Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Invasion of the Mindsnatchers

I'm reading a book that gives voice to many of my own misgivings about computers and the Internet: The Shallows- What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan warned us that "The Medium is the Message," which is to say that the media we use to express ourselves carry their own strong message, of which we may not be conscious. In other words, the means by which the communication is presented affects what we're able to be aware of and how we think. Carr argues that despite the access the Internet gives us to information, it may not be making us smarter, and it likely is having a deleterious affect on our ability to think clearly or deeply, and even to read.

Periodically my own preoccupation with the subject of computers, the Internet, and their effects on us inspires yet another rant on that subject. Carr's book confirms much of what I've noticed myself in my daily wandering on the web, namely how it fosters a condition that I term "infoblitz," a consequence of the flood of information, much of it that we don't even want, that assaults us any time we visit almost any website. As such web composition tools as Javascript become more sophisticated, so do the assaults. Have you encountered those ads that pop up right in the middle of the text you're reading and then follow you down the page until you either click on them or manually close them? It's no wonder that our ability to think coherently is suffering.

I notice now that practically every commercial website I visit carries the message, "Follow us on Facebook or Twitter." My reaction is, why would I want to follow you? If I need something you sell, then I'll visit your site and buy it. I've categorically rebelled against Facebook, Twitter, and even Flickr. There was a time when I was quite active on, which was (and presumably still is) a kind of photographic social networking site. Eventually it was taken over by teenagers from Brazil. At that point, I vacated to Flickr, which seemed to be the favored site of more serious photographers. But my interest has lagged. One reason for this is that the nature of the Internet medium dictates to a large degree what sort of pictures do well when posted on Flickr's pages. I find my eye being attracted to what know will be noticed, then neglecting everything else. This is how the "message of the medium" asserts itself.

Flickr is a more complex site than was Fotolog, with many more social options. Increasingly, I'm finding that I just can't be bothered to indulge in the social networking aspect of the site. there are too many options. Exercising them all can come to rule your life. I'd rather spend my time building exhibits for Mindport, reading, writing, or even watching movies. This has become my reaction to the Internet in general. My interest in "Doomer" sites, concerned with economic and societal collapse is waning, not because I don't believe we're in deep trouble, but because I question whether there's any point in being preoccupied with it. I have enough information on that subject, thank you all the same. Yes, I still glance at the headlines, but the advertising and an infinite number of other annoyances associated with computers and the web have become so overwhelming that the rewards have diminished to nearly zero.

One of the effects of the Internet medium that Carr discusses in his book is its tendency not only to truncate our reading, but to actually diminish our ability to concentrate on long passages. He cites research indicating that visits to any particular  page on the web run to less than a minute, and often only a few seconds. Data about this blog from Sitemeter bear that out. In fact, you probably haven't even read this far, so why do I even bother to carry on? Well, because I write these entries more to discover what I'm thinking, than for any other reason. If I were writing according to what the experts have determined is the best style for the Web, I wouldn't be writing at all.

Just now, a window pops up telling me that Mindport has one new message from an electronics supplier. It pops up right on top of where the cursor rests, interrupting my writing and my flow of thought . I can't get the window to close. Is it any wonder that I increasingly dream of the day when I can abandon computers altogether and live a normal life like I did twenty years ago? As it stands, I reverted to writing in my personal journal with pen on paper. For some time, I attempted my journal writing via computer, thinking how it would simplify life when I wanted to search for the date of some detail in the past. But I abandoned it, and not on principle, but because I found manual writing a more satisfactory way to keep a journal than was keyboarding. It's such a pleasure to be able to alternately mull and scribble with no message popping up telling me the battery is getting low, or that Microsoft wants to download its one-hundredth update to Windows XP, or that the word-processing program with which I'm writing wants me to upgrade to a new version that will probably require me to learn all over how to use it.

Kevin Jones

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