Friday, March 2, 2012

Neuroeconomics: Introspection on Attention Surplus

Yesterday, I wrote a piece on how modern technology wasn't causing problems by decreasing our attention, but rather with increasing our capacity to handle data in our mundane environment. It occurred to me earlier today that things like meditation aren't about increasing attention, but rather narrowing focus on to a specific set of activities. Actively filtering our experience enables us to push past passive barriers from stimulation that might otherwise overwhelm us - think of tai chi or the intense focus during sports, acting, chess, or really any activity for an example.

This morning I read an excellently written article that provides a sort of counterpoint to my discussion - that the processing of so much data dampens the overall production of independent thought.
It's a worthwhile read, but I disagree with it's speculative conclusions.

As I mentioned before, the ubiquity of mobile phones and their necessity for the present generation isn't the result of "addiciton," but that of excess processing in a stimulus poor environment causing a lack of focus.
Of course teenagers inculcated with cellphones/smartphones engage in enormous amounts of texting - such behavior allows them to manage multiple conversations and social contacts simultaneously, across the globe, while a conversation can only be held locally among a small, focused group. Too many people and it starts to fragment into individual sets of discussions. This isn't to say that teenagers DON'T discuss things - they still talk all the time - but their use of text has begun to EXCEED their verbalizations because they are able to process SO MUCH MORE information and social contact through text than physical discussion.
Taking someone used to an enormous amount of socialization and suddenly cutting them off is a bound to make them jittery. Look at ANYONE the first time they lie on a psychiatrist's couch and they will be uncomfortable and nervous. They are suddenly being forced to focus on a sole individual who is engaging in OBSERVATION of THEM, not social contact. Observation bias (real or imagined) is a well known phenomenon as people behave differently when they feel themselves under a lens. Cell phones aren't a cause, they're an outlet.
As a result of this, people will inevitably be uncomfortable giving up their link to a wealth of social, cultural, and informational stimulus. Saying that adults failed to set up "reasonable bounds" for their children's text-based social behavior is a ludicrous assessment - why not set bounds on them not competing effectively in sports? Let them run a marathon without shoes because they're faster than others? Just because you don't understand their capacity for stimulus and informational processing doesn't mean you should hobble them.

And that's the crux of the issue.
Our modern medical sensibilities tell us that we have the capacity and responsibility to correct anything we see as defective - be it cancer, and polio, or Aspbergers and ADHD. Rather than understanding these latter individuals as having an entirely different set of needs, we expend time, energy, and money shoehorning them into a prestablished mold and social structure to which they are wholly unsuited. Our efforts would be much more efficient and effective if we ever bothered to create systems that utilize these behaviors and turn them into strengths instead of weaknesses.
What about encouraging kids to perform relevant work and research during class, instead of punishing them for "not paying attention?" Reward them for properly focusing on the INFORMATION being conveyed instead of the PERSON who feels slighted that they are being "ignored."

If the claim that obsession with mobile phones and associated stimulation were true, we should find that traffic accidents in general and among teenagers specifically would rise precipitously as a result of ubiquitous mobile technology. But the opposite is true. The last few years has seen the mass commercialization of smartphones, and there has been a stable decline in fatal accidents across the board since the iPhone made it's debut in 2007. Even more telling, phones in general haven't been a problem, as fatality rates among teenagers dropped from 1996 to 2005 while the rates for adults rose. The flexibility in dealing with mental stimulus mobile technology provides to those accustomed to it may actually be PREVENTING fatal accidents, as individuals become less likely to be caught off guard by stimulus that would normally have been filtered out. This would explain why there was a RISE in adult fatalities over the prior period, but we are seeing an overall DECLINE now, as the slower learning, older generation begin to adapt to this newer layer of interaction.
Keep in mind, I'm NOT advocating cell phone USE while driving, just that the new normal of admitting more stimulation for processing may, in fact, be beneficial to our driving habits and overall situational awareness.

And yet, that isn't the most egregious misstatement of the entire issue:
My worry is that the ubiquity of texting may accelerate the decline of what our struggling democracy most needs: independent thought.
Truly, you are living under a rock. The world abounds with incredible amounts of unique and thought provoking material enabled by the felicity of an international exchange of culture. Philosophical thought, scientific research, and cultural production used to be a product of only the Pascals, Einsteins, and Beethovens. Now anyone (like yourself) can freely think and create with access to a staggering multitude of information that would have overwhelmed individuals of a previous era.
I love Bertrand Russel, and his discussion on human social behaviors in his essays on Power are a must-read for any economist, actor, or individual interested in understanding the world we live in. But here you are wrong. I was going to say that HE is wrong, but he isn't. You just didn't read him.
 I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.
Russell's complaint was that the concept of the virtue of work over thought is fallacious and harmful to society as a whole. In fact, we are progressing toward a society in which the greatest works of culture are ephemeral and thought based. We have become a thought and idea economy, in which the vast majority of us spend time communicating and analysing ideas and data rather than producing a physical product as an output. This, according to Russell, is the greatest good for society, and it's being catalyzed by mobile technology. If this weren't the case, the extreme stimulation to which modern life has pushed us would lead to fewer works of art, less productive science, and reduced levels of philosophical and political discourse (the two are heavily intertwined in the modern world).

On the contrary, we are seeing an explosion of thought brought about by a digital revolution, and it is the reactionist "old guard" generation that is hellbent on preserving it's power and profit margins by generating fear and blocking our progress toward this new world of internationalized, open thought and culture.

As Stephen Carter pointed out so poignantly:
And so the young, unbounded, freely created their own world, from which the old are largely excluded.
Let yourself be excluded  - it isn't your place or role to colonize all reaches of our social structure.
Let us create.
Let us pioneer.
Let us experiment.
Let us fail.
Let us learn.

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