Friday, August 27, 2010

Insane in the Membrane?

Chalk this up as one of those "obvious revelations."

I was reading a Vanity Fair article on the state of the American presidency. The point of the article was not political in any way; it was simply to give the reader a sense of how much the day-to-day experience of a U.S. president has changed, even since Clinton. The line that hit me came from a press secretary who talked about how you used to be able to at least catch wind of a significant development in the West Wing, then strategize your response, then respond and gauge reaction. Now, he said, there are no boundaries, no borders between big events. It's non-stop.

This is yet another example of the "constant stream" effect. From 24-hour news to social media communication to you name it, the biggest psychological change for people of my age is that we've gone from a world with manageable boundaries to a world that resembles an incessant stock ticker. To use a third analogy, we are people surrounded by bulging spigots labeled "work," "play," "entertainment," "information," and "basic human communication." By default, they're all on full blast. For people of middle age, you have some sense that you can turn these spigots on and off at will. And the challenge in life is to know how and when to do so before drowning. For people who grew up in the new world, there is no sense of this choice. You simply take it all in.

I'm resisting the temptation to be sentimental, to say that this new world is bad, wrong or immoral, and to call for a return to the past. True, the new reality does strike me as incredibly damaging at times ... and sure to result in a society where nobody possesses deep knowledge or critical thinking capacity, and where our gradual lack of competence, loss of focus and inability to choose the "right" and "healthy" versus the "easy" and "entertaining" destroys us. But that would be the equivalent of Thomas Jefferson and the old Republicans mourning the loss of the supposedly pure agrarian America as we moved toward manufacturing, commerce, paper money and raw individualism in the early 1800s. Jefferson's model wasn't sustainable, either.

I truly believe that The Great Rewiring is taking place. I'm talking about our brains, and "rewiring" is probably the wrong analogy, because our brains are much more plastic than we'd like to believe. We tend to compare our brains to the technology of the day, and for 25 years, that's been computers. Evidence points to the reverse: Our brains mold themselves to the environment. So what is this amazing evolutionary product called the human brain doing to adapt to the constant stream age? We're about to find out. Might it be disastrous? Possibly. Might it be wonderful? Equally as possible. Might it be both. I can almost guarantee it.

But for those of us who have known the previous world and continue to adapt to the new one (including Yours Truly, who only four years ago swore that he would never need or want a cell phone and now spends four hours a day opening and closing app spigots for banking, communication, weather, news, movie listings and sports scores), the constant-stream universe is, I think, causing a new form of insanity.

This will not be a clean transition for my tribe. You can live neither in the past nor the future. It is psychological homelessness.

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