Deep Green Bush-School
Q&A with Jordan Brown, Director of Stare Into the Lights My Pretties
Joey Moncarz: Hi Jordan. Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I’ll frame my questions based on the aims of the Deep Green Bush-School, which, on our website states that we’re here “to raise intelligent, healthy, mature, responsible young adults who can think for themselves, meet their needs, live a meaningful life and challenge the current system in order to bring about a healthy world. We are raising the dreamers, healers, rebels and the revolutionaries this world needs… Students learn how to live within the Earth’s limits, they learn to think about future generations, they learn what a healthy and sustainable way of life is, and they learn to challenge what is wrong and heal the planet.”
Jordan Brown: Thank you for that, and thank you for what you and the school is doing in the world.
Joey Moncarz: The majority of people take for granted modern technology, just as they take for granted the institution of compulsory schooling. They don’t think about who invented it, why they did, and what effect they have on youth or the world. Why do you think that is? And why do all these gadgets exist?
Jordan Brown: This is a great observation, a great question. As members of this culture, we take a lot for granted. We’ve been socialised that way. We’re accustomed to take for granted even the very basic needs of our lives: food, water, clothing, shelter, energy, waste. Where do they come from? Where do they go to? Our ignorance is stunning. One of the extremely short answers as to why, I think, is because from a young age, this culture allures us to surrender our lives to this way of life, and in return, we’re promised all sorts of goodies and gadgets and perceived benefits—avocados all year round, air conditioning, ice cream, television, Wi-Fi—basically a life commodified, repackaged and sold back to us in the name of ‘progress,’ comfort and convenience. I’m basically trying to paraphrase Lewis Mumford here, a great sociologist and philosopher of technology whom I admire, and who appears in the film, with what he called the magnificent bribe. We’ve been bribed to accept this beguiling culture, at the cost of our very own lives. Ignorance is bliss. It’s how we can delude ourselves into thinking that food and water come from the supermarket instead of a living planet; that clothes come from the mall, instead of sweatshops in Bangladesh; that shiny silicon chips come from ‘fun-loving’ corporations, not the once-pristine sand of beaches or the quartz hearts of mountains; that these plastic gadgets are full of fun and positivity, not the blood of children worked to death mining for rare-Earth minerals in the Congo, or enduring e-waste and civil war in Ghana. We’ve been inculcated over decades into this state of apathy and absent-mindedness because it’s required to keep this insane way of living going—its very existence relies on our ongoing unquestioned allegiance, which is why this culture seeks to bind itself into our very hearts and minds.
I think another reason why people take all this for granted is because, like the rest of the culture, technology has pervaded and engulfed almost all aspects of our lives. From the way we experience, understand and relate to the world; to the way we learn and communicate; to even our most private and intimate spaces, such as the way we think and feel, or how and with whom we have relationships. Technoculture has become so normalised in this way of life, that we can no longer even see life as being possible without it. Ask any child living in a city these days if they could survive without the Internet. What do they say? What do their parents say? What do we say? What do the businesses on the main-street say? What do most schools say? Generally speaking, the overwhelming answer touches on collective obsessive-compulsive addiction.
And then on top of this, there’s the sense of entitlement that comes with the culture. For example, that access to the Internet is “a human right,” that six of the world’s seven billion people have a mobile phone—nearly one-and-a-half times the number of people that have access to a toilet. While this imagery is both ironic and striking, it shows the priorities of this culture: get everyone in the screen world above all else. Facebook’s Internet.org or Google’s Loon could be some of the best examples of this mindset in action, one that has been acculturated by the technologists themselves, but also a cacophony of lobbyists, industrialists, marketers, educators, governments, and other power-brokers of this culture. We can get so excited with this idea that technology can fix anything—even the problems caused by technology in the first place—and I think this is because we’ve become so dependent on and addicted to this way of life, that we now see life itself through the lens of the culture. We’ve become so reliant on a system that brings us Wi-Fi, air-travel, supermarkets, hundreds of television channels, Instagram, that we no longer see the real world anymore. We struggle to even remember that it exists. And this is why I think we have these gadgets everywhere: to keep us in this bubble—because facing the horrible reality of our delusions is understandably terrifying—because we’re addicted as hell, and further, because this culture requires it, inculcates it.
Yet another answer could be because this outcome is locked in. Technology never takes a step back, for example. It’s always forward momentum, ‘progress,’ escalation. And this inertia has been rolling for the past several hundred years to such a speed today, that it itself is the thing in the driving seat. When I interviewed Derrick Jensen for the film, who is a fantastic writer and environmental thinker, he had all sorts of great insights about this. One of the things he mentioned was how stolid scientists now talk about how doing hydraulic-fracturing to get the last remnants of oil is a ‘dilemma’ because the process inevitably destroys access to drinking water. This is literally addiction manifest, with this culture’s insatiable desire to consume the world. And it will unless we stop it.
It’s like thermal meltdown—once a critical threshold is reached, the escalation is like a chain reaction in which the end is built into the beginning. So once you have a computer, and then have computers everywhere, and then computers influence and permeate everything because that’s what computers do, then that’s what you get all the way until there’s nothing left. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Science fiction popularises this analogy as the “grey-goo scenario,” and while that may seem like an extreme and apocalyptic example, it only takes a quick glance around to recognise the pattern, the trajectory. The global economy as it is today, for example, could not exist without computers. Management of air-traffic control systems would be impossible without computers. Importation of resources, global transportation, complex electricity generation—all of which cities are utterly dependent—would all be impossible without computers. And so it is with the next thing and the next thing, stacking up like a giant house of cards.
Joey Moncarz: There’s a common assumption that “it’s how you use it” that matters when it comes to modern technology and screens. Even 30 years ago Neil Postman was talking about how ridiculous that assumption is. Could you explain this assumption further? And could you briefly describe the values of a culture that create these technologies?
Jordan Brown: This is a very important myth to bust, “that technology is neutral; that it’s just up to us how we use it.” It’s bogus for a few reasons. One of them is because technologies do not exist in a vacuum—they come from and are contextualised by the sort of society that creates them; and likewise, once a technology is created, it in-turn has effects on the society which in-turn influences technologies, and so on and so on. This giant loop is what Lewis Mumford talks about as ‘technics.’ From the Greek tekhne (which means not only technology, but also art, skill, and dexterity), technics refers to the interplay of social milieu and technological innovation—the wishes, habits, ideas, and goals of a society.
So if we live in a highly-militarised unsustainable capitalist kleptocracy for example, then the sorts of technologies that society will envisage, prioritise, and deploy will be very different from say, a local democratic land-based community that has been living there for hundreds of thousands of years—and plans to stay there forever. This is why cultures like that do not pave the world over with highways and carparks, dam the rivers, clear-cut the forests, and cover the world in plastic, endocrine disrupters, dioxins, and modified DNA—with their way of life, these sorts of technologies are unthinkable.
Further—and this is a point that I would’ve loved to explore more in the film but couldn’t because of time constraints—once you have a technology and it effects society, the technology itself becomes in charge; it drives social decisions; becomes a governing force in-and-of itself. So like with our fracking example above, where drinking water that all of us need to survive is pushed aside to serve the oil economy, it’s how it can come to be that car culture mandates that where we live be designed around cars and not human beings; how agriculture overshoots the population, which then is then beholden to more agriculture; how digital technology requires everything to become digitised, co-opting and transmogrifying civic institutions, political organising, day-to-day social interactions—pretty much everything, including the nan-and-pop store asking you to ‘Like’ them on Facebook. The technology is in charge and has put itself at the centre of the culture.
Perhaps here’s why understanding technics is so important. Mumford talks about a distinction: Democratic versus Authoritarian technics. An example of a democratic technology could be basket weaving. All you need is access to grass, and the accessible learnable skills to make a basket. Or another example could be passive solar heating. Anyone can align their body to the sun to get warm. Many animals do this in groups, social insects for example. So if anyone in a community can get access to grass to weave baskets or align their bodies to the sun to get warm, it means there’s no control at a distance from or by the technology, nor is there a centralised power structure that emerges. A democratic technology allows democratic social systems to flourish and vice-versa. Contrast this to an authoritarian technology such as the computer. First, can you even make one in your backyard? Of course not. Computers require intensely precise and energy-dense cascading manufacturing processes (the majority of which are required to be highly automated—think the production of integrated circuits for instance, such as CPUs, which require delicate assembly on the nanoscale); huge quantities of rare-Earth minerals and metals (which means computers require mining, militaries and police to protect the mines, and also globalisation and its labour and transport to procure the materials and move them all over the world); as well as massive amounts of plastics, fresh water, sand, toxic chemicals, and dispersed human labour at every step in the production process. There’s no way assembling a computer is not beholden to or possible without such complex industrial processes, nor the global economy, and on top of that, these are presided over by a highly-consolidated corporate power structure in this culture. This means that there’s no way computers are or could ever be a democratic technology.
So when you put that all together, back to our highly-militarised unsustainable capitalist kleptocracy, it’s no wonder that we have computers and everything that comes with that: war via drones, mass surveillance, automation, algorithms chasing algorithms, social control driven by the computer. Because the technic is fundamentally authoritarian. It emerges from and leads to authoritarian power structures, authoritarian social systems.
None of this is to say that technology can’t be used for good things or even subversive purposes. After all, we’re here right now, using computers and the Internet to have this great conversation. But that’s not the same as technologies being neutral. Far from it. In the words of Lelia Green from the film, the author of Technoculture, “It’s not as simple as saying, “it’s up to us how we use it,” because we can only use it within the constraints of where it comes from, how it’s designed, and the society we’ve been socialised in.” All technologies come from, imbue, and reinforce a certain mindset, a certain social structure.
Jerry Mander, another author and thinker I admire, has a series of books exploring this issue, which I’d recommend for anyone wishing to investigate further. The first book of his on television and society was given to me by a friend of mine, just a few years ago. It’s called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, published in 1978. Great book. Another of his, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations is a comprehensive work about computers and the effects on society, written in the early 1990s. I think both of these works show how and why technology is far from neutral. They’re very prescient books, and perhaps more relevant now than ever before.
Joey Moncarz: I often say that no sane person would give cocaine to a child, yet we give screens to them all the time. Is this a fair analogy?
Jordan Brown: I think very much so, yes. I’d like to suggest that it goes beyond just a consistent analogy even. On a scientific level, it can be the very same thing in the brain. There’s a phenomenon called neuroplasticity which describes how brains have the spectacular ability to grow and change based on lived experience. The word ‘plasticity’ comes from the Greek plastikos which means to be moulded. Every moment of our lives, our brains are ‘rewiring’ and changing. It’s like a muscle: if you utilise the parts of your brain that are responsible for playing the piano for example, then you’ll strengthen and encourage growth in those areas—the physical connections between neurons. On the other hand, if you stop exercising, you will lose those abilities, just like if you stop exercising your muscles, they atrophy. And so when we look at the research done into brain function and biochemistry, to quote Susan Greenfield, a renowned neuroscientist who appears in the film, “if our brains are so sensitive in adapting to the environment, if the environment is changing in an unprecedented way, then it follows that the brain will change in a similarly unprecedented way.” If we’re having constant, strong sensory experiences with a screen, our brains physically change to adapt to those experiences. And as screen technologies are designed on purpose to retain your attention, saturate the senses, keep you coming back—marketers call this ‘stickiness drivers’—the effects on the brain can and do easily become as pronounced as someone with an addiction. Yes, nobody in their right mind would be handing out crack to children, but yet, with digital technologies, there is compelling evidence that the impacts are congruous to drugs on the brain, just like any other rush addiction—whether it’s gambling, sugar, pornography, exercise, shopping, screens, or what have you. From the brains perspective, the physical responses are the same.
Addictions can assimilate in what they call the ‘pleasure centres’ of the brain, where powerful chain-reactions of brain chemistry—dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, etc—evoke profound influences on behaviour. There has been a lot of research in the euphoric state that is produced after the release of endorphins in cases such as orgasms, the glow felt after exercise, or that satisfying feeling of eating appetising food, for instance. I’m sure we can agree that these can be powerful drivers or motivators of behaviour. It’s the same with dopamine. The receptors in the brain for dopamine play a big role in addiction and reward, and the cravings that come with psychological withdrawal, enticing repeat behaviour.
There’s a dark twist when we bring this to the screen. The difference here is because the screen culture is designed on purpose to tap into these repetitive cycles, because enticing repeat behaviour is the goal from the outset. Psychologists, marketers, scientists—there are huge resources invested into figuring out just what makes people tick and then exploiting those psychological characteristics to drive engagement with the technology. These areas of research draw on a long sordid history of the study of how to influence masses of people, going all the way back to after the Second World War where there was a lot of research done looking at social control and behaviour modification—the invention of “Public Relations” by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, for example. Or B.F. Skinner’s behaviour modification experiments throughout the 1950s. What makes today more striking however is because on top this, many decades later, this manipulation of people can be done on an individual, personalised level. Technology now has the ability to vacuum up huge amounts of data about your individual behaviour, personality, and uniqueness, and to analyse this data in order to employ techniques specific to you, about precisely how to evoke wanted behaviours.
Billions of screen users have been successfully inculcated into this addictive system, which is actually one of the largest social experiments ever conducted on a population in the history of the planet. It is estimated that of the six billion people that have access to a mobile phone, four billion of those are smartphone users. That’s an incredible amount of people, for the most part being unwittingly manipulated and physically changed unawares. But this is no secret to technologists. In the upper echelons of Facebook for instance, key persons such as Sean Parker have openly bragged about how successful they’ve been at alluring people using these methods of psychological persuasion and dependence.
As for the degrees of persuasion and dependence, we could start at how Google can engineer your beliefs just through showing you ads, or how Facebook manipulates the way you think and feel moment to moment so you keep coming back, all the way up to the extreme end, where we could point to evidence such as the case from 2014 in South Korea—one of the most heavily digitised societies—where two parents were addicted to the computer so much that their daughter died of malnutrition and neglect. Or cases of young people dying in Internet cafés in Taiwan and China, after playing video games for several days straight without sleep. Their minds turned to mush, they pooped their pants, they stopped eating, eventually their hearts stopped beating. The screen slowly but surely literally killed them.
So the crack analogy is more than apt, and this is very much a hugely pressing problem on both an individual and societal level, a growing concern worldwide. The film covers this question towards the end, where Natasha Schüll, a cultural anthropologist, and a former product designer from Google, Tristan Harris, talk about how the screen can be likened to a poker machine, with rewards and levels and ‘Likes’ and attention. Its goal is to become an obsessive-compulsive addiction. And so what I’m trying to get at with all this is, if we have billions of people being inculcated into this possible addiction, what sort of people is this culture creating? And what happens to addicts? Or perhaps more importantly, what happens to everyone else in an addict’s life?
Joey Moncarz: How would you explain the digitisation of schools, the total re-making of schools into screen-saturated environments?
Jordan Brown: I think this taps into the belief that this culture sees technology as the solution to everything. So when we have a model of compulsory schooling where teachers and students alike are expected to meet targets, parrot pre-packaged problems and answers, as well as being expected to perform in certain ways by specific times—basically like good machines—it’s no wonder that education like that fails people. For one thing, people aren’t machines. And so then the problem becomes, instead of looking at a failed system, this culture just crams digital technology in there to plug the holes, which of course just adds problems of its own. There are examples of this the world over. For instance, the stories of a school in Massachusetts or a library in the Netherlands being some of the first to throw out all their books and become entirely digital, because of this notion that the Internet is more “modern” and robust; the “great-leveller,” the “all-knowing portal.” Or how smart-screens or digital whiteboards have become the focus of classrooms—as opposed to content itself—and then teachers speak about the challenge they have keeping students engaged, competing with the allure of the screen. Then of course there’s the resulting drop in attention span, creativity, and even physical attendance at school. These have been pointed out increasingly over the past decade or so.
Even on a fundamental level, technology has co-opted the mindset of passing on stories, sharing experience. These days, people spend more time with digital media then they do with anything else, sometimes more than 11 hours per day—the majority of their waking hours. The last stat I saw was that the average child spends something like 3.5 minutes each week in meaningful conversation with their parents and 1,680 minutes watching television. So it’s pretty clear to see that technology has engulfed the space where socialisation occurs; where cultural values, customs, skills and goals are passed on. It’s no wonder that the extension of this attitude today is that instead of learning a craft or a skill through a dedicated and invested teacher, you just look up a fleeting tutorial by some random person on YouTube. Classes go online. You use SparkNotes to read a précis of a book, rather than the book itself—insofar as you even read anymore as opposed to watching a video instead, or at the very least, skimming and scrolling. The iPad becomes a portal of information-tsunami, replacing measured exploration and contemplativeness. Further, the complexity of learning something—insofar as it’s still an enticing activity over the great allure of mindless computer games and endless mass-entertainment—is outsourced to the whims of the machine experience, rather than an actual learning experience based on human interaction, experimentation, and internalising knowledge.
Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, talks about this in the film. How this culture confuses information with knowledge; how we’re endowing a legacy of a cut-and-paste mentality to young people with how and what they’re learning. Likewise, how the screen profoundly changes the way we think and feel, read and write, understand and remember. It’s one thing to have access to facts, but this is no good if you can’t see one fact in terms of something else, if you’re not critically thinking, if you’re not internalising what you’re learning. And then on top of this, we have this emphasis on just looking something up on Google whenever you need it. We’re not even practising remembering anymore, let alone learning.
And so with this emphasis on constantly accessing huge swathes of information, we’re really doing the opposite of building knowledge. As Greenfield says in the film, “Facts on their own are pretty boring. Who cares the height of a mountain, or the date of a battle, the name of a king—these things are only relevant if you relate them to others and you see a trend and you can generalise, or if you’re learning the name of a king, you know more about that king and why he was important. So a fact on its own is why trivial pursuits and pub quizzes are not held up as the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Facts on their own are not the same as interpreting the facts, putting the facts into a framework, or even more important than facts, are ideas. And you do not automatically get ideas coming out of an iPad. You’ll have access to facts, but it requires an inspired teacher, it requires your thinking processes, it requires something in addition for you personally to join up the dots. And that’s real knowledge.”
Add to this, the incredible problem this culture has with even accessing facts, or with facts even being considered important to discourse anymore; how some scholars talk about how we’ve increasingly arrived in an era of “post-truth.” So with the phenomenon of fake news and the Filter Bubble—where your information experience online is specifically tailored to you—it’s becoming increasingly hard to agree on baseline factual reality anymore, let alone accessing reliable facts or unpropagandised information through the corporate channels that dominate the way we access information.
So all of this has huge implications on education, in the same way we can see problematic trends playing out in the world right now in terms of politics. In the film for example, Eli Pariser talks about the old Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote, where “everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” But it’s increasingly possible to live in an online world in which you do have your “own facts,” where you Google ‘climate change,’ and you get the climate change links for you—you don’t get to see what’s been edited out, what the alternate arguments are.
So there’s a lot in this melting pot.
Joey Moncarz: Based on what you’ve explored, how do you think the digitisation of schools will affect the ability of young people to form healthy relationships? To develop social and emotional intelligence? To develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural world?
Jordan Brown: All of those areas are tremendously important.
The screen provides many barriers to forming and sustaining healthy relationships. For one, how it gets in the way of true communication, replacing it with simulations or nothing at all—a virtual hug is not a real hug, for example; and when you’re communicating, words make up only 10% of the meaning conveyed. The rest is expressed through prosody, tone of voice, rhythm, eye contact, body language, hand gestures, pheromones, and other physical cues, all of which are lost to the screen. I just saw a visceral example of this this morning actually, that Apple is adding fake eye contact to video calls now, in an effort simulate or mimic such a simple thing that has been lost in basic communication, while we stare into our screens more. So sure, the quantity of our communications may have increased many fold, and to all over the world, all the time, but the quality or significance is considerably impeded and diminished. Real human interaction can never be replaced—we’re social animals after all, not machines. Machines can only and will always be a toxic simulation of the real thing.
The implications of this can go in many directions. One for instance, is the impact on identity. In our interview for the film, Susan Greenfield spoke at length about this—how with a screen, one’s sense of identity can become fragile and externalised rather than internalised and enduring, as identity becomes outsourced to the whims and reactions of your audience on Facebook for instance, to which you’re now a projection of your ideal self, or even a parody of yourself. And the more you idealise yourself, the more you depart from the real you, the lonelier you feel, so the more you go on social media to appease and get approval, and so on. She also posits this through a different example, where she asks if people on Twitter for instance, are having some kind of existential crisis—where there’s this constant stream of consciousness, this constant read-out. “It’s almost like a small child,” she says. “Look at me mummy, I’m putting on one sock; look at me, I’m putting on my other sock—because if you don’t look at me, perhaps I don’t exist.” Identity can rapidly become externalised to the screen, so it’s no wonder that people speak about being lost if they lose access to it.
We could also talk about Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which has seen a great rise in diagnosis across the industrialised world in the past two decades. Greenfield answers this by suggesting that one reason could be the intense stimulation and instant gratification that comes from the screen shapes children’s minds to adapt to this fast pace of thinking and response to stimulation rather than in a thought, so when these children are placed in a slower-paced situation, they fidget or can’t concentrate. The real world becomes ‘boring’ and problematic. I’ve also seen this myself in an account of someone who watched television at 1.5x speed. He self-described how the real world became boring and tedious in comparison. For example, he felt real world conversations didn’t “get to the point” quick enough, I guess compared to a world of soundbites and glossy production techniques.
Greenfield also speaks about how social media encourages us to disclose personal information with people we don’t know well, and how this can cause a loss in calibration with trust, self-esteem, self-confidence. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist who appears in the film, has also done great work exploring these sorts of effects psychologically and socially. Her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other covers these sorts of issues in depth.
Which takes us to emotional intelligence. I think this is a huge problem, and we can see various negative trends emerging already. For instance, the huge reduction in empathy and rise in narcissism in young populations surveyed in the year 2000. There could be many reasons for this too, but when looking at the role and effects of screen culture, its culpability quickly becomes apparent. We can see the problems with attention span, creativity, imagination, abstract thinking, linear thinking, critical thinking, loss of contemplativeness, and so on. But how do screen devices cause us to be less empathetic and more narcissistic? One of the ways Greenfield answers this question is demonstrated by the narrative of video games, which dominates most screen time. “One of the ideas, one of the tenets of videogame design,” she says, “is that there shouldn’t be long-term consequences; that if you’re living in a world where people can be obligingly ‘undead’ the next time around, then this is not a particularly good lesson to learn about life. It might make you more reckless certainly, but at the same time you don’t have a sense of enduring long-term meaning or significance, because if every action is reversible it’s not significant or meaningful. If I drop a piece of paper on the floor and pick it up again, that’s not very meaningful because I’ve reversed it. If I punch someone in the face and knock out all their teeth, that’s highly meaningful because it’s irreversible—they’ll no longer have their teeth again. So, I think that when people are literally ‘rescuing the princess’ or are playing a fast-paced first-person-shooter game, or even adopting an avatar persona over the Internet, this is in a sense is taking you into a different world than the real messy world where there is the real you; where actions do have consequences; where things don’t cooperate with your whims necessarily, or at least don’t necessarily feedback immediately. And so the real world—which is much more complex and messy and less satisfactory than the bright, fast, immediate screen world, where you are made to feel important and special all the time, and things don’t matter when you do them—this is a very different world.” Then, as the video game industry is bigger than Hollywood movies and the music industry combined, there are serious implications on what sort of people are being shaped by this sort of culture.
There’s a lot of material on the effects of television and empathy, which I think can be transported over to a large degree to the screen experience in general. The work of George Gerbner, a fantastic researcher on media and communication, comes to mind. He spent decades looking the social effects of television, leading to the formation of ‘cultivation theory,’ where it’s shown that “the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality aligns with reality portrayed on television.” And so when you start looking at the sorts of messaging the television provides, its social influence and effect on behaviour becomes clearly discernible. One aspect, to do with violence, can be exemplified by what he calls the Mean World Syndrome, where violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is a more dangerous, intimidating and unforgiving place than it actually is, which leads people to retreat from it and in-turn spend more time indoors, with solitary activities such as television watching. There is also the incredibly important point of the emphasis of what violence is done to whom. For example, cop shows targeting and mistreating black people, or Arabs being the bad guys in Hollywood movies, for instance. What sorts of messages, values, and socialisation does the screen instil and reinforce?
Another way this could be expressed, is the rise in problematic behaviours such as pranks, sexual violence, or ‘happy slapping’—a fad originating in the United Kingdom around 2005, in which one or more people out of boredom attack a victim for the purpose of recording the assault on their smarthphone and uploading it online for everyone to laugh at. There have even been several cases, where ‘happy slapping’ attacks have seriously injured and even killed people, and nobody comes to their aid. Everyone around is too busy recording for social media. So really horrible behaviours like this flood platforms such as YouTube or Facebook, which are then heavily reinforced and rewarded by Likes, comments, and attention, “going viral,” and so on. Many figureheads on YouTube even make millions of dollars doing these horrible activities for their millions of subscriber-audiences, to the point now where young people say they want to be a celebrity on YouTube more than anything else as a career choice—for the fame, for the recognition, for the insane amounts of money. It’s a sick culture.
We could also talk about advertising, which is problematic in-and-of itself for many reasons, but one particular aspect being the constant sexualisation of the human body to sell stuff throughout the screen experience, to the point where advertising is basically soft-core pornography, driven by technological escalation, such as the growth of the Internet. Gail Dines has a great book about this actually, called Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality, which by itself is a hugely pressing problem, and not just in terms of the effects on empathy and human understanding. People as young as eight are being exposed to videos of hardcore pornography from screen devices, hijacking the most intimate places of their minds at some of the most sensitive and developmental times in their lives. And this is another billion-dollar global industry, at the helm of the screen, exerting tremendous cultural power and influence. Porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.
Lastly, yes, it is impossible to form an understanding and appreciation for the natural world if your experience is heavily mediated by or has been largely replaced with the screen. It does not and cannot and never will replace the feeling of the sun on your face, or the wind in your hair, or the tingle on your skin of a fresh water stream. And like all our other examples, if you’re not having experience in the real world, then the real world is lost. Perhaps of all the problems, this is the most pressing right now, as literally the real world is burning, our very lives are at stake, but we’re too busy staring into the screen lights like rabbits before impact.
People fight for what is important to them. And so if the natural world has been made unimportant and even invisible by screen culture, it becomes increasingly hard to care about or even see the natural world, let alone be present in it, and to participate in it. So one of the things that must be done in order to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural world, is to overcome the grip of the screen culture itself. Because it’s incompatible with the living world, incompatible with real life. I’m not saying this flippantly. It’s a big deal, and I recognise it may not be easy to overcome. For instance, I myself have not had a mobile phone for ten years now, but the screen culture is still highly influential in my life, whether I want it or not. I’m addicted to my computer, just like many of us. I’ve never used social media, but I’m still influenced by it through my friends and family, my partner, and other people whom I love dearly. Or heck, even every time I just walk down the street. So we can’t do this alone. What I’m trying to say here is, if we want to do this, we must figure out what is important to us, we must fight for what is important to us, for whom we love. We have to do it together and support each other. That’s why I think your work is so important. Because developing a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural world, cultivating respect for it, reconnecting to lived experience with it—I think these sorts of values for sure are what are going to get us to a more sane world.
Joey Moncarz: Another common assumption is that screens make us smarter. What does the evidence point to?
Jordan Brown: The screen creates active barriers to a lot of things, including acquiring and building knowledge. And so, with the common usage of the word ‘smart’ as defined in the dictionary as “the ability to acquire, understand, and use knowledge”—and notice the word knowledge there, not information—then the screen most definitely does not help us become smarter people. Yes, the screen can serve up facts and information, but this is not knowledge, and this is often what people confuse. Knowledge requires access to facts, but it also requires your internal thinking processes, an inspired teacher, for you personally to join up the dots, inside your own mind. These do not and cannot come from a screen, and are actively impeded by it. So to go back to our previous example, if we’ve outsourced our memory to Google, we’re not practising remembering, we’re not building on internal memory, and we’re certainly not internalising the process of testing and assimilating information to build knowledge and understanding inside our own mind.
This deleterious effect could also be exemplified by the studies showing the impact GPS or digital maps have on the navigational parts of the brain, such as spatial awareness, environmental cues, and short-term memory. All of these processes are actively lost to the screen, and hence atrophy, just like everything else. But, the interesting twist to this is that in the process—like the others too—the screen can make us feel as though we’re getting smarter, because we’ve just traversed this huge tsunami of information, or we’ve responded to the screen in the manner in which it entices us to, requires us to. And so as our minds are physically transformed to the mechanics of the computer, the connection to the computer becomes more profound and pronounced in our lives. We feel a deeper attachment to it. We feel smart and productive. But all of this is merely screen reinforcement, putting the premium on the moment, rather than long term consequences, or even the real world itself. One guy in the UK almost followed his GPS directions to drive off a cliff, for example, which I think says it all.
Another way to express this idea about the mind becoming almost like a computer itself, which makes us feel smarter, is because of the emphasis on the screen process rather than the content. So for example, looking stuff up on Google can make us feel smarter because we arrive at the answer in a fast time, with no effort, but how much of that do we remember? What do we take in? How many of us have spent hours Googling fleeting curiosities, for example? Is this just feeling good about using the screen, rather than a focus on the content or meaning of what we’re doing? There are a few minutes spent on this notion in the film, where a psychologist, Betsy Sparrow, did a study about precisely this, finding that we think about the computer first when faced with a problem, as opposed to self-recall or even caring what the answer is. We think about the computer first, access the computer, the computer tell us its answer, we respond to that above all else.
Perhaps another way to see this could be in the rise of IQ scores in certain societies. This could be a measure of the extent to which our brains have already been transmogrified into serving the computer above other skillsets. Because IQ tests don’t require a lot of facts, or infrastructure, but they do require following instructions to get to an answer in a specified timeframe—which is precisely the sort of processing that the computer undertakes and excels at over human abilities, and it’s precisely the sort of process of mind we’re practising more than anything else when using a computer: inputting, and then following along the output. Not much else. In the film, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield speaks about this. So yes, we have a rise in IQ because we can become good at that mindset by using a screen, but we don’t see a commensurate rise in empathy or understanding, contemplativeness; or insights into the woes of the world, insights into pressing social problems, or even well-informed, active populations. In fact, we see just the opposite.
Multi-tasking is also a problem, making us feel as though we’re smart and productive, but this is not necessarily the case either. The legacy of Clifford Nass and his research team from Stanford University in the United States shows extensive evidence of how concentrating properly on more than one thing at once is impossible. What’s actually occurring in the brain is a fracturing of attention, and switching rapidly from task to task. This ends up building scatterbrain, at what they call a cognitive switching cost, which declines outcomes for each separate task being attempted at once. So what this means is yes, we’re doing more than one thing at once, and we’re doing it quickly, but we start doing each task more poorly than we would if we attempted it without interruptions or constant switching all the time. And so in true screen fashion, the twist again is that we feel like we’re doing well when we actually probably aren’t. Nicholas Carr, an author who appears in the film, explores this issue amongst other things, in his great book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Joey Moncarz: What is the relationship between screen culture and living within the Earth’s limits? Climate change? Ecological collapse?
Jordan Brown: This is a great question. The screen culture is not and can never be sustainable. One of the ways to explore that could be by simply looking at the amount of resources required to keep the whole thing going, and how much this is under strain already. For example, Bitcoin—the screen culture’s most popular digital currency—currently uses about 1% of the entire world’s electricity output, which might not sound like much, but that’s something like seventy billion kilowatt-hours—enough electricity to power the whole of London and New York for an entire year. Or as much power as would be generated by nearly two Fukushima nuclear power plants operating at full capacity, every hour. That’s a staggering amount of electricity used for something that isn’t even real.
Likewise with Google searches, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Amazon, Netflix, and so on. Each huge website on the Internet can require tens of thousands of datacentres scattered all across the globe, stacked with hundreds of thousands of computers working away every second to bring data to you from all around the world. Each and every one requires a significant amount of resources, such as cooling (sometimes air conditioning or water cooling); backup power from diesel generators; high-tech physical and electronic security; stable and abundant land; municipal infrastructure connections. And then the physical structure of the Internet itself that joins all this up is made of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cables, some running through the sea; satellites in space; aerials on top of mountains and buildings relaying radio everywhere (for Wi-Fi and mobile phone transmissions, for example), and so on and so forth. Each and every one of these links in the chain requires constant and reliable electricity (because downtime is intolerable!), as well as considerable amounts of human labour for upkeep, security and maintenance. But we don’t see this for the most part because it’s an invisible system. Where are the mobile phone towers in our neighbourhoods for example?
And these are just some of the primary nodes. Think about the huge amounts of copper required for all the cabling everywhere in the world; plastics for cases, packaging or insulation; glass needed for screens; pure sand to derive silicone from, which is required in each and every integrated circuit—to which there are hundreds of in every single screen device; alloys, joiners; as well as a plethora of other elements such as zinc, lead, mercury, gold, nickel, cadmium, lithium—and so on and so forth—which go into things like batteries, soldering, power modulators, or other electronic components.
We also need to acknowledge the huge amount of slave labour that goes into every single step in the process of procuring these materials, as well as the toxic manufacturing and assembling of their end results. For example, tantalum, which is an element also required in every single screen device but is incredibly rare, is what has been tearing the Congo apart for decades, with wars over territory and mining, driven by corporations like Sony, Apple, Nokia, Samsung, and so on. Then there’s the reality of workers assembling iPhones in factories such as Foxconn in China for instance, which have such a high rate of suicide that the company was forced to do something purely because it was starting to look bad for business. But rather than addressing and changing working conditions, the company put up barriers and blocked windows to stop workers from jumping out of their building prisons. Apart from that, little has changed. The nasty toxic chemicals the workers are exposed to, which gives them leukaemia and other cancers, are still used. And its the same story in sweatshops the world over. Bangladesh, Taiwan, Romania, Costa Rica, India, Vietnam, Honduras, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico… The list is painfully long and it’s all the same.
So the screen culture burns through an incredible amount of resources and suffering, every hour, every day, every year, and this is increasing at such a rate that it’s inevitable to crash into the limits of the Earth, if not already.
Another area we can look at is pollution. The current estimate of how much CO2 alone is caused by the airline industry, contributing to climate change, is something like 3.5% of global output. At current rates of consumption—that is, ignoring growth—by 2050, the airline industry is expected to contribute to over 5% of global climate change impact. But screen culture is expanding far more rapidly than the airline industry and so should exceed 3.5% of global climate change pollution by 2020, even as a conservative estimate, and most likely shall contribute 5% of global climate change pollution far before 2050, if things keep going the way they are.
So this is not a plan with a future.
But before we can say—like this culture always does—that technology can save the day, and that solar panels can just jump in there to replace the electricity requirements of this culture, or make the world clean and green and peaceful, we need to understand at least two things. The first is that solar power is intermittent and unreliable, and so there’s a problem with scale that emerges in transporting or storing the harvested electricity. The second is that solar panels are of the same vein as other critical but unsustainable elements of the screen culture, and more of the same can’t save this thing. Solar-photovoltaic cells, just like all other electronics, require huge amounts of rare-Earth minerals, plastics, metals, glass, sand, fresh water and toxic chemicals to produce. Plus they need to be replaced every two decades or so, just like the hundreds of thousands of power lines, batteries, or bitumen roads that this culture requires, for instance. None of this is a sustainable system.
So when we look at the Earth’s limits, like Lewis Mumford’s technics, I think the core of the problem is with the wider culture where screen technologies come from: the global economy. And such an economic system—which is based on endless growth and expansion—is impossible on a finite planet. And it’s sadistic in its exploitation and commodification of everybody. It’s simply incompatible with sustaining life. So we could cover the world in solar panels and wind farms, but it wouldn’t matter. The end would still be written into the beginning. What we need to do is think bigger, bolder, and take down every part of this horrible system which is destroying the world, rather than just tinkering with greenwashing and more of the same.
Joey Moncarz: At the end of the film Derrick Jensen says that people are too addicted to screens to ever give them up. Given that reality, and the state of the world, what should young people do?
Jordan Brown: Firstly, I don’t want to point the finger at anyone individually, because like I say, the addiction to screens must be seen and dealt with within ourselves, young and old alike, and of course we can’t do that alone. And it’s not even necessarily an individual problem. We’re talking about groups of people, and some having power over others. I think the important point Derrick is making there is that one of the problems we face is of how addicts can possibly only work on giving something up once they hit rock bottom. But one of the problems with that is, as us being beneficiaries of this system, we’re not the ones that hit rock bottom with this culture—everyone else does. The rivers, the mountains, the 150 species that went extinct today and everyday because of the activities of this culture. They go down first, as we see. And if we manage to hit rock bottom on top of that, it’s too late. We’ve destroyed ourselves already, along with the world. So as Katina Michael in the film says, “We have to do something about it today.” As for precisely what that is, honestly, I think the answer to this question is very personal. It comes from each one of us. I can’t tell you what to do, the answer has to come from you. But one thing you could think about is what you actually care about, what you love, what your skills and talents are and how you can best use them in defending what you love, because as Jensen and Lierre Keith (another great writer whom I admire) say, no matter what you love, it’s under assault by this way of life.
I think Jensen has a lot of really valuable analysis about this very question actually. He’s a prolific author and activist, and has covered a lot of ground tackling this culture. So one way this answer could be potentially rounded out, would be to suggest some of his work. For instance, The Myth of Human Supremacy, which I think is extremely important to understand if we’re going to stop this culture that is sociopathic and death-bent. He’s also got a great work about education and writing, called Walking On Water, which is very relevant to what we’ve been talking about here in terms of schooling. Other works which come to mind are: Welcome to the Machine, which was the first book of his I ever read, and was hugely influential in starting me on the journey to do a documentary film about technology, as well as the two-part series he perhaps is most well-known for, Endgame, which is about how and why this culture is not and can never be sustainable, and what to do about that.
To take it to the screen culture, the first thing, I think, is to realise it’s not as simple as just turning the computer off. Sure, we need to do that, but it shouldn’t just stop there. Because I can reject screen culture, turn my computer off, and change my ways personally, but without something more, we’d still live in a culture that is insane and will not stop until it has consumed the world. This means all of us have a role to play in tackling this culture, dismantling it piece by piece, and building something that will get us through the challenging road ahead, reconnecting with the real world. As Lierre Keith says, this may sound like a daunting task—it may be emotionally or spiritually challenging—but technically, it’s an easy problem. We can name the harm, and the members and entities of this culture causing harm have names and addresses. The house of cards that is the global economy is inherently vulnerable as it is unsustainable, so if we wanted to, we could shut down this party by midnight. And some people are doing this well already, all we have to do is join them, support them. Whether its shutting down oil pipelines, going on labour strikes, filing lawsuits, repealing corporate personhood, ripping up carparks, sourcing food in sustainable ways, rehabilitating rivers and streams, helping with psychological and emotional support work, improving conditions for workers, building houses out of rubbish, or what you’re doing with the Deep Green Bush-School. There are so many things that can be done for good and so many people doing good things in need of help. We need to remember that we’re not passive consumers, that we’re citizens in a society, that we can shape society; and above all, that we’re human beings as part of a living planet, a biotic community—not screen zombies, not cogs in a megamachine.
So perhaps the first step towards a sane world is rejecting the megamachine. It’s not our fault, we didn’t choose this, we were born into this, and we can decolonise it from our hearts and minds. Acting with empathy and love, the rest should come easily, because the real world has long been calling us, and we have the capacity to answer as human beings as part of that living world. It’s never too late to start listening, responding, giving back. We’re in an emergency after all. All hands on deck.