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Derrick De Kerckhove and Maria Pia Rossignaud added a valuable contribution to the subject of identity and technology in their article “The digital persona” in Papers of Dialogue n.2-2013. I am also grateful for their quotes from The Digitally Divided Self 

Internet e l'Io diviso“The Digitally Divided Self” is out in Italian as “Internet e l’Io diviso. La consapevolezza di sé nel mondo digitale” by Bollati Boringhieri. Click on the Italian flag for the Italian introduction and table of contents.

Internet e l’Io diviso. La consapevolezza di sé nel mondo digitale è disponibile in libreria. Di nuovo, grazie a Stefano Mauri, Michele Luzzatto, Bernardo Parrella e ai collaboratori di Bollati-Boringhieri che hanno reso possibile l’edizione Italiana. La versione italiana per l’introduzione e l’indice.

Through technological achievements we try to compensate for our inner deficiencies. Unconsciously we even attempt to emulate advanced psychological and spiritual levels of human development, levels which can’t be reached by the conceptual mind. Technology is the contemporary method for the will to infinity. Quoting Alan Watts:

The sense of isolation and loneliness of the ego is one of deep insecurity, manifesting itself in a hunger to possess the infinite. . . . This will take the form of trying to make the finite infinite through technology, by abolishing the limitations of space, time and pain. In terms of philosophy it involves giving the human ego the value of God. . . . By the exercise of his brilliant reason he will abolish the painful finitude of being an ego. He will forget his loneliness in crowded urban life, in an orgy of superfluous communication and social agitation (Watts, Alan, The Supreme Identity, New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. pp. 101–3).

And in the ’50s the amount of superfluous communication was just beginning! We want to render the finite infinite because we believe we are separate from the infinite and from the divine. We’ve been told that human beings can’t reach the divine, at least in their earthly lifetime. Technology, then, promises redemption from limitation, imperfection and the original sin, fixing what has gone “wrong.”

Ken Wilber (1980) wrote:

Every individual correctly intuits that he is of one nature with Atman, but he distorts that intuition by applying it to his separate self. He feels his separate self is immortal, all-embracing, central to the cosmos, all-significant. That is, he substitutes his ego for Atman. Then, instead of finding actual and timeless wholeness, he merely substitutes the wish to live forever; instead of being one with the cosmos, he substitutes the desire to possess the cosmos; instead of being one with God, he tries himself to play God (Wilber, Ken, The Atman Project, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing, 1980. p. 120).

And Aurobindo: “Every finite being strives to express an infinite which is perceived as being its real truth” (Satprem, 1974). Through technological advancement we try to grasp the infinite with the mind, then download the mind’s contents to the Net. Technology simulates the drive toward the spiritual plane, stepping beyond identification with the body – but prematurely, and in a withdrawn, schizoid way. It achieves the opposite result, however, of inhibiting the soul’s evolution. We cannot go beyond the body by bypassing full engagement with our body.

The body, being body-mind, holds our mental conditioning as much as the mind does. There is nothing like pure mind. Every belief, emotion, and conditioning is as much in the body as in the mind. Freedom from the identification with and limitations of body and mind begins with becoming aware of and inquiring into both.

excerpt from Chapter 13 of “The Digitally Divided Self : Relinquishing our Awareness to the Internet

In any single moment of awareness, which may be as brief as one millisecond, attention is focused in only one sense field. But during the course of these momentary pulses of consciousness, attention jumps rapidly from one sense field to another, like a chimpanzee on amphetamines. In the blur of these shifts among the sense fields, the mind “makes sense” of the world by superimposing familiar conceptual grids on our perceptions. In this way our experience of the world is structured and appears familiar to us (Wallace, 2006, p. 37).

The mind compensates for the gaps in continuity by mechanically recalling our previous experience and conditioning. Spiritual teachers speak of this in various phrases: that we create reality; we are asleep; we do not see things as they are in their essence. The more the inputs we receive without attention from our part, the more the structures of our mind are unconsciously activated to make sense of the world.

Attention is one of the foundations of awareness. Without it, we have no protection against information which is poured into us. Without attention our real identities and human values have no role in transforming information into wisdom. Then without choice we ingest whatever is put in front of us.

Without attention we risk becoming servomechanisms of technology, clicking compulsively with no direction. An open mind without goals is very different from the lack of direction of a mind frenzied with the longing to be filled. Lacking attention we have no control over our intentions nor critical perspective for interpreting information.

Attention is an ingredient of mindfulness – the awareness of our inner state which includes our body, feelings, and sensations. Meditation techniques begin with focused attention and concentration.

With attention, awareness, mindfulness, “presence” and a quiet mind, we are nourished by our interiority instead of force fed by external stimuli. As attention is connected to our identity, weak attention produces a weak identity. A scientist of the Rational Psychology Association, studying changes in the brain from over-stimulation, defined “the new indifference” as the capacity to cope with contradictory stimuli without being concerned (Talbott, 1997).

If we add to this the pervasive difficulties with prolonged attention, the lack of inner awareness, the weakening of literacy, and the absence of strong ethical and ideological ground, we are easily manipulated by messages which simplify the world. We are then prey to fundamentalisms and populisms with their promise of rapid solutions and return to the “certainties” of the past. Without attention nothing makes sense and there’s no motivation to delve deeper.

“It is worth noting that Ted Nelson, the maverick who first coined the term ‘hypertext’ to describe our ability to navigate our own path through electronic information in 1965, has suffered since childhood from what later became known as ADD” (Harkin, 2009, p. 135). Attention disorders are expanding parallel to the expansion of information, leaving us vulnerable to unbalanced external guidance. Short attention span and lack of inner guidance work together to create a weak identity.

excerpt from Chapter 12 of “The Digitally Divided Self : Relinquishing our Awareness to the Internet

excerpt from Chapter 11 of “The Digitally Divided Self : Relinquishing our Awareness to the Internet

Human beings evolved with a terror of predators, so that visual or audio signals are associated with something potentially dangerous. When threatened, the instinctual brain mechanisms, located especially in the amygdala, become activated.

First described by Ivan Pavlov in 1927, the “orienting response” is our instinctive reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus, visual or auditory. This ancient survival mechanism is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to sit in front of a TV and ignore the moving images. Each time we attend to a new stimulus, the mechanism of reward is activated. On the neurophysiological level, dopamine is released, leading to a sense of well-being and euphoria – thus reinforcing our reaction and improving our chances of staying alive. Though we rarely encounter predators any more, the mechanisms remain in the brain. Whatever facilitates survival of the species is gratifying – like the pleasure of sexual engagement.

Attend to This!

The events on the Net which anticipate and activate the reward system are numerous: new email announcements, instant messages, Twitter or Facebook updates, new articles in blogs, video games, news. The amygdala is stimulated by all the media. And the Internet has multiplied the stimuli by concentrating the textual, visual, auditory, and interactive channels in a single medium.

The inner reward system makes us attend to information. By interacting with it we produce new information ourself. The reward system is activated even when we anticipate a reward. So a simple sound that signals an incoming email or IM text releases dopamine – even when a spam message is delivered.

A research presented to the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Conference in January 2012 found that some people are so obsessed about checking their email and social networks that they experience “phantom” vibrations of their phones when no message had actually been received.

Any action that activates the reward mechanism also activates another mechanism: that of addiction. Even if they are not badly addicted, many people – myself included – experience difficulty stopping online activity. Stimuli which previously evoked a certain neural response, over time produce less effect. So, it’s necessary to have more stimuli that are more intense, more varied, and more frequently.

To achieve this, we need more computing power and faster Internet to manage the increasing number of events running simultaneously on the screen. Technological development is pushed by the greed for “more” and “faster.” The brain, particularly the amygdala and the hippocampus, mistakes the continuous stimuli with survival, so it becomes difficult to turn away from the source of stimulation.

While it’s difficult to ignore a nearby TV, the computer is even more powerful and complex, because it adds the frenzied activity of chasing and producing information to the passive staring at a screen. Besides the neurological triggering of the survival mechanism, much web content actually relates to survival – being sexual or financial, including online gambling, auctions and stock investing – which activates the dopamine shots.

Seeking social stimulation is not traditionally considered compulsive or addictive, but as technology co-opts social life as one more window present on the screen, it is possible to become a Facebook addict because of the dopamine reaction.

Fundamentally, both TV and computer screens are about moving images. Seeing something new moving activates the orienting response. While TV editors increase the number of cuts and effects in order to hold attention, the Internet generates an even larger number of interruptions as we open multiple windows, run several programs simultaneously, and communicate by instant messaging.

Since it would be nonsense to react physically to an image on a screen as if a beast were threatening us, like we did in ancient times when a potentially threatening change took place in our surrounding, we have learned to suppress emotions and inhibit our reactions. But they aren’t really gone, building up as tension in the nervous system. In bioenergetic terms, there’s a charge but no discharge. In other words, stress and frustration build, even though it’s often not perceived consciously.

Some may be surprised to read such a statement. Technology is natural in the sense that it amplifies the natural tendency of the mind to be continuously stimulated by external events. Introspection, meditation, and the silence of the mind are the most unnatural experiences for the ego-mind.

The “natural” evolution of the psyche creates, at best, a healthy and strong ego. Going beyond this stage requires a lot of “unnatural” work, mostly by developing an observing attitude called meditation. The tools of technology are more congenial for our minds than meditation. Through technology, we can even write about meditation in our blogs (as I also do, and yes I am aware of the paradox) and on social networks (which I avoid). By feeding the mind through every means we never risk abandoning our cherished identification with the mind’s contents.

Disengaging from the chatter of our minds is one of the most unnatural activities that humans can do. Information technology feeds our mind with information, a product that the mind loves to crunch on, and also with ideas, concepts, emotions, and beliefs, keeping the ego-mind at the center of the show.

Technology is natural for the ego-mind, the level with which humanity currently identifies. The digital-binary technology reflects perfectly the duality of the mind, where the either-or modality is reflected even in the inner functioning of computers.

The information society, as the peak of an historical process, will probably last for a shorter amount of time than the industrial one. If we follow the esoteric system of the seven bodies, the next step after the mental plane would be the awareness one, in which the mind is observed, known, and explored from the inside.

The semantic web, sometimes called Web 3.0, is the first step toward meta-information, toward a self-awareness of information that simulates, though limited on the mental plane, the observing attitude of inner exploration.

excerpt from Chapter 6 of “The Digitally Divided Self : Relinquishing our Awareness to the Internet

“All that once was directly lived has become representation. . . . The real consumer has become a consumer of illusions” (Guy Debord, 1967).

The Situationists, an international revolutionary group of the ’50s critical of capitalist culture, spoke of “The Society of the Spectacle” which alienates people through a mediated and commoditized social environment. Media and products, in the Situationists’ view, dull the audience and control desire. Half a century later, we have newly created media with greatly expanded scope – which reinforce the Situationists’ principles. In the new digital millennium it seems that desires are not controlled, yet they are acceptable as long as they are associated with a market product, channeled through and stimulated by the media.

The Situationists perceived that in capitalism, emotions become transmuted into market products – and we have to pay up to redeem our emotions. The market, as they saw it, first takes away our real needs for connection and authenticity, then offers a pale reflection of the real – making us always thirsty for a real which will never come. The need for connection today is expressed through social networks which appear free and democratic. Yes, many Internet services are free of charge, but if we calculate hardware, software, the Internet connection – plus our time and attention – the cost must be reconsidered.

The market product now is us. We are being sold as targets to advertisers, according to the contents we view and produce on the Net. Moreover, the Situationists observed that people in our society are programmed to live a life that is merely a representation of a real life. Through technology, needs have been created in order to sell solutions. And the hi-tech market doesn’t even require much in the way of commodities any more, since it is represented digitally – making blatant Debord’s words about becoming consumers of illusions.

Replacing the Real

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left (McLuhan, 1964, p. 68).

Even babies now are deprived of bodily contact – for various reasons. Parents have little time and, even when they are with their kids, their hands and eyes are on their gadgets. There are no longer large or extended families. Adults are sometimes scared to cuddle kids for fear of accusations of pedophilia. Yet body touch is important for a balanced emotional and neurological life.

Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter. Apart from its well-known role in facilitating childbirth, recent research points to its absence in autism, personality disorders, depression, social phobias, psychosis and sexual disorders. Oxytocin is released during bodily contact, stimulating a sense of bonding, well-being and social participation. Some doctors promote the start of oxytocin treatment early in a child’s life to improve her social skills. This paints the picture of our situation: first, the real (contact) is taken away, then to reclaim the emotions (bonding) a substitute is offered (drug) – in the form of market products.

The need for human connection now feeds a huge industry of mobile phones and social networks. Once the Net becomes indispensable, we buy whatever is required to keep our connection active. The idea of falling out of the flow is too scary. But then we can buy apps for our iPhone or iPad which provide the same data easily available on the Net. Since we can’t sever the umbilical cord, we gladly pay for the nourishment it provides.

Brave New World

In Brave New World, every discomfort of old age was abolished. The character remained the same as a 17-year-old. People never stopped to reflect, always busy at pleasure and at work. Whenever a phase of reflection would emerge, the perfect drug – soma – was available in appropriate doses (Huxley, 1932). Eighty years after Huxley’s novel, we witness life extension therapies, antidepressants to feed desire, Viagra to renew sexual vigor, commoditized entertainment in every moment of our lives. All of these militate against the growth of the soul.
In the preface of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman (1985) wrote that, “In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us”.

The move of marketing into the digital realm creates an infinite marketplace where needs are replaced by desires. Desires, fed by the mind rather than by finite biological needs like food and shelter, are endless. The digital world, qualitatively closer to the mind and its incessant cravings, is profoundly non-sustainable. The Internet, as it replaces TV, is ripe for social control of a class of the population that might start to question the whole system. It promises to be the new soma for a society experiencing economic and environmental decay.

Sorry this is a guest post only in Italian.

In recent years, for various reasons, I have had to pack my books several times (moving residences or moving some of them to the basement to occupy less space at home). Having thousands of books means lengthy related tasks and heavy boxes to carry.

If all of my printed books were digitally squeezed into an ebook reader, I would carry minimal weight and could access them wherever I went; I would have my complete library at my fingertips. I could also free some space in my house. Nonetheless, I do not regret having purchased and carried my paper books.

Recently, I wanted to try an ebook reader and bought a number of ebooks, especially for traveling. However, I ended up also buying the printed edition, even though this meant carrying they physical books back and forth between Europe and Asia.

Printed books offer a freedom that is still unsurpassed by digital technology. Now that summer is approaching, I can leave my printed books on the beach without fear that they will be damaged by sand or a ball, or be stolen. Coffee and other liquids can stain a paper book but the book will not be completely damaged.

Having a baby around paper books is not a problem. The baby may tear a few pages, stain or step on the book, or use the book as a toy, but the usefulness of the paper book remains. A paper book as an “analogical” technology degrades gracefully, but digital technologies either work or do not work.

Reading a printed book in the sun is easier than reading a screen, despite the best and most impressive advances in screen technology.
When electricity will be interrupted because of energy prices, and I cannot recharge my electronic gadgets, my paper books are still available for reading.

When the failure of only one electronic component jeopardizes an entire ebook reader, my paper books are still around, even though they may be yellowish, damp, or have torn pages.

If I cannot afford to upgrade to ever more sophisticated iPads and Kindles, my paper books will not need an upgrade. When the rare earth metals required for electronics are gone, paper books will be cheaper than their electronic counterparts, when considering the price of the hardware. Paper is a highly renewable resource if used with the right criteria.

A few companies control the ebook market and governments are able to know and potentially control the types of books we read by deciding on what’s good and what’s not good and by interfering with our uploads. If this happens (we are not that far from its occurrence), I will still be able to read my preferred paper books. Prohibited or controversial paper books have always been available, even under the most repressive regimes (though with greater difficulty), whereas electronic information can be easily traced and blocked.

My printed books simply need to be carried, whereas an electronic reader requires the right lighting conditions, electricity or batteries, cables, and often an Internet connection.

My printed books age with me, whereas an ebook reader becomes obsolete and needs to be replaced at regular intervals. My paper books do not blink, do not require Internet connections, do not see others’ annotations and comments, do not connect with readers’ social networks, do not talk, and do not do anything except exist to be read.

Thus the words from a printed book can resound inwardly because of the surrounding emptiness, like the beats from a well-tuned drum.

This is a guest post only in Italian.

I am delighted to receive the IndieReader Discovery Award in the psychology category for The Digitally Divided Self: Relinquishing Our Awareness to the Internet. The winners, judged by top industry professionals, were announced at Book Expo America (BEA) in New York City.

In addition, I announce that The Digitally Divided Self will be translated into Italian by Bollati Boringhieri. I am honored to be published by such a prestigious publishing house so rich in history.

Special thanks to Stefano Mauri, chairman of GeMS, who in the last twenty years has tirelessly sustained the independence and high quality of Italian publishing. He has also strengthened the dissemination of book culture and the defense of the freedom of the press in Italy. I would like to say an additional thank you to Michele Luzzatto of Bollati Boringhieri for believing in The Digitally Divided Self and for helping with the structure of the Italian edition.

Finally, for several weeks in April and May, my free ebooklet titled Facebook Logout: Experiences and Reasons to Leave It was the number-one free bestseller in the General Technology & Reference area of Amazon’s Kindle Store. For reasons beyond my understanding, in some countries Amazon charges a VAT tax (a bit less than one Euro) on my “free” ebook while on Smashwords is completely free.

Melatonin is a very important hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain (the seat of the soul, according to Descartes).  Since melatonin controls nearly every other hormone produced by the body, it is often defined as the master hormone.

Melatonin is involved in many physiological functions and has varied therapeutic applications: It acts as a neuroprotective; improves headache, bipolar disorders and ADHD symptoms; protects against Alzheimer’s disease; offers antioxidant properties; strengthens memory; improves cancer survival; protects from radiation; improves autism, and much more.

A 2012 study on obesity and diabets concludes that “epidemiological studies link short sleep duration and circadian disruption with higher risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes” and “prolonged sleep restriction with concurrent circadian disruption alters metabolism and could increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.” (Buxton, 2012).

The popular use of melatonin supplements is for jet-lag symptoms, promoting sleep. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in darkness; thus, production takes place at night and is more pronounced in winter than in summer.

Being continually exposed to screen media and the light associated with it makes our brains believe it is still daytime.  Being exposed to such light during nighttime can disturb sleep patterns and trigger insomnia. While modern civilization has always used artificial light, the introduction of light-emitting laptops, tablet computers and smartphones created what Mercola (2011) defines on his website as “a state of permanent jet-lag.”  The light emitted by gadgets is much closer to us than ambient lights, which makes their melatonin-inhibiting action stronger.

Also, the type of light the screens emit makes a difference: Screen media mostly emit blue light, covering only a portion of the visible spectrum.  Our eyes are especially sensitive to blue light because it is the type of light normally found outdoors.  That way, gadgets can stop the production of melatonin needed for sleeping and for other health functions.  Among other risks, prolonged exposure to light can increase the risk of cancer.

Melatonin is also essential for healthy brain function, being one of the main endogenous brain antioxidants protecting the brain from free radicals.  Furthermore, there are connections between melatonin production and cognitive capabilities. Technology use, other than subtly affecting our psyches, has a direct physiological impact on our bodies, which, in turn, leads to changes in our inner attitudes.

Melatonin also has a strong connection with sexuality and sexual hormones. When melatonin levels rise in the body, usually in winter, testosterone levels drop, reducing sexual desire and frequency of mating.  For females, estrogen is also reduced. Just before puberty, melatonin levels drop suddenly by 75%, giving strong hints about the involvement of the hormone in the onset of puberty.

The last couple of decades saw a significant growth of precocious puberty, which, considering the concomitant massive use of screen media (video games, computers, Internet) by kids, can lead us to wonder whether there is a correlation between melatonin-inhibition by screen light and hormonal changes triggering early puberty.

Melatonin levels are inversely proportional to sexual desire and to the levels of sexual hormones.  Less melatonin, as when the production is inhibited by natural or screen light, increases sexual desire.  That’s probably good news for porn producers.

References

Mercola, F. (2011, January 10). The “sleep mistake” which boosts your risk of cancer.

Buxton, O.M., S. W. Cain, S. P. O’Connor, J. H. Porter, J. F. Duffy, W. Wang, C. A. Czeisler, S. A. Shea, Adverse Metabolic Consequences in Humans of Prolonged Sleep Restriction Combined with Circadian Disruption. Sci. Transl. Med. 4, 129ra43 (2012).

See also:

Close, Closer, Closest to the Screen

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