"And the town takes to dreaming"

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At some point, I mean to get back to looking up the research that is said to support Matt Richtel's claims that "the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information". Right now, though, I'd like to point out that complaints about the distractions of modern life didn't begin when email, texting and hyperlinks started eating our brains.  I wouldn't be surprised to find similar sort of complaints from the 13th century about clock towers, but today I'm just going to take things back to 1924, and an article from the New York Times with the headline "This Machine-Made World Conquers One More Rebel".

A square envelope comes in the mail. In the corner is the address of a shop. Inside is a card and on the card is printed: "My telephone number is–"

It is a defeat. The tentacles have reached into another little corner of tranquillity and grasped it and shaken it inside out into the hurly-burly. This man, saying so sententiously "My telephone," was one of New York's valiant few holding off the blessings of civilization. [...]

There is a philosophy in this [...] It is a philosophy of tranquillity. The trouble with the hum of machines, the philosopher tells you, is that they do not hum steadily enough: there is the peace of the static and the peace of the spinning top, but the jagged city and its machines go by fits, forever speeding and slackening and speeding again, so that there is no certainty.

And of all the machine and instruments, he adds, the telephone is the most persistent and the most penetrating. [...]

There's no explicit neuroscience here — or indeed any other claims of scientific support  — but the complaint about  technology-driven distraction is exactly the same. There's even a bit about experimental withdrawal from networked communications, though the experimenters in this case are children:

They are, in fact, a queer folk, these rebels [...] A scattered band, without plan and without hope, [...] unnoticed by the mass of the town save now and then when an isolated glimpse of one of them brings snickers.

But is that snicker an expression of mirth or of envy? [...] All the pell-mell majority, breaking the day into dots and dashes, following the crowd and making the crowd — how much sympathy, unrecognized and unadmitted, is there here for the man who will not have a telephone?

"None!" a voice shouts above the clatter.

Not so fast. Here are little Charlie and Oscar and Elizabeth, the eldest 11. Perhaps they do not think specifically of telephones, and most likely they would be pleased with the idea of the machines which show plays on a silver-sheet, but anyhow they decide to withdraw from this machine city. They will camp out. So for three days, though within sight of their home, they camp in a near-by part, and all the flash and glitter and otucry of alarms sent over miles of wires fail to reach their fastness. The town reads about the them and pretends to be amused. But at bottom the twon evnives the three youngsters. Camping out — away from all the din, from the autos and the phones! And the town takes to dreaming in the terms of Charlie and the man without a phone: "Peace, comfort, rest; leave the city behind you."

Every generation needs occasional rebel voices raised up in doomed opposition to "the jagged city and its machines":

"It's a revolt," says the man who has come at last to the telephone. "I'm whipped by this phone, I know, but still there are all these signs of revolt. You can meet the city on its own terms in most things, but each of us must have some point of reserve and some refusal; we must to hold our self-respect. It's all increasing in a geometric ratio. If I want to to use the phone once I must use it twenty times, a hundred. But you can see mankind is coming to the limit. Escape. It's trying to find a way of life. It's * * * I say it's–"

But the radio across the street has drowned him out.

One thing puzzles me a bit, though. For the people who think and write like this, it's always the machines — and usually the new machines — that are considered to "break the day into dots and dashes". But there are lots of traditional, entirely unmechanized life situations that involve interruptions at irregular times, or things that go by fits and starts: caring for children, tending bar, standing guard, hunting, fishing.

But I've never heard anyone complain that (say) fishing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors, because "When you check your bobber, when you get a nibble, when a fish hits the hook — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline." Nor does there seem to be any on-going research into the possibility that significant amounts of hunting and fishing may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, and that such addictive activities can lead to poor decision-making.

If you think such concerns are too silly to be seriously considered, you might be right. But then please re-read this passage from the web page about Matt Richtel's Fresh Air interview ("Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets", 8/24/2010), and tell me what's different:

He points to one study conducted at Stanford University, which showed that heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information — and trouble focusing on tasks. Other research, he says, says that heavy video game playing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors.

"When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'Check me check me check me check me.' "

Richtel says that research is ongoing, particularly into how heavy technology may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, how addictive behavior can lead to poor decision-making and how the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information.



27 Comments

  1. Rubrick said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Entirely beside the point of the post, but: I was completely thrown by the use of "without" as a verb in this passage:

    "…but anyhow they decide to without from this machine city."

    I read it several times and decided it must be a typo; and then while trying to reconstruct the correct sentence the proper interpretation finally dawned on me. Though I've read a fair amount from that era, I don't recall running across that usage before (though it is reminiscent of Tolkien's "We must away, ere break of day", now that I think about it.)

    [(myl) Nice theory. But in fact, I just typed "without" in place of "withdraw".]

  2. as said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    The article at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/ThisMachineMadeWorld.pdf unfortunately doesn't seem to be loading.

    [(myl) Sorry, permissions problem. Fixed now.]

  3. groki said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    For the people who think and write like this, it's always the machines

    it's always what's recently changed. in our era, that is overwhelmingly machines and technology.

    but I can just hear somebody, around the time of the invention of fishing poles, complaining about "all this new-fangled junk! what's wrong with the hands we were born with? no good will come of it, mark my words!" (in appropriate ur-dialect, of course.)

  4. groki said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    Matt Richtel's claims that "the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information"

    and uh, Matt? that's what's known as learning. embrace it!

  5. J. Jov said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    I don't see fishing as an interruption the same way texting or email is; even if no fish bite, you are still fishing, and when a fish does bite, what is happening – you are interrupting fishing with a fish? Whereas people don't (usually) spend hours waiting for a text. Rather, they are doing something else (shopping, reading, cooking, talking, etc) and text interrupts that activity, because it is unrelated.

    Also, you have very little control over when the fish bites, but you can control how much email you get, by signing up for mailing lists, scheduling more events, and things like that, and you can control how often you pull out your phone or turn on your computer to check.

    The same applies to the other examples that you provide, except perhaps raising children. But raising children is something that people have been doing since the beginning; it cannot change the way our brains are wired because our brains are already wired for it; that is how we evolved.

  6. Joe Fineman said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    Wasn't the spread of writing viewed with alarm by people who thought it would lead to the decay of memory? I read it somewhere. Si non e vero,….

  7. michael ramscar said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    Going back to your comment in the first blog in this series: "someone who is taking a walk on the beach is actually taking in information at a faster rate than someone who is IMing a friend or checking their email." — There's pretty good reason to believe that dopamine signals in learning are information sensitive , which would suggest that the walk on the beach is going to give you a bigger fix of Richtel's "dopamine squirts" too.

    "When you hear a gull cry, when you see a shell in the sand, when a wave-break runs further than you thought — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'walk on the beach, walk on the beach, walk on the beach, walk on the beach.' "

    It's high time the Home and Garden section got its act together. They need to run a hard-hitting expose on the way walking can re-wire your brain. People should be warned…

    [(myl) And you know those personals ads that mention walks on the beach? Most people doen't recognize the danger of that insidious gateway-drug experience ...]

  8. Dan T. said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    One of the more interesting lines is "how much sympathy, unrecognized and unadmitted, is there here for the man who will not have a telephone?" This can be repeated in similar articles of many different eras, replacing "telephone" with the gadget of the moment: television, automobile, computer, cell phone, etc.

  9. tablogloid said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    This is quite similar to the ancient Roman complaining that all the problems his day were caused by the outrageous behaviour of young people.

  10. Yosemite Semite said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    'A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565.' Vaughan Bell at Slate.

  11. Adouma said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:47 am

    @Joe Fineman: you're thinking of Plato.

    @groki: that reminds me of this piece of handy satire by Aaron Diaz.

  12. maidhc said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:28 am

    Let me add Alexander Pope's warning about "index learning". If a book has an index, people can extract miscellaneous facts from the book without having to subject themselves to the totality of the author's erudition.

  13. maidhc said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    Reference:

    How Index-learning turns no student pale,
    Yet holds the eel of science by the tail.
    (Dunciad)

  14. Klaus said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    @ Joe: Yes, Plato has Socrates arguing that writing impairs memory and distorts communication, among other things, in one of his dialogues (can't recall which one just now) – ironically, the only reason anyone remembers this argument is because it was written down.

  15. Cecily said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:06 am

    @Joe Fineman: Maybe you are thinking of this hird-hand quote; Plato cited it as Socrates’ description of the response of the Egyptian god Thamus to Theuth's invention of letters:

    "For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties. Your discovery, therefore, is a medicine not for memory, but for recollection – for recalling to, not for keeping in mind. You are providing for your disciples a show of wisdom without the reality. For, acquiring by your means much information unaided by instruction, they will appear to possess much knowledge, while, in fact, they will, for the most part, know nothing at all; and, moreover, be disagreeable people to deal with, as having become wise in their own conceit, instead of truly wise."

  16. IrrationalPoint said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:40 am

    But there are lots of traditional, entirely unmechanized life situations that involve interruptions at irregular times, or things that go by fits and starts: caring for children, tending bar, standing guard, hunting, fishing.

    I've certainly heard complaints about interruptions in caregiving, usually from people who are full-time caregivers. I suspect that there are few full-time scientists who are also full-time caregivers.

    [(myl) But the complaints about the consequences of technological distractions are mainly coming from journalists, not from scientists. And there's a long history of complaints about child-care distractions and the like, it just doesn't seem to occur to the techno-alarmists that there's any connection.]

  17. elmo iscariot said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    J. Jov said:

    Also, you have very little control over when the fish bites, but you can control how much email you get, by signing up for mailing lists, scheduling more events, and things like that, and you can control how often you pull out your phone or turn on your computer to check.

    Exactly this. I don't care to comment on the rest of the thesis (whether constantly stimulating environments are or are not corrosive to the individual or to society is a large issue–probably larger than a comment thread can support), but the comparison with hunting and fishing isn't apt.

    _If_ Ritchel's claim is correct, then the "data overload" is associating the reward with constant moments of stimulation on demand. The enjoyment of hunting and fishing is associating the reward with both the moment of the attempted catch and the hours of patient, quiet introspective time required to get to it.

    Also, I know people who strongly prefer email to telephone conversations, specifically because of the sudden interruption telephones represent. They won't give up the advantage of connectivity, but avoid the more intrusive, sudden stimulation of the phone now that a less abrupt alternative exists. Some of us, it seems, still agree with that old NYT editorial.

  18. Scott said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    I think a principle difference between the new, feared technology on the one hand and fishing, hunting, etc. is that people see the older activities as, basically good–so being 'addicted' to them isn't bad. If someone said "He lived a life of hunting and fishing every day", I think a lot of people would be envious. But if someone said, "She lived her life constantly interacting with her phone, email, and google calendar", I imagine most people wouldn't be jumping to emulate her life.

    Perhaps that will change; perhaps in three decades that will be see as the idyllic and beautiful life. But it's worth pointing out that while the very ancient activities of hunting, fishing, playing sports, walking through nature, etc. have remained incredibly popular, I don't know of anyone today saying, "Golly, let's go mine some coal!"

    [(myl) Well, coal-mining is not very practical as an individual activity. But splitting firewood is, and some people even like doing it.]

  19. Karen said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    Fred Couples famously said: “I don't like to answer the phone – there might be somebody on the other end."

  20. groki said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    Klaus: arguing that writing impairs memory … ironically, the only reason anyone remembers this argument is because it was written down.

    perhaps Thamus would have retorted that, absent writing, unimpaired memory would have been capable of remembering it.

  21. groki said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    thanks, Adouma, for Aaron Diaz' "Enough is Enough: A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism." especially:

    In living so long and spending so much time ‘thinking,’ do we not also run the risk of becoming a cold, passionless race incapable of experiencing our two emotions (fear and not fear)?

  22. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    More than you may want to know on this topic (including the Plato thing) is in a new book Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers.

  23. Nanani said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    > If someone said "He lived a life of hunting and fishing every day", I think a lot of people would be envious. But if someone said, "She lived her life constantly interacting with her phone, email, and google calendar", I imagine most people wouldn't be jumping to emulate her life.

    Except that if you think about it for a minute and actually look around you, with your eyes open, you will see that everyone who has the chouce does in fact spend their days "constantly interacting with their phone, email, and google calendar" rather than hunting and fishing every day.

    This is because hunting and fishing every day -sucks-. We, as a species, have been inventing ways to do less hunting and fishing since time immemorial. Ask someone who lives every day hunting and fishing because they have to do so in order to eat and see what they think.

    >[(myl) In fairness to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, my impression is that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is great when the gathering, hunting, and fishing are good. The problem is that resources are sometimes bad or marginal. You could say the same thing about the technology business.]

  24. tyler said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    phones, email, and even texting are very often work-associated activities. they connect us to our responsibilities, our deadlines, and our commitments. understandably, I (and I suspect others) associate them with stress, to a certain degree, although I certainly do use them for plenty of enjoyment as well.

    for many people with access to these technologies, such as myself, hunting and fishing are leisure activities. they represent escape from the aforementioned stress.

    I think a lot of the value judgement (envy towards the chronic fisher, vs. pity for the chronic communicator) stems from that, and not some inherent aspect of either. i myself might envy a chronic fisher, despite the fact that i don't really like fishing. what i appreciate is a lot of time away from my responsibilities.

    i think that perhaps what people are decrying as technology advances is that we are getting more and more efficient in achieving and being held accountable for our responsibilities, and perhaps even being loaded up with more over shorter periods due that efficiency. with phones, we no longer got to wait for a week or two for correspondence with a client after we finished a brief, because we could just call them up and ask them to come in the next day.

    obviously the difference isn't so stark, as I am sure there were plenty of measures for increasing efficiency before phones (i doubt lawyers really sat around for weeks at a time between correspondences with clients) but my point is similar.

    or perhaps it's actually the opposite — with such fast and reliable communication, people no longer plan so meticulously, and so things are actually less efficient, more last-minute, and thus more stressful.

    or maybe everything's the same and people just want a scapegoat.

    in any case, it's pretty clear that technology is going to continue to change, just as everything does, and yelling about it might be therapeutic, but that's about it. we just need to figure out how to cope with stress.

  25. David said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 3:27 am

    I am reminded of a young man I met while visiting Ghana. In his society, access to electronic devices, especially computers, was very limited. He saw clearly the potential economic benefits that having technology could yield. I can imagine him being very puzzled, or even resentful, by complaints of too much technology, too much information, in our lives.

  26. A mathematician said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Baroness Greenfield, formerly director of the Royal Institution, makes a habit of getting her knickers in a twist about the effects of computer use on our brains. This post by Ben Goldacre summarises.

    Nice quote from the comments:

    “Many young girls from morning to night, hang over this pestiferous reading, to the neglect of industry, health, proper exercise, and to the ruin both of body and of soul … the increase of novels will help to account for the increase of prostitution and for the numerous adulteries and elopements that we hear of in the different parts of the kingdom”

    (from Evils of Adultery and Prostitution, 1792, quoted in “The Persistence of Reading: Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers”, by Katherine Binhammer, Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 27, Number 2, Spring 2003)

  27. Josh McNeill said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 12:55 am

    For what it's worth, on the memory subject, I recall reading once about how illiterate oral storytellers could memorize huge amounts of information that a modern novelist, for instance, would not be able to compete with. When one has access to resources that make memorizing things less vital they seem to stop bothering to memorize them. There was another study I once read that took young people and old people in the UK and compared how many phone numbers they could remember on average. There was a significant difference and the lack of performance on the part of the younger people was chalked up to having a convenient phone book on them at all times.

    I consider myself to have a good long term memory but I would be lost with a search bar and a good ol' CTRL-F. Hell, I felt the need to backtrack a little just to make sure my facts were straight in this comment.

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