This Skype chat had a very practical aim, probably aimed at those of us easily distracted by social media and the demands the internet and web make on our attention. Attention, concentration and focus are key when making art works.
Jonathan presented recent evidence that suggests our way of thinking, our brain architecture, so to speak, is being altered by the way we interact with computers and the internet; how the ever increasing processing speed with the commensurate increase in our responses. He also presented a quote regarding how this effect can hide in plain site:
People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death 1985
This was said early on in the context of the world wide web. The difference between this and other technological innovations in the past is the speed at which it has developed and proliferated.
A recent paper “the ‘online brain'” comes to three conclusions:
Internet is becoming highly proficient at capturing our attention, while producing a global shift in how people gather information, and connect with one another.
…found emerging support for several hypotheses…
…Internet is influencing our brains and cognitive processes…
3 specific areas…
1. …multi-faceted stream of incoming information…
[Attention switching and ‘multi-tasking, rather than sustained focus]
2. …ubiquitous and rapid access to online factual information…
[outcompeting previous transactive systems potentially even internal memory processes]
3. …online social world paralleling ‘real world’ cognitive processes…
[possibility for the special properties of social media to impact on ‘real life’ in unforeseen ways]
Firth, J., Et Al. (2019). The ‘Online Brain’ How The Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition. World Psychiatry, 18: 119-129
This speeding up of things occludes the spaces where subliminal, independent thought can take place. I feel that it could be seen as a form of indoctrination which uses the malleability of brain architecture.
Jonathan then went through the conclusions to unpack what all this might mean.
conclusion 1 – important to note that most experts agree there is no such thing as ‘multi-tasking’ – it is only possible when one this is ‘automatic’ like walking and talking at the same time – the walking element is automatic…
therefore we are creatures of very fast attention switching.
…they found emerging evidence that the online brain is bombarded with so mush stuff that fast switching means it is increasingly hard to sustain focus.
… that is the sort of evidence that is emerging – but they are not saying it is positive or negative – just that there is evidence for this — we have to decide what to do about this ourselves.
…the challenge is – does the very medium of the web demand this reduced focus – or has it just been hijacked by commerical forces!
I feel that this may be so, but the highjacking may not always be commercial, there are also attention seeking forces as well as lobby groups. I guess the major influences, however, can be traced back to some commercial motivation.
there is clear evidence that when we switch attention quickly – it means nothing is deep and concentrated – we have to decide if that is doing us harm or not (more likely there are times when fast switching is incredibly useful and times we need sustained attention but we may need to work harder to develop the sustained focus skills?)
There is competition for attention and space for information of whatever sort.
The point made here is that making is a great training for sustained focus skills. Particularly hand-eye making with material, not computer based making. We are physical beings and so need physical, and not just mental, interaction with the world. This means that focus needs time and computers, ‘steal’ time from us.
2. …ubiquitous and rapid access to online factual information… outcompeting previous transactive systems
potentially even internal memory processes
this point it more subtle but equally important to the first point
transactive knowledge – idea developed by Daniel Wegner 1985 – groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge
I feel that this point is about our being rewarded by fact acquisition, ‘fact gluttony’. This satiates our curiosity but leaves us with a diminished sense of wonder… and wondering again is about have the time to engage in it. We are exchanging information for our time. This makes me think that we need to be more discerning about the information we seek.
This idea regarding factual information posited by Jonathan is very much about collective memory…
on transactive memory – Wegner suggested – transactive memory system can provide the group members with more and better knowledge than any individual could access on their own
This collective memory is vulnerable to political and commercial forces which can influence it. This is particularly the case with social media. However, social media can also be used by counter movements. It could be argued that propaganda in the past was more effective because it was the main source of information for the population at large. Today, there are many sources of information… it is a constant struggle between competing positions.
so their conclusion is that the online brain having so much access to instant ‘factual’ information means there is evidence now of it changing the way our brains function and maybe even our internal memory systems —
whatever we think of this we need to be aware of this emerging evidence
What might we lose with we engage less in transactive memory – the building of memory by exchanging memories and ideas between individuals? Intelligence but above all wisdom. And the challenge in today’s society is that transactive memory is difficult to sustain when people leave disparate, asynchronous lives.
Finally we came to how all this might affect our work as artists
as artist does our work suffer with the instant access to the ubiquitous and rapid online factual information?
or are we enabled like never before because we have access to the ubiquitous and rapid online factual information?
I feel that too much information can lead to a form of artistic paralysis. The availability of so many paths and directions can be confusing and preclude one from entering into work with depth. In addition, some skills require many years to acquire. However, Aristotle did mention an interesting idea: T-shaped skills arrangement where a main skill is formed in depth over time adding other minor ones on top of it.
There is one physical problem I see with the growth of computers as sources of information in the future. Computers are highly sophisticated and cannot be easily made with simple tools and technologies as books and printing presses can. Also, computers are needing an increasingly large amount of electric energy. What will happen when everything runs on electricity as is being proposed? These two points make us very vulnerable to technological catastrophes.
3. …online social world paralleling ‘real world’s cognitive processes…
possibility for the special properties of social media to impact on ‘real life’ in unforeseen ways
3rd conclusion is less certain and is more speculative – they are aware of the growing impact but importantly there are many unforeseen ways that might impact on us
‘The problem with the internet,’ Firth explained, ‘is that our brains seem to quickly figure out it’s there and outsource. This would be fine if we could rely on the internet for information the same way we rely on, say, the British Library. But what happens when we subconsciously outsource a complex cognitive function to an unreliable online world manipulated by capitalist interests and agents of distortion? ‘What happens to children born in a world where transactive memory is no longer as widely exercised as a cognitive function?’, he asked.
the Guardian newspaper, article
The outcome to this conversation was an awareness of the need to develop response strategies as artists to the emerging evidence that the online brain is changing us
This conversation was useful in terms of raising my awareness of the influence of the computers and the web on my workflow and ways of thinking and how I need to be vigilant.
The following are some of the strategies I have adopted:
Use the computer as a tool to making, documenting and communicating during interludes in making. This interlude creates a space from the physical, material activity which changes the mental space and refreshes the mind. I find myself stepping from making to writing and post-producing photographs in a constant cycle of production with my brain engaging in two forms of function linked by the same activity. This physical workflow is a conversation between the outer and inner-world interacting physically. I feel it is dangerous to ignore the fact that we are physical beings, symbolic life is not actual life.
Jonathan introduced Doug Belshaw’s response:
Doug Belshaw who writes a lot about ‘digital literacies’ has 3 initial thoughts on how to respond:
1. seek other networks
2. look for voices you want to give attention to
3. avoid constipation!
1. deliberately look for networks to engage with – eg this course right now, or more decentralised online networks – where money making is not the main issue
2. look for interesting people – not just on social media – look for newsletters, zines, blogs, podcasts – slower forms of online engagement?
3. horrible metaphor!! but — massive info consumption – gets stuck – need better throughput! â€” careful reflective writing can really help – extract the nutrients from what reading listening to etc.
Jonathan ended the chat with the same statement he started with:
our attention is sovereign
1. we decide where we put our attention
2. in acknowledging this – we take responsibility
… where we put our attention
… past and future