My dopamine levels are dropping. Wait a sec while I click on a fresh Instagram picture.
There, that should hold me—at least for a few seconds.
What’s even interesting anymore? What holds our attention? The fact that cinematic photorealism has enabled anything imaginable to ape reality means that we’re less likely to be enthralled with real things. Who wants a 280 page novel when you can have a 280 character tweet? It used to be that when a kid got a helium balloon on the end of a string, there was no limit to his or her flights of imagination and joy. Now? I’ve seen four year olds wonder if balloons can get faster wifi signals because they’re floating near the ceiling.
What wows us these days? It’s hard to say. When the Millennium Falcon jumped to light speed in 1977 we all gasped in delight. It was fresh, new, and some of us even realized that the filmmakers had to stretch hard to give us that moment. Here in the 21st century things are different. When guys in armored suits casually take to the air while talking to hipster AIs, there’s not much left to make us stare google-eyed. What makes us google-eyed these days are Google searches, often looking for news about ourselves or our friends.
The hits keep coming, but it’s those constant hits—dopamine fueled, short attention jags of stimulation—that are making us punch drunk. For all of our cultural, social, and technological advancements, it's as if we’ve evolved into nothing greater than digital squirrels.
Here’s the bulletin: faster ways to share selfies with your squad does not a well-informed populace make. That those pictures are likely to vanish into an ocean of unrelated images, unlikely to ever be perused again, describes the problem. When timely information doesn’t really matter very much, society begins to forget how to tell the difference between what matters and what’s merely diverting. Or try it like this: if we’re eternally locked into a series of diversions, do we abandon ever really being anywhere in the first place? Here’s a deeper challenge: when we’re eternally locked into a series of diversions, do we lose the ability to ever really learn about complex thoughts, critical analysis, and the kinds of sophisticated thinking that (ironically) enabled us to reach this august place in history in the first place? When we glance at pictures with no intention of ever referring back to them again we lock ourselves into an eternal present. We abandon our past even as it spools out behind us moment by moment. The question of “being”, in this case, refers to the ability to hold an idea in mind. When we shift from one bit of flotsam to another, moment by moment, we abandon the potential to be present. When an idea is only as good as its ability to hold space until the next idea flickers onto our screen, a more fundamental devaluing of life has begun to take hold.
People are less interested in feature length movies now than in recent decades because movies take too long, require too much time in one place, and inhibit us from doing anything else while they run. That’s a crying shame, IMHO, but a sign of the times. I could have just as easily said the same thing about novels, but hey, we’ve already established that sad trend.
A trend towards more dopamine and less substance should scare a thinking society. The problem is a conundrum, however. It’s hard to ask addicts to work against collective addiction while they cannot unhand the drug that fuels them day by day.
While I’m not suggesting that everyone simply switch off and revert to campfire sing-a-longs (I mean, you ARE reading this on an electronic device) I am suggesting that there’s more to an informed life than an endless series of Snapchats. After all, when someone yells “Power to the People”, the rallying cry needs to evoke deep feelings of meaning and value, and those can only evolve through a lifetime of more probing consideration. Otherwise, we’re just living in an Infinite Jest society of manufactured phrases, without any understanding where they come from, what they mean, or why we should care.