I always knew there was something suspicious about concentration, considering how inconvenient and inefficient it is, slowing my consumption down unconscionably. I’m so glad the network can glean the by-products of my perpetual boredom and restlessness and make proper, efficient use of them. I am glad we are evolving.
In an essay for the NYTimes Opinator blog, evolutionary-psychology proponent and “card-carrying Darwinian” Robert Wright responds to Nicholas Carr’s case in The Shallows that our interaction with the internet affects our ability to concentrate, leaving us permanently distracted. Wright suggests that this feeling of permanent distraction is a good sign, indicating that our brains are being fused to others, contributing to purposes larger than we are capable of comprehending. If we could actually concentrate on what we were doing in responding to too many things at once, we would end up cutting out the myriad networked connections to others that puts informational tidbits in motion and makes them useful.
On balance, technology is letting people link up with more and more people who share a vocational or avocational interest. And it’s at this level, the social level, that the new efficiencies reside. The fact that we don’t feel efficient — that we feel, as Carr puts it, like “chronic scatterbrains” — is in a sense the source of the new efficiencies; the scattering of attention among lots of tasks is what allows us to add value to lots of social endeavors. The incoherence of the individual mind lends coherence to group minds.
That’s pretty chilling. It reminds me of The Charge of the Light Brigade:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
All hail the new efficiencies! What difference does it make if they obliterate subjectivity as we have known it? An overrated propensity, identity, unless it can “add value” to “social endeavors,” that is, unless it has brand equity. But as for individual autonomy? Who needs it. As Wright tells us, “this fragmenting at the individual level translates, however ironically, into broader and more intricate cohesion at the social level — cohesion of an increasingly organic sort.” The group mind must know what it’s all about—it’s organic, after all. Wright notes that he is “nostalgic as the next middle-aged guy for the time when focus was easier to come by,” but he is not worried that the superbrain is malevolent or totalitarian.
I, for one, also welcome the group mind. It relieves me of all my anxieties and responsibilities. It makes me feel comfortable in my ignorance, which obviously is integral to a larger purpose determined by the magic conjunction of those who share my avocational interests, who are kept equally ignorant. A thousand gut reactions always amount to more than one considered response.
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