Byte size thinking or the disrupted reader – a point of view

Stop. Refine the idea. Turn back the page. Start over, staccato fashion.

Ask yourself: where was I?

Then again: how did I get here if where I am, now, is not where I intended to go?

The answer: never where one expects to find it. One merely puts a fingertip on fragments, on some jagged contour, on a small cluster of electronic dots…

The advent of GPS (Global Positioning System) is now commonplace, an everyday option behind the wheel of a car, or alternatively, activated via a neat manoeuvre, on foot, mobile device in hand.  The idea is reality: if you do not know where you are, the system knows, and when asked, it promptly tells you (or at least blinks blue, after polite confirmation with a few satellites). The US Military’s gift to us all. GPS. No sooner integrated into our day-to-day lives and one is urged to ask if maps, namely the paper topographical formats, will one day cease to exist?

But who could really care?

Allow me to state the obvious. The difference between using GPS and using a map, is this: in the case of the latter, in a bygone time, one had to know where one was, map in hand. If not, the map proved as readable as a Cyrillic text under the gaze of a Latinist scholar. Why? Because one had to situate oneself, as it were, on the paper representation before one’s eyes – on that two-dimensional sketch of urban geography. If not, lost could not become found. In practice, what does this mean? That one had to know how to read a map, decipher & decode. Not always an easy task, you might agree.

The link between reading a map and relating it to the ambient geography was, well, a two piece movement of one singular (and essential) act: that of positioning oneself in respect to a street name, a particular building, the national opera house, wherever… Nowadays the software on your iPhone / Smartphone more or less does this for you. Pixel precision; drop-and-drag transport: the nuts and bolts of tomorrow’s transition. And what a relief that software brings. Who would dare contest the cortege of benefits that now flow readily from the modern digital device? Not even an avid player of lost-and-found would refuse to, well, play it street Smart…

The pragmatism and genius of the blue blinking dot on the handheld screen is simply marvellous. Though soon to be taken for granted, no doubt, like all technological wizardry and artificial extensions that piecemeal become sewn onto everyday life (and limb).

Here, then, is my twisted question: does the relief of being told “no, you are not lost: I know where you are, even if you no longer have a clue”, have its own long-term drawbacks on a bigger scale?

Who cares? Perhaps more people than did yesterday.

(I suggest that if you want to cut the post in two, then here is where to do it.)

Whether you are a Social Butterfly, a Connected Maestros, an Efficiency Expert or a Content King, your emerging personality is morphing itself according to your digital usage (according to a recent IBM Study). If responding to digital disruption has become an everyday business priority for any going concern, then the desire to understand the impacts of the digital disruptive era should do more than tug at the digital user’s curiosity.

Zoom out for moment. Take your eyes off the flat space. Look elsewhere. Rest your pupils. Now, gazing back into the primary interface (or mediator) of our modern living /working space, one must recognise the presence of the screen as both a physical and a mental advent – and, perhaps, a new conceptual dawn too? No secret that the flat space is here to stay, no matter how technology may choose to morph the screen’s future form.

One of the questions that Nicholas Carr raised in his landmark article, published almost five years ago now, is all of a piece of our modern digital time. His underlying enquiry was this: if the way in which I interact, while reading digital information, changes the way I have come to interact with other formats, past formats, i.e. paper and books and maps, then what does that say of the longer-term impact of my new daily digital reading behaviour; what are the repercussions for my ever-malleable brain?

The article, Is Google [via the internet] Making us Stupid, is, in Carr’s mouth, far more a visionary question than an attack on either the internet or the guys from Mountain View or, for that matter, on artificial intelligence per se. Carr’s question is not an either/or debate. If today we rely, and more and more so, on our “outboard intelligence” then, to exploit it, intelligently, we unremittingly require, perhaps more than we previously did in the past, our own integrated “onboard” intelligence – to say nothing of our need to think critically and construct cogent arguments – for this matter, say, or against that vagary, and in favour of whatever else makes more better sense. But does the tendency toward byte size thinking – fragmentary, superficial, gregarious – not leave a wide open door, and thus an invitation, to the hegemony of ‘common thought’ and common mainstream thinking?

The answer is in no way certain. Once mere observers, the new generation of digital slaves are now participants and shapers of their own digital era: that of the highly customised demand, itself said to be a transforming factor of the business landscape.

But what is all that digital glory not telling us about how we interact with ‘other’ and the world around us?

Today there is perhaps, more than ever, a need to think through the space in which we ourselves think our digital worlds, and, in turn, are thought by the minds of those who create them. We ought to reflect on and critique the unwanted tendencies these Media give rise to. Why? Because to participate in the creation and shaping of the digital era is one thing; yet to ignore the effects that this very behaviour may harbour, and in time reveal, would be, well, a blind choice. A bit like saying: I want to play, yes, of course I do, count me in, but frankly, I would prefer not to know what effects (good and not so good) the game will have on me and on my future internal hardware and my relationships.

(Read the interview with Christophe André – psychiatrist at Sainte-Anne, Paris – in Psychologies magazine, January 2013, p. 61.)

Today’s interrupted reader has, in fact, a great advantage over his pastime counterpart. He, or she, can stop more frequently; lift his eyes, of hers from the screen; refine the idea, reflect upon it; turn back the page – of thought; start over, with a view to comparing the matter more readily against other sources, better sources, newer and more original sources – provided one knows where to go. Question: If one becomes aware of the plausible fact that staccato-fashion reading (and thinking) is becoming the new modern norm, then will that realisation itself enable one to resist against the harmful effects, resist intelligently, and thus alter one’s behaviour? If so, how? The answer is uncertain, at best.

If transformational change is a mere by-product of today’s networked intelligence, then looking squarely at the behaviour it would appear to bring about might be a better way of integrating the advent of modern technology? No doubt, to refuse its everyday benefits would be an anachronism. However, would it not be just as archaic not to take a closer look at the new and emerging effects of today’s usage on tomorrow’s behaviour? Identifying the questions, one by one, with a view to thinking them through, byte for byte, may be a good place to begin.

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