worth taking a hard look at our reaction to such progress itself.

A couple weeks ago the New York Times once again weighed in on the subject, providing sensationalist and classicly vague warnings about the “powerful lure of devices” and the “immense” damage that screen addiction can do to our offline relationships. They even quoted the chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco (who apparently moonlights as a lifestyle coach/mindfulness guru) telling us to turn off occasionally and take a deep breath. How kind of her, to lead by example! The Cisco officer “meditates every night and takes Saturday to paint and write poetry, turning off her phone or leaving it in the other room.” A Facebook executive provides a dire account of what is at stake here with screen addiction if we don’t start stepping away from our devices, saying, “If you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll boil to death ― it’s a nice analogy.” WE’RE ALL GOING TO BOIL TO DEATH!

But reallyI’m not here to takes sides in the showdown between IRL and URL. Suffice to say that, thanks to the champions of the digital age, some of us have begun to see the close-mindedness of this bias towards the physical. Social media theorist Nathan Jurgensonfor example, outlines what he calls an “IRL Fetish,” where offline life is not only erroneously framed as distinct from our online experiences, but granted undue à priori weight in contrast to the speed and ease of digital messaging:

“How proud of ourselves we are for fighting against the long reach of mobile and social technologies! One of our new hobbies is patting ourselves on the back by demonstrating how much we don’t go on Facebook. People boast about not having a profile. We have started to congratulate ourselves for keeping our phones in our pockets and fetishizing the offline as something more real to be nostalgic for.”

What’s really interesting here is the way in which online connections are increasingly characterized by their pathological, obsessive, and addicting appeal. I find myself now preoccupied more by my own anxieties around screen addiction than by the screen addiction itself. The real world doesn’t satisfy me anymore. It’s too slow-moving, colorless, limited by forces of gravity. But where is my shame coming from and why can’t I just give up sight-seeing on the walk home from the subway? Why can’t I feel fine staring into my Mobile Entertainment Device until I get home and can take out my laptop?

It’s all part of a wider self-regulating attitude, an obsession with maintaining some semblance of mental health. It’s an increasingly common fixationand one that may be causing me more mania than clarity. Ultimately, my fear is not only that screen addiction fails to alleviate alienation and loneliness (leaving me alone in a crowd, as they say), but that it obviates the need for me to ever consider how I’m feeling and what I want.

I’m now obsessively aware of the tactics I have adopted for avoiding loneliness and boredom and my inability to sit, wait, stand, walk—whether at a bus stop or headed home from the G train—without smoking, snacking, checking my email, playing Temple Run, thinking about my next Twitter update, framing shots in my head for Instagram snaps. Every moment of under-stimulation is a battle against various oral, manual, or intellectual fixations, and it’s driving me crazy.

My good friend Dana Droppo wrote a recent article about this kind of constant self-regulation. She describes her attempt to cultivate what she calls “a position of enabled estrangement” towards her own potentially harmful impulses to self-stimulate. In her particular context, this critical distance is “essentially the ability to see products of the culture industry with a foreign eye, not using the standard measures of beauty or quality to assess them.”

She relates this anxiety around false desire—a feeling of being coerced away from what we truly want—to “the fear of enlightenment modernity as a tool to produce a mass, unthinking subject. The loss of a person’s ability to think differently than the people surrounding him is, in and of itself, a mode of INsanity that has everything to do with loneliness.” Dana and I, we are experiencing parallel anxieties.

From where I’m standing, it sounds like Dana’s “enabled estrangement” is catalyzed not by an enlightened reflexivity, but by anxiety and insecurity. We’re not talking about the meditating-painting-writing poetry fantasy of mindfulness regurgitated by the Cisco exec. I’m talking about a rigid self-awareness, an exhausting, perverted care for the self stemming from a fear that Dana might become “a drone in the army of an unthinking mass of people,” an affliction that “has everything to do with the inability to be alone.”

Now bear with me: there is a particular variety of schizophrenic fantasy, described most prominently in a 1919 case study, that looks strikingly similar to what Dana and I, and most likely certain columnists at the New York Times, are experiencing.  The paranoid delusion is quite ominously referred to as “the influencing machine,” and as explained by neurologist Victor Tausk:

“The machine serves to persecute the patient and is operated by enemies. To the best of my knowledge, the latter are exclusively of the male sex. They are predominantly physicians by whom the patient has been treated. The manipulation of the apparatus is likewise obscure, the patient rarely having a clear idea of its operation. Buttons are pushed, levers set in motion, cranks turned. The connection with the patient is often established by means of invisible wires…

It produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain. In such cases, the machine is often called a ‘suggestion-apparatus.’”

The fear of an influencing machine manifests now in the fear of the marketing apparatus and the technologies that facilitate it. Marketing, by definition, is a coercive force that creates desire where there is none. We fear it is so convincing that it comes between us and ourselves.This is where we return to Dana’s point that an inability “to think differently than the people surrounding [us] is, in and of itself, a mode of INsanity.” I wonder if ‘conformist’ is a clinical category of abnormal psychology in the DSM-IV.

The fact that the machine is operated by enemies smart enough to work its many foreign cranks and levers and pulley systems makes it a potent metaphor for more general or abstract social technologies that frame desire, pleasure, and fulfillment for us. Technologies are never neutral; they are always embedded with cultural assumptions and they dictate the way we see and relate to the world around us. Have you found yourself thinking in 140-character anecdotes? Have you been seeing the world through the filters and frames of your Instagram? Have you been at a party where your homie did something ridiculous and you bookmarked it so you could re-hash the story for a Facebook timeline format the next day?

My own understanding of this delusion is filtered through X-Files and Men in Black; the machine is operated by (what I imagine to be) evil lab-coated, face-masked white men silhouetted by the sterile light of the clinic. Or, you know, Mark Zuckerberg.

And sure, the apparatus has operators, but it can also act autonomously. Its keepers can set it free, carrying the ideological biases and cultural assumptions of its creators, and its victims are drawn into its discursive framework. To accept it means to lose the ability to articulate ourselves except through the logical grooves that are inscribed in and re-inscribed on the cultural field by the influencing machine. So do we know ourselves anymore? Can we express the full depth and complexity of ourselves if we are limited to the channels provided by the technological regime? What is at stake here? Individuality? Are we afraid that when we have joined the swarm, we are in fact the loneliest we could ever be?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the clinical condition “Internet Use Disorder” “is being recommended for further study in Section III, which is the section of the DSM-V text in which conditions that require further research will be included.” For the most part, the criteria for establishing Internet Use Disorder has to do with online gaming, probably in response to all of the horror stories about Koreans dying in month-long Starcraft skirmishes. So this latent clinical category is constructed in particular to treat people who are literally dying because they can’t feed themselves or make it to the bathroom; too busy questing! But it’s the tip of the iceberg for understanding a wider cultural anxiety around individuality, agency, and our relationship to the hive. I guess we’ll see what happens when the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes out in May of 2013.

Consider the ways in which this schizophrenic paranoid delusion, which was previously confined to a marginal clinical category, may now be an endemic anxiety in wired-up worlds where bigger and faster waves of technology can standardize the ways we understand, relate to, and express our unique and wonderful selves. The fear that we are becoming out-of-touch with the real world may just be a proxy for a fear that we are becoming out-of-touch with ourselves because we never stop to ask,“who am I? What do I want?”

Max Pearl is the founder of Cluster Mag. He likes to write about the internet and wishes he didn’t take his iPhone out at dinner all the time. He also writes about music, art, and this crazy globalized world we’re living in.

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