Summarizing “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age” (part 3)

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To refresh your memory, here’s my “sum the sum” from part 2 of my summary of Hamlet’s Blackberry:

  • To quote Powers, “Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness.”
  • Historical figures that seem to model depth are: Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Achieving depth seems to be associated with such upper brain Executive Functions as: appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, delaying gratification, mental time travel, mental modeling, perspective-taking, etc.
  • Depth seems to be associated with bringing harmony and coherence to the various object-loving behavioral systems, such as care, attachment, and sex.
  • Extensive screen time keeps us in mid brain regions in that it allows us to experience objects in isolated, random, even chaotic ways.
  • Experiencing objects in isolated, random, even chaotic ways, is part and parcel of objectification.
  • The best way to understand such dimensions as rigidity, flexibility, spontaneity, isolation, wholeness, etc., is to take a naturalistic systems perspective where, say, rigidity may be seen as providing a foundation for spontaneity.
  • Digital technologies tend to keep us operating in domains characterized by isolation, randomness, a lack of wholeness, a lack of meaning, a lack of executive functioning.

Lets get started with part 3 of my multi-part summary of William Powers’ book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.

On page 34, Powers asks a number of philosophical questions that I think are worth considering, especially for us philanthropists:

Aren’t a society’s competitiveness and its prospects for a better future rooted in more than sheer technology? Isn’t how well we use [technology] devices just as crucial as how fast they are? Will pursuing more and more digital connectedness make us smarter and more creative? Will it help us understand one another better? When we’re hyperconnected, will our families and communities be stronger? Will we build better organizations and lead more prosperous lives?

All amazingly good questions in my opinion. But here’s the problem as I see it: Very few people, philanthropists included, are considering these questions and engaging in public debate. As Nicholas Carr told us during his RYOL Lecture back in February, 2012, we tend to readily embrace technology without ever spending time considering or reflecting on potential consequences. Carr continued his thought by pointing out that, generally, once we do begin the process of reflecting on new technologies, it is often too late in that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. As an example, I went to a Biomedical Ethics Symposium at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center a number of years ago and the title for the conference was Ethics and Genetics—Is the Genie Out of the Bottle? (I heard a great lecture at this conference entitled Reproduction Without Sex: Cloning Is Progress!?) Part of my motivation behind summarizing Powers’ book is to start the discussion, to get people thinking and talking about the analog– digital divide, hopefully, before it’s too late. Again, with a billion Facebook users (as of October, 2012), it may well be too late.

Here’s how Powers succinctly states the philosophy or ideology of digital technology as it exists today:

It’s good to be connected, and bad to be disconnected.

This digital philosophy has led to interesting side effects. In my June 26th, 2012, post, I talked about what mental health professionals are calling FOMO: fear of missing out. In other words, what seems to be driving the desire to be connected all the time is not utility—continuous connection serves some purpose or goal—but a fear of missing out on something not known or even seen or even imagined. I view this as a disconnect between the mid brain and the upper brain. In other words, the mid brain along with all of its activity taking in objects, implies a desire to have the context and coherence provided by the upper brain. What the mid brain is missing out on is participation on the part of the upper brain. Rather than connect and work with the upper brain, the mid brain tries to find coherence and context by searching for more objects, thus creating a vicious and self-defeating cycle.

The above agrees with the information that Goldberg presents in his book The New Executive Brain. Effectively Goldberg argues that if a bridge between the mid and upper brain does not properly get set up as a result of development, then each brain area can take up what amounts to an autonomous existence. Goldberg’s idea of a “two self brain” fits with naturalistic systems theory, but that’s a discussion beyond the scope of this summary. As a simple example, when young children start lining their toys up in a row, they are bringing order (upper brain) to objects (mid brain). Developmentally speaking, I’d say that “bringing order to objects” is a good thing. However, with the advance of digital technologies—and digital technologies being put into the hands of children at younger and younger ages—these old developmental bets are off. But I know what you’re thinking: “Actually, it sounds OK to have two autonomous selves both doing their own thing, multitasking right?” Powers turns to this subject.

On page 40, Powers describes what it means to be a “digital crossover person”—a person who was born before cell phones but is now ensconced in the digital age (most baby boomers are digital crossover people). Powers writes

I remember walking around my college campus in the early 1980s, on my own in the world for the first time. This was pre-cell phone era, so when I was out in public like that, I had no easy way of communicating with most of the human race. It was a bit lonely being away from my parents and all the other people I’d always been dependent on for support and companionship. But it was exhilarating. Here I was, a full-fledged person finally at the controls of my own life. I had some doubts that I was ready, but that was part of the thrill.

Notice what Powers is talking about above: attachment relationships. I would argue that it is attachment relationships—and the ebb and flow of separation and reunion—that is nature’s way of bridging mid brain to upper brain. None of us knows how this bridging process will go or what will happen to us as people as a result, but the prospect is exhilarating. It’s an area of Bowlby’s work that is given short shrift but he talked a lot about the comings and goings associated with school. During a film from 1986 (contact me and I’ll try to get you the source), we hear John Bowlby tell us

An 18-year-old goes off to college. He’s off on his own but he keeps contact with home by telephone. The unspoken assumption is that if there is an emergency of any kind, the child can return home for the necessary down time required for healing. If the new college student feels that his parents are inaccessible, he will feel worried about the risk associated with a new endeavor. In 1968 I realized that making a secure attachment is key throughout life and leads to success in later life.

So, digital crossover people have the types of separation–reunion experiences that Powers and Bowlby describe above. I would suggest that these experiences played a role in building mid-to-upper-brain bridges. Bridges that could be called upon during times (like now) when keeping mid brain and upper brain areas separate is encouraged. But what about kids who do not have these attachment-informed bridging experiences, who have developed fully within the digital world? They would know nothing but mid brain kept from upper brain. There would be no separation–reunion cycles. Given such conditions, we as a society would have no choice but to force together mid and upper brain using such techniques as psychopharmacology and cognitive-behavioral therapy. But does artificially shoving mid brain against upper brain build bridges (especially in cases where both have taken on autonomous lives of their own)? I’d say not. And I’m basing my opinion on early studies that seem to support this position such as ADHD Brain Changes Appear to Persist Into Adulthood. This article talks about a study where all of the people in the study group “had taken stimulant medications for their ADHD.” Interestingly the study showed that the brain changes associated with ADHD “persisted into adulthood” and were not corrected as a result of taking stimulant medications (quoting the article).

Now, I’d be remiss if I did not point out that in the above quote, Bowlby mentions technology, namely, the telephone. But the telephone is referred to as a means, not as an end. In other words, technology could be used to bridge imagined or abstracted relationships, to real, face-to-face relationships. It’s when we carry imagined or abstracted relationships into real life that we usually run into problems. It’s fun to imagine one’s self as a rich business tycoon or movie star, but those imaginings will probably not fly during a trip to the bank to ask for a loan. Again, going out to explore should be balanced with returning home for grounding.

I think Powers gets all of the above and, in turn, unknowingly agrees with Bowly’s position when he simply states, “Paradoxically enough, separation is the way to empathy [which happens to be an executive brain function]” (page 42). Ergo, if the digital philosophy or ethic amounts to, “It’s good to be connected, and bad to be disconnected,” then where does that philosophy or ethic leave separation and its paradoxical ability to create empathy and intimacy? Out in the cold I would say. On page 44, Powers observes that digital connection is being uncritically accepted and has become as conventional as “electricity and running water, as a given of everyday life.” I’ll end on that chilly note.

Here’s my sum the sum for part 3:

  • In general, society is not engaging in a debate concerning the ethics and philosophy surrounding the digital world.
  • We tend to embrace technology before considering the ramifications of doing so.
  • Being hyperconnected tends to create a state that mental health professionals are calling FOMO: fear of missing out.
  • The presence of FOMO in our society tends to map a growing disconnect between the object-desiring mid brain and the meaning-desiring upper brain.
  • “Digital development” tends to disrupt normal analog development leaving the mid brain largely separated from the upper brain.
  • “Crossover people” (such as baby boomers) have one foot in analog development and the other in digital development.
  • During the old analog development days, it was Bowlbian attachment relationships, with their various separation–reunion cycles, that helped naturally bridge mid brain to upper brain.
  • Today we can “force” mid brain and upper brain together (mainly using such techniques as psychopharmacology and cognitive-behavioral therapy), but such forced unions do not appear to build bridges.

Stay tuned for part 4. I’ll try to get it out as soon as I possibly can. In the mean time, consider reading Powers’ book Hamlet’s Blackberry. If you have read Hamlet’s Blackberry, feel free to leave your comments concerning the information that Powers presents.