Changing How We Think

Suzanne Fields

1/14/2011 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields
We mourn, we weep, we wonder why. How could such things happen? Smart phones and online libraries constantly feed us information, but we don't get any wiser. We blame others for what goes wrong and for what we don't fully understand.

Pundits argue and provoke, pretending to seek wisdom from the dialectic, but they're merely in love with the sound of their own voices. Jeremiahs predict the worst, Pollyannas foresee a rosy future, and the ostrich buries his head in the sand (where insights as wise as any other may lurk).

But death happens. Terrible murders persist. Madness goes unstopped, though not undetected.

At first we listened to arguments that the political culture produced Jared Loughner. Never have so many metaphors banged together to such noisy futility. The motor-mouths who blamed their ideological opposites have quieted down, if only a little, now that it's clear that the shooter was crazy. His own scrambled grammar, now playing in the videos he produced himself, is the stuff of hallucination, delusion and split-off reality.

The misfiring wacky wires in his brain have rendered all the political pontification shallow and particularly malicious. His self-described "best friend" told reporters: "He did not watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn't listen to political radio. He didn't take sides. He wasn't on the left. He wasn't on the right."

The sound and fury that accompanied impotent political rage ought to give us pause. After every public tragedy we seek quick public solutions when what we need is thoughtful reflection. Reflection is harder when real time is measured by computer and warp speed becomes value without content.

A provocative new book asks, "Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?" We get answers, or rather speculations, from an eclectic group of scientists and philosophers, described as being at the "frontier" of their fields in such areas as biology, genetics, psychology, physics, neurophysiology and computer engineering. The answers are yes, no and maybe, but they do provoke thought. After considering their arguments, it's hard not to conclude that the Internet may not change the way we think, but it has already changed the way we react. There's a difference.

Speed, a process empty of meaning, has jumped to our highest value. Newspapers once competed to get the first EXTRA! on the street in the wake of great tragedy, and now seek speedier technology to get sensation on computer screens. Editors have only to hit the "send" button, and millions devour the digital word. Ubiquitous cable-TV shouters deliver the "news" without even a pretense of fact-checking. Bloggers make up their own facts. Transcripts of television interviews reveal disorderly ideas put together in unstructured sentences. Opinions fly fast and loose. Very loose.

Nigel Goldenfeld, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, cites as the greatest change in the interaction of human and Internet the "talk back" factor. He tells how you can fill a wiki page with complete nonsense and wait a few hours, and it comes back to you in "fits of righteous indignation." This may save certain educated researchers the trouble of repeating random trial and error experiments, but for ordinary citizens it often produces only chaos of outrage, a phenomenon that one science-fiction author calls a thumb "permanently on the fast-forward button."

Life in the fleet-footed lane is overwrought with the hyped-up use of the present tense that lends urgency, but the reactions quickly become past tense and then trash. In drawing on adrenalin-generated argument, the nervous system feels speeded up, too.

"The Internet makes me mean," says Douglas Rushkoff, a media analyst. "Resentful. Short-fused. Reactionary. It's as if the relentless demand of the networks for me to be everywhere, all the time, was denying me access to the moment in which I am really living."

He's not alone complaining that the content of life in the Age of the Internet, cable and blogs becomes a superficial horizontal movement, or process, rather than a reach for understanding. A new biography of Marshall McLuhan, by Douglas Coupland, demonstrates how the "media guru" of the 1960s was prescient even before the Internet, identifying the dangerous elements in expanding mass media. His famous aphorism, "the medium is the message," was fraught with ominous overtones that are often overlooked.

"We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us," he wrote. He worried that we would become more "savage" and "impatient" with each other as we basked in the illusion of being closer together: "The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations."

We wish that we could rewind the tape. But in our powerlessness to bring back the dead in Tucson, we can reflect on how to prevent more tragedy. That will take time. For starters, we could lift a thumb off the fast-forward button and treat ourselves to a pause.