The High Cost of Endless Novelty
In a dark room sits a man at his computer. Intensely gazing at the screen, he lets the images and videos wash over him. He is on the hunt for just the right content to satisfy him. Expressing a demeanor of ennui alternating with short-lived arousal, he hurriedly clicks through pages, links and tabs. He is tired. He knows he should just get it over with and go to bed. Yet, each new piece of information is attention-grabbing in a different way and evokes a sense of satisfaction – small pleasures, however, tinged with a yearning for still more. At last, he has had enough. Spent. Looking at the clock, he cannot help but feel a little disappointed. Three hours? Where did all the time go? Somewhat disgusted with himself, he lies in bed and eventually falls asleep.
This experience is likely familiar to many Internet users. The hypothetical subject that I described above could have been browsing for anything really: cat videos, pornography, odd news stories, Facebook updates or symptoms of a disorder he may or may not actually have. Through it, I meant to illustrate a common practice that one could call “novelty bingeing,” an activity that may not be completely new to the human condition but is definitely encouraged and facilitated by Internet technologies. I am interested in what such practices mean for the good life. However, there is likely no need for alarmism. The risks of chronic, technologically-supported pursuit of novelty and neophilia are perhaps more likely to manifest in a numbing sense of malaise than some dramatic crisis.
Nicholas Carr, of course, has already written a great deal about his worries that many of the informational practices enabled and encouraged in surfing the Internet may be making users shallower thinkers. Research at Stanford has confirmed that chronic media multitasking appears to have lasting, negative consequences on cognitive ability. Carr is concerned that Western humanity risks slowly and collectively forgetting how to do the kind of thinking seemingly better afforded by reading in one’s living room or walking in natural environments less shaped and infiltrated by industrial and digital technologies. To the extent that more linear and more meditative forms of mental activity are valuable for living well, typical Internet practices appear to stand in the way of the good life. One must, however, consider the trade-offs: Are the barriers to greater concentration and slower, meditative thinking worth the gains?
Curiosity and neophilia are part of and parcel, in some sense, to intellectual activity writ large. Humans’ brains are attuned to novelty in order to help them understand their environments. On occasion, my own browsing of blogs and random articles has spurred thoughts that I may not have otherwise had, or at least at that moment. So it is not novelty-seeking, neophilia, in general that may be problematic for the practice of deep, broad thinking but the pursuit of decontextualized novelty for novelty’s sake. If the design of various contemporary Internet technologies can be faulted, it is for failing to provide a supporting structure for contextualizing novelty so that it does not merely serve as a pleasant distraction but also aids in the understanding of one’s own environment; in a sense, that responsibility, perhaps even burden, is shifted evermore onto users.
Yet, to only consider the effects of Internet practices on cognitive capacities, I think, is to cast one’s net too narrowly. Where do affect and meaning fit into the picture? I think a comparison with practices of consumerism or materialistic culture is apt. As scholars such as Christopher Lasch have pointed out, consumerism is also driven by the endless pursuit of novelty. Yet, digital neophilia has some major differences; the object being consumed is an image, video or text that only exists for the consumer as long as it is visible on the screen or is stored on a hard-drive, and such non-material consumables seldom require a monetary transaction. It is a kind of consumerism without physical objects, a practice of consuming without purchasing. As a result, many of the more obvious “bads” of consumer behavior no longer applicable, such as credit card debt and the consumer’s feeling that their worth is dependent on their purchasing power.
Baudrillard described consumerist behavior as the building up of a selfhood via a “system of objects.” That is, objects are valued not so much for their functional utility but as a collection of symbols and signs representing the self. Consumerism is the understanding of “being” as tantamount to “having” rather than “relating.” Digital neophilia, on the other hand, appears to be the building up of the self around a system of observations. Many heavy Internet users spend hours each day flitting from page to page and video to video; one shares in the spreading and viewing of memes in a way that parallels the sharing and chasing of trends in fashion and consumer electronics. Of which kind of “being” might such an immense investment of time and energy into pursuing endlessly-novel digital observations be in service?
Unfortunately, I know of no one directly researching this question. I can only begin to surmise a partial answer from tangential pieces of evidence. The elephant of the room is whether such activity amounts to addiction and if calling it such aids or hinders our understanding of it. The case I mentioned in my last post, the fact that Evegny Morozov locks up his wi-fi card in order to help him resist the allure of endless novelty, suggests that at least some people display addictive behavior with respect to the Net. One of my colleagues, of course, would likely warn me of the risks in bandying about the word “addiction.” It has been often used merely to police certain forms of normality and pathologize difference. Yet, I am not convinced the word wholly without merit. Danah boyd, of all people, has worried that “we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity,” if we are not mindful concerning how we go about consuming digital content; too often we use digital technologies to pursue celebrity and gossip in ways that do not afford us “the benefits of social intimacy and bonding.”
Nevertheless, the only empirical research I could find concerning the possible effects of Internet neophilia was in online pornography studies; research suggests that the viewing of endlessly novel erotica leads some men to devalue their partners in a way akin to how advertising might encourage a person to no longer appreciate their trusty, but outmoded, wardrobe. This result is interesting and, if the study is genuinely reflective of reality for a large number of men in committed relationships, worrisome. At the same time, it may be too far a leap to extrapolate the results to non-erotic media forms. Does digital neophilia promote feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s proximate, everyday experiences because they fail to measure up with those viewed via online media?
Perhaps. I generally find that many of my conversations with people my own age involve more trading of stories about what one has recently seen on YouTube than stories about oneself. I hear fewer jokes and more recounting of funny Internet skits and pranks, which tend to involve people no one in the conversation actually knows. Although social media and user-generated content has allowed more people to be producers of media, it is seems to have simultaneously amplified the consumption behavior of those who continue to not produce content. To me, this suggests that, at some level, many people are increasingly encouraged to think their lives are less interesting then what they find online. If they did not view online spaces as the final arbiters of what information is interesting or worthy enough to tell others, why else would so many people feel driven to tweet or post a status update any time something the least bit interesting happens to them but feel disinclined to proffer much of themselves or their own experiences in face-to-face conversation?
I might be slightly overstating my case, but I believe the burden of evidence ought to fall on Internet-optimists. Novelty-bingeing may not be an inherent or essential characteristic of information technologies for all time, but, for the short-term, it is a dominant feature on the Net. The various harms may be subtle and difficult to measure, but it is evident in the obvious efforts of those seeking to avoid them – people who purchase anti-distraction software like “Freedom” or hide their wi-fi cards. The recognition of the consequences should not imply a wholesale abandonment of the Internet but merely to admit its current design failures. It should direct one’s attention to important and generally unexplored questions. What would an Internet designed around some conception of the good life not rooted in a narrow concern for the speed and efficiency of informational flows look like? What would it take to have one?
 There are, clearly, other issues with using erotic media as a comparison. Many more socially liberal or libertarian readers may be ideologically predisposed to discount such evidence as obviously motivated by antiquated or conservative forms of moralism, countering that how they explore their sexuality is their own personal choice. (The psychological sciences be damned!) In my mind, mid-twentieth century sexual “liberation” eliminated some damaging and arbitrary taboos but, to too much of an extent, mostly liberated Westerners to have their sexualities increasingly molded by advertisers and media conglomerates. It has not actually amounted to the freeing the internally-developed and independently-derived individual sexuality for the purpose of self-actualization, as various Panglossian historical accounts would have one believe. As long as people on the left retreat to the rhetoric of individual choice, they remain blind to many of the subtle social processes by which sexuality is actually shaped, which are, in many ways, just as coercive as earlier forms of taboo and prohibition.
Evgeny Morozov’s disclosure that he physically locks up his wi-fi card in order to better concentrate on his work spurred an interesting comment-section exchange between him and Nicholas Carr. At the heart of their disagreement is a dispute concerning the malleability of technologies, how this plasticity ought to recognized and dealt with in intelligent discourse about their effects and how the various social problems enabled, afforded or worsened by contemporary technologies could be mitigated. Neither mentions, however, the good life.
Carr, though not ignorant of the contingency/plasticity of technology, tends to underplay malleability by defining a technology quite broadly and focusing mainly on their effects on his life and those of others. That is, he can talk about “the Net” doing X, such as contributing to increasingly shallow thinking and reading, because he is assuming and analyzing the Internet as it is presently constituted. Doing this heavy-handedly, of course, opens him up to charges of essentialism: assuming a technology has certain inherent and immutable characteristics.
Morozov criticizes him accordingly:
“Carr…refuses to abandon the notion of “the Net,” with its predetermined goals and inherent features; instead of exploring the interplay between design, political economy, and information science…”
Morozov’s critique reflects the theoretical outlook of a great deal of STS research, particularly the approaches of “social construction of technology” and “actor-network theory.” These scholars hope to avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism – the belief that technology drives history or develops according to its own, and not human, logic – by focusing on the social, economic and political interests and forces that shape the trajectory of a technological development as well as the interpretive flexibility of those technologies to different populations. A constructivist scholar would argue that the Internet could have been quite different than it is today and would emphasize the diversity of ways in which it is currently used.
Yet, I often feel that people like Morozov often go too far and over-state the case for the flexibility of the web. While the Internet could be different and likely will be so in several years, in the short-term its structure and dynamics are fairly fixed. Technologies have a certain momentum to them. This means that most of my friends will continue to “connect” through Facebook whether I like the website or not. Neither is it very likely that an Internet device that aids rather than hinders my deep reading practices will emerge any time soon. Taking this level of obduracy or fixedness into account in one’s analysis is neither essentialism nor determinism, although it can come close.
All this talk of technology and malleability is important because a scholar’s view of the matter tends to color his or her capacity to imagine or pursue possible reforms to mitigate many of the undesirable consequences of contemporary technologies. Determinists or quasi-determinists can succumb to a kind of fatalism, whether it be in Heidegger’s lament that “only a god can save us” or Kevin Kelly’s almost religious faith in the idea that technology somehow “wants” to offer human beings more and more choice and thereby make them happy.
There is an equal level of risk, however, in overemphasizing flexibility in taking a quasi-instrumentalist viewpoint. One might fall prey to technological “solutionism,” the excessive faith in the potential of technological innovation to fix social problems – including those caused by prior ill-conceived technological fixes. Many today, for instance, look to social networking technologies to ameliorate the relational fragmentation enabled by previous generations of network technologies: the highway system, suburban sprawl and the telephone.
A similar risk is the over-estimation of the capacity of individuals to appropriate, hack or otherwise work around obdurate technological systems. Sure, working class Hispanics frequently turn old automobiles into “Low Riders” and French computer nerds hacked the Minitel system into an electronic singles’ bar, but it would be imprudent to generalize from these cases. Actively opposing the materialized intentions of designers requires expertise and resources that many users of any particular technology do not have. Too seldom do those who view technologies as highly malleable ask, “Who is actually empowered in the necessary ways to be able to appropriate this technology?” Generally, the average citizen is not.
The difficulty of mitigating fairly obdurate features of Internet technologies is apparent in the incident that I mentioned at the beginning of this post: Morozov regularly locks up his Internet cable and wi-fi card in a timed safe. He even goes so far as to include the screw-drivers that he might use to thwart the timer and access the Internet prematurely. Unsurprisingly, Carr took a lot of satisfaction in this admission. It would appear that some of the characteristics of the Internet, for Morozov, remain quite inflexible to his wishes, since he often requires a fairly involved system and coterie of other technologies in order to allay his own in-the-moment decision-making failures in using it. Of course, Morozov, is not what Nathan Jurgenson insultingly and dismissively calls a “refusenik,” someone refusing to utilize the Internet based on ostensibly problematic assumptions about addiction, or certain ascetic and aesthetic attachments. However, the degree to which he must delegate to additional technologies in order to cope with and mitigate the alluring pull of endless Internet-enabled novelty on his life is telling.
Morozov, in fact, copes with the shaping power of Internet technologies on his moral choices as philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek would recommend. Rather than attempting to completely eliminate an onerous technology from his life, Morozov has developed a tactic that helps him guide his relationship with that technology and its effects on his practices in a more desirable direction. He strives to maximize the “goods” and minimize the “bads.” Because it otherwise persuades or seduces him into distraction, feeding his addiction to novelty, Morozov locks up his wi-fi card so he can better pursue the good life.
Yet, these kinds of tactics seem somewhat unsatisfying to me. It is depressing that so much individual effort must be expended in order to mitigate the undesirable behaviors too easily afforded or encouraged by many contemporary technologies. Evan Selinger, for instance, has noted how the dominance of electronically mediated communication increasingly leads to a mindset in which everyday pleasantries, niceties and salutations come to be viewed as annoyingly inconvenient. Such a view, of course, fails to recognize the social value of those seemingly inefficient and superfluous “thank you’s” and “warmest regards’.” Regardless, Selinger is forced to do a great deal more parental labor to disabuse his daughter of such a view once her new iPod affords an alluring and more personally “efficient” alternative to hand-writing her thank-you notes. Raising non-narcissistic children is hard enough without Apple products tipping the scale in the other direction.
Internet technologies, of course, could be different and less encouraging of such sociopathological approaches to etiquette or other forms of self-centered behavior, but they are unlikely to be so in the short-term. Therefore, cultivating opposing behaviors or practicing some level of avoidance are not the responses of a naïve and fearful Luddite or “refusenik” but of someone mindful of the kind of life they want (or want their children) to live pursuing what is often the only feasible option available. Those pursuing such reactive tactics, of course, may lack a refined philosophical understanding of why they do what they do, but their worries should not be dismissed as naïve or illogically fearful simply because they struggle to articulate a sophisticated reasoning.
Too little attention and too limited of resources are focused on ways to mitigate declines in civility or other technological consequences that ordinary citizens worry about and the works of Carr and Sherry Turkle so cogently expose. Too often, the focus is on never-ending theoretical debates about how to “properly” talk about technology or forever describing all the relevant discursive spaces. More systematically studying the possibilities for reform seems more fruitful than accusations that so-and-so is a “digital dualist,” a charge that I think has more to do with the accused viewing networked technologies unfavorably than their work actually being dualistic. Theoretical distinctions, of course, are important. Yet, at some point neither scholarship nor the public benefits from the linguistic fisticuffs; it is clearly more a matter of egos and the battle over who gets to draw the relevant semantic frontier, outside of which any argument or observation can be considered too insufficiently “nuanced” to be worthy of serious attention.
Regardless, barring the broader embrace of systems of technology assessment and other substantive means of formally or informally regulating technologies, some concerned citizen respond to tendency of many contemporary technologies to fragment their lives or distract them from the things they value by refusing to upgrade their phones or unplugging their TVs. Only the truly exceptional, of course, lock them in safes. Yet, the avoidance of technologies that encourage unhealthy or undesirable behaviors is not the sign of some cognitive failing; for many people, it beats acquiescence, and technological civilization currently provides little support for doing anything in between.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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