Is Electronic Culture Warping Our Minds?
Online data fed directly into the brains of human beings via a "software/wetware" interface? We're closer than you think. But the impact on humanity may be devastating.
By BRUCE PEABODY, guest blogger
Anxiety about the use and abuse of electronic data and communication is all over the news. In addition to still-emerging concerns about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations, major media outlets report surging online attacks on university and government computer systems and ongoing efforts to commodify online privacy. Journalists, pundits, and bloggers also discuss the recurring fear that sharing information through social networking will come back to haunt us.
But much of the worry underlying these stories has a somewhat distant and ultimately sanguine aspect. For many computer and cell phone users these are someone else’s problems—or they are the harms of the right technology falling into the wrong hands. The fault lies not in ourselves, the ways we consume and communicate electronically, but in the leaders, big businesses, and future employers who abuse our wondrous technological gifts.
That’s not the only way to see our brave new e-world. Numerous commentators have fretted about the personal toll our digital culture is taking on everything from kids’ emotional health to how brains process information.
But these critical accounts are typically somewhat narrow and unconnected. Following a tradition as old as Aristophanes, Chaucer, and Swift, however, we can get a more comprehensive perspective on our current electronic fixation by turning to satiric fiction.
M.T. Anderson’s novel Feed is an uncanny exploration of our (inevitable?) future, in which most of the U.S. population has a “software/wetware interface,” so that online data is accessible directly through our brains. Anderson’s work chronicles the personal and social effects of an increasingly “wired” community, providing a valuable map for the range of potential human dysfunction we should watch for, think about, and preempt.
The main character in Feed, Titus, along with his various friends and relations, broadly experience what sociologist Max Weber called “disenchantment” with the world, a reduction in their appreciation of its mystery, wonder, and beauty. The instant gratification and ready stimulus of the feed induces a jaded, disappointed attitude captured by the novel’s very first line: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
Moreover, the book’s dramatis personae (the critique is certainly not confined to its teenage protagonists) exhibit a dangerous mix of susceptibility to fickle social and economic trends and a limited awareness of, and respect for, themselves. The most exaggerated and grotesque manifestation of this phenomenon occurs when two of Titus’s friends go to considerable expense and trouble to implant surgically gaping “lesions” on their bodies—in order to show off, as conspicuously as possible, their wealth, status, and perceived attractiveness.
These and other passages are consistent with recent critiques of how “selfies” and other online portrayals undermine our self-image and self-worth. Everyone is speculating on Huma Abedin's emotional health, but her electronically dallying husband, New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, is presumably the more unhappy, and psychically damaged, of the two.
Anderson additionally contends that the feed makes us less intellectually nimble and aware. Hamstrung by a restricted vocabulary (and with it, a cramped worldview), Titus and his compatriots have difficulty expressing their thoughts, aspirations, and feelings. When Titus meets Violet, his eventual love interest, he struggles to articulate what makes her so attractive, so compelling—initially preventing him from connecting with her emotionally and intellectually.
Periodically, the feed offers the book’s characters with recommended word choices, and they sometimes turn to its “English to English wordbook” for translations. But, of course, the feed itself is part of the problem: it saturates the populace with information, some of it inaccurate or misunderstood. As Titus reports:
"Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit."
Outside of Anderson’s Feed, there is an open debate over whether cell phones and online communication are detracting from or enhancing how we teach and learn. Regardless, we can certainly gain insight about a culture from the words it (mis)uses and in this respect, there is some intriguing evidence that we are becoming a more individualistic and less morally articulate society.
Closely related to this point is Anderson’s most damning critique of our growing technological interdependence. Bluntly stated, the individuals inhabiting his novel are unlikable and amoral: they are selfish, self-destructive and incapable of relationships with depth. Anderson’s grim depiction raises the twin questions of whether we are indeed suffering a decline of character and virtue and, if so, whether our reliance on electronic apparatuses plays a role in this diminution or at least shift in values.
Whatever the answers, Anderson effectively captures a familiar paradox of our new relationship with electronic media—it gives us greater opportunities to connect with geographically dispersed individuals and groups, and it enhances our capacity to produce and consume content in an individualistic fashion. As Titus puts it (in ostensibly describing a game of "sardines"), the “weirdest thing is that you know that you’re more alone than anyone, but that more people are thinking about you than ever before…so you’re more alone, but more watched.” Is there a better analysis of the compulsive Facebook user who sits at home, alone, spinning through his or her news feed?
What are we to do with all this—in Anderson’s world and our own?
Anderson himself is remarkably short on hope. His figure of resistance, the iconoclastic Violet, summarizes the book’s desperate atmosphere by concluding “We’re going down… The only thing worse than the thought it may all come tumbling down is the thought that we may go on like this forever.” Indeed, Violet meets with a demeaning and emotionally shattering end. Titus offers much less promise as a symbol of opposition: his primary acts of defiance include dating Violet and mass-ordering jeans.
We can, however, find an instructive response to the problems bedeviling Titus, not to mention our own 21st century e-citizens, from a seemingly unlikely source: the 19th century political theory of John Stuart Mill. In Part 2 of this blog entry, we will take seriously Mill’s argument for radical individualism as a means of maneuvering through today’s electronic culture.
Bruce Peabody is a Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. He is currently writing a book about American heroism.
Read Professor Peabody's follow-up guest post next week at Praxis.
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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case
- The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
- Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
- A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict
The death of Old Yugoslavia
Image: public domain
United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.
Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.
The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.
After the wars
Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.
The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.
So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.
Kosovo divides the world
Image: public domain
In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).
The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).
The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.
Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.
Land for peace?
Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.
In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.
The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.
The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.
If others can do it...
Image: Ruland Kolen
Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.
Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.
Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.
In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.
The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.
- Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
- The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
- Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
- Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
- Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
- But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
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