Sunday, June 19, 2016

In the Depths of the Digital Age: Edward Mendelson reviews five books on psychological life in the age of the internet / We Are Hopelessly Hooked by Jacob Weisberg

by Judy Wajcman
by Bernard E. Harcourt
by Virginia Heffernan
by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
by Richard Coyne
by Philip N. Howard

Whether we gain or not by this habit of profuse communication it is not for us to say. —Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)

Every technological revolution coincides with changes in what it means to be a human being, in the kinds of psychological borders that divide the inner life from the world outside. Those changes in sensibility and consciousness never correspond exactly with changes in technology, and many aspects of today’s digital world were already taking shape before the age of the personal computer and the smartphone. But the digital revolution suddenly increased the rate and scale of change in almost everyone’s lives. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s exhilaratingly ambitious historical study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) may overstate its argument that the press was the initiating cause of the great changes in culture in the early sixteenth century, but her book pointed to the many ways in which new means of communication can amplify slow, preexisting changes into an overwhelming, transforming wave.

In The Changing Nature of Man (1956), the Dutch psychiatrist J.H. van den Berg described four centuries of Western life, from Montaigne to Freud, as a long inward journey. The inner meanings of thought and actions became increasingly significant, while many outward acts became understood as symptoms of inner neuroses rooted in everyone’s distant childhood past; a cigar was no longer merely a cigar. A half-century later, at the start of the digital era in the late twentieth century, these changes reversed direction, and life became increasingly public, open, external, immediate, and exposed.

Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

We Are Hopelessly Hooked by Jacob Weisberg
Is the new communication revolution degrading the quality of human relationships?

Many probing and intelligent books have recently helped to make sense of psychological life in the digital age. Some of these analyze the unprecedented levels of surveillance of ordinary citizens, others the unprecedented collective choice of those citizens, especially younger ones, to expose their lives on social media; some explore the moods and emotions performed and observed on social networks, or celebrate the Internet as a vast aesthetic and commercial spectacle, even as a focus of spiritual awe, or decry the sudden expansion and acceleration of bureaucratic control.

The explicit common theme of these books is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects—what William James called the “material self”—has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd.

The present discordant and distracted twitter—Virginia Woolf, Reviewing (1939)

When the smartphone brings messages, alerts, and notifications that invite instant responses—and induces anxiety if those messages fail to arrive—everyone’s sense of time changes, and attention that used to be focused more or less distantly on, say, tomorrow’s mail is concentrated in the present moment. In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow 
(1973), an engineer named Kurt Mondaugen enunciates a law of human existence: “Personal density…is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.” The narrator explains:

“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now…. The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.

The genius of Mondaugen’s Law is its understanding that the unmeasurable moral aspects of life are as subject to necessity as are the measurable physical ones; that unmeasurable necessity, in Wittgenstein’s phrase about ethics, is “a condition of the world, like logic.” You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and future without diminishing yourself, without becoming “more tenuous.”

Judy Wajcman, in Pressed for Time, identifies the “acceleration of life in digital capitalism” not as something radically new but as an extension of earlier technological changes. “Temporal disorganization” has always put different kinds of pressure on different social groups, and the culture of digital interruption places different kinds of stress on the interrupted (employees, children) and the intruders (managers, parents) leaving both unhappy, like Hegel’s mutually constrained slaves and masters.

Wajcman is more sanguine about relations among equals: teenagers use messaging services to open private channels of communication after encountering one another in the shared arena of social networks; they make a snap judgment of someone else’s online profile, then follow it with extended online contact uninterrupted by work or play. But Wajcman oversimplifies, for example, the benefits of using smartphones to reschedule dinner dates at the last moment, “thereby facilitating temporal coordination.” As Mondaugen’s Law predicts, that same flexibility reduces (in Pynchon’s words) both “temporal bandwidth” and “personal density” by weakening one’s commitments to the future, even trivial ones.

Computers and smartphones bring to daily life some of the qualities of another artifact of the digital era: the video game in which a player sustains an anxious state of vigilance against sudden unpredictable intrusions that must be dealt with instantly at the risk of virtual death. This too has its benefits: drivers who grew up playing video games are reportedly quicker than others to respond to sudden danger, more capable of staying alive.

Dante, always our contemporary, portrays the circle of the Neutrals, those who used their lives neither for good nor for evil, as a crowd following a banner around the upper circle of Hell, stung by wasps and hornets. Today the Neutrals each follow a screen they hold before them, stung by buzzing notifications. In popular culture, the zombie apocalypse is now the favored fantasy of disaster in horror movies set in the near future because it has already been prefigured in reality: the undead lurch through the streets, each staring blankly at a screen… read more:

We Are Hopelessly Hooked by Jacob Weisberg
Is the new communication revolution degrading the quality of human relationships?
Twenty years ago, the hottest jobs for college graduates were at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Today, students at Stanford and CalTech and Harvard aspire to work in product management or design at social media companies. The disciplines that prepare you for such a career are software architecture, applied psychology, and behavioral economics—using what we know about human vulnerabilities in order to engineer compulsion... Some of Silicon Valley’s most successful app designers are alumni of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, a branch of the university’s Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute. 

The lab was founded in 1998 by B.J. Fogg, whose graduate work “used methods from experimental psychology to demonstrate that computers can change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways,” according to the center’s website. Fogg teaches undergraduates and runs “persuasion boot camps” for tech companies. He calls the field he founded “captology,” a term derived from an acronym for “computers as persuasive technology.” It’s an apt name for the discipline of capturing people’s attention and making it hard for them to escape. Fogg’s behavior model involves building habits through the use of what he calls “hot triggers,” like the links and photos in Facebook’s newsfeed, made up largely of posts by one’s Facebook friends... read more:

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