19 June 2010

Internet brain damage

"If a person is constantly wired, how can he or she think deeply about anything?"

There is a decent article in the June 6 New York Times describing how constant use of computers and smartphones reduces peoples' ability to focus on the here-and-now (or even to tolerate reality). Intensely focusing on one issue or prolongedly contemplating a single creative project are skills that internet addicts lose.

Multitaskers may not be as clever as they think they are; studies show that multitaskers suck at filtering out distractions and are actually slower at switching from one task to another. Netizens examined in the article are no longer able to complete a business deal in a timely manner or even bake a batch of cookies successfully because the flood of incoming e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates seems more stimulating than remembering that the food will catch fire if it is left in the oven too long.

As is often the case, readers' comments posted on the newspaper web site add some valuable insights. Here's one: "I work with groups of middle-schoolers and over just the past 5 years it's obvious that their ability to concentrate has plummeted. The annoying social intrusions of electronic media are nothing compared to the damage it inflicts on individuals who willfully ignore the signs and delude themselves into thinking it doesn't affect them."

That phrase annoying social intrusions is a gold nugget! We must never forget that communication is often a dilute form of rape. For example, imagine that you are sitting on a park bench on a pleasant day, listening to the birds sing and thinking about noun declension schemes for your new conlang. Now some stranger walks up to you and starts talking about sports or politics. She is trying to stop you from thinking about what you wanted to think about! She is preventing you from using your brain the way you wanted to, just as a rapist prevents you from using your genitals as you wanted.

Another comment posted to the article: "A few years ago, I read that Stanford, Duke and some other fine universities were giving free iPods to incoming freshman so that they could listen to professors' lectures as they walked around campus. I was stunned. Aside from my suspicion that most students would use their iPods to listen to ‘tunes’, I remembered how productive my walking time from class to class was. I'd spend that time thinking about what the professor and other students had said in class. I'd sort through it, reflect, agree, disagree, come up with other questions. If a person is constantly wired, how can he or she think deeply about anything."

Equally important, how can a constantly wired person ever be himself? The freedom to act as you want, to think your own thoughts without any worry about making the right or wrong impression on others, and the ability to decide what you will think about rather than having to deal with incoming topics hurled at you by others – these freedoms exist only when you are alone and not communicating with anyone. Every moment that you spend in the company of others or communicating with others is like a moment spent in prison or in a coma; it is time spent not-quite-living.

I predict that the net will have a devastating effect on conlangers who fall prey to it. The hive-mind will go through fads, fascinated by self-segregating morphemes one decade, diachronic sound shifts the next. Instead of seeking linguistic information from sources written contemplatively by people who actually know and understand the material – i.e. books printed on paper by publishing companies that use fact-checkers and professional editors – some conlangers will settle for wiki articles cut-and-pasted together by topic-dabblers hiding behind absurd pseudonyms.

Instead of making languages that reflect only each conlanger's own need for something that resonates as beautiful with the unique semantic orchestra of his own brain, a unique crystalline structure reflecting his own concept-map and grammar, net-addicted conlangers will suffer cross-contamination (which the rapists among us euphemistically call "cross-pollination"). Some of them will feel a desire to please others in the swarm, setting aside their own tastes as they are buffeted by the winds of the "swarm conform storm."

A decline in the number of solo projects and an increase in collaborative conlanging seem inevitable, since creating a language is a large task that requires concentration and net addicts can't concentrate. So, just as fewer and fewer people are able to write a coherent article about any topic – it now takes ten or fifty wiki participants to clumsily attempt the kind of writing that almost any individual with an IQ over 100 could do 15 years ago – there will be fewer and fewer individuals able to create a full-blown language of great originality and self-directedness.

Is there any point trying to resist this trend? Or is resistance indeed futile, and assimilation inevitable?


Sock said...

While I understand what you're trying to say, I think "rape" is a terribly offensive and harmful example to use. People's lives are ruined from rape, and I've never heard of anyone who ended up traumatised and scarred for life because of an unwanted conversation. Comparing an unwanted conversation to rape is basically saying that rape is just a minor nuisance, something which it isn't at all. I think throwing about the word "rape" just encourages harmful attitudes to something that is incredibly serious, and effects women AND men all over the globe.

Anonymous said...

Are you being sarcastic? Can't tell for sure.