As with The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr has brought the role of technology in our lives into focus with another aspect that I doubt many of us really understand in its pervasiveness in our everyday lives and what it is costing us, not just in obvious ways, but in ways that are fundamental to being human and be uniquely skilled to productively and expertly interact in and with the world of opportunity and possibilities we’ve been given.
The subtitle of this book is “Automation and Us,” and how automation has infiltrated every aspect of our lives and what we’re losing in the process is Carr’s subject in this book.
Automation, of and by itself, is not bad. It is the things we’ve automated and our relationship to automation (serving it instead of letting it serve us) that turns what could be a good thing into something that is destined to destroy us – our unique human abilities, skills, and talents – unless we take control and do something different.
One of the points that Carr makes in this book is that we have offloaded critical thinking skills, technical acumen, analysis, and creativity to technology. By doing this, we gradually lose the ability to operate successfully manually (without the technology) and use judgement, intuition, experience, and knowledge to navigate our lives and our professions.
Carr looks at the impact of automatic in the airline industry (specifically looking at how autopilot has degraded the skills of pilots to successfully deal with emergencies and crises when flying), in business (stock market, accounting, business decisions, human resources, hiring, etc., which have all been relegated to software to handle, with no human factors involved, resulting in the global financials messes we now deal with and with a loss of talent because there’s no human contact or intervention to recognize the talent), in medicine (with the advent of electronic medical records in most medical facilities, software is now making the decisions that doctors used to make and because the software adds procedures and tests, the costs, which were supposed to go lower, have actually increased exponentially) and in manufacturing.
He also looks at us and how we’ve turned over our brains to automation. We depend on social media to decide who and what we like (or don’t) and who we’re friends with (and who we’re not – anyone who chooses to limit this exposure disappears and becomes invisible because they simply don’t exist outside the virtual world) and we have chosen willing to live in this virtual world more than we actually interact with the real word.
We’ve given control of our lives to our electronic devices: to do lists, calendars, phone numbers, etc. We let our software do things we should be doing ourselves: spell-checking, grammar-checking, basic math functions, etc. We have fallen for the myth that automation gives us more power, when instead it erodes our power and our humanness.
As we don’t use our brains, we lose our brains, leading to the brain itself atrophying and dying. This sadly, is a lifestyle factor that will lead to dementia, unless we make the choice to stop it and reverse it. We already are more impacted than we realize.
But it is not too late for us to put our lives and our brains back on manual and let automation serve us in ways that don’t jeopardize the health of this wonderful brain we’ve been blessed with.
People are much more extreme in their polarization of love and hate (nothing in between) in an automated world. It often seems that empathy, compassion, care, concern and love – all unique human abilities – is absent in the presence of a world that is automated. We lose our ability to relate to each other in any kind of real way and, as a result, we lose our humanness, and we become programmed to polarized points of view that we simply pick up and accept by what and who we choose to listen to, follow, and expouse in the landscape of technology (cable, streaming, internet, etc.).
We are losing our life blood – our hearts, our souls, and our minds, because we serve the god of automation that lacks emotional richness, deep understanding, and caring concern. I hope we reverse this trend, but I also am realistic enough to realize that we probably won’t and it will probably get much worse before it gets better.
That’s important – and the focus of most of the posts here – and the information I provide is practical and addresses daily life for us as caregivers and our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
I work constantly with the goal of providing what caregivers need in one place and where they will not find anywhere else.
I was the caregiver for my mom who had vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as congestive heart failure. Someone gave me a copy of the bible on these diseases – The 36-Hour Day – and not only was it written by clinicians who had never actually been through the day-to-day with these diseases, but it didn’t address the very specific things I was seeing with my mom and it didn’t address the in-the-moment things and challenges of daily life that we as caregivers and our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease face and need to navigate through.
Most disheartening for me personally was the absence of dignity and love for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease in a lot of what I read.
These people that we love and loved fiercely were treated at worst as mindless, inanimate objects and at best as newborn babies who needed to be stripped of all control and input into their lives.
So after my mom’s death in 2012, I decided to do my best to give caregivers what I didn’t and couldn’t find, doing the research, drawing on experience, staying abreast of these neurological diseases and providing what has been the only – and still is – comprehensive resource for caregivers of loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease that wasn’t just specific to my mom and didn’t focus on just a single aspect of the breadth and width and length of what caregiving and being cared for entails.
Make no mistake, though. My mom is a part of many of my posts because that’s where I got the practical experience, but except for my very personal posts on those days when missing her comes on me full force again, my mom is not the focus of this blog.
You the caregivers and your loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are. That is why I continue to take the experiences that you talk with me about and I continue to add to the resources here.
My work here will never be done. That is my commitment and my promise to each of you and to your loved ones.
One of the things that has become evident over the past few years is that our lifestyles – yours and mine – potentially make most of humanity headed for dementia because we’re creating a fertile environment for neurological degeneration.
One of the lifestyle factors that poses, in my opinion, the most significant risk of neurological degeneration to the most people is our increasing addiction to technology.
Technology changes our neuroplasticity (the part of the brain responsible for creating neural pathways) and, as a result, there are parts of our brains that are getting short-circuited and bypassed altogether. This leads to cellular atrophy and, eventually, death – the hallmark indicators of dementia. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is an excellent book on how this happens.
A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel looks at another aspect of how technology affects the brain in terms of attention.
My Goodreads book review of A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention:
“Excellent book that weaves an actual story of the unconscious attention deficit created by using technology (in this case, texting, but it applies to all technology) while driving a vehicle with the neuroscience behind the human ability to pay attention (stay focused) with multiple, seemingly-equal, stimuli coming at them all at once (multitasking).
The reality is that multitasking, for 99% of us, is a myth we’ve bought into and it’s making us more unable to pay attention to anything for long (there’s a dopamine hit that mimics the same hit that drug and alcohol addicts get with that first snort, draw, liquid ice in the veins or drink – the hit is short-lived, but we’re hooked and we first want it and then we need it), more unproductive, more unconscious in terms of critically thinking and keeping the big picture in focus, and more of a danger, in some cases, fatally so, to ourselves and others.
Everyone should read this book. It’s a tough read at times, both in terms of the pain and suffering revealed in all the people discussed in the book and in terms of the fact that when we look in the mirror, we’re most likely going to see the “bad guy” in this book with our faces looking back at us.
It’s a cautionary tale that we all need to take to heart and do something about TODAY.”
We also discussed how constant connection to technology is eliminating absence from our lives, and in the process, rewiring our brains with dementia-like characteristics. It is a lifestyle dementia that we are consciously creating by choosing to live in a world of constant connection.
We also discussed how the disappearance of absence is also causing the disappearance of our ability to think, to to reason, to plan, to dream, to create, and to innovate. In short, we’re trading the depth of real life, with all its hills and valleys, simplicities and complexities, and triumphs and failures (all of which make us better people, in the end), for a fake, virtual, shallow life that, in the end, means absolutely nothing.
We also discussed how our virtual worlds, with our ability to easily eliminate anyone and anything that doesn’t look us, ends up just being a mirror we look into, which first stagnates, then eliminates growth, change, maturity, and thinking.
We also discussed how we’ve surrendered our critical thinking to the internet world of public opinion, which is often ignorant, uninformed, and devoid of expertise. As a result, we get a lot of wrong, bad, and possibly even dangerous information that we are increasingly accepting as valuable and good, without any control mechanisms in place to follow through and make sure that we’re not being led down the primrose path.
And, finally, we discussed how a constant connection to technology erodes the selfless part of us (empathy, caring, serving, looking for all others) and cultivates the self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish part of us.
The reward factor of being the center of attention all the time, even when we’re just typing nonsense or run-of-the-mill things, motivates and grows this self-absorption until all we look for is adulation and affirmation.
The impact of this is that truth – as hard as it can be to stomach sometimes – goes by the wayside and a completely false sense of self, worth, and value, albeit virtual and not real, becomes our view of ourselves.
We are also going to look at ways to bring absence back into our lives, if we’re brave enough, daring enough, and strong enough to quit following the masses into intellectual oblivion by enslaving ourselves to the machines.
My experience says that humanity in general just doesn’t have the willpower nor the intense desire to free itself from what’s destroying it. Once we get comfortable, we don’t want to move.
I hope that I’m wrong in this case, but the pragmatist in me says I’m probably not.
One of the ways in which our constant connection to technology is robbing us of meaning, experience, and richness in our lives is that our focus has become broadcasting life instead of living life. We, in effect, live in an augmented reality that we stage, produce, and filter through the lenses of our smart phones or digital cameras, but which we don’t experience in the moment or spontaneously participate in.
Harris gives a perfect example of augmented reality from L. Frank Baum’s classic book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Although in the 1939 movie, Emerald City is actually green (the movie starts out in black and white and then suddenly changes to full color as soon as Dorothy leaves Kansas and is on her way to Oz), in the book it was not.
The reason that Dorothy and Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man believe that Emerald City is green in the book is because the Wizard of Oz tells them to put on safety glasses to protect their eyes. The safety glasses are tinted green, so everything these four see is green.
In other words, they’re not seeing anything as it actually is, but instead they seeing it through a filter that makes what they are seeing seem real, but in fact, it’s not.
Just like most of us don’t normally style our food every day like the chefs on the Food Network and most of us don’t naturally stage our lives and homes to be photo-perfect. That’s just not reality, if we’re actually living our lives.
However, the trend toward this as our normal way of treating life is growing, and we are increasingly spending more time making our lives social-media-friendly than we are actually living them as they naturally occur and not even worrying about whether all our virtual world even knows anything about them.
Examples of this abound on social media with pictures of food we eat and events that we go to such as weddings, family reunions, social gatherings, etc.
How many times – and for how much time – have we stepped out of the reality of a messy kitchen while we’re cooking and plates of food that aren’t perfectly arranged and garnished to stage our breakfast or dinner meals for social media?
How many times at social gatherings do we spend all our time documenting activities and sharing them on social media instead of actually participating in what’s going on?
When we start living an augmented reality, then we lose authenticity and genuineness. The more and the longer we do this, the less able we will be able to know the difference between what’s real and what’s staged, and the less we exercise our natural and tint-free sight, the more easily we will be manipulated and controlled by other people and other things.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Wag the Dog, you should watch it soon. This movie was prescient with regard to the augmented reality of all media, politics, and “news” and how it would manipulate the United State public into believing whatever they saw or heard, without questioning and without verifying. Digital technology has just exponentially enhanced this manipulation.
It is always with this movie in the back of my mind that I take most of the stuff I read or hear from any media outlet with a grain of salt, because I know it’s not true (spinning, angling, omissions, innuendo, gossip, etc.) and I also know it’s not genuine or authentic, but instead staged and produced to have a desired effect on the general population.
Augmented reality destroys truth. For those of us – and it seems there aren’t many of us left who aren’t all caught up in it, hook, line, and sinker as if it is true – who know it’s not true, it has also destroyed our trust.
Another example of augmented reality is with US citizens and their participation in political processes.
Here’s the reality. All politicians are liars and the process of politics is dishonest and dishonesty (the first two seasons were so hard for me to stomach that I refuse to watch any more of it, but Netflix’s original series House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, gets this in every disgusting and gut-wrenching detail).
And yet a lot of American citizens want to participate in a process that ultimately (here’s the other augmented reality: money and electoral colleges do the down and dirty decision-making, not the American public – the voting thing is just a ruse to make people believe they are instrumental in the process, but they’re not) chooses somebody who is thoroughly dishonest and can’t be trusted.
And when Americans are asked why they participate when confronted with the corruption, the dishonesty, and the lies of politicians and politics, nine times out of ten, one of the answers is “I’m choosing the lesser of two evils.”
That’s augmented reality, folks. Evil is evil. Why would any of us choose it at all?
And augmented reality is not limited to the media, to politics, and to politicians. It is everywhere in our society today. Education, entertainment, religion, social activism, nonprofits, business – if you can name it, augmented reality rules.
And technology has fueled this infiltration into everything we see and we hear.
But that alone is not enough to dupe us, to manipulate us, and to control us.
What makes us entirely susceptible to being duped, manipulated, and controlled is our constant connection to technology. It is analogous to the certainty of radiation contamination – and death – with prolonged exposure to radioactive materials.
Where and with what we spend most of our time is what we come to believe is true and reality.
Because we have, over time, chosen to spend our time constantly connected to digital technology and have gradually eliminated absence in our lives, our ability to objectively think, logically think, and critically think, as well as to prove or disprove information and things as true or untrue by analysis and research, we have also put ourselves into the position of completely accepting lies as truth and fake as real.
How many times have we seen some internet hoax automatically recycled on the internet as truth (and then tons of people start sharing it and broadcasting it), when a simple (and fast) check of Snopesbefore we share it all over the internet would tell us it’s a hoax?
Our constant connection to digital technology has made us vulnerable and gullible. We are much more willing to accept augmented reality than we are actual reality.
Here’s why. Actual reality contains inherent risks. It’s also messy at times. It’s hard at times. It’s ugly at times. And it’s negative at times. That’s part of breathing for a living.
But digital technology, with its filtering capabilities that let us choose to unfriend, unfollow, unlike anything that is risky, messy, hard, ugly, and negative, has essentially created an augmented reality made up of rainbows, lollipops, and unicorns that completely disconnects us from the realities of life, growth, change, and maturity, as well as developing our uniquely human capacity to care, to empathize, to comfort, to encourage, to be patient, and to be kind and merciful toward other people.
Of course, we expect all those things from other people – and we get an inauthentic and superficial version from our virtual world (I mean, really, how hard is to type a few letters saying “sorry,” and then just go on with life because it is not right in front of you and it’s not impacting you in real time?) – because our constant connection to digital technology has led us to believe that everything really is “all about me.”
So now you know the bad news that all of us are facing with regard to a constant connection to technology.
Are we doomed to this fate with no recourse?
Have we irreversibly surrendered all our power to this invisible monster that is gorging itself on all the things that make you you and me me until we’re all just hollow shells of nothingness on the outside attached to technology’s puppetmaster strings?
The good news is that we are not doomed with no recourse nor is this current trajectory irreversible.
However, like any addiction or entrenched habit, we will first have to consciously choose, then commit, and then act, making those actions a permanent replacement for what we are doing now, to reverse it.
And it will be hard until it becomes our new (and for those of born before 1985, our old) habit. And it will take a huge amount of self-control and discipline to actually accomplish it.
Are we up to the challenge? I hope so.
So, then, what steps can we implement right now to start the reversal?
The first step is to limit our exposure to constant connection.
Instead of checking email every hour, commit to checking it no more than three times a day (morning, noon, and, this is my usual cutoff, the end of the day…meaning the end of daylight hours).
Instead of wearing your smart phone like underwear, leave it on a desk or a cabinet out of your immediate reach. You really don’t have to pick it up and answer every text or every call as soon as they come in. If someone really wants to talk to you, they’ll leave a voicemail (most people don’t).
Limit checking texts and voicemails to three times a day. Set aside, within each of those times, a certain amount of time to deal with them, and stop when time runs out. And put the phone away again until the next time you’re scheduled to check it.
Here’s the funny thing. People will adjust to this schedule and they will learn when you’re available and when you’re not and eventually that’ll be the only time they contact you.
Emergencies, of course, are still emergencies and they are always exceptions to this rule.
However, we need to make sure that we understand what a real emergency is. Being out of milk for coffee, for example, is not an emergency. Our brains are going have to be retrained in a lot of different ways.
Allocate a certain amount of time each day (no more than two hours total) that you will spend on social media sites. The reality is that social media sites are the biggest time-wasters, for the most part, within digital technology.
This is time that we can easily recover for absence – solitude, peace, and quiet to reflect, to think, to dream, to plan, to innovate, to create, to learn – to be a part of our daily lives.
Instead of immediately going to Google when you don’t know something or you can’t remember something, write the question down and go to the library or a bookstore when you’re able and find a book and look it up.
This will be hard, because our constant connection to technology has produced impatience and a need for immediate gratification in us.
But delayed gratification will do two things. First, it will build patience. Second, we will begin to sort through things and regain a balance of what’s important and what isn’t.
If the effort of going to library or a bookstore to answer a question we have isn’t worth the time and energy, we’ll know that’s unimportant – and we can get rid of it.
However, if we can’t wait to get to the library or the bookstore to research our question, and we make that an urgent to-do item, then we’ll know that’s important – and we will keep it.
With a constant connection to technology, everything’s important, while in real life, there are some things that are important and some things that aren’t. This will help us regain that balance and perspective.
Turn your devices and all the noise (including music) off. On weekdays, set a time and turn them off with no exceptions.
Replace that time you would have spent on them with interacting with a good book (yeah, the ones with the pages and the real covers) or interacting with real people, like family and friends, by having dinner together or playing a board game or cards (not video games) together. This will naturally lead to conversation and connection with real people and real life. Do not turn the devices back on until the next day.
Choose one or two days a week to disconnect altogether from technology. Turn it all off. The weekend is an excellent time to do this and will give you plenty of absence in which to rest, recharge, and regroup with no extraneous interference impeding you.
I personally find it very difficult to jump back into the world of connection each week when I do this myself. I love not even thinking about and I don’t miss it at all.
With all the absence it builds into my weekends, I often find myself wishing I never had to reconnect ever again because I realize how disruptive it is in my life, even though I have strict limits on it and I’ve cut my exposure time down to the bare minimum.
In the end, even a little is still too much, at least for me.
When you have all the time back that doing these few things will give you, use it wisely.
If you have a neglected hobby, take it up again. If you don’t have a hobby, find one.
Read books. Take walks.
If you’ve got snow on the ground, bundle up and go outside to play in it. Build a snow fort or build a snowman. Admire the beauty and cleanness of a freshly-fallen snow.
Watch how the sun reflects off of it. Watch the clouds in the sky. Watch a sunset from beginning to end.
When spring comes, go find a lush, grassy hill or meadow and lie down on the ground and look at the sky.
Ride a bike. In the summer, go outside at night and look at the sky and the stars and the planets and dream.
In the fall, walk through the unparalleled beauty of the vast array of colors of the trees as they change.
Get outside and do something, not just for your body, but also for your mind.
The bottom line is there is no substitute for absence.
We aren’t missing it because we let it go gradually along the way over time and we didn’t even notice.
But when we start bringing absence back into our lives, we will be surprised, after we get used to it again, how much we missed it and how much we almost lost it for good, and, my hope, is that we will be determined never to let it go again.