Our Potentially Disembodied World

Now that so many of us are staying at home in the midst of the coronavirus, the nature of personal contact has been changed dramatically, at least temporarily. Not only are people no longer shaking hands with each other, and keeping their six foot distance from them, but likewise something else is taking place which over time might become much more insidious. This is how people, in lieu of the sort of physical connection with others which is no longer available to them are instead communicating virtually with others on sites like Skype or Zoom.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this use of virtual communication when more direct, physical communication is no longer available to us on any type of regular basis. In fact, given the present circumstances which the virus has forced us all to accept, this is in fact a welcome positive development in terms of permitting us to continue the personal communication with others that is so acutely important in the time of a fear-inducing crisis like the present one.

At the same time, however, there is very much a certain unseen danger that might be occurring as we now habitually skype and zoom with each other. This is simply that after the virus has passed by, people will continue out of habit to increasingly communicate with each other virtually rather than when they are in the actual presence of others; this former type of communication being not at all the same as the latter, with some potentially damaging developments occurring.

One of course is that when one communicates with someone who is on the other side of a plastic screen, that communication is disembodied in a way that actual personal communication with someone is not. That is, being in the actual physical presence of someone with whom one is conversing is part of a larger sensorial experience that bring whatever one is discussing with that person into sharper focus, whereas if one is just conversing with someone on skype or zoom, that same fully embodied experience simply doesn’t occur.

There have been recent studies which have demonstrated that when one is holding an actual book in one’s hand, rather than just using an e-reader, one tends to become more physically absorbed in whatever one is reading. And so consequently, one’s comprehension is greater. No doubt, it would seem that the very same dynamic might occur in the case of someone who is encountering another person on skype or zoom rather than in person, only in a much more profound, all-encompassing way.

The difference is that actual physical communication with a person or situation leads toward one experiencing the full spectrum of experience which is provided one when they are completely attentive to their surroundings. While virtual communication significantly limits that spectrum; the difference being much akin to the difference between a walk in the woods on a beautiful Spring day and scrolling through pictures on one’s phone of springtime scenes; the former being more all-encompassing simply because it is more embodied.

So the question obviously becomes one of asking that if people keep skyping and zooming at the rate they are now doing after the virus has finally ended, will this result in a shallower, more disembodied world, one which become the new normal for us on a more permanent basis? Or will people want, more than they want to remain with virtual communication, to be re-united with a physical existence which allows them to sink into the totality of their experiences? We shall see.

Intelligence in the Digital Age

Although the issue may be one that is on few people’s radar screens these days amidst the widening web of excitement that the appearance of the latest digital devices are bringing to all of us, and amidst the obvious fact that our world is becoming very much a cyber one, the nature of intelligence itself may be in the process of being adversely affected. That is, the addictive way in which people are now using digital technologies may be affecting their mental capacities and emotive lives in unhealthy ways which lead toward a more limited intelligence.

For example, people’s attention spans, working memories, and capacity for deep reading and thought may be in danger of being significantly imperiled by their obsessive use of smart phones, tablets, and PCs at a level which negatively affects their short and long-term memories, their attention spans, and likewise their ability to think creatively.

In addition, because their natural stream of awareness to which certain psychological  flow states are related may be imperiled by the interruption machine that the Internet has become for so many people, their capacity for a deeper examination of their lives and themselves may be affected, as are the quiet spaces inside people necessary for creative insight.

People’s emotive lives may also be in the process of being dulled by their continual acquaintance with sterile images on the plastic screens of their computers, negatively affecting not only their capacity for direct insight into themselves and the circumstances of their lives, but likewise their capacity for such insight into the truths that great art and literature have to offer.

Finally, if people’s working memories and capacity for extended periods of thought are under assault in our current digital age as people increasingly outsource their memories to certain digital devices and websites, they may be losing their once clear access to these dynamics. Consequently, it will become increasingly difficult for them to at least temporarily step outside the structure of thought and memory in order to clearly examine these things.

Presently, there are a number of articles and books written, and even studies being done about how the cyber world and people’s addictive use of digital devices might be negatively affecting their working memories, emotive lives, and ability to think creatively. Yet to date it seems that no one has really taken the next step and examined how people’s use of the Web and digital technologies may likewise be affecting their capacity for a larger intelligence; this intelligence being defined more broadly as a consciousness that while existing on the other side of thought and memory is also going to require a fully intact cognitive and emotive life if it is to be properly explored. So here goes:


Qualities of Intelligence Potentially Compromised by the Digital Age

  1. A fully focused attention
  2. Full access to one’s working memories (both short and long-term)
  3. Capacity for direct insight into situations and people
  4. Ability to think creatively
  5. A vibrant emotive life
  6. Capacity for developing a clear internal picture of one’s world
  7. Capacity for deep thought and reading
  8. Ability to explore the boundaries of though and memory
  9. Capacity for achieving a mental flow state that is creative
  10. Access to truths that great art and literature might represent
  11. Capacity to examine one’s conditioning through self-reflection

Lyn Lesch’s book Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May be Imperiled was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Why the TV/Internet Comparison Just Doesn’t Work

When I’ve found myself lately discussing the potential negative influences of the Internet with people, I often hear others make the case that television has the same adverse effects on us that the World Wide Web tends to perpetuate. That is, others suggest that the Internet is conditioning us in much the same way that television previously did; that is by drawing us hypnotically into a particular reality that keeps us focused on the screen in front of us in a manner that is deeply manipulative in order to sell us certain advertising or shape our opinions concerning various areas of political discourse by attracting our attention in ways that narrow our focus through a certain loss of perspective that is being engendered within us.

Although this is in fact certainly true, what many people don’t realize is that there is a profound bottom-line difference between the way that television has habitually conditioned us in comparison to how the Internet does. This is simply that the Internet is not so much a seduction into a particular reality, like television is, but the reality itself by which we connect ourselves to the world in which we live. That is, the cyber world conditions us to think, act, and even remember along certain digital pathways inside our computers and phones that have become fused with the organic pathways inside our brains – a form of conditioning that is much more insidious than television having the power to program us to accept certain values to which we might become attracted.

Another major difference is that while television has the power to condition us by causing us to traverse certain internal pathways in our brains to which we are being directed, like when we watch our favorite political commentator without standing back to assimilate the full context of what he or she might be telling us, the cyber world, on the other hand, literally causes us to outsource our working memories and internal pathways to large search engines which have the power to control those same organic pathways from outside us. This they do through virtual algorithms, computer coding, and other non-organic entities which have the power to direct and control our own neuronal pathways inside our very organic brains by essentially assimilating them as their own.

So it is the digital pathways inside our computers and phones which control our organic pathways of thought and memory that tend to make any adverse effects of the Internet far more pernicious than the effects of television simply because with the Web our thoughts and memories, rather than simply being influenced and conditioned from entities outside us, like disingenuous advertising or manipulative newscasters, are being controlled from a place within us as those thoughts and memories merge with the virtual pathways of our digital devices. And so it becomes exponentially more difficult to apprehend clearly what is in fact happening to us. That is, unless we take the first step in recognizing that this process is something far deeper and more insidious that how television might have conditioned us in the past.

The New Empirical Loneliness

As many of us already realize, the reality in which we live today is often based on empirical representations of it. How many Facebook friends or Twitter followers does one have? Who are the top billionaires on the Forbes list? What are the standardized test scores representing how well students are learning or how well their schools are teaching them? What books can be found on the New York Times bestseller list? Of course, these type of empirical evaluations have always been with us. Yet now, they appear to be rapidly reaching the point where they not only augment a certain validation of popularity or success. Rather, now these quantitative determinants of success are becoming sole measures of it.

One result of this trend toward empiricism may be that as our world grows more outer-directed, and less inner-directed, people’s personas are in danger of growing more soulless and devoid of the richness which one’s inner experience may offer as the validity of that inner world is increasingly fused with the outer world of empirical success. While another result of this turning away from inner-directed existence may be how so many people are traversing the course of their lives by staring obsessively into the plastic screen of their phones, in lieu of apprehending the richness of human experience that is transpiring all around them.

However, there appears to be something else taking place which may be even more insidious. This is the isolation and loneliness which many people feel who have been somehow abandoned by the empirical validations of success which they can see others not only garnering, but in so doing enhancing their sense of self-worth. That is, when one can see other people who don’t appear to be all that significant in whatever endeavors they are pursuing with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter while one has less than a hundred, it seems logical that increasing feelings of isolation might result.

As Martin Scorsese’s iconic movie Taxi Driver made clear in revealing the isolated, lonely person who ultimately grows violent in the form of a Manhattan taxi driver played by Robert DeNiro in one of his more memorable roles, a feeling of isolation from the success that others enjoy, as when DeNiro stares despondently at his television screen while watching happy couples dance on American Bandstand, is a classic breeding ground for a stifling loneliness. So the question would seem to present itself: Might the viewing of success through a largely empirical lens that is currently taking place in our society be a corollary for a new type of loneliness?

The Internet has played a significant role in exposing the details of people’s lives that in a previous time were generally kept private. Personal relationships, private conduct, and monetary status have now all become fair game for how we might become exposed to others online. Indeed, with the Internet increasingly turning into a new reality for many people, this growing lack of privacy related to personal identity is becoming rapidly institutionalized. And as the quality of who we are as individuals becomes increasingly represented by the details of our lives inside a plastic screen, numerical evaluations of us are rapidly becoming the new normal; compared to how people might have been previously represented to others in ways which were less limiting and more fair simply because they were more anecdotal. And so they provided us with a broader, more complex view of who we are as human beings.

Yet when the number of followers on social media becomes an indication of one’s popularity and one’s worth; when standardized test scores become a primary test of one’s intelligence and one’s capacity to learn; and when the amount of individual wealth someone enjoys is presented to others in starkly numerical terms, as a result any number of people might easily begin to feel defined and even trapped by these sort of numerical evaluations. Consequently, it becomes exponentially easier for a stifling isolation and loneliness to rear its ugly head.

Now that we are all now more exposed to each other in this new digital age, the danger of comparing ourselves to others and in so doing to be found wanting has increased significantly simply because of how we are habitually made aware of the success of others in highly specific terms, and by how we are being conditioned to view our own comparative self-worth in purely numerical ways; and by the essentially rigid nature of digital algorithms and coding into which even our own thought processes are being increasingly assimilated.

Indeed, numerical representations of real-life situations, algorithms, and digital code have become by and large the language of our Internet age. And although these things may simplify our world for us as they allow us to search more expeditiously for information or to connect more easily with others, if over time they come to represent our humanity, we may find ourselves in a world of trouble.