Among the recurring elements of what my sons call “family photos” are the iPhone pictures snapped at family get-togethers in which we’re all looking at our iPhones. My youngest son (who is one of the worst offenders) usually labels those pictures “warm family moments” or something equally sarcastic.
I don’t think my family is unique. Enter an elevator or restaurant, or just walk down a city street, and most people you encounter are staring at the small screens. That reality–and it certainly seems to be a universal reality–raises the question: what is this seductive technology doing to our brains?
I am of the generation old enough to remember a time before cyberspace but young enough to have grown up a digital native. And I adored my new land. The endless expanses of information, the people you met as avatars but cared for as humans, the sense that the mind’s reach could be limitless. My life, my career and my identity were digital constructs as much as they were physical ones. I pitied those who came before me, fettered by a physical world I was among the first to escape.
A decade passed, and my certitude faded. Online life got faster, quicker, harsher, louder. “A little bit of everything all of the time,” as the comedian Bo Burnham put it. Smartphones brought the internet everywhere, colonizing moments I never imagined I’d fill. Many times I’ve walked into a public bathroom and everyone is simultaneously using a urinal and staring at a screen.
Klein referenced several of the 20th-century media theorists, including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and Neil Postman, who “tried to warn us.” And he quoted Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”
The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.
Sound familiar? It sure does to me. And it resonated with Klein, who was particularly struck by the word “hungry.”
That was the word that hooked me. That’s how my brain felt to me, too. Hungry. Needy. Itchy. Once it wanted information. But then it was distraction. And then, with social media, validation. A drumbeat of “You exist. You are seen.”
How important is the choice of the platform–the medium–through which we receive messages? Like Klein, I’d always supposed that content is more important than the medium through which we access that content, but the theorists he cites beg to differ.
McLuhan’s famous insistence that “the medium is the message” reflected his view that mediums matter a lot–in fact, that they matter more than the content of the messages being conveyed. Different mediums create and communicate content differently, and those differences change people (and ultimately, society). As Klein concedes, “oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.”
Like several commenters on this blog, Klein has been influenced by Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
McLuhan says: Don’t just look at what’s being expressed; look at the ways it’s being expressed. And then Postman says: Don’t just look at the way things are being expressed; look at how the way things are expressed determines what’s actually expressible.” In other words, the medium blocks certain messages.
Postman was planting a flag here: The border between entertainment and everything else was blurring, and entertainers would be the only ones able to fulfill our expectations for politicians. He spends considerable time thinking, for instance, about the people who were viable politicians in a textual era and who would be locked out of politics because they couldn’t command the screen.
Later, in this very long essay (which is well worth your time to read in its entirety,) Klein makes an important point:
There is no stable, unchanging self. People are capable of cruelty and altruism, farsightedness and myopia. We are who we are, in this moment, in this context, mediated in these ways. It is an abdication of responsibility for technologists to pretend that the technologies they make have no say in who we become.
I wonder: what have we become?