In Our Image

If you’ve followed this little rant for any period of time, you’ve probably noticed that I pretty regularly position Digital as something “other” from our natural world of continuous experience. One of the main indicators of that “otherness” is Digital’s DNA which breaks continuous experience into discrete segments, bit and bytes in the case of the boxes. Like any good modern, that makes me paranoid that something is getting lost on the editing room floor in between the bits and bytes as engineers decide what matters and what doesn’t.
OOOOPS!!!!  Turns out there is more similarity between that Digital editing and my conception of continuous Analog experience than meets the eye. It would seem in creating our Digital spawn, we recreated or maybe just amplified, our own tendencies to edit, and edit heavily.

Several years ago Christopher Chablis and Daniel Simons began experimenting on attention. Turns out attention and focus are just a nice way of saying we ignore a lot of stuff that’s going on around us. Take a minute if you’re not familiar with their work to bounce over to their web site and run the video about the invisible gorilla.

Got it? So what does this tell us about being human, in a Digital age? As we race to keep up with the contemporary pace, smart phoned, tableted, and apped into a frenzy of currency, how much are we actually staying necessarily in touch, and how much are we really just missing the point of being human.

Really New Behavior?
Probably not. Brain science seems to be on the boil right now and Chablis and Simons’ work is joined by any number of books clamoring for shelf space in our brains. Another interesting read is Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow  His research and musings suggests that our brain works in two modes, intuitive and analytical (my words not his). Basically, our brains when faced with a situation requiring response are hardwired to jump to conclusions, often ignoring relevant data. What’s more interesting is that we get pretty attached to the conclusions we jumped to. It is only when the “jumping to conclusions” approach proves to be manifestly unworkable that our brain heaves itself up off the couch, puts down the Big Gulp, brushes the crumbs off its holey t-shirt, and settles in to do a more careful analysis of the situation and come up with a response.

Makes a whole lot of sense when you’re tramping across the savannah in nothing but a loin cloth and you see a movement in that tall grass that sometimes holds leopards. Jumping to conclusions is a survival tactic. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to assess how well this serves us in the middle of our Digitally amplified lollapalooza of daily modern experience. I will say that the evolutionary imperative for jumping to conclusions seems to explain the addictive quality of our technologically induced always on hyper-connectivity. It can, however, also suggest the sustainability limits of an approach that treats every input with the same priority as that moment of recognition of glowing eyes hunkered down in the tall grass.

Distracting Connections
Free association in all its forms is one of the great entertainments of my life. If it were an Olympic sport, I’d be a multiple gold medalist. But it’s not all there is. Whether the little sojourns here, or the longer personal trips in writing fiction or professional ones to help organizations perform better, I spend a lot of time methodically putting the various apparently random pieces of modern life into some kind of useful, reusable order. Yeah, my brain likes chips and Big Gulps (Mountain Dew, please), as much as the next brain, but I like to think I haul its squishy butt up off the couch and engage in some serious thinking more than just occasionally. Nick Carr, in The Shallows, suggests we’re doing this less and less, as we feed our brains on a steady diet of the Digital equivalent of a Big Gulp. He’s probably right if that’s all we do.

Ah, but there’s the rub. For in that sleep of Digital brain death, what dreams of Analog accountability might come? All that instant editing our brains do, prior to the summoning of any conscious awareness, feels a lot like programming, summons up questions of free will and self determination. I’m not about to release the philosophical schnauzers down that rat hole. We’ll leave the pulling of that wriggling rodent to light for another day. The more we learn about ourselves the clearer it becomes that we are to some degree programmed to behave as we do, genetically, neurally, and bio-chemically.

The question, a very Analog one, is to what degree?

Digital Determinism, Analog Association
So we’re programmed (at least a bit) and so are the boxes. But our (the boxes and us) responses to the programs are very different. We Analog types are not slaves to the program, or so I choose to hope. I don’t know if Captain Jack Sparrow was the first to say it, but his phrase, “It’s more like a guideline than a rule” seems apropos. The boxes have power and network to get them started and a rule book, “If this then that or that else that.”  The rules can get pretty darn sophisticated and every day get closer and closer in their approximations of the random demolition derby that is continuous experience. Closer, but not all the way there.

For us, passion and opportunity are our power and connectivity. As they surge through us, we’re spurred to some kind of action and not much of significance happens without them. We’ve got our rule book too. It just appears that sometimes we can choose to ignore it. And in that moment, the Analog/Digital difference blooms from 1 bit black and white to something that makes the pantone range of colors seem bland and limited.

I am attached to that moment. It is in that moment that resides all my overblown hopes for humanity, for duty, for honor, for virtue, for any civil engagement and exchange. It is that moment when we consider the rule book and its predefined outcomes and choose to strive for something better, that we become most fully human. It is a scary proposition. Looking over the human history of deviation from the rules yields about as much devastation as glory. I can see, even in myself, a conservative bent for the rules, for the protection they provide from that apparent randomness. The challenge with that bias toward ideology, the shortcoming, is that nature is not standing still. On a regular basis we encounter conditions for which no rules are fully articulated and all the apps and tablets and ideologies in the world are not going to change that.

2 thoughts on “In Our Image

  1. Jonah Lehrer's “How We Decide” ( has a great story about an airplane crew that was able to chuck the mental rule set, carefully installed by thousands of hours of training and experience, because they knew it no longer applied.

    “The rules” come in many forms. There are the fight-or-flight rules; our ability to suspend those is one thing that makes us human. Then there are the cognitive filters that we adopt (or that adopt us), and which moderns and post-moderns like to believe that they are escaping, but which I think they are really only trading in.

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