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Health, Sports & Psychology

Gardens of the digital mind of tomorrow

Updated Friday 25th February 2011

The predictions of a hyper-connected world might crumble in the same way the dream of Garden Cities fell, warns Leslie Budd.

When The Shamen sang Ebeneezer Goode in 1992 it was generally taken to be a paean to the drug ecstasy (commonly known as ‘E’) and its hallucinogenic qualities (although the band insisted it was just about a man).

Nearly 20 years on the prefix “e” appears everywhere: eCommerce, eBusiness, eGovernment and, eSociety among many others. This conjures up a vision of the world that is hyperconnected because of the proliferation of electronic devices. You don’t have to be Snake Plishkin, the anti-hero of John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York, to feel that there is no escape from the digital maelstrom.

A laptop user holds a credit card because they might be buying something online. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Pjmorley | Dreamstime.com
eCommerce

Yet is the world is so hyper-connected as is appears to be? The ubiquity of mobile telephony notwithstanding, large parts of the world are not connected to the Internet. Yet a term invented by two Canadian social scientists to encompass the development of computer networks to deal with faster flows of real-time data has become a watchword for contemporary business and society.

Cheerleading by the largest British broadcaster in the form of this breathless quote from a Davos man, Tim Weber shows the uncritical acceptance of this hype:

"Hyperconnectivity will change every business model and supply chain; it's at an inflection point this year... and the uptake of connectivity is accelerating ever more.”

More banally, technological change has always been with us as the logic of capitalism is to speed up turnover time in production to increase accumulation.

Moreover, many of the ubiquitous technologies we commonly use have provenances that are centuries old, with the same underlying processes to manage and maintain them.

Karl Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napolean Bonaparte in 1852. In the opening paragraph he states:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

If you want to look at hyperconnectivity just look at the human brain. It accounts for about two percent of the body’s weight but five percent of its energy intake. The development of scanning device shows patterns in the brain which were previously invisible to researchers.

This has led to a kind of neurological determinism by which neurologists make claims about human behaviour on the basis of photographic changes in brain activity. This is a bit like the universal claims for hyperconnectivity which don’t take account of the complexity of human society and human behaviour.

Furthermore the way in which organic matter, synapses and electrical signals combine is still one of the undiscovered wonder secrets of the world.

This takes us to the issue of consciousness and intuition. In David Chalmers’ recent book The Character of Consciousness he looks at intentionality and meaning. What he claims is that much of what we perceive as consciousness is actually fiction.

We often use an appeal to rationality to make sense of the world and give it meaning. We often use technology to provide the means to making meaning.

But what do you do about intuition? Is intuition a fiction of consciousness or is it the way in which we make sense of current experience based on past lived events? Or, more prosaically, do businesses that operate on the basis of intuition rather than subscription to hyperconnectivity become more successful?

One of the UK’s most famous windsurfers, Guy Cribb, has developed a training system called INTUITION. This is based on well established sports science and physiological research on ‘muscle memory’.

That is, the more a windsurfing manoeuvre is ‘visioned’ and practiced the more that the would-be carve gyber’s (undertaking a fast downwind turn) muscles will remember and lead him or her to succeed in their endeavour.

Cribb’s results appear to be impressive given his longevity in the sport and the success of his business based upon it.

The relationship between body and mind, interpreted by intuition appears to be an important one. But, like consciousness, how do you separate it out of our daily work and leisure lives is a question that neurology or cracking the genetic coded has yet to solve.

Letchworth Garden City town hall Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Robin Hall under CC-BY-SA licence
Letchworth

In Ebenezer Howard’s 1946 Garden Cities of Tomorrow he combines the three ‘magnets’ of Town, Country, and Town-Country to propose a system of garden cities that would combine the beauties and beatitudes of town and country. Examples include Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City north of London.

In his introduction, Howard approvingly quotes an editorial in The Times of 1891:

Change is consummated in many cases after much argument and agitation, and men do not observe that almost everything has been slightly affected by the cause to which few people pay any heed. In one generation an institution is unassailable, in the next bold men may assail it, and in the third bold men defend it.

Given the claims for hyperconnectivity, you can be forgiven for thinking that the Replicants versus the Cyborgs is the ongoing combat of our days.

As always, social reality is more prosaic and banal, so that the parallel universe of the gardens of the digital mind of tomorrow may never seem to arrive. It may be that our consciousness and intuition are better gardening tools for negotiating our present and future fertile business seasons.

 

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