At all times of day and night, mega-news corporations pummel us with the latest about Putin’s global plots, Hollywood sex scandals, our relationship to North Korea, White House turf wars and what’s goin’ on in the head of the most recent mass murderer.
Meanwhile, the audience to whom these updates are communicated are themselves communicating. One man types the details of his latest dentist appointment on Facebook while a woman posts a photo of her oldest daughter’s straight-A’s high school report card on Instagram. Only minutes later, another internet user declares on a Philadelphia Phillies fan site that he’s glad the team’s front office fired last season’s manager. Then, on LinkedIn, a fourth person announces that even months after Hurricane Marie laid waste to Puerto Rico, she still can’t sleep at night in her New York apartment because of nightmares about how, back on the island, her aging father’s house near Utuado was destroyed by a mudslide, after which, while fighting rain and gales to get to a neighbor’s, he tripped over a fallen branch and broke his leg, which hasn’t healed correctly.
So much is going on. But no matter how much happens, or rather no matter what portion of what’s happening we’re actually exposed to, it’s always only the tip of the iceberg. As the latest news flows in 24-7 on our computers, smartphones, TVs, tablets, radios, etc., people wander in and out of malls, gyms and workplaces while advertizing their own news and beliefs on t-shirts, jacket patches, tattoos, etc. Somebody wears a skully with a Nike symbol on it. Others parade in-shirts emblazoned with various messages: “Jesus is your best friend,” “Donate to breast cancer research,” “Don’t kneel, stand for the National Anthem.” There’s no avoiding the pins either: “Don’t Complain, Vote,” “Screw Political Correctness,” “Math Is Wack,” “Visit Jamaica.” In the midst of it all, weaving in and out of the crowds, a man moseys toward Ruby Tuesday’s in a “I ♥ Miles Davis” ballcap.
Not only are we bombarded minute by minute via our digital devices with ads, breaking news stories, texts and Facebook notifications, but we ourselves send out our own messages. We’re all advertisers, all buyers.
Capitalism has won the day.
To divert ourselves from our trials and tribulations, we ride the merry-go-round of the commodification of everything, hoping our earbuds stay in and your cellphone music never ends. In between buying binges at the mall or online, we eat Fritos, shuttle our kids around, go to the gym, attend civic association or AAA meetings, socialize at union halls or crack houses, yell at umpires or referees at our children’s athletic events, sponsor candlelight vigils to make ourselves feel good, and call up radio talk shows in order to oppose or not oppose evil in the world.
So much activity and all for what? Because spinning our wheels in the mud is, we think, our salvation. The wheels’ turning and whirring is a wall of motion and sound which protects us from the fact that, concerning national and international matters (e.g., healthcare, our kids’ educations, war, environmental degradation, how best to use new technologies), our personal actions are empty gestures. The opposing team has all the points and we have none.
Once we realize this, we revert to what we were doing before we realized it. We dive headlong into a glut of activities in search of whatever transient kicks we can find in capitalism’s endless hustle and bustle, the purity of its franticness. This is the Crystal Meth-like game of ring-around-the-rosie to which we give our all. There’s no stopping us anymore. Even if we’re not moving, we’re moving. In the Cinemaplex or at home in front of TV, the action movies grow faster and faster. Or, eyes glued to the Halo 2 first-person shooter game on the computer screen, an adrenaline fix quakes through us the moment a giant spiderlike tank appears out of nowhere, threatening everything we think we’re fighting for.
All this occurs inside a box. Capitalism is the box. With so many exciting things happening simultaneously inside this box, we think to ourselves: There’s really no value in learning how to think outside the box, given how self-contained it is inside it; so comfortable, so cozy.
Still, in order to preserve its democratic facade, society has turned thinking outside the box into a platitude promoted everywhere. But if you take the platitude too seriously and actually escape the box, you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle. The powers that be either pacify you with shock treatments or overdose you with Adderall after diagnosing you with ADHD. Once this is done, they return you in a daze to the box. There, you find, hung in an old frame on the wall, a U.S. gem of wisdom stitched with red and white thread on a blue cloth:
No matter what we tell you, please remember: Too much thinking is forbidden here.
The mantras are simple. Never do anything slowly. If you want it, buy it. If you see it on a plate, don’t wait, eat it. Next time should always be speedier than the one before. Nonstop’s what’s hot. Never let a novel technology lie idle — use it, unloose it, lay an icon of it on an altar and pray to it.
Such are worship’s parameters in our society. Everything’s structured accordingly.
There’s no better evidence of this than the 24/7 news cycle. Today, this cycle combines not merely (1) traditional newsprint, but also (2) live television/computer/cellphone reports enhanced by digitalized charts, pundit debates, headline feeds at the bottom of the screen, etc., and (3) digitalized versions of traditional print news which contain hyperlinks that connect readers to an array of information sources that shed light on points made in the basic text.
Take hyperlinks as an example. Understanding them is helpful in grasping digitalization’s capacity to rewire our thinking.
In today’s news environment, even when it’s not employing hyperlinks, the media’s ability to shift instantaneously from one story to another or from one detail of a story to another detail of the same story is unparalleled historically. Consequently, the news recipient’s brain becomes an intersection of many “noisy streets of information.” Hyperlinks add to this noise by giving today’s digital news texts a characteristic not present prior to the digital age — i.e., a decentered quality. This means the text is no longer the single determinant of how it should be read, but is instead only one out of multiple co-centers (the hyperlinks are the others) which the reader traverses as she or he sees fit.
For instance, a reader can follow the first hyperlink to whatever text or chart or image it leads to, then, rather than immediately returning to the text, she/he can pursue the new page’s hyperlinks to other pages which have even more hyperlinks, then keep proceeding further, not returning to the base text until later. Another reader, of course, can read the base text/hyperlinks conglomeration in a different way, selecting to follow certain hyperlink sequences and not others. However, whatever reading path a reader chooses to follow or not to follow doesn’t change the fact that the hyperlinks invite the reader into a multidirectional reading experience in which the idea of reading straight from beginning to end no longer possesses sole dominion over the reading experience. Instead, multiple options exist for leaving the main text, then returning to it later by whatever available hyperlink trails can be found. The point is that the options for how to read a news article (or to read any other text with hyperlinks) in the digital age are far more decentered than they once were, requiring radical attention shifts and thought re-routings.
All this adds to our sense of information bombardment. Not only that, but because innumerable facts or assertions made in one article are hyperlinked to other internet information sources, the reader is constantly confronted with decisions about whether to follow these links or not. Additionally, the time we have to read an article seems compressed because before one news story ends, another one, to which we also should pay attention, already started. It never stops. Sickened by tragedy in one location, we’re soon sickened by more tragedy in another. Hurricane Maria’s unleashing of death and demolition in Puerto Rico morphs into the horror of an sniper killing 58 people from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel suite while outdoor concert attendees run for their lives as corpses pile up everywhere. Understanding what’s happening seems impossible. All we can do is wait. Possibly, before the week’s or month’s end, a single news bulletin will explain everything that’s recently taken place, or at least explain a fragment of it.
Any little piece will do. Anything’s better than nothing.
But don’t hold your breath.
The speed of information delivery today, coupled with the massive amounts delivered, have implications.
Dr. Patricia Marks Greenfield knows about these implications. A UCLA Distinguished Professor of Psychology who specializes in culture, human cognition, child development and the relationship between technology and learning, she has won international renown as an education strategist whose work includes examining the relationship between what she calls “informal education” (e.g., at-home use of video games, computers, television) and learning in more structured settings, i.e., schools.
As she shows in her paper “Technology and Informal Education: What Is Taught, What Is Learned,” digital technologies have played “a major role in developing visual intelligence on a mass scale.” According to Greenfield, such visual intelligence includes:
visual skills that are important in the virtual world of computers. This cognitive socialization produces learners who are particularly well suited to take advantage of media-rich environments for formal education and possess the visual literacy skills used in many modern professions.
However, Greenfield also points out that although such skills help young people perform well in our increasingly computerized school systems and later to get certain jobs, there’s a price to pay for developing those skills. Greenfield shows how this stems from the fact that expertise important in the virtual world of computers is developed at the expense of other abilities, particularly those related to the brain’s capacity for nuanced thought —”inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
This result is an outcome of the fact that an intelligence shaped in informal settings by regular interaction with the digital world learns to favor certain kinds of thought processes — ones that replicate the speed of video games, that privilege icons (pictures) over words and those which prioritize the fluidity of jumping from one task to another without getting bogged down for too long in any single task. Such preferences by their very nature de-emphasize slower more meditative types of thought. This technological undervaluing (it is built into computers since they were designed for lightning-quick computation projects) of such thought processes (critical thinking, etc.) in children’s spare time at home or elsewhere makes it difficult for public schools:
to teach reflective habits of mind to children whose informal education and cognitive socialization have not prepared them for this kind of learning and thinking. Yet society needs reflection, analysis, critical thinking, mindfulness, and imagination more than ever.
One example she gives is an experiment in which participants who played two hours of Counter-Strike, a video game, “improved multitasking scores significantly over those of a no-play control group.” This seems good until we discover that many educators and neuroscientists have concluded multitasking diminishes how much we learn (retain of what we’ve heard, read) when confronted with new information. To substantiate this, Greenfield cites a trial that tested participants’ responses to a CNN newscast:
While news anchors present their stories as talking heads on Headline News, weather forecast icons, sports scores, stock quotes, and textually delivered news crawls all appear at the bottom of the screen. To process these simultaneous stimuli requires multitasking. Such formats are very popular with younger viewers, whereas older viewers dislike them most. Nonetheless, the distracting information exacts a cognitive cost, even from the younger generation who have had more experience with multitasking. A controlled experiment showed that college students recalled significantly fewer facts from four main news stories in CNN’s visually complex environment than from the same stories presented in a visually simple format, with the news anchor alone on the screen and the news crawls, etc.
The point here is that multitasking weakens focus by dividing it among too many tasks, thereby undermining the brain’s ability to store information. Hence, the students who watched the simpler (non-multitasking) news show retained more of what they heard than did the others.
Other researchers have supplemented such insights. In “Reading Hypertext and the Experience of Literature,” an article published in Journal of Digital Information (Vol. 2, No. 1) by David S. Miall and Teresa Dobson, the authors described an experiment they’d performed.
In the experiment, consisting of 70 people, all the participants read the same online short story, Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover.” However, half the group read a plain text version of the story while the other half read the identical text but with this difference: each page contained two or three hyperlink options.
In the end, the group’s two halves responded to the story in distinct ways. Miall and Dobson found that the individuals in the group which read the story’s hypertext version experienced less “involvement with the story” than the other segment’s members and also experienced the story as more “confusing or incomplete.” In terms of this last point, that is, of feeling the story was muddled or unfinished, 75 percent of the hypertext readers experienced this, whereas only 10 percent of the other segment did.
If multitasking at such a relatively simple level can produce such results, it raises the question of what happens when one multitasks at a more complicated level, such as working on a computer-based job project while periodically responding to email alerts, Facebook notification pop-ups and also checking your on-screen CNN ticker.
Another factor pertaining to all this is the longer-term effects of daily interaction with digital devices on the brain in terms of memory, patience for analytical and critical thinking in a world of rapid fact finding and number crunching, and reading-as-skimming vs. reading-as-reading.
Melina R. Uncapher, Monica K. Thieu and Anthony D. Wagner of the Psychology and Neurosciences departments at Stanford University discuss one of these areas, memory, in their 2015 essay, “Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory” (in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review). In the experiment described in this paper, they set out to explore the relationship (or non-relationship) between multitasking and working (or short-term) memory. After recruiting 143 participants for their experiment, which included tests for individual multitasking frequency and impulsivity levels, as well as the performance of memory-based tasks, the authors found:
a negative relationship between chronic media multitasking behavior and working memory performance was observed. Second, there was a coupling between working memory and long-term memory, with long-term memory performance predicted by the working memory’s abilities.
In this project, then, not only did the researchers discover that multitasking had a detrimental effect on how working memory performed, but that this in turn had a degrading effect on long-term memory.
Such results are the product of physiological processes deep in the brain. Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, author and a professor of neuroscience and psychology at McGill University, is one of the more eloquent explainers of this reality. This was evident during a 2014 interview with Paper Magazine in which he discussed the relationship between multitasking, data overload and brain chemistry.
Levitin explained that when a multitasker switches from one task to another in short periods of time, the brain uses extra amounts of oxygenated glucose, the main fuel for its activities. Although this overuse tires the brain and reduces its efficiency, there’s a physiological reward for the multitasker which offsets this problem: each time she/he switches to another task in search of something “new” to do, the brain compensates the multitasker with a pleasurable jolt of dopamine. This jolt reinforces multitasking by counteracting the brain’s loss of efficiency from glucose depletion. Not only that, but the brain’s use of dopamine to reward multitasking is addictive. Literally. According to Levitin this is because in employing this reward tactic, the brain mimics the same type of dopamine feedback loop that’s “responsible for people getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.” In a weird way, this is a con the brain pulls on itself. Because the dopamine jolt triggers a feeling of success or well-being, the multitasker’s consciousness is hoodwinked into believing the brain’s degraded performance, resulting from a lowered glucose reserve, is good thing.
As Levitin says in conclusion, multitaskers are deluded into thinking “they are getting more done but their judgment is off. Not only do they get less done but their work is less creative.”
The issue here isn’t that new technology is bad, but rather that it would be better to stringently explore possible negative side effects before rather than after massifying its distribution. This is an old problem. To use an example from another sector of the economy, it also would have been more sensible for Monsanto to test more efficiently for the potential dangers of letting sheep graze in fields where genetically modified Bt cotton had been harvested. Not doing so resulted in the death of approximately 1,820 sheep during a three-month period in a single district in India in 2006, as detailed in an assessment of the situation written by local officials (“Mortality in Sheep Flocks after grazing on Bt Cotton fields, Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh”).
But under capitalism wishing for such patience, such sanity, is itself a type of insanity: a delusional belief in the system’s desire to place people and the world’s ecology before profit.
Capitalism knows only one pace: as fast as possible. Hence, capitalism wastes no time on being patient when it comes to overseeing the rush from scientific/technological discovery to commodification, then profits.
This doesn’t mean, though, that capitalism is one hundred percent against testing its products. It is willing to test them — on the world’s populations and the planet’s ecology.
This is it. Our society. The maw.
It’s in a neo-techno fever: base drum, backbeat on snare, it’ll get you anywhere. But don’t forget: hip-hop got turntablism: a song fragment reinvented as a repeated beat that dents the leaden head. For those with other tastes, out of nowhere comes the distorted synthesizer groan. Hansel and Gretel followed breadcrumbs, we follow beats and tweets. Does this mean all the musicians and tweeters are sellouts? No. It means there’s nothing, no matter how apparently outside the mainstream initially, the system’s maw won’t swallow and make its own.
Capitalism at top speed means many things get left behind. What once passed for reality is one of them. Society’s infrastructure of institutions has concluded that searching for actual facts or permanent truths is no longer a valid public quest since time is short and we’re too busy and it’s better to move forward (to progress, to advance) quickly than to slow ourselves down by overthinking issues. All the public requires, capitalism assumes, are makeshift facts and truths which, like all commodities today, must be designed for quick obsolescence so we can replace them speedily with newer models. The premise which underlies this approach is: adaptation to technological development’s rapid pace is more important than the sustained meditations on these matters required to understand their impact on humanity, the environment, distribution of resources, etc.
I call these transient facts and truths makeshift because they are provisional. Far from being made for the long term, they are quickly thrown together informational units manufactured from prefabricated ingredients: snippets of pundit commentaries, images drawn from popular culture, government news releases, press conferences about certain events or subjects, and so on. The function of these alleged facts or truths is to convince the audience, at least for the time being, that these facts and truths, taken together, represent the borders within which discourse about the subject at hand must occur. As such, it is useful to see these individual facts and truths as parameters-setting agents.
In addition to their boundary-setting function, these facts and truths are also encasements which contain news fragments, referents to charts, etc., which are theoretically meant to suggest “the bigger picture.” In this sense, they are signifiers pointing to realities (e.g., the full news stories and supplemental materials of which they contain fragments) beyond themselves. The hitch here is that although these encasements do point to realities beyond themselves, they also simultaneously hide those realities by substituting themselves (the encasements) for what they supposedly are meant to signify. In other words, the signifier gradually replaces the signified by blocking it out and hiding it from view and insinuating that it (the signifier) is the true big picture.
As pointed out previously, these encasements are made from news scraps: excerpts from pundit panel debates, video shots, newspaper headlines, news-anchor soliloquies and so on. As these encasements are created and labeled (e.g., “Kim Jung Un Persists with Tests for Nuclear Delivery Systems,” “Is the White House Staff at War with Itself?”), they’re relayed to us from TVs, computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. As this is done, the encasements fulfill their function which is to create the impression that the viewer is being exposed to all possible interpretations of whatever event, controversy or environment is being analyzed.
But this alleged exposure to possible interpretations isn’t what it dresses itself up to be: educational. Instead, it de-educates. It does this by presenting data and commentary to the individual not in a way designed to facilitate meditative absorption of what’s been presented, but rather in a way engineered to hit the individual like a tsunami creating chaos as it makes landfall. Delivered in this way, information becomes the opposite of information. It becomes a method of crushing information’s intrinsic power by giving the brain an information concussion.
For evidence of this, we need think no further than the 24-hour news cycle. Imagine, for instance, watching an Anderson Cooper-led CNN panel of experts debate U.S. views on Palestinian rights while each contending participant aggressively tries to push her/his particular insight to the fore as video clips and digitalized graphics periodically interrupt the speakers in order to provide supplemental information. Then envision this same CNN dialogue, or a similar one, repeated innumerable times throughout the night and into the following morning. Further, imagine a comparable enterprise occurring on each of the other main news channels — day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
This is the information environment in which we live. It is one in which something concrete like the U.S. view of Palestinian rights or the specific meaning of certain clauses in a public health bill gradually, almost unnoticeably, disappear behind all the “relevant” data (news anchor musings, graphs, videos, political party spins and pundit predictions) that are dumped like a Hurricane Harvey-sized storm on the heads of the public.
This disappearance happens in direct proportion to the degree to which the policy in question is no longer discussed directly by the population, but is rather discussed by making reference to what various specialists, along with their supplemental charts and graphs, have already indicated about the issue. This is the moment in the theatrical production where the signifiers replace the signifieds and the existing story, as it’s incarnated on the stage, is blocked from view and all we’re left with is what the signifiers claim is there. Their declarations, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not, are a constant roaring in our ears.
This is the information storm that never ends. How should progressives and other leftists navigate it? How should anyone navigate it?
What’s been described in these notes is happening to everyone in our society. This includes those who believe that, because they’re woke and hip to capitalism’s faults, they are freed from capitalism’s restraints. Such individuals view themselves as the system’s archenemies, true rebels, those destined to lead the so-called masses. Are they onto something? Or does their lack of understanding of what it means to struggle against capitalism in the digital era sentence them to the struggle’s margins, deluded and out of touch?
Such issues and related ones will be discussed in future notes.