Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.

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Unlike turtles, humans do not have protective shells into which we can withdraw when danger presents. Nor can we lift off, fly away, and elude danger the way birds do. These days, we’re sorely beset by an invisible pandemic spread by exposure to carriers (read: other people) and so asked or forced to submit to being locked down and socially distanced. Thus, we are withdrawn into the protective shell of the home in cycles of varying intensity and obeisance to maintain health and safety. Yet life goes on, and with it, numerous physical requirements (ignoring psychological needs) that can’t be met virtually demand we venture out into the public sphere to gather resources, risking exposure to the scourge. Accordingly, the conduct of business has adapted to enable folks to remain in the protective shells of their vehicles, taking delivery through the car window and rarely if ever entering a brick-and-mortar establishment except in defiance or at the option of acceptable risk. In effect, we’re being driven into our cars ever more, and the vehicle is readily understood as a proxy for its inhabitant(s). Take note of pictures of people in bread lines during the Great Depression having been replaced by pictures of cars lined up for miles during the pandemic to get packaged meals from charitable organizations.

Reflecting on this aspect of modern life, I realized that it’s not exactly novel. The widespread adoption of the individual vehicle in the 1940s and 50s, as distinguished from mass transit, and the construction of the interstate highway system promised (and delivered) flexibility and freedom of tremendous appeal. While the shift into cars (along with air travel) doomed now moribund passenger rail (except intracity in the few American cities with effective rail systems), it enabled the buildout of suburbs and exurbs now recognized as urban sprawl. And like all those packages now clogging delivery systems as we shift even more heavily during the holiday season to online shopping, a loss of efficiency was inevitable. All those individual cars and boxes create congestion that cry out for solutions.

Among the solutions (really a nonsolution) were the first drive-through banks of the 1970s. Is doing one’s banking without leaving the vehicle’s protective shell really an efficiency? Or is it merely an early acknowledgement and enabling of antisocial individualism? Pneumatic tubes that permitted drive-through banking did not speed up transactions appreciably, but the novel mechanism undoubtedly reinforced the psychological attachment Americans felt with their cars. That growing attachment was already apparent in the 1950s, with two bits of Americana from that decade still resonating: the drive-in theater and the drive-in restaurant. The drive-in theater was a low-fidelity efficiency and alternative to the grand movie houses built in the 1920s and 30s seating a few thousand people in one cavernous space. (A different sort of efficiency enabling choice later transformed most cinema establishments into multiplexes able to show 8–10 titles instead of one, handily diminishing audiences of thousands to hundreds or even tens and robbing the group experience of much of its inherent power. Now that premium streaming content is delivered to screens at home and we are disallowed assembly into large audiences, we have instead become something far more inert — viewers — with fully anticipatable degradation of the entertainment experience notwithstanding the handsome technologies found within the comforts of the home.) I’ve heard that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 2020, with Walmart parking lots converted into showplaces, at least temporarily, to resemble (poorly) group experience and social cohesion connection. The drive-in restaurant of the 1950s, with their iconic carhops (sometimes on roller skates), is a further example of enabling car culture to proliferate. Never mind that eating in the car is actually kinda sad and maybe a little disgusting as odors and refuse collect in that confined space. One might suspect that drive-ins were directed toward teenyboppers and cruisers of the 1950s exploring newfound freedom, mobility, and the illusion of privacy in their cars, parked in neat rows at drive-ins (and Lookout Points for smooch sessions) all across the country. However, my childhood memory was that it was also a family affair.

Inevitably, fast food restaurants followed the banks in the 1970s and quickly established drive-through lanes, reinforcing the degradation of the food experience into mere feeding (often on one’s lonesome) rather than dining in community. Curiously, the pandemic has made every restaurant still operating, even the upscale ones, a drive-through and forced those with and without dedicated drive-through lanes to bring back the anachronistic carhop to serve the congestion. A trip to a local burger joint in Chicago last week revealed 40+ cars in queue and a dozen or so carhops on the exterior directing traffic and making deliveries through the car window (briefly penetrating the protective shell) so that no one would have to enter the building and expose oneself to virus carriers. I’ve yet to see a 2020 carhop wearing roller skates (now roller blades) or a poodle skirt.

Such arrangements are probably effective at minimizing pandemic risk and have become one of several new normals (discussion of political dysfunction deferred). Who can say how long they will persist? Still, it’s strange to observe the psychology of our response, even if only superficially and preliminarily. Car culture has been a curious phenomenon since at least the middle of the 20th century. New dynamics reinforcing our commitment to cars are surprising, perhaps, but a little unsurprising, too, considering how we made ourselves so dependent on them as the foundation of personal transportation infrastructure. As a doomer, I had rather expected that Peak Oil occurring around 2006 or so would spell the gradual (or sudden) end of happy motoring as prices at the pump, refusal to elevate standard fuel efficiency above 50 mph, and climbing average cost of new vehicles placed individual options beyond the reach of average folks. However, I’ve been genuinely surprised by fuel costs sinking to new lows (below the cost of production, even bizarrely inverting to the point that producers paid buyers to take inventory) and continued attempts to engineer (only partially) around the limitations of Peak Oil, if not indeed Peak Energy. I continue to believe these are mirages, like the record-setting bull market of 2020 occurring in the midst of simultaneous economic, social, and health crises.

I’ve mentioned the precautionary principle several times, most notably here. Little of our approach to precautions has changed in the two years since that blog post. At the same time, climate change and Mother Nature batter us aggressively. Eventualities remain predictable. Different precautions are being undertaken with respect to the pandemic currently gripping the planet. Arguably, the pandemic is either a subset of Mother Nature’s fury or, if the virus was created in a lab, a self-inflicted wound. Proper pandemic precautions have been confounded by undermining of authority, misinformation, lack of coordination, and politically biased narratives. I’m as confused as the next poor sap. However, low-cost precautions such as wearing masks are entirely acceptable, notwithstanding refusals of many Americans to cooperate after authorities muddied the question of their effectiveness so completely. More significant precautions such as lockdowns and business shutdowns have morphed into received wisdom among government bodies yet are questioned widely as being a cure worse than the disease, not to mention administrative overreach (conspiratorial conjecture withheld).

Now comes evidence published in the New England Journal of Medicine on November 11, 2020, that costly isolation is flatly ineffective at stemming infection rates. Here are the results and conclusions from the abstract of the published study:

Results
A total of 1848 recruits volunteered to participate in the study; within 2 days after arrival on campus, 16 (0.9%) tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, 15 of whom were asymptomatic. An additional 35 participants (1.9%) tested positive on day 7 or on day 14. Five of the 51 participants (9.8%) who tested positive at any time had symptoms in the week before a positive qPCR test. Of the recruits who declined to participate in the study, 26 (1.7%) of the 1554 recruits with available qPCR results tested positive on day 14. No SARS-CoV-2 infections were identified through clinical qPCR testing performed as a result of daily symptom monitoring. Analysis of 36 SARS-CoV-2 genomes obtained from 32 participants revealed six transmission clusters among 18 participants. Epidemiologic analysis supported multiple local transmission events, including transmission between roommates and among recruits within the same platoon.
Conclusions
Among Marine Corps recruits, approximately 2% who had previously had negative results for SARS-CoV-2 at the beginning of supervised quarantine, and less than 2% of recruits with unknown previous status, tested positive by day 14. Most recruits who tested positive were asymptomatic, and no infections were detected through daily symptom monitoring. Transmission clusters occurred within platoons.

So an initial 0.9% tested positive, then an additional 1.9%. This total 2.8% compares to 1.7% in the control group (tested but not isolated as part of the study). Perhaps the experimental and control groups are a bit small (1848 and 1554, respectively), and it’s not clear why the experimental group infection rate is higher than that of the control group, but the evidence points to the uselessness of trying to limit the spread of the virus by quarantining and/or isolation. Once the virus is present in a population, it spreads despite precautions.

A mantra is circulating that we should “trust the science.” Are these results to be trusted? Can we call off all the lockdowns and closures? It’s been at least eight months that the virus has been raging throughout the U.S. Although there might be some instances of isolated populations with no infection, the wider population has by now been exposed. Moreover, some individuals who self-isolated effectively may not have been exposed, but in all likelihood, most of us have been. Accordingly, renewed lockdowns, school and business closures, and destruction of entire industries are a pretense of control we never really had. Their costs are enormous and ongoing. A stay-at-home order (advisory, if you prefer) just went into effect for the City of Chicago on November 16, 2020. My anecdotal observation is that most Chicagoans are ignoring it and going about their business similar to summer and fall months. It’s nothing like the ghost town effect of March and April 2020. I daresay they may well be correct to reject the received wisdom of our civic leaders.

I admit (again) to being bugged by things found on YouTube — a miserable proxy for the marketplace of ideas — many of which are either dumb, wrongheaded, or poorly framed. It’s not my goal to correct every mistake, but sometimes, inane utterances of intellectuals and specialists I might otherwise admire just stick in my craw. It’s hubris on my part to insist on my understandings, considering my utter lack of standing as an acknowledged authority, but I’m not without my own multiple areas of expertise (I assert immodestly).

The initial purpose for this blog was to explore the nature of consciousness. I’ve gotten badly sidetracked writing about collapse, media theory, epistemology, narrative, and cinema, so let me circle back around. This is gonna be long.

German philosopher Oswald Spengler takes a crack at defining consciousness:

Human consciousness is identical with the opposition between the soul and the world. There are gradations in consciousness, varying from a dim perception, sometimes suffused by an inner light, to an extreme sharpness of pure reason that we find in the thought of Kant, for whom soul and world have become subject and object. This elementary structure of consciousness is not capable of further analysis; both factors are always present together and appear as a unity.

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/rant on

MAD is a term I haven’t thought about for a good long while. No illusions here regarding that particularly nasty genie having been stuffed back into its lamp. Nope, it lingers out there in some weird liminal space, routinely displaced by more pressing concerns. However, MAD came back into my thoughts because of saber-rattling by U.S. leadership suggesting resumed above-ground nuclear testing might be just the ticket to remind our putative enemies around the world what complete assholes we are. Leave it to Americans to be the very last — in the midst of a global pandemic (that’s redundant, right?) — to recognize that geopolitical squabbles (alert: reckless minimization of severity using that word squabble) pale in comparison to other looming threats. Strike that: we never learn; we lack the reflective capacity. Still, we ought to reorient in favor of mutual aid and assistance instead of our MAD, insane death pact.

The authoritative body that normally springs to mind when MAD is invoked is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Ironically, it appears to be an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity, a media organization, not an actual collection of atomic scientists. (I’ll continue to italicize Bulletin as though it’s a publication like the New York Times even though it’s arguably something else.) I’ve blogged repeatedly about its iconic Doomsday Clock. In an otherwise astute post against sloppy appeals to authority using the increasingly meaningless term expert, Alan Jacobs takes to task the Bulletin for straying out of its lane to consider threats that are political in nature rather than scientific. Reminded me of when Pope Francis in his encyclical deigned to acknowledge climate change, recognizing that Mother Earth is our “common home” and maybe we shouldn’t be raping her. (OK, that coarse bit at the end is mine.) What? He’s not a climatologist! How dare he opine on something outside his official capacity? Go back to saving souls!

At the same time we desperately need expertise to accomplish things like building bridges that don’t fall down (yet still do) or performing an appendectomy without killing the patient, it’s inevitable that people form opinions about myriad subjects without the benefit of complete authority or expertise, if such a thing even exists. As students, citizens, and voters, we’re enjoined to inform ourselves, discuss, and learn rather than forfeit all opinion-making to, oh I dunno, the chattering classes. That’s intellectual sovereignty, unless one is unfortunate enough to live in a totalitarian regime practicing thought control. Oh, wait … So it’s a sly form of credentialing to fence off or police opinion expressed from inexpert quarters as some sort of thought crime. Regarding MAD, maybe the era has passed when actual atomic scientists assessed our threat level. Now it’s a Science and Security Board made up of people few have ever heard of, and the scope of their concern, like the Pope’s, is wide enough to include all existential threats, not just the one assigned to them by pointy-headed categorists. Are politicians better qualified on such matters? Puhleeze! (OK, maybe Al Gore, but he appears to be busy monetizing climate change.)

As a self-described armchair social critic, I, too, recognized more than a decade ago the existential threat (extinction level, too) of climate change and have blogged about it continuously. Am I properly credentialed to see and state the, um, obvious? Maybe not. That’s why I don’t argue the science and peer-reviewed studies. But the dynamics, outlines, and essentials of climate change are eminently understandable by laypersons. That was true as well for Michael Ruppert, who was impeached by documentarians for lacking supposed credentialed expertise yet still having the temerity to state the obvious and sound the alarm. Indeed, considering our failure to act meaningfully to ameliorate even the worst case scenario, we’ve now got a second instance of mutually assured destruction, a suicide pact, and this one doesn’t rely on game-theoretical inevitability. It’s already happening all around us as we live and breathe … and die.

/rant off

Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.

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I’ll try to be relatively brief, since I’ve been blogging about industrial and ecological collapse for more than a decade. Jeff Gibbs released a new documentary called Planet of the Humans (sideways nod to the dystopian movie franchises Planet of the Apes — as though humans aren’t also apes). Gibbs gets top billing as the director, but this is clearly a Michael Moore film, who gets secondary billing as the executing producer. The film includes many of Moore’s established eccentricities, minus the humor, and is basically an exposé on greenwashing: the tendency of government agencies, environmental activists, and capitalist enterprises to coopt and transform earnest environmental concern into further profit-driven destruction of the natural environment. Should be no surprise to anyone paying attention, despite the array of eco-luminaries making speeches and soundbites about “green” technologies that purport to save us from rendering the planet uninhabitable. Watching them fumble and evade when answering simple, direct questions is a clear indication of failed public-relations approaches to shaping the narrative.

Turns out that those ballyhooed energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, biofuel, biomass) ride on the back of fossil fuels and aren’t any more green or sustainable than the old energy sources they pretend to replace. Again, no surprise if one has even a basic understanding of the dynamics of energy production and consumption. That admittedly sounds awfully jaded, but the truth has been out there for a long time already for anyone willing and able to confront it. Similarly, the documentary mentions overpopulation, another notorious elephant in the room (or herd of elephants, as aptly put in the film), but it’s not fully developed. Entirely absent is any question of not meeting energy demand. That omission is especially timely given how, with the worldwide economy substantially scaled back at present and with it significant demand destruction (besides electricity), the price of oil has fallen through the floor. Nope, the tacit assumption is that energy demand must be met despite all the awful short- and long-term consequences.

Newsfeeds indicate that the film has sparked considerable controversy in only a few days following release. Debate is to be expected considering a coherent energy strategy has never been developed or agreed upon and interested parties have a lot riding on outcomes. Not to indulge in hyperbole, but the entire human race is bound up in the outcome, too, and it doesn’t look good for us or most of the rest of the species inhabiting the planet. Thus, I was modestly dismayed when the end of the film wandered into happy chapter territory and offered the nonsensical platitude in voiceover, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” Because we’ve passed and in fact lapped the point of no return repeatedly, the range of possibilities has shrunk precipitously. The most obvious is that human population of 7.7 billion (and counting) is being sorely tested. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we also know that post-pandemic there can be no return to the world we’ve known for the past 70 years or so. Although the documentary could not be reasonably expected to be entirely up to date, it should at least have had the nerve to conclude what the past few decades have demonstrated with abundant clarity.

Addendum

This review provides support for my assessment that “green” or “sustainable” energy cannot be delivered without significant contribution of fossil fuels.

Here’s a rather strange interaction: destruction budgets and moral license. The former refers to a theoretical or proposed budget for allowable environmental destruction. The latter refers to how doing something good allows rationalization of doing something bad as though one offsets (recognize that word?) the other. A familiar example is a physical workout that justifies a later sugar binge.

So just maybe some (outside executive offices anyway) are coming round to the idea that ongoing destruction of nature ought to be curtailed or better regulated. That’s the thrust of an article in Nature that mentions emissions budgets, which I’ve renamed destruction budgets. The article provides a decent overview of the largest threats, or environmental tipping points, that lead to an uninhabitable Earth. Human activity isn’t only about greenhouse gas emissions, however. Because industrial civilization has essentially had an unlimited destruction budget in the past, we’ve depleted and toxified air, soil, and water at such an alarming rate that we now have a limited number of harvests left and already face fresh water shortages that are only expected to worsen.

Turning to the viral pandemic, large segments of the population kept at home on lockdown triggered a different sort of destruction budget that didn’t exist before it suddenly did: economic destruction, joblessness, and financial ruin. For many Americans already stretched thin financially and psychologically, if the virus doesn’t get you first, then bankruptcy and despair will. Several rounds of bailouts (based on money that doesn’t exist) followed the economic slowdown and are freighted with moral hazard and moral license. Prior bailouts make clear where most of the money goes: deep corporate pockets, banks, and Wall Street. According to this unsophisticated poll, a clear majority do not want banks and financial institutions bailed out. There is even stronger public support for conditions on corporate bailouts, especially those conditions designed to protect employees.

Since we’re in wildly uncharted terrain from only 1.5 months of whatever this new paradigm is, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will occur by summertime or the fall. We’ve blown way past any reasonable destruction budget. In truth, such budgets probably never existed in the first place but were only used as metaphors to make plans no one expects to be binding, much like the toothless 2016 Paris Agreement. Every time we set a hypothetical self-imposed limit, we exceed it. That’s why, to me at least, 350.org is such a cruel joke: the target ceiling was breached decades before the organization was even founded in 2009 and hasn’t slowed its rate of increase since then. In effect, we’ve given ourselves license to disregard any imaginary budgets we might impose on ourselves. The pertinent question was raised by Thomas Massie (KY-Rep.) in the first new bailout bill when he openly challenged the number: “If getting us into $6 trillion more debt doesn’t matter, then why are we not getting $350 trillion more in debt so that we can give a check of $1 million to every person in the country?” How weird is it that both issues cite the number 350?

Magnitude

Posted: January 6, 2020 in Artistry, Corporatism, Culture, Science
Tags: ,

Something I read somewhere (lost track of what and when) sparked some modest inquiry into the mathematical concept of magnitude, or more specifically, the order of magnitude. I suspect, consistent with the doomer themes of this blog, that it was a statement to the effect that the sixth extinction (or Holocene extinction if you prefer) is proceeding at some order of magnitude faster than previous mass extinction events.

Within various scientific fields, magnitude has specific and specialized meanings. For instance, the Richter Scale, used to denote the power of earthquakes, is a familiar though poorly understood measure reported in the aftermath of an event. Magnitudes of distance and time are more immediately understood in the mundane sense of how far/long to travel somewhere (via foot, bicycle, car, train, plane, etc.) and more exotically outside Earth orbit as depicted in science fiction. Perhaps the most cognitively accessible illustration of magnitude, however, is scale. Arguably, size (absolute?) and scale (comparative?) are intertwined with distance, or even more broadly, time-space. I’ll leave that discussion to someone who knows better than I do.

All that said, I recalled from boyhood a short film depicting scale in terms of Powers of Ten. Unsurprisingly, I found it on YouTube (embedded below).

Perhaps it’s just my refurbishing of memory, but this film (now video) has a sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like how Disney properties (e.g., films, TV shows, theme parks, merchandise) from the 1960s and 70s retained an innocence from the time when Walt Disney himself was in charge. Early NASA orbital missions and moonshots had that quality, too, but NASA’s wonder years dissipated around the time space shuttles went into service, demonstrating that NASA’s primary objective was neither technical innovation nor exploration anymore but rather commerce, namely, putting satellites into orbit for communications services. Just this past year, the risible U.S. Space Force, wished into existence by 45 single-handedly over all reasonable objections (not unlike the border wall with Mexico), demonstrates a similar loss of innocence. It’s essentially an attempt to patrol and/or weaponize the commons. I’d like to believe that military personnel are dutifully obeying a pointless command from the commander-in-chief and will abandon or scuttle the new military branch once 45 is out of office. Time will tell.

Loss of innocence may be inevitable in the postmodern world given our jadedness, cynicism, and oh-so-hip ironic detachment. It’s not a good look on us. For instance, once Disney went corporate, the aesthetic pioneered and guided by old Walt changed for the worse. Relatively recent acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars (among others) and expansion of theme parks and resorts reveal an entertainment behemoth geared more cynically toward money-making than artistry or inspiration. The apparent insufficiency of earlier incarnations of NASA and Disney find a parallel with an updated version of Powers of Ten (not embedded), narrated by Morgan Freeman (because … why not?) and using the same basic script but employing whiz-bang graphics considerably enhanced over their 1977 counterparts. Even the pop-culture digital network Buzzfeed (not exactly a venerated news source) gets some action with its derivative, examination-lite of cosmic scale (ignoring the microscopic and subatomic):

Going back to the idea of magnitude, I’m aware of four time-scales in common use: human history, evolutionary time, geological time, and cosmic time. Few contextualize the last 2–3 centuries this way, but human activity has had substantial effects that collapse events usually occurring over evolutionary or geological time into human history. We unwittingly launched a grand terraforming project but have yet to demonstrate overriding care for the eventual outcomes. The, um, magnitude of our error cannot be overstated.

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy in past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.