Digital Media and the Loss of Quality Information

To put matters in perspective before proceeding it is useful to remember that Socrates saw dangers in the printed word. He believed that knowledge needed to be resident in the brain and not on physical matter. He thought that the printed word would result in going to hell in a hand basket (Be clear that he did not say this, but he did see it as a definite potential danger). So this new digital world has much to offer, but also has dangers, and we need to avoid these dangers.

Frank Schirrmacher placed the origins of the conflict without our species’ need to be instantly aware of every new stimulus, what some call our novelty bias. Hyper vigilance toward the environment has definite survival value. It is virtually certain that this reflect saved many of our prehistoric ancestors from threats signaled by the barely visible tracks of deadly tigers or the soft susurrus of venomous snakes in the underbrush. Unfortunately experts in”persuasion design” principles know very well how to exploit these tendencies.

Wolf writes, “As Schirrmacher described it, the problem is that contemporary environments bombard us constantly with new sensory stimuli, as we split our attention across multiple digital devices most of our days, as often as not, nights shortened by our attention to them. A recent study by Time, Inc. of the media habits of people in their twenties indicated that they switched media sources twenty-seven times an hour. On average they now check their cell phones between 150 and 190 times a day, As a society we’re continuously distracted by our environment, and our very wiring as ominous aids and abets this. We do not see or hear the same quality of attention, because we see and hear too much, become habituated, and then seek still more.

Enter “The Distracted Mind” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find many more relevant posts on this topic. There are clearly two distinct components to this problem: Staying plugged in and the volume and quality of information.

Unfortunately, Wolf does not directly address the topic of being plugged in, but this problem needs to be addressed first before significant progress can be made on the second. Being constantly plugged in precludes one from making any progress on this problem. There are simply too many disruptions and distractions. So one either unplugs cold turkey and remains that way, either only plugging in to communicate or strictly limiting the time one is plugged in. Clearly there are social implications here, so one needs to explain to one’s friends and acquaintances why one is doing this and try to persuade them to join you for their own benefit.

Next one can deal with the volume of communications. Wolf notes that the average amount of communication consumed by us is 34 gigabytes. Moreover, this is characterized by one spasmodic burst after another. Barack Obama has said he is worried that for many of our young, information has become “a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather a tool of empowerment, rather than a means of emancipation.”

The literature professor Mark Edmundson writes, “Swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new ways of life…For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.”

Wolf writes, “What do we do with the cognitive overload from multiple gigabytes of information from multiple devices? First, we simplify. Second we process the information as rapidly as possible: more precise, we read more in briefer bursts. Third, we triage. We stealthily begin the insidious trade-off between our need to know with our need to save and gain time. Sometimes we outsource our intelligence to the information outlets that offer the fastest, simplest most digestible distillations of information we no longer want to think about ourselves.”

This post is based in part on “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. She does discuss how she managed to discipline herself and break these bad habits, although she doesn’t mention the importance of the first necessary act to unplug oneself.

Then one needs to decide that technology is a tool one should use to benefit oneself rather than letting technology drives one life. Realize that we humans have finite attentional resources and prioritize what sources and types of technology should be used to pursue specific goals. These will change over time as will goals, but one should always have goals, perhaps as simple as learning something about x. If that is rewarding, one can pursue it further, move off to related areas, or to completely new areas. The objective should always be to use technology, not be used by technology, for personal fulfillment.

This post will close with a quote from Susan Sontag:
“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention…The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention, has its limits, but whose limits can be stressed.”

And one from Herman Hesse’s essay “The Magic of the Book:’
“Among the many worlds which man did not receive as a gift of nature, but which he created with his own spirit, the world of books is the greatest. Every child, scrawling his first letters on his slate and attempting to read for the first time, in so doing, enters an artificial and most complicated world: to know the laws and rules of this world completely and to practice them perfectly, no single human life is long enough. Without words, without writing, and without books thee would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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