Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Dark Side of Instant Communication

We're constantly told that the digital world we have at our fingertips is the crowning achievement of our civilization. But what if it's incompatible with the good life?
Indeed, tech anxiety abounds. And I take it seriously. Some people feel something is amiss in their relationships, and that technology is to blame. There's a move, cataloged in nearly every magazine, towards seeing the offline as authentic and the online as hollow, false, unreal. This may be a false distinction, digital dualism, as Nathan Jurgenson calls it, but it's a widespread reaction to the technologies at hand. What was once an exciting new way to make friends now feels overengineered, or -- more damningly in the current climate -- processed.

Processed foods were once the time-saving, awe-inducing markers of an upwardly mobile household. (Check out this ad for dextrose.) Now, among the upper middle classes, they're a sure sign that someone does not have a firm grip on what the good life is. Processed food, Michael Pollan would tell you, is not even really food at all. And it tangles you up in huge economic webs that stretch across the globe. So while Farm Bill politics make larger-scale solutions impractical, the answer, mostly, is to eat local, organic food -- prepared like Grandma would.

This logic has been extended to digital friendships. Processed relationships get scare quotes: Facebook "friends." Processed relationships can't be as genuine or authentic or honest as real life friendships. Processed relationships generate data for Facebook and Twitter and Google and the NSA. So the solution is to make local friends, hang out organically, and only communicate through means your Grandma would recognize. It's so conservative it's radical! 
Camp Grounded: Digital Detox in the Age of Tech Anxiety (The Atlantic)
But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. "The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire," Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibilityof a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one.

Just how powerful (and separate) wanting is from liking is illustrated in animal experiments. Berridge writes that studies have shown that rats whose dopamine neurons have been destroyed retain the ability to walk, chew, and swallow but will starve to death even if food is right under their noses because they have lost the will to go get it. Conversely, Berridge discovered that rats with a mutation that floods their brains with dopamine learned more quickly than normal rats how to negotiate a runway to reach the food. But once they got it, they didn't find the food more pleasurable than the nonenhanced rats. (No, the rats didn't provide a Zagat rating; scientists measure rats' facial reactions to food.)

That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. "The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it," Berridge explains. "And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we'd be better off without." So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. "As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite," he explains.

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the "ding" announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders "a panting appetite," Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

If humans are seeking machines, we've now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious.
Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous. (Slate)
...for most of human existence, most people have got by with very little private space, as I found when I spoke to John L Locke, professor of linguistics at Ohio University and the author of Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (2010). Locke told me that internal walls are a relatively recent innovation. There are many anthropological reports of pre-modern societies whose members happily coexisted while carrying out almost all of their lives in public view.

You might argue, then, that the internet is simply taking us back to something like a state of nature. However, hunter-gatherer societies never had to worry about invisible strangers; not to mention nosy governments, rapacious corporations or HR bosses. And even in the most open cultures, there are usually rituals of withdrawal from the arena. ‘People have always sought refuge from the public gaze,’ Locke said, citing the work of Paul Fejos, a Hungarian-born anthropologist who, in the 1940s, studied the Yagua people of Northern Peru, who lived in houses of up to 50 people. There were no partitions, but inhabitants could achieve privacy any time they wanted by simply turning away. ‘No one in the house,’ wrote Fejos, ‘will look upon, or observe, one who is in private facing the wall, no matter how urgently he may wish to talk to him.’

    The need for privacy remains, but the means to meet it — our privacy instincts — are no longer fit for purpose

From the 1960s onwards, Thomas Gregor, professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, studied an indigenous Brazilian tribe called the Mehinaku, who lived in oval huts with no internal walls, each housing a family of 10 or 12. Mehinaku villagers were expected to remove themselves altogether from the life of the village at important stages of life, such as adolescence. When a boy hit puberty, he disappeared into the jungle, returning a man. In today's digital culture, of course, this is precisely the stage at which we make our lives most exposed to the public gaze.

Grimmelmann thinks the suggestion that we are voluntarily waving goodbye to privacy is nonsense: ‘The way we think about privacy might change, but the instinct for it runs deep.’ He points out that today’s teenagers retain as fierce a sense of their own private space as previous generations. But it’s much easier to shut the bedroom door than it is to prevent the spread of your texts or photos through an online network. The need for privacy remains, but the means to meet it — our privacy instincts — are no longer fit for purpose.

Over time, we will probably get smarter about online sharing. But right now, we’re pretty stupid about it. Perhaps this is because, at some primal level, we don’t really believe in the internet. Humans evolved their instinct for privacy in a world where words and acts disappeared the moment they were spoken or made. Our brains are barely getting used to the idea that our thoughts or actions can be written down or photographed, let alone take on a free-floating, indestructible life of their own. Until we catch up, we’ll continue to overshare.
Too much information (Aeon Magazine)
It was almost exactly this feeling that lead me to sigh just three days ago that “sometimes the war over ideas feels exhausting and pointless”. And again, I only write online as a hobby; I’m sure the exhausting and pointless feeling is magnified exponentially when you do this all day. I am often thankful to have my spreadsheets, datasets, and stata code to retreat into.  Stata may argue with me sometimes, but at least she never trolls me.

I’m tempted to say that Roberts burn out offers a lesson for everyone, but I don’t I know if this is something people who argue about policy on the internet experience or if normal people on the internet get this too. His complaints do sound like an awful lot like those I hear from people who “quit” facebook. Will internet burnout ever reach the point of becoming a widespread phenomenon? Tyler Cowen has written about “threshold earners” who manage to step off the materialist treadmill:

    A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold.
Blogger Quits Blogging: "It's Doing Things To My Brain" (Forbes)

Facebook use 'makes people feel worse about themselves (BBC)

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