It’s the first morning home and my walking feet are remarkably spry.
Perhaps it’s the constancy of walking long-distance that finally wins the body over. “Ah, well, if this is the way it’s going to be, let’s just fall in line. After all, it is only walking.” The brain, slowly, spacily, falls back into the body.
Winchester in Hampshire to Brighton in East Sussex. That’s three English counties and 75 miles in six days.
My friend, J. and I have been going on annual long walks for years. This is the first one we’ve done together in England. Usually, we wander further afield to the South of France or the Pyrenees. But this year for various reasons we thought we’d stay local. I have recently moved down to the South Coast, to the tail end of the South Downs near Eastbourne. And I grew up outside Portsmouth near the head-end at Winchester. So for me, walking along this chalky spine of England was oddly biographical but also psycho-biological.
I’m interested and spooked by the unexamined effects of this outsourcing of self
I have been thinking and writing a lot about the effect of social media. The internet, Twitter, FB, whatsapp etc – on our sense of self. And even though I was an early adopter of all this digital malarkey and to some extent depend on it for my meditation business to flourish. I am withdrawing from it more and more. I’m interested and spooked by the unexamined effects of this outsourcing of self. As more and more of our waking hours are spent staring into screens, not just at home or the office but also out and about. I ponder what neurological and, dare I say it, the ontological effect it’s having. What effect does the manic digitisation of our lives and relationships have on our sense of Being?
Heidegger spoke about the way in which a workman who picks up a hammer becomes in some sense fused with the hammer. The hammer becomes part of the self. So far, so carpentry. But what happens when our ‘hammer’ is an almost infinite field of digital distraction clutched likewise in the palm of our hands? Does the self become the internet or does the internet erase the self? A hammer is a discreet one-action tool. The smartphone in our hands is a shape-shifting dual carriageway of power. It can be a tool: a phone, a camera, a map. But it can be, and often is, an interconnected extension of self that not only projects but absorbs and morphs according to the templates the Net offers us.
The lack of ‘boredom’ means that the brain is constantly stimulated
We shrink into our FB profile, our Twitter feed, our Instagram portraits, but also our net searches and our googled desires. We may feel that we are using FB or Google as a tool. But there is incontrovertible evidence that those billion-dollar concerns use massively complex algorithms to follow and shape our posts and our searches into ever more self-similar shapes. When we like a person’s post on FB then we start only hearing from those ‘liked’ people. Similarly, Google searches only show you what Google thinks you like. The more you search for certain things, the less and less of different things you get. Obviously, this allows Google and FB to sell your ‘like’ profile more efficiently to advertisers but it will have a very deleterious effect on you.
I have become worried. Primarily using myself as a guinea pig – about the quite profound effect constant smartphone use is having on me.
We began to use the Net as an extension of self
Five years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a book about how the Internet was impacting our brains. The book talked about the neurological impact of Net surfing. Offering as it does the perfect neural catnip of novelty and stimulus. The lack of ‘boredom’ (aka the quiet time when information is processed) means that the brain is constantly stimulated but never enhanced. A busy brain does not indicate a high-functioning brain. It seems from research that multi-tasking does not lead to an increase in skill or knowledge. Only a ‘thinning’ out of our experience. But Carr’s book (ancient history on the Internet’s timeline) was before the quantum leap from desk-top surfing to 24-7 smartphone/iPad surfing. I think this is a significant shift from time-limited to blanket interaction. I feel that sometime around 2011 we internalised the Net. This was largely to do with the way in which we started to carry it around with us all the time and with the ascendency of Facebook, Twitter and the other now rising social media like Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Whatsapp. At this point of Net 2.0, we began to use the Net not just to look things up or to communicate, we began to use it as an extension of self.
The child psychologist Donald Winnicott spoke about the ill-making creation of a ‘false self’ that children use to please and gain favour with a caregiver. The ‘bright and happy’ child or the ‘studious and obedient’ child. This false self is successful in that it gets the desired response – parental approval. But disastrous in that it leaves the ‘authentic self’ which may be ragey, sexualised, sad or rebellious, sealed-off into the shadows. Winnicott conceived the ‘false self’ as functioning on a one-to-one level. I react like this to this person, and like this to another. In all cases, I am being inauthentic because I have got into the habit of always hiding my authentic responses to the world.
My walking holiday – free from mobile reception – was a respite from this mad-making scenario
What we are now experiencing is a gargantuan false self that is trying to please 100 Instagram followers, 200 Facebook friends and a nameless universe of Twitter readers. The Winnicottian motive of ‘trying to win affection or support’ becomes meaningless. How would we know what facet of our life might win support from an infinite number of possible viewers? The Internet false self becomes either generic – e.g. “I feel sad today ”, thereby eliciting generic sympathy – or psychotic, changing and twisting and constantly trying to wring positivity from a nebulous and vaguely critical audience.
My walking holiday – free from mobile reception and almost entirely analogue – was a respite from this mad-making scenario. I am aware that there are plenty of people who use the internet in a perfectly sane and measured way – perhaps occasionally checking a fact (“How were the South Downs made?”) perhaps sending an email. But for me, I was alarmed at how radically different it feels to be just walking without any recourse to messages and emails and updates and feeds. Moving a spine and bones down a chalky path; listening to birds, noticing gradual shifts in hawthorn growth, different stages of blackberry ripeness; feeling physically tired and legitimately hungry: all this seemed like a place I hadn’t inhabited for some long while.
The brain is programmed to respond to novelty, stimulus and distraction
The problem is that in some sense it doesn’t feel as exciting or as stimulating. But on a deeper level, I am convinced that it is a more sustainable and ultimately more satisfying place to be. Sitting by a depend on top of the Downs, munching ham and cheese sandwiches; noticing the cloud patterns over a newly-cropped, dry field of flints; smelling the evening. These things are actually not as cat-nippy for the brain. Which is – after all – programmed to respond to novelty, stimulus and distraction. But are, I would hazard a guess, healthier for my on-going sense of self.
This is an early foray into this area of research. I don’t know what the long-term effects of Net 2.0 will be on our psychological well-being. But I really do think it’s something we should be researching and thinking about. These technological changes happen at such a hare-fast pace that the tortoise-slow human being can’t catch their significance. Until – perhaps, – the significance is scorched irreversibly into our synapses.
I’d love to know your thoughts about walking. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!
Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.