Monday, January 2, 2017

How we lost the silence: what's the Web doing to us?

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying, life: 
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky                   
           - The Creation of Èa

Ursula K. Le Guin, "A Wizard of Eathsea" (1968)

As I was re-reading the novels of the "Earthsea" trilogy, by Ursula Le Guin, I found that I had troubles in following the text. I had read those novels for the first time, I think, in the late 1970s and I read them again at least  two times. Yet, this time, it took me a conscious effort to read the novels in the way I remember having read them decades ago, before the age of the Internet. I had to concentrate on following each line, on savoring every word. I could do it, but at every slowdown of the action - these novels are not perfect, just as the world they describe - my mind started to lose contact, moving again to the "skipping mode" that's typical of surfing the Web.

Le Guin's prose is not slow, but dense. It is full of details; as you follow the travels of the wizard Ged, you always know the shape of the Moon, the color of the sky, the shape of the hills, the trees, the creatures, the people. It is a prose that demands a certain degree of attention; well worth dedicating for a series of novels that have been shaping my view of the world. And, at the very beginning of the first novel of the series, I found the words that I transcribed at the beginning of this post and that describe exactly what's happening. In another section of the novel, Le Guin says, "For a word to be spoken, there must be silence." And we seem to have lost the silence we need in the great cacophony of the web.

The difficulty of following prose is not the only symptom of Web addiction I noticed.  Today, I can't watch TV for more than a few minutes before getting bored (this is not so bad, actually). For years, by now, I have been unable to watch a movie all the way to its end, they all seem to me slow and boring. So, not surprising that it happens for books, too, to say nothing about the disappearance of that concentrated form of textual communication that we call "poetry". And, finally, there are my students who seem to find every hour of class as a torture to be endured before going back to texting on their cell phones.

Of course, I am not the only one with these symptoms. Andrew Sullivan wrote a hugely interesting piece about what's happening to us with our daily overexposure to the Web. We are more and more retreating to the world of the social media, continuously exposed to an endless flow of news and contacts. Faster and faster, and more and more shallow. And, as a consequence, we are losing a lot: the ability of concentrating on anything. It is a serious form of addiction; a constant form of dopamine stimulation, getting worse all the time.

Can we do something about all that, or do we have to accept it as unavoidable? Hard to say; but it is well know how difficult it is to deal with a addictions. You can make plenty of grand proposals and then you'll lapse again to the old routines. Sullivan mentions the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Sabbath as a way to attain the degree of silence that's necessary to hear the words spoken to us. Maybe we could think of an "Internet Ramadan" for the same purpose. Or, perhaps, we'll never be free again until the network collapses; everything must collapse one day or another. Then, we'll be able again to listen to each other and, maybe, to read poetry again.

Below, the text of a comment by Deric Bownd that summarizes Sullivan's article, but it is worth reading it all.

Andrew Sullivan does a striking piece, describing a process that began with his daily immersion in The Daily Dish, an early blog that was a precursor of everything to come. Here are some should read the whole article.
I was…a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
…the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day…a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego.
I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it…Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades..I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.
…my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time...And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.
Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves...When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.
Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety...You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away...Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.
...our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.
The Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination...This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.
I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.


  1. Ugo
    Thanks for this and for Andrew Sullivan.
    And I thought it was just my old age (joke).

    I share this difficulty of reading significant narrative fiction, but my difficulty seemingly has a longer and different history and aetiology and pre-dates the internet. Please forgive my long and personal account, but it is just possible I might discover along the way some common factors in pre-internet dysfunction, societal and personal, that the internet exacerbates or indeed exemplifies. I might even discover the failure of the Enlightenment Project. It would make it even longer, but I could also go again for the shrewd critique by Ivan Illich of our floundering ills. We end up in the quick sands of the internet like the USA ended up in the suburbs with TV food etc.

    As a child when I was not outside in fields and woods and rivers I read omnivorously and this continued as a young adult. In those days more than 50 years ago in Britain we were actually paid a little money to become students, with some sacrifice from parents and in my case also supplemented by bouts of manual work on farms and construction sites. In my attempts to join in with education I was repeatedly dissatisfied with the curriculum and felt guilty about the seeming impossibility of internalising the content. In those days I chased other ideas increasingly in the fantasies of science fiction and 'other worlds'. And I chased the 'avant-garde' in literature and film and in the arts more generally. Perhaps not co-incidentally the 'real world' of relations and startling experience and failure frequently crashed in on me and overwhelmed and changed daily life. I never really got as far as television – I was more likely in the pub.

    continued ...

  2. continuation ...

    Then came a gradual change. I worked hard in my latter career from my early 30s and studied continuously – rather omnivorously - in a way I had not been able to do previously when officially a student. I also spent many hours of hands-on repetitive work initially in greenhouses then in the laboratory. I learned something of writing scientific reports. I found mentors in these endeavours. My youth belatedly came to an end in many tears and was resolved with a profound discontinuity, but left me with work. It became increasingly difficult to read fiction - and eventually one by one even the classic writers of novels in English were banished. There were however insights. I stopped smoking to protect a new baby; albeit it had taken 3 years, the moment came in a flash, an instant. There were other even more unlikely insights.

    In later middle life television came and went a bit but was never for very long a daily past time. I was an early explorer of the internet at work and at home but it was ‘dial-up’ for more than a decade. I have given a pass to mobile technology and social media. I have not returned to literature and fiction except for some work for children and occasionally some of the Russian classics in translation and highly selected bits of Victorian writing. I have not though been entirely immune from modern media. I spent much too much time for a while at The Oil Drum, ADR, TAE and Cassandra, and in trying to brush up an earlier interest in economics, politics and the history of ideas (and some climate science: thanks Ugo!). I can still read some books of history and science, but mostly only if I write something to backup the reading.

    Oddly, John Greer’s ADR challenge recently persuaded me to write two short stories published as post-industrial future ‘SF’. Maybe it’s ‘progress’ that I can hardly read the Guardian these days. Smile. I try to chuck out more of the ‘opinion stuff’ in order to make time for practical projects and chores. The idea of being useful for something dies hard. If there is a past to return to it is not one in Britain that I know about.

    Less oddly, an enduring thread for me all the way through has been poetry: both reading and writing. Just now I am reading Ezra Pound again with renewed interest partly because although I still only get a fraction of his references I value his evocations. How he ended up in fascist Italy seems stupidity but that’s the first half of 20th C for you. The Dark Ages have to begin somewhere I suppose. Monasteries have been mentioned on Ugo’s other blog: which might be a sign of something. Where do we go from here? Otherwise, from Sullivan’s account one might suppose a ‘singularity’ of dissolved brains!
    Cistercians make a modest comeback

    Ugo, if it’s too long and boring please don’t publish!

    Best for 2017
    PS I have enjoyed Tatiana’s informative pieces and hope she enjoyed her Christmas in Italy.

  3. Interesting - The Wizard of Earthsea has been one of my guiding lights and one of only a handful of books that I have felt moved to read again. So much wisdom in a 'children's book' . No real surprise there :-)