The Internet’s corrosive mental effects: A growing problem requiring a deliberate defensive response

For those of you who, like me, have been interested to hear the background drumbeat of warnings about the mental and neurological effects of the Internet revolution over the past several years — think Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows,  just for starters —  a recent, in-depth article about this very subject from Newsweek will make for compelling reading. It’s not exactly a pleasant read, though, because the conclusion it draws from mountains of evidence is deeply disturbing.

Here’s the gist:

Teaser: Tweets, texts, emails, posts. New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed — and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness, Tony Dokoupil reports.

Questions about the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind are at least as old as hyperlinks. But even among Web skeptics, the idea that a new technology might influence how we think and feel — let alone contribute to a great American crack-up — was considered silly and naive, like waving a cane at electric light or blaming the television for kids these days. Instead, the Internet was seen as just another medium, a delivery system, not a diabolical machine. It made people happier and more productive. And where was the proof otherwise?

Now, however, the proof is starting to pile up. The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet — portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive — may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.

…In less than the span of a single childhood, Americans have merged with their machines, staring at a screen for at least eight hours a day, more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping…[T]he research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed. “This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change,” says Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford University who is working on a book about how digital culture is rewiring us — and not for the better…Does the Internet make us crazy? Not the technology itself or the content, no. But a Newsweek review of findings from more than a dozen countries finds the answers pointing in a similar direction…It “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” [says] Larry Rosen, a California psychologist who has researched the Net’s effect for decades. It “encourages — and even promotes — insanity.”

— Tony Dokoupil, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?Newsweek, July 9, 2012

In an interesting synchronicity, on the very same dayNewsweek published that article online, Truthdig posted a column by Chris Hedges that hits upon the same theme but embeds it within a wider warning that encompasses our cultural-civilizational crisis as a whole:

Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.

…And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction.

— Chris Hedges, “How to Think,” Truthdig, July 9, 2012

Hedges, who previously wrote about this same type of thing at length in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, concludes with a recommendation for a course of individual awakening, deprogramming, and inner cultivation:

If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

If these words sounds like a strong echo of Morris Berman’s call in The Twilight of American Culture for the rise of “new monastic individuals,” defined as people who are aware of these dystopian trends and decide to make a conscious break, whether inner or outer, with the society around them in order to engage in a deliberate project of cultural, spiritual, intellectual, and community preservation for the purpose of weathering a new dark age, this is probably not an accident, since Morris and Hedges are friends and colleagues who are well aware of each other’s work. Also bear in mind what Hedges wrote last year in a widely quoted piece for Adbusters:

The game is over. We lost. The corporate state will continue its inexorable advance until two-thirds of the nation and the planet is locked into a desperate, permanent underclass. Most of us will struggle to make a living while the Blankfeins and our political elites wallow in the decadence and greed of the Forbidden City and Versailles. These elites do not have a vision. They know only one word: more.  They will continue to exploit the nation, the global economy and the ecosystem. And they will use their money to hide in gated compounds when it all implodes. Do not expect them to take care of us when it starts to unravel. We will have to take care of ourselves. We will have to rapidly create small, monastic communities where we can sustain and feed ourselves. It will be up to us to keep alive the intellectual, moral and cultural values the corporate state has attempted to snuff out. It is either that or become drones and serfs in a global corporate dystopia. It is not much of a choice. But at least we still have one.

— “Chris Hedges’ Endgame Strategy,” Adbusters, June 16, 2011

Let’s pause and replay that: “We will have to take care of ourselves. We will have to rapidly create small, monastic communities where we can sustain and feed ourselves. It will be up to us to keep alive the intellectual, moral and cultural values the corporate state has attempted to snuff out.” This is something to consider, mull over, and meditate on with much soberness and gravitas as America’s presidential election comes barreling at us amid the certainty of more unpleasant but unsurprising large-scale revelations like the LIBOR scandal and more disruptive events like the ongoing Eurocollapse, the upsurge of Armageddon-like weather, and the palpable decline of public life here in America.

As a practical step, taking deliberate control of your digital life seems a bare minimum for keeping your wits about you and your spirit centered. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean taking a five-month sabbatical from almost all online communication like I did last year from January to May, but it definitely means maintaining a constant vigilance toward and a conscious, deliberate, restraint-filled control over your use of the Internet. I know what I’m talking about, since I speak as someone who spends hours and hours online every day. And although as the owner of a couple of blogs and a Website, I feel somewhat like Howard Beale in Network when I urge you to get away from your devices and unplug for awhile from the Internet (“Turn your television off!” shouts Beale to his live and extended audience during America’s most popular television program. “Turn your television sets off right now! Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now!”), I’ll still say it: turn it off. Switch off your online connection for awhile. Close this blog post and get some quality time with non-Internet reality. Your sanity may hinge on it.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 11, 2012, in Internet & Media, Psychology & Consciousness and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I suppose I’m one of Berman’s “monastic individuals,” but I see most of the blame-laying as so much hysterical twaddle. If people are becoming depressed and even psychotic — what a boon for big pharma — it’s much more likely to be caused by job insecurity, indebtedness, and the terrorism fears that the government had whipped up with the aid of a compliant media. Instead of blaming the internet, let’s take a look at the decades-long corporatization of our educational systems, and the dropping literacy levels that allow people to be swamped and persuaded by a constant flood of disinformation.

    Yes, indeedy, we need to form self-sustaining communities where we monastic types can take care of ourselves. Oh wait, didn’t a lot of people try that, back a few years ago? How well did that work out?

    • Your pegging of the implosion of the economy, the corporatization of education, and the decline of literacy is dead-on, as I view the situation, Catana. These are surely among the most pervasively destructive of the trends that have overtaken us. I wouldn’t discount the Internet’s effects, though, even if they may not be exactly as framed by Newsweek. The Internet’s rise to cultural and psychological centrality in a mere decade and a half is breathtaking and transformative, and it’s implicated in just about everything now.

      As for the lifeboat communities of yesteryear, yes, most of them fizzled out or never even got off the ground. When I think of this sort of thing in a positive vein — in projecting how it might be accomplished right now — I tend to think/hope in the direction of psychologically withdrawing from our Matrix civilization first, and then exploring alternative material ways of being inner outsiders (so to speak) that are more organically connected to the mainstream than those long-lost counterculture communities were. This seems a more sustainable approach to me.

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