I read this article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic some 12 and a half years ago. It made such an impression on me that I think I must have tried to restate it or summarize it for people in different social situations literally dozens of times since.
So here’s the gist of it. YES, of course the internet is rewiring our brains, making us dumber, dimming our processing abilities, shrinking our attention spans, juicing our nervous systems in ways that do not favor optimal cognitive functioning.
But towards the end of the article, the author wistfully reflects that perhaps the age of computers is simply an inevitable stage in the evolution of human consciousness, and yes it involves losses, but it also brings about necessary gains, such as democratically available, exponentially increased access to nearly every imaginable kind of information, and a brain exercised (at least) to process more and more bits of data quicker and quicker, to synthesize and grow in new ways. Yes, the long reflective book read may be fading into the past, but there are compensations.
The author compared the emergence of personal computers with the advent of the printing press, which democratized literacy and empowered people to gain knowledge, but also largely decimated the traditional cultures of storytelling – wherein information and culture could only be passed down through spoken word.
Even more fundamentally, he compared it to the invention of clocks. Which divide our days into hours, minutes, seconds. (Fractions of a second if you’re timing your run.) He pointed out that before clocks, we had sundials. With sundials, at least, we were still thinking of time in relation to the phases of the sun (what an ingenious invention, huh? The sundial!), not as abstractions. (“Hours” “minutes” “seconds” … these are human constructs that do not actually appear in nature.)
And before sundials … human beings must have enjoyed a natural, unmediated relationship to the rhythms of time, to the Earth’s and their own bodily rhythms – a pure and direct relationship with time that has largely (with the possible exception of some of the world’s remaining indigenous tribes) passed beyond all human capacity.
And maybe they didn’t rush as much as we do. I don’t know about you, but speaking for myself:
a. I like clocks. I like how they organize time. It’s very convenient for me. Frankly, I depend on them.
b. I find myself in a hurry most of the time.
Which brings us to daylight saving time. Recently we “lost an hour.” (I have to link to this fake movie trailer about daylight saving – it’s freaking hilarious!) Yet I found I had neither more nor less stress around time in the days that followed than I normally have.
Same with setting the clocks back an hour to standard time. I look forward to that each year! An extra hour of sleep, wow! But it somehow never plays out exactly that way.
All of which strikes me as evidence of the established scientific truth (right, Mr. Einstein?) that linear time – that is, time as we experience it – is an illusion. Time is actually a fourth dimension, with the other three being the spatial dimensions of height, width, and depth. Our experience of time is, so to speak, all in our minds. All time exists simultaneously, just like space.
And if time is an illusion, we need never have regrets.
A Couple of Musical Shout-Outs
“I was your slave. Now you’re mine.— Robin Williamson (with the Incredible String Band), from the song “Time”
And in his lovely song, “Fountain of Sorrow,” Jackson Browne sang “And though the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” (The link is to the Joan Baez version.)
That song just floated up in my mind. Gosh, what lyrics. (I mean the whole song, not just what I quoted.)
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I took a break the other day from all screens and phones. Holy shit! I can’t recommend it highly enough. Just one day.