A Very Extended Will

Odysseus ordered his men to tie him to the mast of his ship so that he might resist the Siren”s song. It’s an instance of what is sometimes called the extended will. So what sort of extended will is necessary to moderate your Internet time?

On his blog, Nick Carr highlights the following from an interview Evgeny Morozov gave in the Observer. It describes how Morozov goes about managing his connectivity:

“I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. … To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Do click through to the blog post wherein you can read an enlightening exchange between Morozov and Carr.

Internet Pleasures

Brain science is an endlessly fascinating field.  Each day, it seems,  a new neurological study is published revealing a link between this or that activity and this or that region of the brain, or that a certain neurotransmitter is related to the regulation of a certain behavior, and so on.  Yesterday’s encounter with the wonders of neurology came while listening to David Linden, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, being interviewed on NPR.  Linden’s new book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, as the inelegant subtitle more than suggests, explores the role of the brain in the experience of pleasure.

Much of the interview focuses on a discussion of the neurology of addiction leading Linden to warn,

“Any one of us could be an addict at any time,” Linden says. “Addiction is not fundamentally a moral failing — it’s not a disease of weak-willed losers. When you look at the biology, the only model of addiction that makes sense is a disease-based model, and the only attitude towards addicts that makes sense is one of compassion.”

Initially, I was struck by two considerations after listening to the interview, both relating to the practical consequences of the science Linden discussed.  First, how oddly Aristotelian all the practical considerations come out sounding:  virtues and vices, habits, and moderation.   Secondly, how little difference this knowledge made for Linden in his own lived experience.  Here is the very last exchange from the interview:

NPR: Since you have studied pleasure and the pleasure circuitry of the brain, has that affected your own relationship with pleasure and the things that you seek or try not to get pleasure from?

Linden: Well, I try deeply not to let it do that.  I certainly — when I’m enjoying a glass of wine I don’t want to be thinking about dopamine levels and, for the most part, fortunately I have been able to avoid doing that. I’m blessed with not having a particularly addictive personality — although I’m a bit of a hedonist — so it hasn’t actually made t0o much of an impact on my own life.

This is a rather jarring note on which to wrap up the interview.  I’ve ordinarily been one to subscribe to A.E. Housman’s line, “All Human Knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”  And mostly, I would still want to defend something like that claim.  Yet, there is something peculiar about our coming to know more about the biological and neurological base of human life, purportedly the real stuff on which all human life and action rests, only to find that for an ordinary, healthy adult steeped in this knowledge, it makes not much of a difference at all, and, in fact, that he consciously tries to disassociate his knowledge from his experience.  This bears more reflection, but there was one final thought, more directly related to the usual themes on this blog that I wanted to note.

Understanding the Internet’s personal and social consequences involves venturing into the territory mapped out by Linden and others in his field.  Pleasure of some sort — whether benign,  problematic, or illicit — is involved in our daily interactions with the Internet.  If there is a certain compulsiveness to our online experience, then it is because our internet experience shares in an economy of desire, pleasure, and cycles of stimulation and diminishing return that potentially lead  to addictive behavior.

We know that society tolerates certain addictive behaviors more than others, sometimes in seemingly arbitrary fashion.  Internet addiction may carry only a slight social stigma if any at all;  one is tempted rather to conclude that it carries a certain social cachet.  Whether socially acceptable or not, compulsive (or addictive, take your pick) Internet use does appear to have certifiably negative physical consequences in the brain.  A study just published in PLoS ONE suggests that heavy Internet use, particularly online gaming, leads to significant alterations in brain structure with detrimental consequences for cognitive function.  You can read more about the study here, here, and here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the first of those three articles concludes its report with an appeal to the ancient Roman writer Petronius: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”  I’m not sure if the writer meant to endorse Petronius’ playful, perhaps satirical tone; more likely it was intended as a straightforward prescription of moderation.

Darkness, Depth, Dirtiness: Metaphors and the Body

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson drew attention to the significant and often unnoticed work metaphors perform in our everyday use of language.  Once you start paying attention you realize that metaphors (and figurative language in general) are not merely the ornaments of speech employed by poets and other creative types; they are an indispensable element of our most basic attempts to represent our experience of the world with words.  Lakoff and Johnson also suggested that many of our most basic metaphors (up is good/down is bad; heavy is serious, light is not) are grounded in our embodied experience of reality.  Did we not stand erect, for example, we’d have a very different set of metaphors.

It’s been thirty years since Metaphors We Live By was published, but it has been in the last few that studies have been confirming the link between embodied experience in the world and our metaphorical language.  Many of these studies were helpfully summarized in the January 2010 issue of the Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science.  In a short article titled  “The Body of Knowledge:  Understanding Embodied Cognition,” Barbara Isanski and Catherine West describe a series of experimental studies that establish links between our bodily experience and our metaphorical language.  Here’s a sampling of some of those links:

  • Temperature and social relationships — think “cold shoulder”
  • Cleanness and moral purity — think Lady MacBeth or Pontius Pilate
  • Color and morality — think black is bad
  • Weight and judgment/seriousness — think “a heavy topic” or “deep issue”
  • Movement and progress/achievement — think “forward looking,” “taking a step back”

Most interesting perhaps are the elaborate set ups of the experiments that attempted to get at these connections and the article does nice job of succinctly describing each. For example:

In a recent study by Nils B. Jostmann (University of Amsterdam), Daniël Lakens (Utrecht University), and Thomas W. Schubert (Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa, Lisbon), volunteers holding a heavy clipboard assigned more importance to opinions and greater value to foreign currencies than volunteers holding lighter-weight clipboards did. A lot of physical strength is required to move heavy objects around; these results suggest that in a similar way, important issues may require a lot of cognitive effort to be dealt with.

As always bear in mind the nature of “recent studies,” but it is not too surprising to learn that our embodied experience is at the root of our way of talking and thinking about the world.