Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thought Control Over Vulnerable Minds-at-Risk Revisited

I received an email from David Young who says the following:

“I am a critic of "social networking" and "social media", but I am sure that Dame Greenfield's critiques are superficial. She doesn't offer a deep enough understanding of the medium. In truth, I've seen Facebook, to take an example, used for real apostolic activity. Just like the telephone. Another medium, if you will, where there is "friendship through a [microphone]". It's just technology. A method. A signal. But not the sign.”

I would say the following to David: The reference by Greenfield to “brain” may be superficial as in “reductive” and “positivistic.” I believe the danger is to the spirit of the person and the underdevelopment of the will. To watch is not the same as to listen. God speaks and assimilation begins with hearing and listening. The danger of sight, as we know, is the tendency to turn the visible image into the replacement of the divine.

Text on Greenfield:

“Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, member of the House of Lords, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain recently warned that the instant feedback associated with social networking sites like Facebook -- what she describes as "signing up for friendship through a screen" -- as well as the impersonal manner of communication associated with them, could have perilous effects on the human brain. Greenfield foresees a future in which human adults have severely reduced attention spans, much like children. In her recent speech on the subject to the House of Lords, she underscored a number of potential dangers:"First, I would suggest attention span. If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action-reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with each press of a key, then such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such time scales. Perhaps when then back in the real world, such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we'll see behaviours regarded as Attention Deficit Disorder. It would be very helpful to investigate whether the near-total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might, in any way, be linked to the three fold increase over that time in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for ADHD."Related to this change might be a second area of potential difference in the young 21st Century mind, a much more marked preference for the here-and-now where the immediacy of the experience trumps regard to any consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again."This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling, or the thrill of compulsive eating. Interestingly, as an aside, one study has shown that obese people are more reckless in gambling tasks. In turn the sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that also play a part in drug addiction. So my lords, we should not underestimate the 'pleasure' of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people. Rather, we should really be paying attention to whether such activities may indeed result in more impulsive, more solipsistic attitudes."Attention deficits; compulsive behavior; disregard for consequence; increased solipsism. And when one considers where western civilization could go if we continue to decline in our capacity for sustained and painstaking attention to a single matter over long periods of time..."And beyond the valid concern about what social networking sites can do to the mind, I'm even more concerned about what they are doing to our ability to interact socially, and most of all what they are doing to our understanding of friendship and human love. Can you really call a person with whom you've exchanged an email and/or perhaps spoken to on the phone once or twice or met once a "friend"? That's not only a sickly impoverishment of the notion of human friendship; it's downright dangerous for a healthy culture."

I would offer some suggestions from Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” I take this from Wikipedia on Postman. Postman, W. summarizes, argues that media of communication inherently influence the conversations carried out over them. Postman posits that television is the primary means of communication for our culture and it has the property of converting a culture's conversations with itself into entertainment, so much so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared. Since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues and indeed since serious issues have been treated as entertainment for so many decades now, the public is no longer aware of these issues in their original sense, but only as entertainment.

He goes further: “Postman draws from the ideas of the media scholar
Marshall McLuhan— slightly altering McLuhan's aphorism "the medium is the message" into "the medium is the metaphor"—to describe how oral, literate, and televisual cultures radically differ in how information is processed and prioritized. He also argues that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge. The faculties necessary to sustain rational inquiry simply are not normally encouraged by televised viewing. Reading, a prime example cited by Postman, is a subject of intense intellectual involvement, at once interactive and dialectical, unlike television which limits involvement to passivity. Moreover, as television is programmed for maximum ratings, its content is determined by commercial feasibility, not critical acumen. Television in its present state, he says, cannot sustain any of the conditions needed for honest intellectual involvement and rational argument.”

Personally, I think the deepest problem is still elsewhere. It lies in the retardation of experiencing the self in the action of personal interaction. The only way to access the depths of reality, that is of “Being” unmediated by sensible perception and concept formation, is in the self performing a free (moral) action. There must be interaction with a person, not merely a screen.

I repeat the remarks of John Paul II to young people:
"Young people... know they must live for and with others, they know that their life has meaning to the extent it becomes a free gift for others...” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Knopf, 1994, 121-123).When the culture knows nothing of this “free gift for other,” then all, but particularly the young, are tend to be reduced to a state of acedia and boredom and are vulnerable to thought control by a media that is more advertising than true-to-life news and critique.

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