Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Information overload and OCD

I guess I’m VERY lucky, having been earning a living for over 40 years doing one of the things I love: philosophy. Actually, it is not “one” thing in the sense of focusing on one “field” to the exclusion of others; rather, it is “one” thing because the activity of doing philosophy involves something distinctive, namely a reflective-critical mental or cognitive stance, combined with the ability to concentrate on ideas or concepts in such a way that their meaning, or meanings, in different contexts is/are explored. There can be many different objects or fields of interest — literature, film, architecture, science, ecology, technology, politics — but a philosophical way of engaging with these is distinctive, and differs from every other kind of approaching things. And it enables one to resist distractions, which are superfluous in life.

In the 17th century Descartes, the “father” of modern philosophy, distinguished between intuition (the concentrated focusing of the mind on one idea) and reasoning (the logical process of moving from one intuition to the next). Both were regarded by him as being essential for the philosophical “direction” of the mind. The fact that Descartes could sit near a warm stove in Holland, concentrating meditatively on the phenomenon of doubting something, with a view to finding something rock-solid in his reasoning to treat as an indubitable foundation of thought, was possible in 17th-century Europe, because distractions were far fewer than they are today.

Imagine Descartes, trying desperately to concentrate on the properties of a piece of wax, which he did in the writing of his famous Meditations on First Philosophy, in-between checking his email on his smartphone, or laptop, or iPad, or — soon to come — his smartwatch, or Google-glasses! Distraction overload to the nth degree. Or imagine Kant trying to focus on some of the more demanding passages in the writing of his Critique of Pure Reason with about a dozen or so emails to answer at the back of his mind. I know, I know — with new technology comes the need to adapt one’s thinking or writing to new demands, which Descartes or Kant would probably have done if they had lived today.

But that would mean negotiating the Scylla and Charybdis (multiplied by 100) of technologically mediated distractions coming at us from all directions today, like miniature Kamikaze pilots bent on somehow entering our minds to deposit their payload there. Which everyone who values meditative or contemplative engagement with things, phenomena, ideas, and so on, like myself, has to do all the time when surrounded by all these infiltrators of the age of technocracy.

As every meditation-aficionado knows — whether it is in the philosophical sense, or the yoga sense, or the Zen-Buddhist sense — meditation cannot proceed unless you empty your mind of all needless distractions. In Zen they would say that the ultimate goal (which is not really a “goal” at all) is to surround yourself with “nothing”, or pure emptiness, because paradoxically, it is only by contemplating “nothing” that you will find yourself. Few people are prepared to embark on that road of disciplined meditation, but the stresses brought on by the technological revolution we are living through has been enough to make a growing number of people receptive to what is now known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

This has found its way into the latest edition of Time magazine (February 3, pp32-38), with an article by Kate Pickert titled “The art of being mindful”, and subtitled “Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently”. Reading the piece one soon learns that “mindfulness” here does not mean having a mind crammed full of distracting stimuli competing for your attention, but exactly the opposite, namely learning to concentrate on one experience at a time, to be able to rediscover what it’s all about, like eating a raisin.

Significantly, the first two pages of the article consist of a photograph of about a dozen people walking around on a green expanse of grass, with trees and buildings in the background, with the caption, “Students in a mindfulness class demonstrate a technique called aimless wandering”. This just about says it all about the crazy time we live in — that people have to take “classes” in “mindfulness” to LEARN that it is OK to do something like walking around in an “aimless” manner, that is (I take it), without having anything else but walking in mind. What caused us to “unlearn” it in the first place? I’ll let Pickert, who attended a MBSR course, answer this question (p34):

“Although I signed up to learn what mindfulness was all about, I had my own stressors I hoped the course might alleviate. As a working parent of a toddler, I found life in my household increasingly hectic. And like so many, I am hyper-connected. I have a personal iPhone and a BlackBerry for work, along with a desktop computer at the office and a laptop and iPad at home. It’s rare that I let an hour go by without looking at a screen. Powering down the internal urge to keep in constant touch with the outside world is not easy.”

In this description of the familiar situation in which many individuals find themselves today, Pickert touches upon something highly suggestive: “ … the internal urge to keep in constant touch with the outside world … ” Why do people give in to these urges? Not merely because they may have to do so because of their work — there are a multitude of teenagers who are constantly connected although they do not work. No — what we have here is a mind-set that is characteristic of an era where behaviour has assumed the form of a quasi-mass-neurosis because of the link between advanced technology and socialisation.

I wrote “quasi” mass-neurosis because in clinical-diagnostic terms I doubt whether it would qualify as “genuine” neurosis, but it nevertheless exhibits strikingly similar traits. In Totem and Taboo (Routledge, 1919), Freud wrote with great insight on the similarities between the lives of primitive peoples and neurotics, and argued that “ … the study of the psychology of neurosis is important for the understanding of the development of culture” (p123).

Investigating the taboo on touching the chief (or anything that belongs to the chief) among primitive peoples and pointing to the similarity between this and the “touching phobia of neurotics” (where someone has a deep-seated fear of touching something or someone, to the point of imposing all kinds of ludicrous penalties on themselves in case of doing so), uncovered the persistence in society of psychological traits that originated much earlier.

Is it far-fetched to see in the compulsive checking for messages on smartphones, or tablets, or laptops, so neatly captured by Pickert, above, a persistence of what Freud called a “compulsion neurosis”, today better known as OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder? Again, I doubt whether everyone who compulsively checks for text messages or the like would qualify for being diagnosed with OCD, but the behavioural resemblance is striking. The point is that a compulsion neurosis is driven by an unconscious belief that, unless one repeats a certain action over and over — here, the technologically mediated one of “staying in touch” — something terrible will befall one. (Which is why Freud described a compulsion neurosis as “a caricature of a religion” p123.)

Perhaps the emergence of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) signals a welcome awareness that our very humanity depends on recovering from a kind of mass compulsion neurosis, and rediscovering what autonomy means — not being determined by things or gadgets in the technocratic world we inhabit, but determining for ourselves, sometimes by meditating on it, what is good for us as human beings.

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    • Stephen

      Bert, I think I might like your articles – if only I could understand them. I have a doctorate in engineering so I fail to grasp what on earth you are really going on about. Too clever by half. Suggest dumb them down a bit so we can enjoy what points you are trying to make.

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      Bert – There is no reason to assume technology interferes with our understanding of life as it moves on or people’s interrelationships. The young are comfortable with these developments, which they do not even perceive as ‘change’. It is the world they enter. They will be at home in it.

    • Maria

      The connection that you fail to mention, Bert, is the one with aggressive capitalism: many of the Kamikaze assaults on our sensibility via our smartphones or laptops are unsolicited attempts to market something. The main drive behind the further development and optimalization of devices ensuring constant connectivity is the capitalist one of colonizing the minds of people for the sake of profit.

    • http://www.benedicklouw.blogspot.com Benedick M Louw

      Perhaps the emergence of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) signals a welcome awareness that our very humanity depends on recovering from a kind of mass compulsion neurosis, and rediscovering what autonomy means — not being determined by things or gadgets in the technocratic world we inhabit, but determining for ourselves, sometimes by meditating on it, what is good for us as human beings.

      Easier said than done. Herculean task, given the extend to which we are already immersed into technocracy, almost to a point of no return. It would be much easier to dream of a post-technocratic world, what that would be, we would never be able to tell now would we – then t dwell against time, world order that’s already through the coffin.

      Until such time we found ourselves “distracted” again to that new phenomenon – suffice to develop a much more effective mindfulness-based stress antidote, anticipating of course a phenomenon more nuanced and complex to the human mind.

    • http://www.benedicklouw.blogspot.com Benedick M Louw

      “Perhaps the emergence of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) signals a welcome awareness that our very humanity depends on recovering from a kind of mass compulsion neurosis, and rediscovering what autonomy means — not being determined by things or gadgets in the technocratic world we inhabit, but determining for ourselves, sometimes by meditating on it, what is good for us as human beings.”

      Easier said than done. Herculean task, given the extend to which we are already immersed into technocracy, almost to a point of no return. It would be much easier to dream of a post-technocratic world, what that would be, we would never be able to tell now would we – then t dwell against time, world order that’s already through the coffin.

      Until such time we found ourselves “distracted” again to that new phenomenon – suffice to develop a much more effective mindfulness-based stress antidote, anticipating of course a phenomenon more nuanced and complex to the human mind.

    • Rory Short

      ‘The connection that you fail to mention, Bert, is the one with aggressive capitalism: many of the Kamikaze assaults on our sensibility via our smart phones or laptops are unsolicited attempts to market something.’

      The above from @maria’s post raises a very important point because this is not really a new phenomenon. It is just an central characteristic of capitalism as we know it and it has always been there. It is just that modern technology has provided capitalism with more means to assault us, the potential purchasers, of whatever is being pushed at us. One just has to listen to commercial radio to be inundated by a constant stream of advertisements interspersed with information which is of interest and sometimes also very useful. Because of the relentless stream of advertising, however, I forgo the useful information and hardly listen to commercial radio stations any more. Whilst we are embroiled in this man-made turmoil nothing is going to change out there until there is a change in the level of collective consciousness. Therefore what can we as individuals do right now to lessen these assaults on our consciousness? Reducing the number of channels that give access to your consciousness is a good way to begin but there is more that you can do, become part of a meditation group that meets regularly . I for example am both a practicing Quaker and Buddhist. Meditation is central to both these traditions.

    • Paul Bluewater

      One word, evolution.
      One thought, is faster than we might think.
      So is evolution.

    • Barb Eh

      Wow. Bert, I enjoyed the article – it made me think.

      Stephen, perhaps the rush we live in due to the maximum technology interferes with the ability to appreciate something that is not “dumbed down”. I can appreciate we have a lack of time and some of that is due to what technology has enabled – more and faster and easier. There’s a slow eating movement now: what about slow reading?

      Paul, there is every reason to assume technology interferes with understanding: that can be a good thing for many and it can equally be a bad thing for many others as with everything from the wheel to TNT.

      Maria, sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar” – capitalism alone can’t be behind technology only having the profit motive as the rush to technology exists also in socialist and communist societies; in many orthodox religions, among atheists and in countries under sharia law.

      Benedick, ‘what autonomy means’ – now that is a very interesting topic and I hope Bert will write about it. The latest devices allow autonomy but can generate dependency on the group for validation and substituted intelligence. Is indeed all for the best in this best of all possible worlds?

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      Barb Eh – I used the word ‘interfere’ in its common everyday sense, which takes interference to be negative. What possible proof is there that a passive state of mind is to be preferred to an occupied and busy one, or even if it is, that such a state would be preferable for us all?

      Bert is broadly condemning ‘technology’ in this article, or at least choosing only to emphasize its downside. But the same condemnation may be made of staring into space, of acquiescing not questioning, accepting not challenging.

      We need to keep our eyes and ears open and our prejudices under review. Technology has not only expanded beyond all imagination of previous ages the potential for the human mind and individual fulfillment, but spread it among more people than ever before.

    • Richard

      It seems to me that the obsessive-compulsive character of the checking is the symptom, but not the cause. If you think about the metaphor of Plato’s cave, people find it easier (and less frightening) to apprehend the world through some intervening medium. Whether this is really for safety’s sake (something filtered is less dangerous than something “pure”) or simply because we prefer something interpreted (think of the attraction of art or cinema) is academic (excuse the pun): technology is like taking an abstracted form of communication, or emotion, around the world with us. People are losing the ability to converse face-to-face, and even in some cases, like Japan, to procreate, as they lose themselves in avatarised selfhood. There are people who live in a world of television soap-operas as means to lose themselves and their problems in a safe world of sentiment, others use alcohol, intellectual pursuit, religion, etc. In the modern world, we can do this even with everydayness, in the form of interpreted everydayness, packaged in a little electronic device. The fact of being able to escape everdayness by immersing oneself in it, is rather disturbing, because it takes away the impulse of having to create an alternative reality, which is the ground-spring for the creation of art. As time goes by, we can expect to see less art, and increasingly sophisticated (and abstracted, though I cannot imagine how) forms of Facebook. Evolution to homo technologia?

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      @Richard – You always make worthwhile points, but I really cannot see any reason, except personal temperament, for judging the desire to escape everydayness as disturbing. People must always have wanted to and have done so – through magic, religion, art, theatre, print, the novel, radio, film, then TV. I had a perfectly sensible uncle who just couldn’t believe calculators were ‘good’ for children. Stick with everyday long division is what he thought best.

      It is impossible to decide whether we are slaves to technology or we have developed the technology we need to match our limitless capacity and invariably take to, with time, as ducks to water. Technology doesn’t take away the impulse to create an alternative reality or art. I’d say it feeds it in startling and hitherto unimaginable ways. Above all, it is democratic. It gives women and men new and more means to explore and interact, which is evident in every direction we look.

    • Richard

      @Paul Whelan, I meant escaping everydayness by entering further into everydayness. Escaping everydayness into some sort of abstraction is what art and science is all about. It is how we distil reality into something useful (think of Newtonian mechanics, or observing the effect of herbs and then making medicines, or working out the movements of the planets) but this does not occur when we simply pursue further everydayness in a mediated manner, such as through mobiles, iPads, and the like. Some people will always flee everydayness into abstraction, but this makes it less likely for many people. That was what I meant by saying that this technology allows people to escape everydayness by immersing themselves further into it. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      I see what you mean, Richard. It’s just that I can’t persuade myself that technology is ‘changing humanity’ in some sinister manner in which we play no part. That seems to me part of a long-standing political viewpoint: that though we can’t say where and when, human nature was in essence ‘better’, purer, more autonomous once. When was this?

      The cell phone, irritating as it is, seems to me to do no more than cater beyond all previous conditions for women to chatter, friends to banter, businessmen to gets things wrong by over-hasty decisions and lovers to send each other messages.

      Can you imagine coming back in 50, never mind 100 years? How odd these concerns will seem then in a completely different world?

    • Richard

      @Paul, I don’t know that it is sinister, but I do think it is changing many aspects of human interaction and also the way we perceive. Think, for instance, about the way people interpreted themselves and their lives during, saying, mediaeval times in Europe. Life was a stage upon which we acted out the great drama of the battle between God and Satan, witches were real, and every action was observed in some great book for later reckoning. Literacy and the Enlightenment followed, and we perceived ourselves entirely differently. Suddenly we were told we had a human right to be happy! The whole cosmic drama receded from people’s imaginations, their motivations for actions changed, their whole self-conception changed. I think the current technological revolution, particularly the personal technological revolution, is on that scale of significance. It doesn’t change us in one sense, but it does change us very much in others. Some people will – hopefully – still pursue higher-order (in my estimation) pursuits, but I think it may tilt the gravitational centre of people towards more mindless pursuits, whilst still giving the appearance of some sort of progress. Is being adept at using a computer or mobile device really progress? I think in the minds of many, it makes real the blur between education and training: being able to complete a technical task is not the same as applying the mind to resolve abstract and abstruse matters. I think that is the crux of the matter.

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      We pretty well agree, especially with respect to the core of your historical review, the emergence of the autonomous individual – even if s/he turned out to be less autonomous than imagined in the first exhilaration of the self discovering itself.

      Even then though, it was no overnight change in terrestrial time and today Satan is up and about his work for many still, though he’s mostly called nowadays ‘Capitalism’, or ‘American Imperialism’ or, what worries me most, ‘Science’.

      If technological change today is ‘changing us again’, which I see no reason at all to doubt – I think we are always changing, sometimes no doubt faster than others – that cannot have ethical implications, as I see it, unless we choose to see ethical implications in it. How was medieval man ‘superior’ to enlightened man, or vice versa? But I do believe we are more now both leaders and led in change and, however it is disputed for political reasons, retain some degree of our original dream of freewill.

      Some of us will remain masters of our fate and captains of our soul, if only relatively speaking, and some of us will ‘succumb’ to a lifestyle the smart and clever pooh pooh.

      Don’t you think it was ever thus?

    • Richard

      @Paul, yes ever thus. The only difference is that I think we are becoming much more passive owing to technology (the putative role it has played in various uprisings in the Developing World notwithstanding) and so I suspect the “bauble effect” it represents (ie, give them trinkets and they will give you Manhattan) will essentially disempower us, whilst giving us the perception of being empowered. If you look at, say, the UK, democracy there has given people a say over where they will allow their neighbours to build a shed, but in far more important ways has undermined the voice of the populace, like denying them a say in continued membership of the EU, or over the Labour Party’s policy of importing client-voters by mass Third World immigration. I think people are being pacified by technical apparati (as they are by cheap Chinese goods) and that it is actually doing none of us any good. I think it really boils down to the glut in “cleverness” (which is a new phenomenon) and a paucity in “wisdom” in the modern world.

    • Maria

      @ Paul: I don’t think you have understood what Bert has written here at all. If one supposes that there is an “abstract” human nature (and I’m not so sure there is: I tend to agree with Ashley Montagu that what we usually call human nature is already mediated by culture), then perhaps you could say that technology does not change the way people behave or act. But it is hardly debatable that technology mediates reality as it was never the case before the present age, on scale as well as in terms of the qualitative changes. And then there is the way it enslaves people, making them addicts. If that is not different from before, I don’t know what you would perceive as change.

    • http://www.nathanzeldes.com Nathan Zeldes

      Actually, I heard the speculation from one researcher in this field that the constant checking of email may have to do with the fact that most email is boring or useless, so there’s the hope that the next batch you pull in may have a nugget of interest. This was compared to the one armed bandit in Vegas – you keep pulling in the hope that next time the coins may roll…

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      Bert’s site concerns philosophy and the philosophical problem for me here is this – I have mentioned it before as depending finally on your view of the nature of ‘man’ and his destiny:

      If there is no such thing as a ‘core’ unchanging human nature, a riddle impossible to solve, then there cannot exist any general standard against which to measure a decline from that core ‘nature’ or, indeed, any improvement on it. Humanity is simply moving along a line we barely understand the start and course of and of which we know nothing of the end. Any judgment, en route, as to the role of ‘science’ in this drama will be a personal one and, though none the worse for that, not open to proof.

      It becomes impossible then, given this situation, to see how ‘technology’ and ‘science’ constitute in themselves an automatic threat or benefit since both visibly produce outcomes that are beneficial and harmful to man’s comfort and survival. The unique thing about the human species is its ability to use science to promote both.

      The argument then becomes circular. We are led back to whether man is wise or wicked in his employment of technical advances and the question of who is leading whom. Emphasising only the negative outcomes of science is in every sense one-sided.

    • Maria

      Paul, we’re not talking about science here. As Badiou has said, science is one of human beings’ (not man’s; that’s one-sided patriarchal language) irreducible concerns, and open-ended. (The other 3 are art, politics and love.) It is hardly the same as technology. There’s a reason why many thinkers today employ the concatenation “techno-science,” to indicate the way that technology has even taken much of science in tow, turning it into pseudo-science, the tail wagging the dog. Although science paved the way for technology in history, the priority has, sadly, been reversed. What you don’t seem to get, is that humans do not always “choose” to do things in a specific way; this is true in the case of technology, too. It shapes the way people think; even Freud knew that – read his “Note on the mystic writing-pad”.