Is technology unplugging our minds?

We may be able to multitask our way through life -- but at what cost to our humanity? Three new books examine the world technology begat.

Published October 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the course of conceiving this paragraph, I checked my e-mail three times and fired off four responses. I took a phone call, visited a few Web sites -- simultaneously, I might add, on two computers -- and perused some posts on an online bulletin board. I snuck a peek at the latest news wires, gobbled some take-out Thai food, read a press release. I did this all while switching back and forth between two Internet radio stations, which I listened to through headphones.

Some would call this multitasking; my editor would probably call it procrastination. But for others, it's a sign of the continuing demise of intelligent life on earth. Is this glut of information, technology, advertising -- omnipresent, at our fingertips, in real-time, all the time -- somehow frying our collective synapses? Instead of sparking a global renaissance of thought and culture, is the world of zippy information turning us into automatons compelled to plug in but unable to engage in complex ideas?

Technology is making our world a better place: That's the message being drummed into our heads by countless magazine cover features, television advertisements and latest-greatest Web sites. Despite the occasional naysayer -- hysterics who believe, post-Columbine, that access to information and technology is corrupting our youth -- the consensus has been that thanks to technology we are all becoming more informed, accessible, connected. E-mail your long-lost grandma; start an e-commerce company; buy a Beanie Baby from a paraplegic in Singapore; make a friend; make a fortune -- these are the promises of technology. But some observers have begun to question that rosy picture, and are engendering a mini-backlash to our collective pro-technology brainwashing.

In the last month, three new books were published -- "Faster" by James Gleick, "Coercion" by Douglas Rushkoff and "The End of Patience" by David Shenk -- which purport to expose the dark underbelly of technology. Less doom-and-gloom neo-Luddites than "enlightened skeptics" (as Shenk's jacket-flap puts it), Gleick, Rushkoff and Shenk examine how the information overload is affecting us, changing our lives and rewiring our brains.

Yes, we may be able to multitask our way through life -- but what is this doing to our souls? Is technology the Frankenstein of our generation, the beautiful creation that is misfiring -- even though we don't want to admit it?

The answer, at least according to these three, is a reluctant yes. "When we do adjust to high-stim, we make significant intellectual sacrifices," observes David Shenk, in "The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution." "There are, no doubt, some intellectual benefits to the intoxicating speed of information and stimulus. And of course it's a wild, fun ride, but the damage is real."

How, though, are we being "damaged?" I grew up with mouse and remote in hand, so it's easy for me to understand what has changed; but it's difficult (and dangerous, perhaps) to equate the changing social and mental equilibrium of progress as "damage" that needs to be fixed. And, sure enough, these authors -- two of whom helped start the "technorealism" movement -- offer no real solutions to the changes they are witnessing; they serve instead as documentarians, sadly shaking their heads in hopes that they can ward off the oncoming storm.

Shenk, with the most dire perspective of these three authors, has written on this theme before. His 1997 book, "Data Smog," warned of system overload, and predicted that the glut of information available to man (thanks to new technologies) would, instead of enlightening him, overwhelm him. "The End of Patience," a series of essays, conversations and tidbits (most published elsewhere), expands on this topic, updating his warnings to include everything from genetics to Barney toys.

Although the book whirls across a dizzying variety of topics, the main focus is on "the thoughtlessness that creeps into our lives when we speed it up." In Shenk's world, every new technology has a dark side. Personalization services constrict readers to narrow worldviews; interactive toys offer false intelligence to children; Photoshop is used to fictionalize "real" photography; Java gimmicks on Web pages train us to demand style over substance. Information technologies, in general, are at the root of "the coarsening of our culture" (a quote Shenk nabs from William Bennett) -- creating shock jocks like Howard Stern and false punditry all across the dial. Shenk even laments the way that speedy e-mail responses beget tiny misspellings that are overlooked in our haste.

Shenk's fear is personified by an image at the close of his book -- a Japanese businessman, hustling through a tranquil rock garden on a cell phone, too busy nattering away to notice the beauty around him. "What more perfect image of the clear and present danger," writes Shenk, "... that people will become so addicted to the pulse of electronic communication, trafficking in the latest data updates, that they will become oblivious to serenity -- oblivious, even, to history."

Fatalistic? Perhaps. Shenk's vision of a world of info-addicted automatons verges on the extreme -- omnipresent cell phones may be a symptom of connection-obsession, but it's a leap to expect that everyone who enjoys information devices will forget to stop and smell the roses. But Shenk is not alone in his pessimism; the views he presents are quite similar to those of James Gleick, whose masterful "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything" provides a more nuanced view of this topic of "hurry sickness."

The main premise of "Faster" is captured in this succinct thought: "If we do not understand time, we become its victims." Gleick portrays a world in which everything has been accelerated, with few real benefits. "In the world before FedEx, when 'it' could not absolutely, positively be there overnight, it rarely had to be," he writes. Instead of a sped-up world allowing us more time for the important things, we are resorting to depressingly shallow time-savers like the best-selling book "One Minute Bedroom Stories."

But increased speed is of little benefit. Although Gleick doesn't outright condemn our culture's insatiable demand for speed, he, like Shenk, seems to have little positive to say about it. "Connectedness has brought glut," Gleick writes. And: "In the evolutionary competition for business fitness, the fast has driven out the slow. Sometimes the consumer benefits. Sometimes everyone just scurries around in real time." In fact, he writes, making the world faster causes us to lose time: We have to constantly train ourselves just to keep up with our own jobs -- accelerating technologies make our skill sets obsolete within years, if not months -- and we walk around half-awake for lack of sleep. We miss out on a symphony because radio stations only play the first movement; we dedicate only 30 minutes a week to sex -- about as much time as we spend on paperwork, he points out.

What we are getting more of, however, is advertising. This is where Douglas Rushkoff chimes in -- pointing out that not only do our new information technologies provide yet more space for commercial messages (rather than thoughtful commentary), but we have less and less energy to think about what they are telling us. "Commercial media seems to have taken on a life of its own, dedicated to selling more goods to more people in less and less time," he writes in "Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say."

"Coercion" is not specifically about encroaching technology -- its focus is on the insidiousness of "coercive" tactics. Rushkoff travels through the various selling environments to which we unconsciously submit ourselves every day -- from "warehouse" stores like Costco and Home Depot carefully designed to connote a discount environment to the six-part customer-interaction script that each Gap salesperson must follow; from the studied effects of Muzak environments and the subliminal guilt tactics of the Promise Keepers to the growth of the online data-mining industry.

Rushkoff, the media theorist who wrote "Cyberia" and "Media Virus," was an early champion of the Net and the utopia it would create; here, he has done an about-face on the topic. Now, he's reassessed our world and seen the dark side of the Information Age. He argues that communication technologies are not being used for enlightenment, but to hawk products in an even more targeted fashion, thanks to data-mining. "It is a recipe for technologically induced obsessive-compulsive behavior, as our desires are repeatedly amplified and then fed back to us. The one-to-one future differs from the marketing we're subjected to today online in its speed and specificity," he observes.

The catch, of course, is that the unnerving side effects of technology that Shenk, Gleick and Rushkoff detail are all our own fault. "There is no 'they' who can reverse this process without our consent and participation," writes Rushkoff. "For without our complicity, they are powerless. Without us, they don't exist."

Instead of trying to slow down and limit messages, we demand the speed, the technology, the input, the choices: As Gleick writes, "We humans have chosen speed and we thrive on it -- more than we generally admit. Our ability to work fast and play fast gives us power. It thrills us." Gleick dismally describes why networks are shaving down the time of the blank screens between television shows (we're talking milliseconds here): because we demand more channels, and those channels demand advertising to stay alive, and those advertisers demand eyeballs, and because our eyeballs are unwilling to sit still for just a few seconds to see what's next. Because we, remotes in hand, have the power to see what else is out there, and therefore we will.

These three books all seem to have a deep nostalgia for the way things used to be, a lingering sense that things might have been better before we became addicted to our speedy media and technologies. Not that the authors are preaching that we should blow up our computers -- these books are far more thoughtful than that. These writers clearly love their e-mail and tech tools, even as they flip them over to examine the slimy critters scurrying around in the dark underneath.

Though they argue that we are losing ourselves to overstimulation, these authors don't want to halt the advance of technology. Yet, they don't offer any concrete solutions. For example, Shenk's solution for his perceived dilemma -- the possibility that we will become so engaged with our technology input that we will become incapable, quite literally, of stopping to smell the roses -- is simplistic. He writes that we must "relinquish power back" to authorities, giving politicians, rather than individuals, responsibility for managing our technological advances: "Important aspects of our health, safety, justice and economic and political stability must be entrusted to public officials -- public servants -- who work to maintain larger social interests in our behalf."

I'm not so convinced, however, that the alarmist and generally Luddite government always has my best interests in mind; or that most politicians are knowledgeable enough about technologies to make informed decisions about them. Another remedy proposed by Shenk is to teach kids to think critically: "How can we best build that bridge to the next century? By teaching every eight-year-old to read, every 12-year-old to be skeptical about what he or she reads, and every 18-year-old to distinguish corporate hype from reality."

A worthy goal, if vague in its application. Rushkoff's solution is more blindly pessimistic: "In the worst case, by pacing and leading ourselves into abject despair, we may force ourselves to find remedies more profound than Prozac. We may choose to take the time to distinguish between what we're told and what we really want. We may even find a way to think for ourselves." Gleick offers a similar assessment, watching the graph of progress speed toward infinity: "Maybe when the slope ahead gets impossibly steep, acceleration gives way to paralysis," he muses.

Both Shenk and Rushkoff are members of a small movement called technorealism, which hopes to throw up some warning flags about technology, not to turn back time, but to "understand it and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human values." (Gleick could be an honorary member.) It's a worthwhile pursuit, but reading these books made me feel that the technorealists are like a crossing guard tremulously waving a red stop sign in hopes of diverting an oncoming stampede.

After all, even if many of us are conscious of the ethical and cultural side effects of our advancing technologies, it's highly unlikely that we will slow down our ever-forward-churning progress. Or, as Gleick asks, "Is the accumulation of speed, along with the accumulation of variety, along with the accumulation of wealth, a one-way street in human cultural evolution?" The advance of technology has never been stopped before, as these authors all admit at different points in their books. Nostalgia for lifestyles past seems futile.

The nostalgic concern at the heart of these books seems to be that kids won't grow up to appreciate the finer things in life -- the symphony, the rock garden, long lovemaking sessions. Personally, as a member of that Gen X/Gen Y group that these authors are so concerned about, I don't cotton well to the argument that we are being turned into automatons by our technologies. I grew up with twitchy video games and remote controls, the Internet and MTV, but I would argue that I am a well-rounded individual, quite capable of having a thoughtful conversation when engaged by the topic, of reading a 1,000-page book if I so desire, of lying on the beach with my eyes closed and doing nothing but feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin -- even if I don't do these things as often as past generations did. There are other benefits of the Information Age that I enjoy instead.

Sure, sometimes I realize that I am distracted beyond all belief, attempting to do 10 things at once and doing none of them well. I multitask like a fiend -- witness my writing habits. There are times when I want to slow down, think, relax; and usually, when that happens, I do slow down and relax. I would not consider my values, intelligence or motivations to be any less worthy than those of my parents, grandparents or great-grandparents -- or of Shenk's, for that matter -- though they may be very different in character.

Rushkoff is the only author to point out the silver lining of the Information Age, positing that access to this media glut is creating more savvy kids, able to see through the hype to the corporate agenda. The remote, for example, becomes a "postmodern art unto itself" used by viewers to create a personalized pastiche of ads and images, "often thwarting their creators' original purposes in the process." The Web, in turn, "encourages us to think for ourselves" by giving us access to raw information and communities of like-minded individuals, undermining our "naive acceptance of the television image," and giving savvy users "the home-field advantage."

The younger crowd may even be more likely to avoid coercion: "Unlike the adult marketers pursuing them, young people have grown up immersed in the language of advertising and public relations. They speak it like natives. As a result, they are more than aware when a commercial or billboard is targeting them. In conscious defiance of demographic-based pandering, they adopt a stance of self-protective irony -- distancing themselves from the emotional ploys of the advertisers." (Of course, he adds, advertisers simply become more sophisticated in return.)

That's not to say that there isn't a danger of the younger generations becoming too tech-centric, and vulnerable to coercive outside stimuli. It's fair to assume that information technologies are at least a factor in some of the problems we're seeing with kids today. But despite their merits -- and don't get me wrong, these books offer thoughtful, nuanced arguments well worth pondering -- reading Shenk and Gleick might well leave you believing that the younger generations will grow up to be zombies, with no goals or desires but input, input, input.

These books leave no doubt that, thanks to technology, our lifestyles are changing -- and our motivations and habits are changing along with them. There may no real "solution" except to note that the change is happening, and to be conscious of how it is personally affecting you. As Rushkoff tells Shenk, in a dialogue captured in "The End of Patience," "I look at information overload as a problem of filters -- not technological filters but psychological/moral/ethical filters. Technology has given me the power to create the life I want for myself. And what I've got to do now is disengage from certain behavioral programs that are in place in my brain."

It is, perhaps, less a question of redirecting the flow of technology and information, and more one of acclimating to it in a wiser, healthier way -- to be aware that when you are multitasking, your attention can be dangerously divided, and might need rebalancing by focusing your attention on one thing for a while. A reassignment of values -- what Shenk terms as "damage" -- is probably inevitable as the world around us changes so dramatically. The fear, though, should not be of the technology that we are creating, nor the input we are receiving, nor the speed that we demand -- but that we won't get the education we need to discern between the real, and the real-time.

Perhaps our culture is in a great decline, overstimulated beyond repair by a glut of shallow technologies. Or perhaps we're moving toward a different kind of realization of man's potential, one we couldn't have conceived before. Regardless, progress comes prepacked with drawbacks; some are worth lamenting, but others are not.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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