by: Douglas Grant
Some necessary self-evaluation in the age of absorbing rapid fire camera shots from brightly lit screens….
The other day was one of those beautiful crisp autumn days, and I was sitting on a park bench when I noticed a group of four teenagers nearby. I really couldn’t say whether they were friends or not. They were in close enough proximity to each other to suggest they were well acquainted, but they weren’t talking to each other. They were all on their smart phones.
Although I didn’t get all that much out of grad school, I did have some interesting discourses with some rather avant-garde instructors who encouraged me to look at certain issues from several different perspectives. One such instructor took a course based on higher-level math concepts and embedded it with a study on how our brains—for better or for worse—are changing in the way in which they take in, process, and synthesize information in this new technological era. Three years later, all the lengthy discussions we had on that topic frequently come to mind. And three years really isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things, but so much has changed in that time. Nothing being suggested here is in any way profound, but when placed in a certain historical context, a quick look at the way in which our external stimuli has exponentially risen in the last century is quite intriguing.
The main reading for the course was a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Written by a humanist named Neil Postman, the book makes the argument that credible news and information are diminished by the way in which they are often packaged with entertainment value. But underneath all that was a history lesson about how much television has altered the way in which we soak up information and compartmentalize it. Humankind has walked the earth for thousands of years, but only in the last one-hundred has it had to adapt to the concept of absorbing rapid fire camera shots from a brightly lit television screen. The book was written in 1985, and was relevant at the time. But twenty years later it was reprinted with a new foreword by Postman’s son, Andrew, who argued that with the dawn of the internet the book’s call for our society’s self-evaluation was more important than ever.
One conversation the course inspired regarded how differently people from the 1800s were able to interpret information, citing the fact that it was reasonable to expect an individual to sit and listen to Abraham Lincoln debate for three hours, break for lunch, and then take in an additional three hours, all while retaining what was said. The idea of any one of us being able to sit and watch a presidential debate today for that long without our minds wandering to other places is ludicrous. Some scientific minds have speculated that the way in which global communication has accelerated our mental faculties may be one explanation for the alarming rise in many of today ‘s pervasive developmental disorders.
I’m not qualified to comment on any of it. I can only tell you what I’ve witnessed in the last twenty years. I’ve seen a disheartening rise in youth apathy. I’ve seen the ability to multi-task become regarded by our society as an admirable attribute. I’ve seen children immersed in nature who were very visibly uncomfortable with their immediate surroundings. I’ve seen the look of sheer panic that can cross a young person’s face after losing a cell phone, as if some lifeline to a more significant world had just been severed. And in a lot of ways I’ve seen the written word depreciate in value.
No doubt we’ve become an image based society. Many of us will identify with a visual image well before we would with an idea or an abstract concept. Postman calls attention to this, alluding to the fact that famous figures in a pre-television past would most likely go unnoticed in a public gathering, but that his or her written words would more than likely resonate with the populace. He goes on make the claim that the opposite is true today; we sometimes cling to an image of a person without having even the most rudimentary understanding of what that person stands for. What’s going on underneath the surface?
The real issue is whether our minds are up to the task of adapting. Just looking at what we’ve achieved—just how far we’ve come in such a very short amount of time—it’s compelling. But when we see our social behaviors start to move into unfamiliar territory, we need to be aware of it. It’s not for me to say whether this move is the logical next step or a dire warning sign, but it would behoove us all to remain aloof by acknowledging when these subtle changes take place.
One school of thought would suggest that our brains are indeed more than capable of adjusting to this increasingly shifting environment of sensory input. Humans will continue to evolve. The last thirty years have been a period of unprecedented productivity in the realm of digital communication, and we will continue to move forward unhindered. Who are we to halt progress and turn our backs on the future?
But the counter-argument would be for us to err on the side of caution. Pump the brakes a little and take a minute to ascertain just what exactly is going on. Just look at the breakdown we’ve had in our social skills. In our ability to relate to one another. I’m not taking sides, but it’s important to heed the warning signs. When I see four people who would rather play around on their smart phones than enjoy their own youth and each other’s company, then I see a red flag. Then I start a process of self-assessment. Am I like that? Do I get uncomfortable in certain social situations and seek an escape on my iPhone? I’m happy to ask myself these questions, because upon further evaluation I realize that, yes, it could be much worse, but I could still do a hell of a lot better.
As we keep plunging ahead, maybe one day soon we’ll see that there are no more barriers left to cross. We’ll have solidified our place in the new age of information and communication, and our minds will have had the fortitude to acclimate. And that will be yet another amazing feat for the human race, another sign that we can evolve accordingly. But a small part of me still worries that this is all happening too fast, and just one wrong move could have us spiraling out of control. It may just be the part of me that needs to play devil’s advocate, and I’m certainly no expert on neuroscience. But I do fancy myself a student of history, and I can say with confidence that never before in our history have our minds needed to adapt so quickly to a visual and auditory landscape that hasn’t just simply changed, but has been re-imagined all together.