Artists have always been commentators on the society they live in. Songwriters have been especially vocal about world events over the years. From Bob Dylan to Marvin Gaye, their observations about war or racial issues triggered people to think and even take action. The new album by indie rock group Arcade Fire is, by their own admission, a commentary on today’s internet-obsessed society. They sing about a world of “Infinite Content” where everything is on tap. In this album review, frontman Win Butler is quoted saying "I remember being in a cafe once and I was overhearing this woman talking about watching The Sopranos and they had just finished, like they kind of binge-watched The Sopranos over a weekend. One of them was saying, “Oh, it’s so annoying that there’s no more Sopranos. I guess I’m gonna have to find something else to watch.” This was maybe six years ago–five years ago and it just hit me that this thing that took ten years to make someone watched in a weekend and was annoyed there wasn’t more. I was like whoa; I feel like culturally the moment and this kind of era that we’ve entered into of kind of everything-nowness has positive and negative sides to it but it’s definitely a new way of being."
What does this era of content overload mean for our brains? Are we becoming so saturated and overstimulated that our brains can no longer breathe? I admit to being first to suck up everything the internet offers like an insatiable sponge. Yet I still don't think I've reached the point of walking down the street with my eyes glued to a screen like many of the people I (deliberately) walk into every day here in Hong Kong. For several years, many scientists have been talking about the negative effects of this digital addiction. Some even go as far as saying “The Internet is Killing your Brain” but suggest that we can stop the rot by going back to more traditional methods such as writing notes with a pencil. As a creative director who started before computers were on every desk, I’ve often seen whole teams frozen and unable to work because the network went down. When I suggest doing some old-fashioned thinking on paper, they look at me as if I'm suggesting that they go hunting in the forest for their lunch.
The truth is, they would probably all be a lot more creative staring at a blank piece of paper than scrolling through thousands of “references” on Google which they’ll then copy, imagining that they came up with something cool. Original thinking needs a brain that has space to contemplate. The more we cram it with constant input we’ll handicap our brain’s ability to subconsciously join the dots. Personally, I’ve had more AHA! moments walking the dog or in the shower than in front of a screen.
Last night I caught the final 30 minutes of Pixar’s WALL-E on cable TV. Although the movie came out nearly 10 years ago, they were almost prophetic in their depiction of modern life where we’re all glued to our screens, oblivious to our surroundings and bloated on instant liquefied food delivered by robots. It inspired me to write this musing on how our brains are gorging on an all-you-can-eat buffet of videos, gifs, fake news, blog posts and music. Just like those obese passengers in WALL-E, we don’t need to think for ourselves and our brains (like their bodies) are becoming useless. In this review when the movie came out, Dana Stevens said, “After seven centuries in a corporate-controlled pleasure dome in space, all earthlings have become obese, infantile consumers who spend their days immobile in hovering lounge chairs, staring at ads on computer screens”. Sounds familiar? In the movie, it took them hundreds of years to reach that point, but in some ways we’ve already arrived.
If you got as far as reading to this point, there is still hope. Most of us have had our attention spans reduced to 5 seconds in these Infinite Content times. A few days ago, the Google Doodle celebrated the birthday of Marshall McLuhan who is said to have predicted the internet. While imagining our connected future, which he never lived to see, he talked about the Global Village as a positive evolution yet saw dangers on the horizon when he said, "once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left".
Every moment we spend watching cat videos or reacting to our friends Snapchat updates with their wagging dog tongues, are we taking one step closer to being Global Village Idiots with brains polluted by toxic content? Are we rendering our minds incapable of original thought? Maybe it’s time to give our brains a breather. Fifty years ago this year, counterculture guru Timothy Leary spoke at the Human Be-In at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and encouraged everyone to “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”. He was quoted as saying that “Like every great religion of the past we seek to find the divinity within”. His approach was to use drugs to reach this higher state of consciousness. Today, too many of us are hooked on the internet (I’m first to admit it). Yes, it’s an incredible source of information and inspiration. It’s also a drug that is closing our doors of perception by suffocating us with addictive content. Our brains are capable of amazing things if we unplugged for just a moment and let our minds wander.
Give your brain time to breathe and you might be surprised by what it can do.