Thursday, June 19, 2008

Deep Focus and the Coming Dark Age (Part II)

This is the point where the topic delves into what might at first seem unrelated - that is commodity culture. However, from the various comments made on the previous post, it seems that we almost naturally connect the lack of deep focus, attention span, and consumerism.

As Voland indicated, there seems to be a link between the Information Age, nifty technology, and the need to own the latest bits of technology. Additionally, it seems that in the era where information is king, it is also at the top of commodities. Yes, we've always paid for our information, but the argument might be made that in the past, we expected much more information when we paid for it. An example of paying for information is education, books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and myriad other sources. But somewhere along the way, information became shallow, and varied quantity became more important. I like to term this as "bullet point data." Basically, the best information today is deemed to be that which can be summarized by bullet point sentences:

  • Information is good
  • Conveying the information must be quick
  • Information comes at a price
  • The "price" of information should not be our time
I wonder how many literary classics have been summarized in a similar fashion. This is sometimes termed, "Writing to the Top," or pyramid writing - meaning that those in higher positions need less information (the folks at the "top" or at the pinnacle of the pyramid just need short bullet points).

This has also spread across every form of entertainment, and what is traditionally considered "news." While most of you might not consider this entertaining, try reading the novel 1984 while listening to any cable news network. It is surprising how many times the Ministry of Truth sounds like any given news channel. The problem is, in 1984, the Ministry of Truth was just the opposite - it was a ministry of untruths. And this is perhaps necessary today because we have very little time for long news stories. I expect most people have the span of time that it takes to drive to work to listen to news, or maybe that is done during breakfast. Or maybe not done at all, as "news" is always in the background. Snippets seem to be enough.

The argument put forth previously was that all of this is affecting us, causing people to long for surface information. It seems that deep focus, the long term, intense understanding of a topic, is not a part of our culture - particularly a culture where time and money are synonymous. The problem with this is that it leads to fabrication of data, or the filling in of the blanks. And that seems to be just fine. Meanwhile, for this reduced information, we must pay money.

Overall, it seems the Information Age is not only producing vast archives of data, but also quick methods of skimming, reducing, and condensing the data to small bits of easy to remember blurbs. It is probably drastic to predict that in the future we'll speak a reduced language, as vocabularies, sentences, and modes of communication will become brief - IMHO.

Meanwhile, as cited by many writers and philosophers for over 100 years, our culture is becoming more and more consumer based. Producing physical goods is a costly and time consuming task. And all the more so in a world where fuel prices add to the cost of shipping physical material. This leaves us with something torn out of the pages of a cyberpunk novel, where data, something almost ethereal in nature, becomes the world's greatest commodity. Transporting it and producing it is easier with a means of mining the Internet for it (opposed to mining the Earth for it). The costs of manufacture are greatly reduced because it can be digitally reproduced. This makes the Information Age and the Electronic Age a great match. Anything that exists in the "cyber world" can be produced and sold and transported at little cost, while a culture of consumers are programmed to by more and more. To store vast amounts of data on small devices, even though most of that data (music, audio, photos, contacts, games) are seldom accessed. It is a wonderful solution, a product that takes up no real physical space, and has no real physical cost to reproduce. And if the "space" it requires is filled, then another product can be sold to provide greater storage for the data that is seldom used.

It is perhaps unfair to say that we are obsessed with consuming. Instead, I'd say that we are driven by our world to consume - consuming is entertainment. After all, it is better to own DVDs, books, CDs than not to own them, even if we don't have the time to watch, read, or listen to them. In some strange way, all of this seems to be connected to a decreasing attention span, or a lack of deep focus.


Charles Gramlich said...

I was just talking with someone about this today. I think a growing problem is the increasing overemphasis on visual processing in our culture at the expense of verbal processing. Visual processing, by it's very character, tends to be more shallow. Verbal thoughts are deeper than visual thoughts under most circumstances.

Jeff Edwards said...

William, I will respond to your post with a few points on consumerism.

When my son was young, I watched in dismay as the Pokemon craze took hold. (You could substitute Beanie Babies or Power Rangers here but I think Pokemon trumps them all.) It was a brilliant but calculated method of taking money from parents' pockets. The mantra was, "Gotta catch 'em all!" It started with a stable of 150 Pokemon. These were available in the form of cards and videogames. There were alternate versions of the cards and the videogames so that children asked parents to keep buying more. To this day, I still do not know the difference between Pokemon Emerald and Pokemon Crystal, etc, GameBoy cartridges. Then of course there were T-shirts and other apparel, television shows, theatrical releases, home video infinitum! Suddenly, there were NEW Pokemon...150 of the creatures was not enough! And eager children consumed all this and parents winced as they slapped the credit card on the counter.

For another viewpoint, look at Warren Buffett's investing strategy. I have read that he is most comfortable investing in fairly low-tech businesses that provide products that much be purchased over and over again -- bricks, paint, chocolate candy. (I wonder if he invested in the Pokemon craze? I wish I had.)

I fear my post is too long now, so I'll wrap this up by saying that 1984 was an excellent book to mention in this discussion. Well, what I mean to say is, double-plus-good.


Jeff Edwards said...

Well, I guess I lost my focus, because there were 2 more things I wanted to say!

First, when I finally purchased a DVD player, I refused to start a DVD collection. I still have Beta and VHS tapes! If I had bought DVDs, I'd now have to replace them with BluRay discs or something.

Second, you make a good point about storing infrequently accessed information on small storage devices. My iPod is a 30 Gb model and yet I still have about 9 Gb free (although I have 5,000 songs on the device so far)! I have set a goal to listen to each song once, but after nearly 4 months I have listened to only half of them. There are albums on the iPod I do not like, yet my son doesn't understand why I would consider deleting them: He says, just keep them until you run out of space, then delete them. I recently bought a 160 Gb external drive to back up the music files, and my son wondered why I didn't buy a 500 Gb drive since it was only a few dollars more. My response was, the iPod is only 30 Gb and I'm buying a 160 Gb backup device for it -- what on earth would I do with 500 Gb??? Now, you probably can't even find a device as small as 160 Gb on the market.

I notice that I bring my son up a lot in this discussion -- it is because he is more victimized by the consumer mentality than I -- as in, why not buy bigger, better, more...the cost is so low!!! While I resist...I am the guy who still watches Beta tapes and listens to music on vinyl!


MKeaton said...

For some reason, this discussion reminds me of a portion of John Brunner's "A Maze of Stars" wherein one of the societies was hording information since it was the ultimate valuable commodity. Problems arose in that, by doing so, they were giving up experience for data and, as one of the characters eventually realized, they had so much data that they lacked the ability to actually process it into a useful form. (In the book, this section was largely irrelevant to the plot but I found it interesting. Then again, the book had almost no plot or point. I expected better from Brunner but let me avoid swerving into a book report.)

I definitely see parallels in today's culture. Data over experience and an information overload that effectively renders information useless. I also have a brother-in-law who is a professor of graphic arts and preaches consistently the virtues of a "post-literate society". (My usual reply is "When you get there, call me. I'll bring my band of angry barbarians with sticks and we'll see how it works out.")

Someday future generations will dig up out computers and shiny discs and dismiss us as a primative culture who never developed writing because data formats anno-litera become too cryptic to translate. But I'm an optimist.


Voland said...

In his "In Search of the Silent Majority" Baudrillard describes one of the key behaviours of our mass culture as "simulation".

Simulation is all around us today. It's almost the defining quality of our western civilization. The "shallowness" of information you mention is a manifestation of this - the warm fuzzy glow of "simulating" deep knowledge without any of the attendant effort. Our school examination systems (in the UK at least) are gradually watered down: to the extent that it's now possible to do a Bachelor's Degree in Horse Grooming at several UK universities; to the extent that people are being provided with a cheap simulacrum of education, as though the superfice is quite as good as the real thing. Most worryingly, our western political system seems in danger of becoming a "one party corporatist state masquerading as a two party state", increasingly relying on a simulation of democracy, whilst contriving to control and subvert its potential for social change.

"Writing to the top" is an excellent example of the ultimate effects of "simulation addiction" - Hamlet becomes "Everybody dies"; Communism becomes "It failed"; Islam becomes "Jihad". Not only can the ideational content of a topic be effectively decoupled from its vehicle in this way, it can be transposed, manipulated, simplified, recontextualised. Not only is the challenge and potential danger of an idea defused, but it becomes trivial to counterfeit new simulacra to dilute the intensity of the original. "I understand Jeffrey Archer" + "Jeffrey Archer writes novels" = "I understand novels". End of story.

Before this drifts into the realms of conspiracy and smoke-filled rooms, I'd like to mention something I found bizarre, terrifying, and wonderfully human when "reviewing" the online sim "Second Life" recently. I'm not a "player" myself, but I thought I'd check it out. While doing so I realized there was an entire virtual economy unfurling before me. People were controlling virtual avatars to conduct virtual crafts (such as jewelry or clothing manufacture), and then selling these things to other "players" for money which is directly convertible for real money. I don't know what shocked me most - that people would spend real hours of their real life at a computer doing virtual manual labour to, say, make a virtual suit of clothing, or that other people would spend real money from the real world to buy a suit of virtual clothing for their virtual self.

There seems to be a disconnect between the essence of a commodity and its "process", for want of a better word - the sensual enjoyment of the act of acquiring it, displaying it, controlling it. I suppose similar things happen when people pay millions of dollars for a Warhol silkscreen when, arguably, a printed copy *is* essentially the same thing. This fascination with object-as-socioeconomic-process rather than object-as-substance is what perhaps leads us to misunderstanding.

In "simulation", the act of consumption of the object, be it information, clothing, politics, becomes more important than the object. In fact, the object is interchangeable; it has little or no control over the way in which it is consumed. The trial of a mass murderess is consumed with comments of "look how she's done her hair"; the presidential elections unroll in the background as the theme tune to a game of cards. To the authorities imbuing these objects with meaning - the judiciary, the politicians, the artist, the thinker - this can be a source of chagrin, but to the consumers and the merchants, the system is a perfect solipsism. Doubtless sellers of cakes during public guillotinings during the French Revolution had a similar outlook...

Taken in this context, the "shallow-focus" style of internet information consumption is simply a modern manifestation of an eternal human characteristic. "Consumption" in this sense is an ideational addendum to the whole business of Perception; it is a sensual act of appropriation of the outside world, of reapportioning its meaning, of defining it in terms of "my own life", divorced from any significance it originally may have had.

A last point: counterfeit substance is easier to produce than the real thing, and for the purposes of sensual consumption is interchangeable. Nevertheless the real thing continues to exist, and the person who values it over its simulation / counterfeit will be hard-pressed to explain the difference to those who are consumption-focussed. Now more than ever searching for substance is like looking for a needle in a haystack - most people will think you are mad, and happily point you towards a needle shop, no matter how much you protest.

A new Dark Age? I don't think so. It is only the highlighting of the tendencies of majority behaviour generated by the information age which makes it look so overwhelming. Deep focus appreciation has always been a minority endeavour, but substance can only be appreciated, never consumed. Whatever is consumed is gone; substance, however, remains - the same wee light shining in a big, gaping darkness. :-D

William Jones said...

Charles - I see your point. Would you classify the written word as visual processing? And I can see how this extends to "texting." :) That is a favorite past time. I sometimes find people sitting next to each other, texting each other.

Jeff - I think you might have committed crimethink. :) We certainly are a society of consumers. In fact, we are trained to be consumers. Why we even buy videos and books on how to buy better. Overall, it is a part of our culture in that we work for a wage and we need to do something with the wage. The various crazes you pointed out are great examples of the need to consume (getting close to a zombie film here). And with our attire, we need to consume and promote. Our clothes make social statements, and they place us in certain social groups. Of course, this is wonderful for people who sell clothes. But I wonder what it has to do with "reality."

I know that last line sounds flippant, but with each new product, new gadget, new need, we seem to move away from what is fundamental to our world. Pet rocks are wonderful, I suppose, but the need to own them is completely artificial, and programmed into us by a system that requires we buy things to perpetuate the system.

William Jones said...

Jeff - I've often heard people speculate about the jumbo sized iPod. I wonder if Apple thought that one through. :) They quickly released smaller editions, and kept upgrading them.

I see that Voland mentions Jean Baudrillard, and the simulacra. Part of that concept is the "bigger" and "new and improved." Given the choice between two identical products, most people buy the "improved" because it is a better value. If the product is actually the same, except one has the word "improved," then we are buying that which is not real.

MK - "A Maze of Stars" does hit close to the mark here - probably in more ways than one. :) I too wonder about the post literate culture, in that it seems the sales pitch is working. And I can think of no better way to lose control over one's life by limited the total number of concepts available, and the depth of which they are understood: Book = something you read; car = something you drive. Except, remove the words and use icons.

William Jones said...

Voland - My guess is you're familiar with the film The Matrix, where the metaphor is that our world is a simulation. For those who doubt that the film could actually be "this deep," consider the copy of Jean Baudrillard's book in the film, and the various quotes the film uses. Of course, Baudrillard refused to work with them on the film series as the films still make Baudrillard's point about simulation.

I would have to agree with you, Voland, we are living in a desert of the real, where simulation is more real than the thing itself. You give many good examples. For a few years now I've been noticing the "new economies" appearing. Second Life certainly has one, and so does World of Warcraft. But before that, credit cards that offer money back or bonus points were doing the same thing - simulated economies. Of course, the irony is that money is a simlucra of value - it is the representation of value, but has no intrinsic value. And money, a simulation in itself, has been replaced by higher level simulations. Add to that the fact that credit cards deal with "virtual money," and what a tangled knot. Now we can use credit cards to pay for space in virtual games, and sell things in virtual worlds. We have reached the point where we buy and sell vague concepts, or rather ersatz.

I've often wondered if "consuming" is a part of human nature, or if it is a learned behavior. There are strong arguments on both sides. Certainly, it is a behavior that can be reinforced and followed blinding. As you point out, the act of consuming eventually replacing the thing being "consumed."

In the end, to borrow from something that might be considered Pop consumerism: we are all nowhere men, sitting in our nowhere land, making all our nowhere plans for nobody.

William Jones said...

I thought I'd add a comment about product placement. I'm sure everyone is familiar with films that show a product, which is really a paid advertisement. I wonder how many people know it occurs in fiction books as well?

Most people who learn this feel betrayed, while they have no issue with it in films. I wonder what the difference is between the two. Both are aspect of a commodity culture, so product placement in books seems quite natural.