Greater complexity?

Rate this Entry
I read an article(in German) that questioned one assumption present in many modern discourses - that we live in times of ever-increasing complexity and that this overwhelms us. The author demonstrates that an European living now would not experience more political changes than one 100 or 200 years ago, nor technological ones, and that we don't need to know more than past generations - just different facts.

I would generally tend to agree. In Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel" he postulates that a hunter gatherer has a huge arsenal of practical knowledge that is as essential - if not more - to his life than the facts we use in our own. His example is that when he explained to a hunter gatherer in the forest that some mushrooms are poisonous the other guy lectured him about all edible variants of mushrooms in those forests - more than two dozens. He knew them from memory.

We don't handle more information, I'd say. It is however true that it has become impossible to know everything, the mechanics or details of most things impacting our lives. We don't know how to make the things we use, but we know how to use them. This has been an ongoing trend in human history for centuries as specialization become part of how things were created, so this isn't new either. A knight didn't know how to make a sword more than we know how to manufacture a mobile phone - only a rough idea. So this isn't it either.

But I do think there's a major difference from this time to any other, and it has to do with the average attention span. Our consumption of electronic media diminishes it. If I compare how I read a book for hours as a child with the fast-paced cut sequences of modern music videos, it not only makes me dizzy, I also feel that this creates a different brain structure in response. A classic often repeated among people of a certain age is that "Kids don't read anymore." But given how their brains and attention span are being affected today, sitting down to read must be a real challenge. Try doing that while sitting on an ant mound. It's challenging.

We are busy eliminating all natural rhythms from our lives - the seasons become neutralised by airconditioning, and sitting in front of a computer doesn't change all year. We travel in little or bigger boxes, also sealed off from the environment. The experience of western humanity since the 50s has become increasingly divorced from their surrounding habitat. This might also be part of why we care so little for it on the average.

Most natural rhythms are slow. They ground a human being and settle us down. Spending time in nature, being present with the natural experience, that's unwinding and relaxing the mind. Nature doesn't expose us with less impressions than modern media, in fact as we feel, smell, see and hear we have more sensual information, but it is the kind of information our senses were built for and that relaxes us. The information bombarding us from outside is meant to addict and manipulate the senses. The purpose of watching TV is inducing people to watch more TV (and ads, of course).

On a little side note, I do think no invention has been as much of an opium for the people as TV. It consumes time, it takes it of our hands, keeps us busy but passive, excited, thrilled, voyeuristically enthralled, without adding much to our lives. Imagine the 19th century when people still had to make their own entertainment. Those times were more alive.

If you want to experience the difference in attention span from then to now a simple experiment suffices. Take an old movie and a new movie. For me it was the new Ocean's 11 and the original with the Rat Pack. I like the new one, so I decided to watch the old one. I found it really hard to stomach, as it had long drawn-out scenes, was more static, had a different pace. I hadn't realized how used I had gotten to fast cut scenes. Watch a recent hip hop video - how long till the next cut? Not long usually, as the pictures cut to the beat. You can even hide the fact that a singer can't dance by cutting together lots of their moves because you never get to see a full sequence.

By being switched back and forth all the time - the newest text, the newest email, the next music video - we switch information channels and activities fasters than our brains can cope. Then the brain, following its own evolution during the lifetime, reacts and adapts. Your attention span diminishes. As the brain comes to expect a certain rate of input, it experiences anything else as boredom, and so the moments meant to unwind us, moments of peace, drive us up the wall. We cannot kick back, sit back, relax. And that is why the world has gotten too complex for us. We don't have the space required to process anymore.

Any information needs digestion. There's an amount of space required to properly process it. If we don't have this space, we experience this as an overwhelming sensation. We feel bombarded. We respond with stress to our sensual input. By being driven by crazy outside rhythms we lose the ability to relax, unwind and be present.

Of course there are remedies. Spending time in nature and meditating can rebalance us and attune us to more sensible rhythms. We learn to relax and diminish the stress response. We become grounded, not unhinged, spinning, stressed out. The now becomes more enjoyable, not something to run from, to fill with "excitement." We become present.

Another option is also worth considering: Tune out. Ease the bombardment. Limit the input. Simplify. Do one thing at a time. Finish something before starting the next thing. Feel the accomplishment. Enjoy the silence.

Submit "Greater complexity?" to Digg Submit "Greater complexity?" to del.icio.us Submit "Greater complexity?" to StumbleUpon Submit "Greater complexity?" to Google


  1. Miss Cherie's Avatar
    [SIZE=3][COLOR=#000000][FONT=Times New Roman]We don’t need to keep in our brain all information. We also don’t need to know everything. Just look how easily we go to Google. [/FONT][/COLOR][/SIZE]
    [SIZE=3][COLOR=#000000][FONT=Times New Roman]But Google – is not the only one information storage. Next step allow… no - teach people to use that ability take information. [/FONT][/COLOR][/SIZE]
01 block content This site is under development!
02 Links block
02 block content