When Spin Exceeds the Speed of Enlightenment
photo from Australian National Archive A1200, L2714
I haven't posted in more than a week for a variety of reasons. The most immediate one is that I tore tendons in two fingers of my right hand. Before this, I had thought that ASL was the only way that people talked with their fingers. I didn't think about my third and fourth fingers much, nor did I realize that they were such a big part of my being able to communicate. Second, we were on vacation and Ive been reading the 6th book of Harry Potter which pensively explores the nature of memory and the reliability of sources. Third, I just spent several days with a family member who bravely makes his way through adult life with a traumatic brain injury. Fourth and I guess most significant as I've obsessed over Karl Roves dishonoring of the White House, I've been put under some version of the Arvada Kadavra curse. All of these events begin and end with my much too intimate relationship with the Qwerty keyboard.
In the three months Ive maintained my own site, my admiration for other political bloggers has only grown. In the ADD challenged blogosphere where something more interesting or at least different is always just a mouse click away, if you want people to read what you post you find ways to get linked by sites further up the blog chain. To do that, you have to be both clever and so fast that your reaction speed to world events rivals Roger Federer on the tennis court or Danica Patrick on the race course. btw, There is another way to get hits and thats to post pictures of Danica Patrick in a swimsuit, but that doesn't necessarily get you read.
When JFK was killed, a study found that due to tv more than 98% of America got the news within 48 hours of the event. The compared to estimates when Lincoln died roughly a century earlier of the last 20% of the population in the many parts of the country without either the telegraph or the railroad not getting the news for several weeks. Today, the Zapruder film would have been downloaded several million times within hours of the event and wildcat analyses of the evidence would appear before the next morning. This routine miracle of the information age and the internet though has its limits. While we might get more of the information at a speed thats arguably faster than our own imaginations, the general public's ability to weigh evidence and come to reasoned decisions on matters of public concern hasn't necessarily improved. In the runup to the most recent Iraq War, more than half of the American people were convinced that at least one of the 9/11 highjackers was an Iraqi national. During the election, an even larger number of Americans genuinely believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. It's possible that many of these folk didn't use the internet to check. Its a very scary thought, but its likely that many did. During the 2004 election, my mother who was 74 at the time and has always been non-political asked me to help her to clean out her e-mail. In between purchases from Amazon and routine greetings, I found scores of jokes about Hillary and Bill and John Kerry punctuated with the most extreme imaginable Swift Boat spam about how winning a silver star and two purple hearts made any Democrat a traitor and a liar. I imagine there's a left wing equivalent of these kinds of listserves, but I haven't seen them. She explained that some man whom my stepfather and she had met RVing that summer had offered to e-mail them jokes. I don't know that my mother actually read the stuff, but there was a lot of it.
Even in the case of information on the web that's less distorted, there are lots of facts, many of them repeated and cited without a source, but it seems harder to come to settle on a conclusion. 42 years after the JFK assassination, we have all this evidence available on the net, likely a lot more than the Warren Commission had unless youre a serious conspiracy buff, and its probably harder than ever to get any consensus about who did it and why. This was not the promise of the Internet. If the amount of information on the net allegedly doubles every three months or was it three weeks, shouldnt we be a whole lot better informed than we are?
In some ways we are. I can find good recipes for aloo gobi with a click of a mouse, though google might also point you to pictures of cauliflower ear and spoil your appetite in the process. The other day, a friend used the term widows mite and once again I found that it was a biblical reference to a poor widow who had given all her meager resources to God and Jesus saying that her gift was the greatest of treasures (yet another one of those gospel oddities that makes you wonder if the right really does read the Bible). The problem is that these are just facts, they're not insights. The Internet can store facts, but it can't supply insight without a mind to process it. If the Internet were a person, it would be an autistic savant. I don't blame people for getting fooled sometimes, because the net is perfectly good at storing and retrieving other peoples insights, it just doesn't have good ways to evaluate them. In Greek mythology there was the Delphic Oracle which offered almost no facts, but ultimate wisdom. Our www.oracle is just the reverse. I suspect that if visiting aliens had to choose which was the product of a more advanced culture, those aliens would readily tell you that when it comes to making decisions that matter it is barbaric to defer to semiconductors over soul.
I have noticed that the acronym TMI (too much information) has already slipped into the mainstream, though it generally has more to do with overly personal revelations than with the internet. There is also something called Information Fatigue Syndrome, IFS which may be more marketing ploy to sell 12 step cures than it is medically identifiable relative to combat fatigue or PTSD as IFS attempts to insinuate. Information Fatigue link.
Is it possible that we now get information faster than we can process it? If that happens, what are the psychological consequences and social consequences. Asside from fatigue and irritability, one of the alleged effects of Information Fatigue Syndrome is that victims lose their capacity to make decisions. According to the literature, they fall into a mode of gathering more and more information well after the point when they should know enough to react.
This hit homepage for me recently with the Rove story. First it's the sort of story that suits the blogosphere in that it's a mystery that also happens to have a long paper trail. As the bloggers on each siderace to peel off each new document or oblique angle on bits from the story, theres an echydiastical thrill to following each new revelation as the next one that will finally reveal all the naughty bits in their full glory. Think of it has very high stakes strip poker. For weeks I followed each new angle and clue that peeked out from Lewis Libby to Tom Bolton to Alberto Gonzales, to Bruce Springsteen tickets.
It was bad enough that during a week long beach vacation, I had this repeated enocunter with my wife, What are you doing dear?---I'm looking at new stories about Karl Rove. Youd rather do that then sit out in the sun by the ocean? Just give me a couple more minutes. ----Well, I have no idea what could be so interesting about it. Dont you know the whole story by now?No dear, there are new parts of the story every ten minutes.
It didn't help that we also rented a copy of the Sandra Bullock movie The Net where at one point the future Mrs. Jesse James is in a black bikini doing wi-fi on her laptop. I had this fantasy that if I kept net surfing, Sandra who went to college just an hour away from where we were would show up to argue on behalf of my net addiction. Though in retrospect, I suspect Miss Congenialitys intervention would have provoked rather than convinced my wife.
In the Half Blood Prince, Harry and Dumbledore use the pensieve to explore Voldemorts past. It is certainly interesting and Rowling justifies it as Harrys way to better arm himself for his eventual confrontation with the Dark Lord. One, however, should already know enough to recognize that Voldemort is a dangerous guy regardless of what the pensieve reveals about the past. My wife is right, at one level, I didnt need to know any more about the Rove matter.
I know whether or not what Turdblossom has already admitted to was right or wrong. I also know that the President didnt follow up appropriately. Bottom line, I should have been out on the beach surfing on water or at least watching people surf.
Why was I still gathering information well after I knew enough to have an opinion? After all, Im not the special prosecutor or on the grand jury, I dont need to prove each element of a 1982 act or the Espionage Act to know when something profoundly wrong has happened. After self bombarding myself with all this information which amounted to what degree Karl Rove and/or Scott McCllelan either lied or withheld what they knew, I became oddly aware of something. I was losing track of my own feelings. Instead of that pit of the stomach sick feeling of realizing that many people could have been killed because someone wanted to win a political argument, my guts were being papered over with talking points.
Stuck in the spin portion of the news cycle, I didnt write, send money, e-mail the White House, or take anything resembling action. Instead, I did the equivalent of stare at a test pattern which outs me as someone old enough to remember when tv stations went off the air after two in the morning. Now that its the internet, the test patterns are better disguised as content that only seems to change, but really offers the same insight. A generation ago, we used to think of this as hypnosis. A generation from now, I wonder if well be referring to it as information laundering? At some point, you get out so much of the dirt that the fabric disintegrates.
This is my biggest worry. I think some folks out there are doing this by accident. I have a feeling that there are others who have already figured out how to paralyze people through TMI, information fatigue syndrome, or talking points exhaustion. There are a lot of people out there, on both sides, who already resemble talking points zombies. Im not scared by what they parrot, its more that it seems impossible for new information to get in or chage their mind.
When bombarded by information, the mind might do what it does when bombarded by anything else, it shuts down goes into reptile mode and finds some safe or familiar space. In the guise of discussion and more information, I suspect there are already groups out there who are pointedly using information to prevent insight. Say you catch your kid smoking marijauna in the back yard and the child responds by deluging with hundreds of reasons why you are a bad parent. If the child presses the right buttons, you forget to move forward with consequences. Notice, no one is now saying that Karl Rove wasnt one of the sources, instead we are getting endless posts about what bad people the Wilsons are.,how unimportant her job was, or that Wilsons information was wrong. Those of us closer to the infra-left part of the blog spectrum than the ultra-right see the manipulation. For the right though, its like a blinding spotlight aimed straight at the visible part of their spectrum with the predictable effect that all they see is a spotlight of Wilson invective at some Springsteen concert of the mind. Even worse, i's quite possible that "spinnig back" only pays into the hands of the spinnr in that it just shuts off our capacity to think and feel. The counter spell may well need to take a differen form than instinctively hitting back. Othewise the ultra-right might never see what's so plainly visible on our endof the spectrum. We need toremember that the main point of modern talking points is not to change minds but to keep minds from changing or thinking.
Way back when Remington introduced the first commercial version of Sholes typewriter, it is odd that the same company that helped modernize the handgun also introduced the typewriter, it was common for typists to jam keys. Human fingers were faster than the early typewriter. They solved the problem by laying out the keys in what we know of as the Qwerty keyoard layout. We use our weakest fingers to type the most common letters so that we dont out type the machine that existed in the middle of the 19th century. One reason hundreds if thousands of typists get carpal tunnel syndrome is that they are repeatedly forced to move their fingers in ways designed around a machine rather than their hands.
In the mid-20th century, a guy named Dvorak, not the composer, came up with a more human friendly keyboard layout now that the machines no longer tied up so easily. While not everyone agrees about the degree of difference, most believe that it allows people to learn to type faster with less training and it helps to reduce hand and wrist injuries. With the advent of the computers which have no mehanical typewriter keys, the QWERTY keyboard persisted. At a humane level, the QWERTY layout unnecessarily injures many of its users. At a human level, society resists change. Too many people were trained and too much was invested in QWERTY to make the change to DVORAK despite its longterm advantages, so DVORAK remains the metric system of the keyboard layout world.
I see the speed of the internet as an analog to the QWERTY keyboard. It spouts facts and links faster than the machine we call the human mind can process them. The result, for people like myself, is that our heads wind up with jammed keys when it comes to the business of converting all that information back into our own words and thoughts. We cut and paste instead of type. We start spinning instead of thinking. The price is a carpal tunnel syndrome of the mind where we become so numb we lose our ability to mix our thoughts with our feelings. When you cant do that, you cant have any insights worth sharing.
In this case, its the technology thats faster than we are. We may need a DVORAK interface to this great information spouting machine to enhance our capacity for insight. Im afraid I dont know exactly what that would look like though.
I just know that typing with 3 fingers on a QWERTY keyboard has slowed down my blogging for a bit and that hasnt been all bad. It taught me that one may have to post continually and quickly to get hits and links, but that shouldnt be the point. The more important purpose of any information technology whether its an oracle or an Oracle (tm) is to deepen our own understanding of the world and ourselves.
8 years ago, a member of my family was in a car accident. He woke up from his coma and retained much of his personality and identity and virtually all his physical capacities. He doesnt look different. His voice is the same, his jokes are the same, etc. Nonetheless, the accident injured his brain. His short term memory misfires, his control over his own emotions is limited, once in a while he substitutes imagined memories for events he cant reconstruct, he periodically has frightening seizures.
Despite this, he finished college. He is also intent on making the world a better place and on being able to live an independent life. fwiw, improved body armor and medical care has meant that there are thousands of Iraq war vets listed as wounded who will now be living this way.
As he struggles to meet these goals, I am too often reminded of stories I used to hear about amputees who would wake up in the middle of the night complaining of pain in what amounted to a phantom leg. Their unconscious could not acknowledge what their logical self understood perfectly well, they had lost something. There are any number of things he tries to do as if his memory were intact and as if he were untouched by his accident. The results are often painful and frustrating, because he must acknowledge his acquired limitations to move forward but to get motivated his sense of self has to insist that those limitations dont exist. Each time he gets discouraged, he takes it out on himself because of the shame that comes with acknowledging the limitations of our own mind or brain. If someone in a wheelchair finds a way to complete a marathon we applaud her. If someone with a brain injury takes on an intellectual marathon we have a much harder time recognizing the courage involved. Similarly, a wheelchair for the brain is much harder for the owner to see and learn to use. We have this cultural myth that the mind and spirit are one and that the mind should admit to no bounds or limits. I can see how it impacts the loved one with a diagnosed brain injury, I completely miss how it impacts me when I plug myself into the world wide web.
I believe the information age presents new challenges to this belief. It is critical for us to recognize that the pace of information can be faster than the speed of enLIGHTenment or our own imaginations. When I grew up, theyre used to be a lot of science fiction that amounted to the HAL fantasy of 2001. Robots, machines, artificial intelligence would some day have greater intellectual capacity than their masters. That time and technology has already come, though minus the cute anthropomorphized para-personalities of the science fiction version.
As biological mechanisms our brains have informational limits. We must learn to recognize those limits and understand what happens when the limit kicks in and causes our personal OS to bluescreen.
Our mind may not be the same thing as our spirit.
If our culture doesnt want to emulate the symptoms of autism, we must mediate the flood of facts with insight and perspective taking.
I have this feeling that in the seventh book of Harry Potter, Harrys success against Voldemort will have much more to do with what he figures out from the Pensieve than whats simply in there. Its the insight and wisdom thats the real magic. Without it, were all going to be helpless victims of those who have figured out the dark art of the internet abetted spin cycle whether it mages into Tom Riddle or some White House staffer who must not be named. Sorting this out may be the difference between the information revolution poving to be a NET gain or a tragedy comparable to two millenia of duelling monotheism.
In the meantime, Im going to get offline and listen to Dvoraks New World Symphony on my T-amp.