Sparks of intelligence at CHLA 2009

stringed lightsNora Young, the host of the CBC Radio 1 program Spark, gave a sparkling keynote address at the Canadian Health Libraries Association conference in Winnipeg. Riffing on themes such as “the new ecology of information” and “the end of information scarcity,” she evoked — without the aid of a PowerPoint — an emergent information-rich society in which the online and offline, the real and the virtual, are dissolving and being reshaped into a new reality characterized by technologically enhanced collaborative communication and ever-fluid “mobiquity.”

To the optimist, these shimmering aleatory and digitized topoi are the new spaces for participatory culture: distributed, dialogical, and democratic. To the pessimist they are the backdrop for the humming cybernetics of a totalized and surreally synthetic culture: etiolated expanses, decanted mind spaces, mirages of nihilation — the ossified remains of Enlightenment certainties and Romantic hope. The latter vision is the dystopian world frequently depicted in science fiction, especially that of William Gibson.

Nora Young joins the optimists in pointing to traces of a new kind of sustainable, participatory, socially mediated democracy, a notion appealing to librarians and others concerned with building up the social commons and contributing selflessly to the general welfare of society. But such political optimism runs up against certain inescapable realities, such as, of course, the truly ubiquitous human tendency to enslave others, but also, at the organic level, the real limitations of the human brain. According to the author of the recent book Rapt, Winifred Gallagher, our grey matter can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime. This seemingly vast amount of calculating power is not infinitely expandable. Multitasking is a myth. You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that, and we don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money. Do we really want to invest our cognitive cash on endless tweeting, bleeting or scanning our various virtual realities for infotidbits?

robot-pink&wiryGallagher’s book is the focus of a fascinating discussion of the science of concentration by John Tierney in the New York Times. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that when our attention is interrupted by something bright or novel,  our brain triggers a counterreaction in which neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s planning centre — start oscillating in unison and send signals directing the visual cortex to heed something else. These coordinated neuronal firings have trouble getting through in our noisy, distracting cyberenvironment. It takes a great deal of prefrontal brain power to suppress a strong sensory input like a Flash commercial, the peep of a mobile device, or a Facebook poke. If we’re trying to read Aristotle or a soda bottle at the same time we may not have the cerebral resources left to focus on the words. The blinkering and distraction that result from our own cerebral hardware are exacerbated by technology. As Marcus Breen has said, the fragmentation of rational knowledge in the postmodern world has produced a focus on information that is unaware of its history. The personal and political implications cannot be ignored.

Will this new ecology of information leave us miocene ape multitaskers juggling too many bananas on a tightrope over the yawning vortices of mobiquity? Nora Young thinks we can manage the danger by avoiding digital “nowism” and a heedless mode of living detached from social solidarities. But she is a bit vague about how that might be done, leaving up to us the decisions on how to shape our ethics and our politics. There is no little red book to guide us. Meanwhile, the steady infiltration of technology brooks no opposition. No doubt the current vogue for yoga, gardening and scented candles has something to do with a desire to slow down or escape the ceaseless flow of streaming data. The irony is that these placid pursuits themselves are perfectly commodified products of an increasingly sterile, shrink-wrapped, meretricious technocracy. We’re soaking in it.

As usual, William Gibson encapsulates in his fiction the alluring and terrifying aspects of this future now more evenly distributing itself on a handheld near you:

tube-of-lightBobby Chombo on virtual reality
“We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it. We didn’t need the goggles, the gloves. It just happened. VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going. Without scaring us too much, right? The locative, though, lots of us are already doing it. But you can’t just do the locative with your nervous system. One day you will. We’ll have internalized the interface. It’ll have evolved to the point where we forget about it. Then you’ll just walk down the street …” He spread his arms, and grinned at her.

“In Bobbyland,” she said.

“You got it.”

William Gibson, Spook Country, p. 65
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