I’m currently reading one of my old Analog magazines (popular American science + science fiction magazine), specifically the March 2009 edition. The short story Lifespeed by Carl Frederick has several themes. It describes a scientist who bitterly sees that his dream of Olympic participation is fading. The story also addresses ethical issues related to doping in sport, in this case fencing, but in this post I’m more interested in the science fiction aspect.
In the story there are only a couple of contests left before the final Olympic trials. The main character Robert is defeated by Lars. He notices that the latter is abnormally fast. When they talk together after the match, Lars says that:
“Most people seem slow to me – not dumb or anything, but just slow-moving and slow two react. It’s me of course. I can not even enjoy movies unless I run the DVDs on my computer at 1.2 times normal speed.”
Robert mistakenly puts Lars’ towel in his own bag afterwards, but when he discovers the mistake he decides to have a colleague analyze it. The sweat appears to contain three neurotransmitters which were enantiomers (mirror images of existing molecules in the body). In this story it was said that the receptors in the brain would not be able to respond to these three neurotransmitters, but that some of them must have done as it had not killed Lars. The result was that he was faster, but it seemed to him that the world was slower.
Both as a scientist and athlete, Robert knew that he had to be patient, but he didn’t want to wait. It was probably partly the scientist who had to know the answers, and partly the athlete who was willing to go far for a chance to fullfill his dream of competing in the Olympics. He used this treatment on himself. He also developed the hypothesis that instead of trying to extend life in number of calendar years, one could extend life by living faster. That way we would do more in less time, the way it seems like children do.
The problem is that unless everyone does this, life quickly gets boring. Robert won easily in sport and lost the things he had in common with his friends. He preferred fast music, fast food (because this treatment gave him a big apetite), he went from tennis to table tennis and favoured sprint from marathon. He ultimately decided not to participate in the Olympics. Fencing was a clean sport, and he wanted that to continue.
I thought as I read this short story that there is something similar going on in our modern world. Everything we do, including surfing the internet, is changing our brains. What is interesting is what parts of the brain changes, not whether or not it is a fact. There is a lot of research on this, and research that aims to aquit internet of these charges. I still think it is problematic whether the internet is actually harmful or not.
I have worked as a teacher for many years, and tried to teach students critical thinking. I believe it is in terms of how we relate to information that an online world is harmful. I have had students down to 5th grade who were very familiar with Call of Duty and other games that have an 18-year age limit in Norway. There are also many who enjoy more innocent games like Minecraft, but the result is essentially about the same if the brain is mostly used for activites that don’t develop a critical sense. I watched a few TV-programs together with my daughter, and some of the programs that she wants to watch. In many shows on Disney and Nickelodeon it is generally portrayed as cool to be stupid. The smart kids are often looked down upon. It is really nothing more than reality shows for children (AKA shit bag-TV). I think that if we spend more or less our whole lives online (mobile/board, pc, games, TV) and almost nothing is about making conscious decisions or relating to the physical world, how healthy is that?
When I was growing up many people were talking about MTV and the way it changed TV. The new development was a rapid pace and many changes, which didn’t allow you any breaks or a chance to focus on details. This has evolved together with technology and is quite extreme today compared to the 80’s. I came to think of this as I walked past an old street musician recently. We don’t have much need for live music anymore. The time when a good street performance captivated us seems to be gone. This could have something to do with the constant improvement of picture and sound systems most people have at home. This applies to the speed of our various handheld computers as well. We are practically entertained to death; there’s never time to pause or reflect. The real world is too boring for us to pay any attention to. It’s bad enough that silence is our enemy, but we are also not critical to any of the information we are fed. We welcome more and more information, and in a way we live faster, but we might be a population out of sync. Perhaps we perceive those who live normal lives as boring, and maybe our version of life speed doesn’t necessarily mean more content?
On top of it all, we are losing our memory, because the internet has taken over that function. While it certainly is true that the internet is changing the brain, I think it’s a blessing if used sensibly. The question is how we use this tool, and how much we disengage our own computer/brain. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be a passive recipient all the time. This is a video that shows what happens when we don’t use our own memory: