It’s All Too Much

In Thursday’s post I took the measure of the river of data that my plugged-in life brings my way, and noted that, as much as I like having access to it all, I’m finding it almost impossible to keep up with its ever-increasing volume. (“Drinking from a fire-hose”, we used to say at PubSub.) The pressurized, round-the-clock information-bath in which we now marinate our brains is an environment completely unlike anything ever experienced by our ancestors, and I think it’s fair to say that it constitutes a major change in the evolutionary “fitness landscape”.

When an organism’s environment changes, there is stress. The average genotype of the species is no longer situated atop its local fitness “peak”. If it can make the adaptive move to the new niche, selection pressure will provide the necessary impetus. But if getting to the new peak requires a descent into a deep valley, the necessary change may be beyond the organism’s capacity to adapt.

In a provocative series of articles, Matt Richtel of the New York Times has been looking at the stresses imposed on us by our new cognitive environment. In an interview with NPR about the series, he had this to say:

“What is the line right now when we go from a kind of technology nourishment to a kind of stepping backwards, to a kind of distraction — where instead of informing us, [technology] distracts us and impedes our productivity?” he asks. “There’s growing evidence that that line is closer than we’ve imagined or acknowledged.”

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.’ “

Mr. Richtel identifies at least two worrisome aspects of our new environment: the disruptive effects of multitasking, and the loss of mental downtime.

In this article about multitasking, Mr. Richtel discusses the effect of constant interruptions, like the arrival of an email or an instant message. We are designed, he reminds us, to respond at high priority to sudden stimuli that may indicate opportunities, or danger.

We read:

A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated.

Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

…A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. Stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory, said Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Well, I’m a terrible multitasker. It takes me a while to get my attention focused on a task, and interruptions of any sort irritate and distract me. One of the reasons why I find my software-engineering “day job” so wearying is the stress of being “pinged” and poked and interrupted all the time. It’s also why I stay up so late at night, even though it costs me dearly in terms of sleep: it’s the only time I can think long thoughts in peace.

But despite all that, I’m just as addicted as anyone else — I check email, blogs, news websites, and so on all day long, just to be sure I’m not missing the next little squeeze of the information syringe.

In another article in the series, Mr. Richtel looks at the pernicious effect of being plugged in all the time:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.

The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

I’m noticing this in myself, I think — I’m bathed in information all day long, but it seems to be less and less sticky. I rely more and more on notes, Internet bookmarks, and other external storage. It seems, though, that information I take in at the end of the day before going to bed, or before going outside for a walk or a workout, seems to settle in more permanently and accessibly. It also seems to me that things I learned when I was younger, before the dawn of this Information Age, are easier to retrieve too, though that may just be a natural part of aging. (After all, there was less competing with those old memories when they were laid down.)

So then: what will be the result of the selection pressure this new cognitive habitat has begun to impose on our species? Will the differential success of those with a natural edge in the new fitness landscape winnow out old-style brains like mine, leaving behind a hyperfunctional race of parallel-processing, multi-threaded polytaskers? Or are we up against a fundamental limitation of our architecture, and will simply hand off more and more to the “cloud” while we think less and less productively on our own?

We should also ask: is natural selection even relevant here? A traditional Darwinian, looking ahead, might imagine that the best multitaskers, the ones among us best configured for this new world, would thrive — and that in the usual way, their differential success would lead to the proportional increase of their advantageous traits in the gene-pool. But it is a dark truth of the human condition that those who sit in the cockpit of advanced civilizations — the most intelligent, creative, and, by customary social measures, successful — have the fewest offspring. As they rise, great civilizations inevitably become top-heavy with knowledge and culture, and depend for their continuation on their being a sufficient number of children in the next generation who are capable of absorbing all of it, and carrying it forward. But carrying that weight makes heavy demands of time and attention on an advanced civilization’s cultural and intellectual elites, and so those who thrive in the vanguard of such societies generally tend to be, it seems, the least prolific contributors to genetic posterity. It is not unreasonable to imagine, as some already have, that this process is a major reason why civilizations advance and then fall.

In Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction book Dune, set 21,000 years in the future, there are no computers at all. The reader is told that this is the result of the “Butlerian jihad“, a revolt against computers that had happened 10,000 years earlier. The book’s glossary refers to it as follows:

JIHAD, BUTLERIAN: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

What we are doing here, of course, is something different: we are trying to make human minds in the likeness of machines. We’ll see how it goes.

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One Comment

  1. the one eyed man says

    The first rock song to use feedback was the Beatles’ I Feel Fine.

    The only other Beatles song to use feedback is It’s All Too Much.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink