Yesterday, a friend noticed my not-very-smart phone, and asked me if I was going to “go to the iPhone or Android.” I explained that I had been an early adopter of the iPhone, and had stopped using it, because I observed that it did not make my life better or easier. I noticed that the conversation was actually a little awkward. In our culture, it seems, to reject smart phone technology is perceived as insulting to those who embrace it.
I keep thinking about that conversation with my friend. When did we become so personally attached to our gadgets, not as belongings, but as icons of a cultural mindset? When did dedication to the constant flow of information become something akin to religion?
The 1995 movie, “Johnny Mnnemonic” (loosely based on a William Gibson story of the same name), depicts a dystopian future world in which an epidemic called “The Black Shakes” (or, more formally, “Nerve Attenuation Syndrome” – NAS) has swept the industrialized world. In the story, NAS is a neurological disorder caused by the constant bombardment of electromagnetic radiation from computers and gadgets.
It has occurred to me that The Black Shakes are alive and well, albeit not in the exact form they were originally conceived. Although our brains are flooded by all sorts of electromagnetic radiation, it hasn’t yet had much of a measurable physical effect on the general population. However, the psychological impact of information overload is becoming clearer every day.
I’ve noticed this in myself. Even though I consider myself a fairly skeptical user of technology (“I got rid of my iPhone; I’m so evolved!”), I am unquestionably addicted to the constant stimulation of the Information Age. Even though I’ve “unsubscribed” from the majority of my Facebook friends, I still find myself checking the site multiple times per day. I used to get my email no more than once per hour. Now, I sometimes refresh my inbox manually, even though it automatically checks for new messages every two minutes. It’s hard for me to sit down and read a magazine or a book, but I can read text online for hours.
This is not good. It’s not good for me, and if you can relate to what I’ve described, it’s not good for you.
From time to time, some hipster suggests an information diet of one kind or another. I’ve tried them, and generally liked them, but I haven’t stuck with them. There’s so much “urgent” information to pay attention to. Economic meltdowns, nuclear meltdowns, political meltdowns … The whole world is imploding, and if I relinquish my front-row seat, I might be caught snoozing. Which is ironic, because it’s actually quite difficult for me to sleep, what with stressing about the collapse of our currency, the fallout from Fukushima, the creeping tide of tyranny in America, etc., etc.
R. Buckminster Fuller famously stated, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Along the same lines, Albert Einstein observed that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I think the cliché about “thinking outside the box” was a crude way of summarizing these elegant concepts. It is somewhat ironic that my generation, which was taught to think outside the box, has now found itself thinking inside smaller and smaller boxes: first computers, now phones. It is no surprise that, by thinking inside such tiny boxes, we have failed to solve the problems that confront us.
Lord knows, I’ve tried it I’ve written to Congressmen and Senators, I’ve petitioned, I’ve Tweeted, I’ve Facebooked, and I have not fixed the world. In fact, I haven’t made any impact whatsoever. All my anxiety, all the dopamine shots in my brain from the constant information stimulation, and to what end? I strongly suspect that, just like the government diverts money from the productive economy and uses it to create the illusion of constructive activity, all my endless worrying and gear-spinning has diverted my energy from more productive uses of my time and brainpower.
Look at what people can do when they actually think and make things, instead of just processing information: BFI Challenge 2012 Semi-Finalists … Everything from rural entrepreneurship to cheap, renewable energy. These marvelous efforts are ignored by the mass media, but they are happening. People are working successfully to make the world a better place. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am making a mid-year resolution to consciously stop the diversion of my energy into the constant processing of information. “Bucky” Fuller was right: we need to build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. I’m starting now.