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.
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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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The High Cost of Endless Novelty - Part II
The High Cost of Endless Novelty
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