Artist Ian Page's 2010 Pavlovian experiment gave him a sip of lemon juice in order to make him salivate every time his cell phone vibrated. Video Source: The Review Crew.
New technology drives a cult of presentism. Virtual reality randomly samples the past without historical context and shapes the future to serve its presentist purposes. It forces a rapture in the now: it cuts to base instincts and immediate emotional responses via compulsive communication. Living instinctively in the now on the Web is redefining whole cultures, conventions of social interaction, and languages. All are rapidly changing beyond recognition.
It is not surprising that the Internet and computing exploded over the past 15 to 20 years, nor that people would be mesmerised by new capabilities in communications and calculations, without really paying much attention to what they were doing to society and to us as individuals. Alarmists feared corrosive impacts of radio and television - and we survived. Thus, the Internet's impact is probably mitigated in many ways, not least because gadgets can be shut off.
Nonetheless, some observers point to damaged attention spans; depleted memory capacities; Web and gadget addictions; and diluted, fractured and layered personal identities, which are still active online after you shut your computer off or even after you are no longer alive. Obsession with information accompanies laziness about information. That laziness compounds with every passing year because no matter what one is looking for, one assumes that one can look it up, when needed, as in, Now.
Instant access to data warps perceptions of what (once hard won) information is worth. Cultures of entitlement, self-righteous self-indulgence, and immediate gratification coexist with false freedoms which increasingly enslave us.
Pavlov with his research team and one of his dogs. Image Source: University of Leicester.
Take pornography. Take the massive incorporation of pornographic memes into the marketing and entertainment industries. Take the growing influence of Internet pornographic norms at the crossroads between real and virtual life. Naomi Wolfe claimed that the "whole world, post-Internet ... bec[a]me pornographized" and referred to the ocean of now-mainstream porn on the Web as having a Pavlovian effect on Millennial sensibilities:
The larger point here, beyond the fact that the viewer indulges in 'ever-more transgressive images of cybersex slaves,' is that he or she is increasingly and unwittingly enslaved by the stream-of-consciousness auto-cyber-reflex.The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not a moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if you want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking. The evidence is in: Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity.
After all, pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is Pavlovian. An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will take to turn you on. The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it.
The uninhibited indulgence in total data freedom is a masquerade for progressive enslavement. Beyond porn, the phenomenon applies to any unconsidered engagement with information. This is true, whether one is addicted to checking e-mail and social networks; playing compulsively in an MMORPG environment; operating intensively in chat room cultures; engaging in cyber-gossip or cyber-bullying; or, without considering the big picture, creatively revamping the Internet or software suites to reshape realities in scholarly, professional, business, corporate or marketing spheres. The compulsion to push ever further, lulled by tailored algorithms, misleading aggregations and irrational rationalizations of falsely-interconnected information, creates worlds which are incredibly seductive.
Consider the computer-driven assumptions of market fundamentalists or their detractors, both of which maintained that markets can be harnessed through complex data analyses. If political debates and economists' inability to account for our economic meltdown are anything to go by, the explosion of computing capacity has not been considered as a core cause of the 2008 Great Recession. The recession will spread unless Virtual Economics and cyber-finance are seriously considered as contributing factors. Otherwise, can you say: Asian financial meltdown?
The answer is not censorship, but self-awareness. The acquisition of information was traditionally, ideally and morally balanced by the weight of consideration, judgment, wisdom and responsibility. In short, acquiring information normally implied a consciously-recognized connection between thought and action.
The Internet divorced that relationship between thought and action. It created a 'get out of jail free card' regarding consequences for acquiring and manipulating knowledge. Regardless, the endgame of the cult of presentism is inescapable: living online and associated experiments with Big Data are part of a gigantic, global initiative in social engineering, unprecedented in scope and nature, in which we are all intuitively participating. It is the first project of its kind in all of human history. And contrary to the Illuminati-fueled suspicions of conspiracy theorists, there is no captain on this ship. We could end up anywhere.
To avoid a dystopian, classically-conditioned, passive hivemind in the future is to have a clue about the Internet's savage appeals to visceral Crowleyian instincts without regard for consequences, as well as computing's messages that we could bet against the odds, play god, and live forever in Singularity-ridden utopias without serious societal collapse. This awareness may evolve into questions of cyber-norms, cyberlaw, cyberethics, cyberphilosophy and virtual morality. Before that, it must begin as a question of cyberpsychology, of whether we develop a virtual consciousness.
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