Lazy Luddite Log

28.6.18

Too Old For Telepathy

The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1980) tells how the inhabitants of the planet Kakrafoon were afflicted with the condition of Telepathy and...

Consequently, in order to prevent themselves broadcasting every slightest thought that crossed their minds to anyone within a five mile radius, they had to talk very loudly and continuously about the weather, their little aches and pains, the match this afternoon and what a noisy place Kakrafoon had suddenly become.
- Douglas Adams

As a kid this passage puzzled me because I had always regarded the concept of telepathy as a super power rather than as an affliction. Here it was presented as a punishment rather than a privilege. But I have more recently come to understand this satirical observation. We now have a simulation of telepathy delivered to us by the Internet and sometimes the cacophony of thoughts and feelings projected by hundreds of peers can be maddening.

There is a very British assumption underlying the behaviour described on Kakrafoon, in which one wishes to mask some feelings by drawing attention to others. In reality I think that, given the chance, many of us like to share all manner of things, from the trivial to the profound. Our ability to share has now evolved to a new level thanks to communications technology.

Everyone has opinions on the pros and cons of this development. There is also a tendency to fall into polarized camps. If 'they' attack a medium that ‘we’ feel enriches our lives then we will respond by denying that there can be any problems at all with it. We then try and suggest that it is as fine as any older and more accepted form of media.

Every medium can produce its own problems but also bring with it the solution to those same problems. The ancient invention of writing allegedly limited human memory but, as long as we have written records, this loss of some primeval memory capacity hardly matters. There may be problems during the transition from one form of behaviour to another, however, and maybe those who are most affected are the ones who were best adapted to the older ways.

Television was always part of my life and thus I have been its defender. I scoffed at the wowsers who criticized it for supposedly making us absent-minded or jittery or violent. But maybe TV can have some impact and of a different sort from what critics say. Violent shows may result in us becoming more scared than dangerous. This fits a world in which violence has reduced in recent decades but perceptions of violence seem to have grown. The gritty 'realism' of TV fiction since the 90s may have something to do with this.

However any potential impact of television was once limited by its lack of presence in our everyday lives. In my youth we only ever got to see television if we were at home in the living room (or in our bedrooms for the more consumerist among us). Most TVs were too cumbersome to be used in transit or while at school or work.
But now we have the Internet and, rather than just the latest in a succession of different kinds of media, it is in fact an ever-present collection of all kinds of media rolled into one. You can read a virtual book or watch TV or play games on it. You can do all this at home or on the train or at your desk. Is this a problem? Will the small impacts of the past grow as we are exposed to multi-media more than we ever have been? The only prudent answer to that question is to say it is far too soon to say because this is a very new phenomenon.

The development that concerns me the most now is the very thing I feel is also the best aspect of the Internet – communication. We can stay in contact with friends. We can make new friends from far away. We can tap into forms of community that fit us better than the accidental community of our neighbourhoods. And with all this comes the ‘telepathy’ I refer to. Is it a super power or an affliction? I feel both at times.

I say it is maddening but it is also addictive. I desire my fix of what everyone is saying and many times a day. It can get too much for me however. Every mind is unique and all this overlapping of minds can be hectic for just one mind to digest. Do they truly think or feel that and if so why am I so different? Who has the more skewed perspective? The mess of perception becomes so much more messy in the setting of something like Facebook.

But should I then assume this is a problem for all? Or should I factor my age (and my luddite tendency) into this? I only encountered the Internet as a young adult and its more mobile and media-encompassing form as a mature adult. In contrast younger generations (or more tech-savvy persons) will be far more adapted to it. They will surely be in a better position to cope with the problem I describe. And as it shapes them they will also shape it to better fit them.

I’m the one who has issues with an ever-present Internet and so it is my responsibility to find solutions to my personal problem. And I have been working on it. For one thing I never changed over to accessing the Internet on a smartphone. If I want to go online I have to find something larger than pocket-sized. This I can do at home, at public libraries, and at the dwindling number of Internet cafes.

Another thing I do is restrict how much I spend on any one part of the Internet by moving from website to website. And I then try to make each site serve a distinct purpose. I will discuss politics at news opinion pages, comment on music or movies at YouTube, and chat about everything and nothing with friends on Facebook.

But I will also limit what I am exposed to on FB. There is a lot of talk these days of how we are all ensconced in ‘echo chambers’ and I too have limited exposure to diverse opinions. But what I’m more interested in limiting is moods that are too different from mine. I can only tolerate so much of the incessant gloom that seems to define the perceptions of some. And that is a personal form of self-care rather than a judgement of others. We all have to do things to fit our own emotional states.

I suppose the protocols described are my way of making this ‘telepathy’ something that can work for me as I get older. I’m happy it is something I can selectively walk away from. It would be far more difficult to live with fictional telepathy (like the kind described in this novelette of mine).

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