by David Thrussell
November 25, 2016
New Dawn 158 (Sept-Oct 2016)
DAVID THRUSSELL is
a poet trapped in the body of a hillbilly. Or a hopeless
romantic hidden in the twisted frame of a dark
Late at night
Thrussell fantasizes that actually he lives next door to
Hieronymous Bosch in Medieval Europe and has
hallucinated the whole dreadful modern era while
suffering from acute ergot poisoning. We are not
entirely convinced that this is not the case.
The world knows him
(if it knows him at all), as the creator of a seeming
multitude of obscure recordings
(Snog, Black Lung
and Soma among others) and film scores.
He has written
previously for Wax Poetics, Fortean Times and numerous
is carrying us to inevitable
Theodore J. Kaczynski
(a.k.a. 'The Unabomber')
Flawed, to a depth unlike any other beast in the animal kingdom,
human beings rapaciously despoil their own environment and continue
to conduct activities that appear to threaten the very existence of
the biosphere - our home, planet Earth.
Through the latter half of the 20th century an insatiable
technological race to develop weapons of mass annihilation resulted
in nuclear standoff among a handful of belligerent nations and an
incongruous co-operative policy of Mutually Assured Destruction
That dire policy still stands today, a
shadow cast unthinkingly over all human endeavour and indeed life
The very idea that humanity willingly chose to pursue a scientific
course that delivered the capacity to destroy the world many times
over should be breathtakingly troubling, yet inspires relatively
From the very same tumultuous
technological crucible that produced the enduring madness of nuclear
weaponry came a more recent development - the Internet. The online
world promises an 'abundance of riches' (as its techno-evangelists
constantly assure) but it also has a profound (and profoundly under
acknowledged) dark side.
Birthed from the Pentagon's desire to be able to maintain
communications through the early stages of a nuclear assault (by
spreading the electronic and telephonic communications load over a
labyrinth of interconnected routes and servers), what we today call
the Internet (which at one point
ARPANET) was shepherded into
DARPA (the Pentagon's Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency) in partnership with the
scientific, academic and corporate communities.
In these times of giddy techno-utopianism (sleekly designed Apple
products are fetishized throughout our entire culture, social media
is worshipped as the new frontier in community 'cohesion' and
'inclusive' communication - to name just a few examples) it would
seem important to remember that the architecture of the Internet
(and all the associated soft and hard-ware) was parented by a nexus
Many have noted the deleterious
relationship between humankind and technological development, where
humanity acts as virtual slave to a misdirected and essentially
unstoppable scientific progression.
Though now used as a term of derision, the original Luddites rightly
feared the impact of encroaching technology on their livelihoods and
sought means to disable it.
Thinkers from Karl Marx to
Marshall McLuhan also addressed and questioned mankind's
enthralled relationship with technological innovation.
For whom shall be the servant and whom
shall be the master?
The New Dark
Age of Mediocrity & Narcissism
Since the invention of Gutenberg's printing press five centuries
ago, the linear/literary mind has evolved and shaped prodigious
developments in art, science and culture.
We may now have entered an era of far
more seismic - though not necessarily positive - changes.
Acclaimed neuroscientists like
Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel suggest that the
Digital Revolution's hyper-stimulating and overtly transient
landscape may be responsible for 're-wiring' our neural circuitry to
a more 'efficient' and industrialized state (producing more, more
quickly) that also downgrades our capacity for concentration (the
locus of education) and even wisdom.
Writer Nicholas Carr warns in
The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To
Our Brains that,
"the seductions of technology are
hard to resist",
...but, as German philosopher Martin
Heidegger put it, the advance of technology dictates that a new,
"calculative thinking may
someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of
Carr also notes that a raft of recent
research indicates that the,
"more distracted we become, the less
able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human
forms of empathy, compassion and other emotions."
Bombarded by endless linked options and
stimuli, we reduce our human qualities and become more machinelike -
simply fleshy automata.
Most online experiences are mediated by algorithms that expedite
efficiency in searching the web, comparing products and offering
connections to calculated similar content. They advance easy
options, rarely subjecting us to the discomfort of a differing
opinion or intellectual challenges (as may happen in the real
If the World Wide Web is an infinite
digital library, search algorithms are most likely to fill that
library only with volumes chosen to please us.
An endless feedback loop of gratifying,
self-serving opinions and subtle reinforcement - a mirrored cubicle
of refracting self-reflection, an echo-chamber of recycled automatic
sound bites. An apocalypse for the enquiring soul...
A cursory scan of
Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr will
produce mountainous evidence that we are enduring The Age of The
Current digital technologies have been
designed by fevered armies of psychologists to appeal to the very
weakest flaws in human nature - self-obsession and flagrant
Can there be a sadder, more alienating
device than the ubiquitous 'selfie-stick'? Surely the end is nigh...
Another question posed by Carr was,
Google making us stupid?"
Forever distracted by the digital
avalanche, research and voluminous anecdotal evidence suggests that
we are already drowning under the online tsunami - vast
amounts of information at our fingertips, yet unable (or unwilling)
to analyze, prioritize, sift and evaluate - we simply consume and
Obesity of the
Richmond, Virginia author Matthew Crawford proposed in his
The World Beyond Your Head that
we are seeing a social crisis as more and more people lose touch
with physical reality and escape into the online matrix.
According to Crawford:
"Figuring out ways to capture and
hold people's attention is the centre of contemporary
There is this invisible and
ubiquitous grabbing at something that's the most intimate thing
you have, because it determines what's present to your
In the clamor to advertise
in every mental space (and monetize every social interaction), we
are fast losing the room to think, be creative, be playful - to
"Attention is a resource,
convertible into actual money," and we need to reclaim our own
senses and resources, "because when you talk about attention,
you're talking about the faculty by which you encounter the
"the media has become expert at
making irresistible mental stimuli" and systems are designed to
encourage "playing till extinction," a cognitive science and
"social engineering project" facilitated by "mind-bogglingly
Crawford has found respite, peace and
fulfillment in discovering working with his hands again - between
writing projects he restores vintage motorbikes in a local repair
shop and eschews the seductive online experience.
A creeping tide of evidence now suggests that the online experience
itself (aside from the content) may also affect direct cognitive
Research conducted in 2012 at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
(in Wulan, China) scanned the brains of 35 men and women (between
the ages of 14 and 21).
Those classed as suffering from
Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD)
were shown to have notable changes to the white matter of the brain
(the nerve fibres/connections) compared to those that did not suffer
The researchers noted,
"abnormal white matter integrity in
brain regions involving emotional generation and processing,
executive attention, decision making and cognitive control."
The neurological damage observed shared,
"psychological and neural mechanisms
with other types of substance addiction and impulse control
...and was comparable to the effects
seen in alcoholics, drug addicts, video game addicts and those with
other behavioral afflictions.
As a multitude of libraries close (or partially divest their
collections to make room for the ubiquitous computer terminals and
Wi-Fi routers) scholars from University College London conducted a
five-year research program examining evolving reading and research
They logged the activity of visitors to
two popular research sites (one a British Library site and one the
portal of a UK educational group) that offered journal articles,
e-books, and other information.
The study found a notable "form of
skimming activity" as students and researchers bounced from one
source to another, rarely reading more than a page or two and almost
never returning to an earlier source.
As the study concluded:
"It is clear that users are not
reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs
that new forms of 'reading' are emerging as users 'power browse'
horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going
for quick wins.
It almost seems that they go online
to avoid reading in the traditional sense."
What is suggested here is a 'pancaking'
of intelligence, as cognition is spread wider, but also thinner,
with a more superficial comprehension and understanding.
The deluge of multitasking and 'multi-screening' (having numerous
windows or devices open and active at once) is, according to
scientists, shattering focus and rewiring our brains.
Eyal Ophir, after stints in
Israeli intelligence and the air-force, joined Stanford University
He sought to challenge (through
research) the traditional view that
the human brain can only
competently process a single stream of information at any given
moment. Devising tests involving the timed comprehension and
filtering of patterns of red rectangles from patterns of blue
rectangles, what Ophir and his colleagues found shocked them.
Those who identified in the study as 'multitaskers'
were significantly worse at sorting the shapes and thus filtering
out what was deemed as irrelevant information.
Also multitaskers were shown to be less
efficient at juggling problems, taking longer to switch between
simple tasks. It's possible that technological overload may be
confusing the brain's systems for determining priorities, marking
every form of digital stimulation as urgent, creating a haze of
constant, buzzing panic and distraction.
A study conducted at the University of California indicated that
constant interruptions from email alerts and pinging phones
contributed significantly to stress levels.
Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the
University, noted that stress hormones can affect short-term memory
loss and promote debilitating mental 'fog'. According to studies
conducted at the University of Utah, only a fraction of people
(possibly around 3%) are capable of operating calmly with regular
Numerous studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators
now show that 'hyper-texting' (the ability to click highlighted
sections of text linked to sources or further information) actually
decreases comprehension significantly.
Interestingly, even the appearance of a
hypertext (whether clicked or not)
erodes understanding by offering the disorientating opportunity for
A 2001 Canadian study tasked subjects
with reading the Elizabeth Bowden short story 'The
The control group read the story in
traditional linear text, the test group read a version dotted with
hyperlinks. It took the test group longer to read the story and they
were an extraordinary seven times more likely to report 'confusion'
in their comprehension of it.
A further 2007 academic review of
related experiments concluded that bouncing between digital
documents and linked pages seriously undermined understanding.
Today's Internet landscape of pop-up
ads, competing videos and flashing, bouncing images can only yield
to more mental maelstrom.
As pointed out by Nicholas Carr:
"When we go online, we enter an
environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and
distracted thinking, and superficial learning.
Even as the Internet grants us easy
access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into
shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our
The available pool of information
entering our working memory is referred to by psychologists as the 'cognitive
The Internet turns this steady 'drip' of
ideas into a 'blast', overwhelming our limited cognitive abilities
and thence disabling vital components of them.
As Carr noted,
"The Internet is an interruption
system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it."
Shadow of the Surveillance State
In June of 2013 the revelations of
former NSA contractor
Edward Snowden seized headlines
around the world.
Snowden confirmed what many have long
built over decades, we now exist
under a vast and omniscient surveillance infrastructure.
Ostensibly constructed under the rubric of combating
'terrorism', it doesn't take much imagination to see that the
real target is domestic dissent and any and all threats to
capital and authority.
Much like Jeremy Bentham's 19th
century design of the guard-less prison (the
Panopticon), today's admitted (and
much publicized) Surveillance State leads directly and
unequivocally to mass self-censorship and reflexive self-regulation.
An Oxford University study conducted by Jonathon Penney
reported a notable 'chilling effect' on the Internet habits of
American adults directly related to the Snowden revelations.
Monitoring Wikipedia searches after June
of 2013 (the date Snowden surfaced) Penney noted,
"a 20 percent decline in page views
on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that
mentioned 'al-Qaeda', 'car bomb' or 'Taliban'," as compared to
prior to that date.
Page views continued to decline over a
year, suggesting a,
"longer-term impact from the
"This is measuring regular people
who are being spooked by the idea of government surveillance
online," Penney opined.
"You want to have informed citizens.
If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important
policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a
real threat to proper democratic debate."
Other research from MIT indicated that,
"users were less likely to search
using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble
with the US government,"
...and a recent study conducted for the
US Department of Congress noted that respondents reported that,
"29 percent of households concerned
about government data collection said they did not express
controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or
The 'chilling effect' has also spread to
the legal profession and substantially impinged on press freedoms.
A 2014 report from the
Human Rights Watch was based on
interviews with lawyers and journalists,
"covering intelligence, national
security, and law enforcement for outlets including the New York
Times, the Associated Press, ABC, and NPR."
According to the report, it has become
apparent that lawyers, journalists and their sources are now
considerably more fearful of surveillance and their ability to
protect sources and attorney/client privilege.
Examples cited include:
"[Journalists'] techniques ranged
from using encryption and air-gapped computers (which stay
completely isolated from unsecured networks, including the
Internet), to communicating with sources through disposable
'burner' phones, to abandoning electronic communications
As with the journalists, lawyers
increasingly feel pressure to adopt strategies to avoid leaving
a digital trail that could be monitored.
burner phones, others seek out
technologies designed to provide security, and still others
reported travelling more for in-person meetings.
Like journalists, some feel
frustrated, and even offended, that they are in this situation.
'I'll be damned if I have to
start acting like a drug dealer in order to protect my
client's confidentiality', said one."
If the Snowden revelations were,
perchance, designed to stun, cower and silence the general
population (and perhaps even potentially problematic professions)
for the advantage of the Security State, then one can only
marvel at their resounding success.
In April of 2014, speaking at a St. Petersburg media conference,
Vladimir Putin described the
Internet dubiously as a "CIA Project."
Despite the expected howls of denial
from the dutiful Western press, it should be noted that Putin is a
former KGB official and probably has some inkling of what he speaks.
In a remarkable (and remarkably overlooked) piece for The Medium
The CIA Made Google') journalist Nafeez Ahmed
charted the labyrinthine connections between the entire functional
architecture of the Internet and the National Security State.
Not only entwined through injections of
start-up capital and seed funding, the ostensibly 'private'
mega-corporations of the online experience,
...boast an extraordinary overlap of
board and executive personnel with the Security State,
...but also a co-operative and
synergistic culture that appears more like a corporate family
structure than an adversarial private/public relationship.
Likewise, the CIA's capital investment
has been there since the beginning for Facebook (a fact curiously
absent from the Hollywood version) and the entire spectrum of social
media appear to be nothing less than an extraordinarily enthusiastic
data harvesting and social engineering project (data being delivered
willingly and on an incredible, in fact, unimaginable scale).
Theodore Kaczynski (the notorious 'Unabomber') wrote a
remarkably prescient document circa 1995 called 'Industrial
Society and Its Future'.
In it, the author ('F.C' - assumed to be
the convict Kaczynski) decried the apparently endless march of
scientific technology to dehumanize and demean humankind and
separate us from the 'power process' and the fulfilling fundamentals
of human survival.
Kaczynski may have been a terrorist or murderer - but he was
certainly no armchair hypocrite - calling in his manifesto for,
"a new revolutionary movement,
dedicated to the elimination of technological society."
And he had admirers in unlikely places,
famed Silicon Valley alumni Bill Joy allowing that,
"As difficult as it is for me to
acknowledge, I saw merit in the reasoning in (Kaczynski's
Indeed, perhaps it is time to turn our
backs on giddy techno-utopianism and revolt against our fevered
technological servitude (before we become too stupid, disempowered
or lethargic to do so).
Time to wind back, or even destroy, our Internet addictions, turn
off the candy-coated Information Superhighway and reclaim some
vestige of our flawed but fleshy independence before we are subsumed
in a deluge of mediocrity and totalitarianism, before we are
Pokémon Go-ed into a virtual net of moribund surveillance
But who, dear friends, has the courage for that?
Ted Kaczynski - Technological
Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski -
Feral House 2010
Nicholas Carr - The Shallows:
What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains - Norton 2010
A. Keen - The Internet is Not
the Answer - Atlantic Books 2015