Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Web Flatunauts and Electronic Tribbles

Calm FL crop

Quiet has been reigning in my head lately. I can concentrate on my tasks, my mood is the best since I recovered from my operation (as long as I ignore the fibromyalgia that resulted from the shock to my system) and I even have occasional chunks of time for original writing.

This is the result of neither Modafinil nor meditation but of something much simpler: I walked away from electronic forums. Facebook’s gone, Yahoo and Google discussion groups are gone except one, RSS feeds are gone. I’m tracking two blogs that interest me and an artist friend’s works through Livejournal. But I’ve essentially left the Second Life building.

noiseWhen I belonged to several forums, my head resembled a gull rookery, awash with noise, random peckings and guano. Facebook was by far the worst offender, even after I ruthlessly pruned my friends list to a quarter of its size. And trying to reason with loud ill-informed semi-illiterates on scientific or political threads got tedious, sort of like having to handle teenagers who seriously think they’re the first and only ones to discover — nay, invent — sex.

Don’t misunderstand me, the Internet is a great resource for quick (though often unreliable) references and images. It’s also a decent medium for keeping in touch with distant friends. But its forums, unless they exercise draconian moderation, encourage problematic aspects of human nature and culture: evanescent trivia; hysterical narcissism and mob swarming; regurgitation of undigested skimmings. Lacking the nuances of body language and required to be soundbite-long, most Internet exchanges rank low as meaningful communication, to say nothing of depth or wit.

By disconnecting, I pulled free from the constant white noise that turns into a black hole of distraction. Of course, I annulled some of the beneficent effects of Internet quiet by writing a series of articles for a high-visibility venue — especially the most recent one, which dealt with the impossibility of immortality, uploading in particular. The article got slashdotted and was also highlighted in one of the blogs I still track, with the predictable outcome: it attractedTantrum many thoughtful, thought-provoking comments;  it also attracted commenters who objected strenuously to the article without having read it. Some brandished Star Trek, The Matrix and Kurzweil’s Singularity at me as science textbooks (or gospels, take your pick).

I’m tempted to collect the latter (with meta-comments added) in an anthology titled Uppity Biologist Deflates Nerds’ Wet Dreams with Wetware. Alas, ars longa, vita brevis. I’ll have to delegate this to my uploaded mindclone,  while I continue to struggle with the very real problem of dementia in the lab.  But, most importantly, quiet still reigns in in my head.

21 Responses to “Web Flatunauts and Electronic Tribbles”

  1. Neo says:

    The best way for peace, as far as I have experienced (bit of an extension of what you said), is to
    1. Switch off your mobile.
    2. Turn off your TV.
    3. Unplug your modem cable/ remove Internet connection.
    4. Don’t read newspapers.
    5. Tell your friends not to call up ambulance.


  2. Athena says:

    I agree with the first two. Removing the Internet connection is no longer feasible for anyone working in an non-physical occupation and newspapers are intrinsically a very different medium. As for calling an ambulance, that depends on your larger philosophy and has little to do with establishing or maintaining peace of mind (although the escalation of the five points works well as a joke).

  3. Caliban says:

    I tend to agree. I have learned that arguing on websites is a enormous time-sink and generally not worth it. I think the model of this website is the only one that is pleasant.

    We don’t get cable TV (we watch 1/2 hour of public TV a week, and the rest is just DVDs), the only person who calls me on my mobile is my spouse.

    Up until recently I would have said newspapers are better than the internet. For a long while newspapers had a slow decline, but in the past year or so I have noticed a huge drop. In particular I notice stories in different venues being nearly identical–all from the same wire feed. Fewer and fewer newspapers today will spend the money on in-depth reporting. While winning Pulitzers is nice, you can use the same reporter who would spend months working on a single piece of investigative journalism to crank out thousand-word puff pieces on a daily basis. It makes good business sense, but is lousy for our society.

    We subscribe to our local paper–it’s mediocre and the editorial page is very conservative and parochial–but it is useful to be in touch with local attitudes.

  4. Athena says:

    Awww! Thanks for the compliment.

    My TV-watching mode is identical to yours, ditto for the cellphone (except for tiny temporary exceptions, such as car mechanics).

    The drop in news quality is real. The first casualties of the maximum profit imperative were investigative journalists, who are among the few to produce unique and original reporting. That’s another problem with the Internet — the homogenization of news, which means that more and more stories are never covered.

  5. Carlos says:

    Many times I’ve thought about doing what you are currently doing. Yet, believe it or not, I find it difficult to unplug. I have reduced my overall chatter online, I’m not commenting on blogs, videos, forums or even twittering like I used to. I have left most of my blog reading in an exchange for doing what I currently love doing, video art. Been seeking out a new unique visual experience for my latest project. Yet while currently consumed the quiet is becoming enjoyable, so much so that I may take steps to prolong my stay in this void.

    Yet when I look back at all my prolific internet use, I notice the underlying cause was always just an attempt to connect with like minded individuals. I figured that somewhere out in this vast ocean of minds existed a voice similar to my own. At last this quest has ended, not for achieving its goal but for doing quite the opposite. I learned that no matter how close we may come in sharing a viewpoint there will always be a rift in our perception of existence.

    In short:

    What’s the point? I will always see rainbows where you see darkness and the darkness you see is just the shadow of my rainbow.

  6. Athena says:

    Very poetic! Indeed, most internet communications are “whispers in the wind” — although occasional lasting friendships have arisen from such exchanges. But in the end, our original works matter the most and will leave the longest lasting traces.

  7. Kristi says:

    Athena, a wonderfully written piece. Wrestling with the quieting of your mind from being disconnected is interesting. I try to take a few days off a week from social networking to “reset” my mind and remember a bit what it’s like to not have it. I also find that unplugging my laptop for a few days a week helpful. I would say though that, for me, and what I do I find Facebook particularly helpful. I use it to connect with like-minded friends and those that I don’t see as often as I’d like. For me, I use it to help me look for new topic and trends to explore for papers and articles. It has also been helpful as a venue to bounce off ideas that I have. I must admit though, even though I admire, appreciate and understand the need for you to quiet your mind, you are missed on Facebook. Also, I’ve started to weed out and look at more skeptically the scientifically based articles better. I started reading The Canon by Natalie Angier and have thought of you. It’s a fantastic book.

  8. Athena says:

    Lovely to hear from you, Kristi! I’m happy you enjoyed the essay and very touched to hear that I’m missed. I agree that Facebook is a good way of keeping up with faraway friends. I miss that part. But in the complex tangle that our existence has become, we have to prune something. If I am to ever finish my novel-length fiction pieces (let alone deliver my H+ articles on time and keep the research percolating!), I need the focus.

    I read two of Angier’s books, though not this one. From the description, I think that an excellent companion to it would be Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Among other things, they may ignite your interest in new domains!

  9. Kristi says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, I have ready Bryson’s book, it was also quite good. Curious about what the “among other things” are…

  10. Athena says:

    I meant that, in addition to being enjoyable and informative, the books may stir your interest in fields you may not have contemplated before: string theory, astrobiology, alternative splicing… you know, exotic stuff! *smiles*

  11. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    Hi Athena,

    I’m so sorry to hear that you were unwell again. I hope you are now on the mend.

    I’m also disappointed that you plan on spending less time on the ‘net. My one complaint about your blog had been that you don’t write more. Ironically given this post, ’twas a different blog post here that brought you to mind, and I came over to ask your opinion on the various speculations (especially mine 🙂 ) on that thread.

    Stagyar zil Doggo

  12. Athena says:

    Thank you for your good wishes! I’m actually spending the same amount of time on the ‘Net as before — just more focused: I’m publishing articles in H+ magazine, fiction in Crossed Genres and I’m keeping this blog up… although I’ve been remiss about original entries. That will soon change!

    I read Darren’s post as well as your reply. He wasn’t objecting to the intelligence part, just to the speculation that intelligent sauroids would look like us in detailed body plan. The latter is almost impossible to predict, because it’s a matter of chance and specific circumstances. I agree that they’d need to be able to manipulate objects with a fair degree of precision to develop significant technology — but octopuses’ tentacles qualify as dexterous enough. Additionally, technology is no co-equal with intelligence or, for that matter, complex culture. The politics between Dawkins, Gould and Conway Morris need to also be taken into account in this matter.

  13. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    Good to hear that you plan to write more.

    Additionally, technology is no co-equal with intelligence or, for that matter, complex culture.

    This I am unable to Grok. I see technology as an inevitable consequence (and hence indicator) of the latter two. An intelligence programmed by natural selection to want to reproduce and live as much and as long as possible is unlikely to forgo a chance to control its environment, for on it depends its ability to do both. So any creature intelligent (and dexterous) enough to do so must build tools and technology to aid in this quest. Similarly, its hard (for me 🙂 ) to imagine complexity of culture, to the extent that it implies contact and communication with a larger number of individuals, not accelerating the propagation of any tool/technological innovation, and hence priming the stage for the next generation of technological innovation. Technology sans intelligence would also be hard to imagine.

    Douglas Adams’ little fable about why both man and dolphins considered themselves to be the most intelligent creature on earth also comes to mind.

  14. Athena says:

    Not inevitable. Don’t confuse likely with necessary. Example among humans: the Australian aboriginals. They had practically no technology, never went past Stone Age implements and may even have regressed during their migration eastward. But their culture (mythology, kinship patterns, storytelling) was incredibly complex. Technology can happen without complex intelligence: the insect hive societies are a prime example. Conversely, intelligence can and does happen without technology.

  15. Suzy says:

    The Aborigines were living quite well until Europeans came along and stuffed them up. The Australian landscape is mostly unchanging (geologically stable), so they had no need to “progress” as Western civilization defines it. Sometimes I think progress is overrated – we might be materially well-off, but our society is seriously dysfunctional.

  16. Mr kronk says:

    “He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.”

    “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”


  17. Athena says:

    The concept of internal peace existed much earlier than the advent of Buddhism. However, our internal weather is inextricably linked to the external one and we ignore the link at our peril.

    As for the rest of Buddhist philosophy, “Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.”

  18. suelange says:

    I’m sorry but I’m going to have to Tweet this. It’s just too good.

  19. Athena says:

    What?! And perpetuate the problem we’re trying to uproot, or at least contain?

  20. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I’m tempted to collect the latter (with meta-comments added) in an anthology titled Uppity Biologist Deflates Nerds’ Wet Dreams with Wetware. Alas, ars longa, vita brevis. I’ll have to delegate this to my uploaded mindclone, while I continue to struggle with the very real problem of dementia in the lab.

    That made my day. (: It is amazing how badly some people respond to having their singularity nerd dreams deflated, and how a certain uppity biologist has become the “face” of said deflation for many of the transhumorists I’ve encountered.

    Indeed, I was accused of being your acolyte (and of channeling you, like I’m some sort of magician!!) on Centauri Dreams once for pointing out that “mind uploading” does not preserve the original’s continuity of existence, and that the idea of scanning and recreating a brain in silico has many basic issues that advocates of transhumanism outright ignore. ^^

    I know this is an ancient blogpost- but I feel much the same you do. I used to get in looong, tedious discussions on blogs like Centauri Dreams with commentators with little grasp of basic physics and even less of biology, which consumed much time and were ultimately a pointless distraction. I won’t even bother to recall the details- let’s just say that the law of conservation of momentum as it applies to rockets was a major “bone of contention”, with one regular commentator claiming that rockets did not require any propellent, only fuel!! Then what’s all that stuff shooting out the back to provide impulse by action-reaction? Another advocated launching a starship with a crew of cloned, genetically identical “supermen”, ’cause genes determine the higher order traits required for being a successful space superman (which is dead wrong). Egad. D,: I’m no expert, but I have read that one wants as much genetic diversity as possible amongst the crew of a space colony ship.

    Nowadays, I only read the blogposts of the blogs I still track, and if I comment, I only reply to the content of a post that interested me. I just don’t have time to waste arguing on websites. I have never joined FB, twitter, or any other of those “social media” web sites, so with the pointless jousts on internet forums eliminated, I can put all my mental focus into my study.

  21. Athena says:

    I’m not surprised at the reaction you elicited; I’m actually one of the very few bona fide biologists who will even engage with this claptrap, hence my status in transhumorist circles.

    Social media are a huge black hole, with very low returns — even as they’re touted as an absolute requirement for authors, editors, publishers, even scientific outreach. Most of them are repeats of a few primary datapoints (reviews, news, etc). The analogy with a gull rookery is pretty exact.