The Internet causes us to lose our contemplative thinking skills if we don’t unplug occasionally.
“The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket. Schoolchildren playing when-I-grow-up are rampant optimists, but so are grownups: a 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults. ”
Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely’s Ted talk about the decision process
Last night PBS ran a great Nova about quantum physics and parallel universes. Very cool. If you missed it try to check it out.
Here’s a link from a new web service Krunchd.com that I’m utterly in love with ( I feel both special and bad because I got to use “/physics” in my URL. Gotta love the holidays.) Krunchd allows you to collect related links in one page. It’s super-cool –it passes the genius test of “why didn’t I think of that”– simple and now, indispensable.
So I’m thinking about the observer effect and how it was a key part of the film Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives. Hugh Everett thought Bohr was missing something in his quantum orthodoxy of the Copenhagen Interpretation. While somewhat dismissed at the time, people are taking notice of Everett’s blaspheme. If you check out the Krunchd link you will see the fulcrum of the debate. For the most part way over my head but it’s cool to imagine infinite worlds–hey, it’s another reason to believe in Santa right? Merry Christmas.
The observer effect matters in culture. We act differently when we know we’re being watched. That’s the new world: always on-always observed-never anonymous.
With that, allow me to post another excerpt from my book Extreme to Mainstream. Happy last minute shopping.
More and conflicting information threatens to rob us of our most precious resource: time. The information/documentation onslaught will be a stern test for how individuals and institutions manage their own confirmation bias. When confronted with tremendous and often overwhelming amounts of data, much of it conflicting, it is easier to see only that which confirms one’s opinion. So confirmation bias becomes a commonly used coping tool. Media outlets succeed where they can aggregate audience around common confirmation bias.
Increasingly common communications will also impact our lives with what physicists have called the “observer effect,” where simply observing a phenomenon changes it. For instance, we can only view an electron once a photon has intersected with it, and therefore changed its path. Instruments invariably alter the condition of what they measure. A mercury thermometer does this because it has to absorb some thermal energy to register a temperature, so it necessarily affects the temperature of the object it’s measuring. Even one’s presence in a room to observe an object’s temperature affects the temperature being observed.
The implications of the observer effect for the future are huge. Peoples’ behaviors will change relative to their awareness that they’re being observed. In later seasons as its popularity increased, the participants on MTV’s Real World grew more keenly aware they were being edited as they were being observed, so as show progressed, newly minted participants changed their behavior to try to manage the process. In doing so, they were, in essence, editing themselves in ways that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
The video camera can capture everything people do for others to see, and knowing you’re on camera all the time can be a powerful form of behavioral control. Many worry that in the hands of the wrong people or institutions that kind of control can get out of hand. In July 2007, NBC cornered an attorney general in a pedophile sting operation. Clearly busted on tape, the offending law enforcement officer pulled a revolver and shot himself.
NBC clearly failed to thoroughly consider the fallout of their actions, perhaps forgetting the overwhelming effect of media attention on a private individual. Big media should take note: A camera can be as powerful a weapon as a gun in the wrong hands.
These days, apparent reality—that which is seen—becomes what’s real even though the behavior is anything but. As philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “You are what you consume,” paraphrasing the Sanskrit scripture, “You see what you become.” Millions of viewers regularly consume faux reality through TV, while silently hoping for their own 15 seconds of fame. “Watching” people we see as similar to us heightens the empathy factor for the rest of us in our living rooms. We risk becoming what our eyes hungrily devour. This observer effect completely changes the nature of consumer relations too. People are no longer passive receivers of what they get, but rather influencers or even co-creators of what they are buying.
The fact that one’s life is documented in dozens of unknown databases may well have horrified Orwell but is today considered necessary and relatively benign. Phishing scams—e-mail sent with the intent of stealing personal information—continue because people provide their personal information so readily. While some of us keep a wary eye open to guard against real or imagined privacy abuses, others get paranoid and fall for hoaxes like the 2007 April Fool’s trick that claimed the FBI had demanded the Disney company turn over all copies of Tron because it had allegedly been filmed at a secret nuclear lab in California. Those who bought the ruse were punk’d again. Like the old saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
While many elements of Orwell’s book 1984 have come true, many young adults either don’t know who Orwell is, or they see 1984 as a quaint and paranoid bit of history. Orwell’s forecasts didn’t materialize in one fell swoop, but rather over a long sweep of time, with events that were driven by market demand, not a malicious government conspiracy. This slow evolution conditioned tribes to accept and even embrace these changes as no big deal. When Orwell’s masterwork was published in 1949, readers who put themselves in the place of its protagonist, Winston Smith, certainly were appalled at the prospect of such a dark nightmare coming true. But it wasn’t long after the book’s release that the future arrived in the form of Joseph McCarthy, who provided a real-world whiff of just how conspiracy might work. The implications of a sublimated individuality and stifled interior life as defined in 1984 haven’t occurred at a perceptible rate. Like the mythical slowly boiled frog, we remain blissfully unaware of the continued erosion of anonymity and privacy as we comfort ourselves with celebrity scandal. We see loss of privacy as a status symbol and the tallest totem of almighty fame.
Regardless of the privacy war’s outcome, what is imperceptibly lost in the meantime is not insignificant. As often is the case, the very people who bemoan the outing of their lives will end up participating in the outing, either from resignation or the desire to stay current with other members of their tribe. David Bowie’s character in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth foreshadowed this ultra-connectedness as he kept watching his bank of TV screens. In the future, we won’t need a network operations center the size of the video department at Best Buy like Bowie’s character had. It’ll be contained in our cell phones. Technology will allow you to pull up video feed from your office, any room in your house, or the backseat of your car. In fact, it already does: Note the banks of security screens that are ubiquitous in office building lobbies. See, the future—your future—is already here.