Digital Gratitude, Digital Distraction   (February 11, 2010)

Trying to drink from the digital fire hose can lead to distraction and depression.

Thank you, readers, for your readership of this small outpost on the World Wide Web and for your contributions of ideas, critiques and financial support. Though this expression of gratitude is entirely digital, it is nonetheless sincere, and hopefully you can assess that through the ether.

I express this gratitude for several reasons. My absence from the digital world for a few days has heightened my awareness of the potential downsides of the purely digital world--an awareness that stretches back to the the very first days of this blog in May 2005, when I wrote Flattening the Knowledge Curve: The "Googling" Effect (May 2005).

In the alternate global Web-search world we are now entering, the ranking of the various sources of knowledge (websites) is done by a commercially protected, closely guarded algorithm. Since we cannot know how the search engine picked the highest "matches" to a search query, we cannot assess the quality of the knowledge (or the accuracy of the information--and those are two separate issues) until we have scanned many sources and sought out those which can summarize or assemble the most credible sources.

This takes time, and still produces low-quality knowledge--knowledge which may contain untrustworthy or even misleading information--because the selection is being performed by a neophyte, i.e. the user. Note also that the quality of the knowledge drops off after a plateau as the sheer volume of secondary information overwhelms the user.

The sheer volume of secondary information is also known as "drinking from a fire hose."

There is a great irony, of course, in this critique of the digital world's fire hose of "information" being part of that very same fire hose. There is no escaping the dual nature of the Web as a source of useful information which could be assembled into knowledge and as a siren-song source of distraction and depression.

The critique has three basic parts:

1. Information presents a simulacrum of knowledge. Readers of Survival+ know how simulacra work: they present the surface characteristics of "the real thing" to construct a facsimile which then shapes the viewers' politics of experience.

Gathering "information" is not that same as assembling a working knowledge. One example is the endless cooking shows on TV. A person could watch hours of such programming and pick up various bits of information about ingredients, techniques and recipes, but they would not actually acquire a working knowledge of cooking. That is fundamentally experiential.

Thus we can easily end up with a world in which everyone is saturated with images of celebrity chefs whipping up wonderful cuisine but nobody knows how to actually cook-- and the simulacra presented on TV (the laborious prepping has already been done off-camera, etc.) is in effect a false pathway to "useful working knowledge."

As a carpenter, I am amused by the various TV shows which proport to "teach" viewers how to fix up old houses, transform interiors, etc. They are entertainment, not avenues of working knowledge. Yes, you can glean a few tips, or learn a bit about some new technology, but this does not prepare you to actually build or remodel a structure.

Some will say this isn't valid because such shows (and all the other similar digital "knowledge" on the Web) do not claim to be working knowledge: they are "inspiration," "entertainment," and "information."

But this defense fails to note that creating an illusion of "working knowledge" is the key artifice of the entire programming. It also fails to note that 10 hours spent watching celebrity chefs is 10 hours taken away from some actual acquisition of working knowledge.

Lastly, it fails to take into account the compelling nature of the illusion: that acquiring and assembling working knowledge is in essence as effortless as being entertained.

2. The overload of resources on the Web and broadcast/narrowcast channels creates distraction, not reflection. Scanning TV channels or websites is not thinking or learning. Thinking and learning require reflection, practice, concentration--all elements which the Web and TV ceaselessly destroy by their very nature.

The digital world invites churning, not reflection, and thus it presents a siren-song of endless distraction. Without concentration and deep thinking, there can be no understanding, and thus no real problem-solving.

The digital world is ideal for churn, withdrawal, passivity, distraction, entertainment and ultimately, denial and magical thinking. All things become possible when "information" is present without a thoughtful skepticism based on working knowledge and a thoroughly integrated understanding of the subject.

3. The digital world creates intrinsic vulernerabilities to emotional withdrawal and profound depression. Preliminary studies have already found that people who are "addicted" to gaming or the Web are more prone to depression than their peers who are less absorbed by the digital world.

There is no mystery in this; anyone who watches four or more hours of TV or who spends all day web-surfing experiences the state of mind that this digital absorption creates.

Is it healthy? Answering that will provide plentiful opportunities for research grants, but we all know the answer already: it is not.

Our waking time is a zero-sum game: four hours spent watching TV or being "entertained" on the Web are four hours taken away from more nurturing or useful activities.

Correspondent Ken R. submitted this link to a Scientific American article on the benefits of time spent in Nature. It doesn't take any special insight to reckon that time spent in Nature is beneficial for the simple reason it is not digital. Just as we cannot eat a "modern" diet of processed junk food and remain healthy, we cannot spend all day trying to drink from the digital fire hose and remain sane/able to sleep/positive/grounded.

It is quite easy to imagine a world in which trash blows freely out in the decaying, crumbling real world while the distracted, unable-to-concentrate populace remains indoors, scanning the digital world for entertainment and distraction.

There are political and financial consequences of this distraction. The digital world is a tool to shape and influence the politics of experience. Correspondent David M. recently addressed this:

One thing that I have continually underestimated over the past few years is how oblivious / unaware / uninformed the majority of people have remained, and how successful the govt / corporate power structure / MSM have been at creating stories and explanations to disguise the ongoing collapse. If, five years ago, we had suddenly jumped to where we are today, I think many more people would have awakened to the reality of what is happening.

So when I ponder the future, and what seems to be the inevitable acceleration of the collapse, if things continue to progress slowly rather than as a result of some signficant event my expectation is now that people will continue to remain asleep. What stories will they be told, and how will that impact their actions? Clearly absent a strong blow to the head with a 2x4, most people will cling to any shred of hope, however absurd, rather than face unpleasant alternatives.

I was wondering whether you have thought about or addressed this... or is it just an underlying assumption built into your outlook? It's quite depressing to imagine that many people will simply never wake up - and alarming to realize the kind of lies that will be told to keep them from doing so.

Thank you, David, for a profound observation. It is certainly true that the gradual nature of our devolution has helped mask the depth of our decline. But we might also look at these factors:

1. Endless media and government propaganda to create the illusion that the status quo is working fine and not imploding.

2. Fear. People are fearful of what might happen if they lose their job and things start falling apart. Denial is a good defense mechanism until it isn't.

People who have already lost their retirement 401K, their jobs and their houses realize what's going on and they're angry at Wall Sreet and the Power Elites of Washington DC. But most of the 85% who still have a job and in denial for the reasons cited above.

When the number of people who have lost jobs/security rises to 20% or higher, then the Pareto principle might kick in and they will start influencing the other 80%.

I would add the inherent attraction of immersing oneself in the digital world as a proximate cause of social/political denial. The illusions that "information" effortlessly assembles itself into knowledge, and that propaganda is equivalent to understanding are deeply attractive. To the degree that the media themselves are appealing--TV and the Web--then the facsimiles presented by those media gain ever greater power over the politics of experience of the populace.

Yes, a networked world presents plentiful opportunities for problem-solving. But those opportunities are immersed in a politics of experience dominated by commercial and political interests whose power and wealth depend on a disengaged, passive, ignorant, distracted, befuddled, depressed citizenry immersed in the endless search for compelling "entertainments."

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