Relaxation = information?

I’m addicted to high-information entertainment. Hey, so are most of you reading this. But it’s such a throw-away line that is ceases to mean much to us anymore. But I think I might really mean it.

I sometimes play the mental game, when I’m bored, of imagining what I would do if suddenly transplanted to times long ago. The immediate realisation is that while I have lots of good technological concepts, I don’t really know how to go about, say, finding iron ore or making those cotton spinning machines that were a part of the start of the industrial revolution. And even if I could take my reference material (ie. my laptop) along with me, I could spend my life trying to remember exactly how 1 volt was defined, so as to make a generator to power it.

There is another side to it though: would I be happy? I imagine one would spend the day working, maybe farming, and a lot of the rest of the time writing books and trying to invent stuff. But there would be no email, no websites, no blogs, no TV, no movies, no magazines, few books, infrequent music — no information-rich entertainment. Ok, there would be people around the village, but conversation wouldn’t have the constant input of new social memes, or news stories from around the world, or the mixing that is inherent in a big city of well-travelled people — all in touch with a thousand different new ideas every day. Think of what that would mean for your conversations.

Clearly, humanity survived this state of affairs just fine, for most of history. But we’ve grown up with information all around, and to us entertainment means constant injection of new information, of a hundred different forms. Has this changed the way our minds function? Clearly we’ve developed all sorts of skills in handling new computer interfaces easily, and filtering information very rapidly, even when it arrives on many channels simultaneously. (Indeed, general intelligence tests have showed an average increase of 3 points per decade, around the world — which may have something to do with our increasing familiarity with graphical interfaces, which are somewhat similar to many intelligence tests). So I suppose my question is: has our information-rich environment changed the way that we can relax, too?

I’m reminded of experiments (I believe by the Nazis) that showed that if babies were completely deprived of human attention, they got sick and even died. We’re “wired” to be social animals, and so to need human contact. Is it possible that the environment in which we’ve spent our lives submersed has “rewired” us to need high-information entertainment?

9 thoughts on “Relaxation = information?

  1. Right now I am very tempted to want to join you in being temporally transplanted back to a “simpler” time. I think that our skill base has changed though. Certainly if I compare the information that one processes each day now compared to say 15 years ago it is fantastic. And corresponding to this, people who grow up exposed to such a flood information I believe have a better ability to sort through it and find relevant points. In fact I know of a couple of older academics who are very uncomfortable using google or web of science as it returns too much information for their liking, while I don’t think there are many in the youth who are not entirely accostomed to developing searches to reduce google down to less than 500 hits.

    That said I think that due to that ability to sort information very rapidly, we would find ourselves remarkable adept at gathering the information very quickly to learn how to do all the tasks that are taken for granted. For example your story of the cotton weaving: you would know what the end product (fabric) was and by drawing on all the information you have gathered would most probably find yourself remarkably able to develop the machine.

    Of course this topic could be related to your blog on the difference between a theoretical and practical PhD 😉


  2. Ah so I see you’ve read about “Everything Bad is Good for You” as well…

    And I’ve also sometimes speculated about being thrown back in the past and not being able to reconstruct the things we rely on. Not to mention that I’d probably have a pretty abysmal survival rate in any era without eyesight correction. One thing to point out about your hypothetical though, is that a lot of your presumable dissatisfaction would come from having memories of what it was like to be immersed to be an environment full of complex information (and more poignantly, the memory of the meaningful social ties to the people you’d have “left behind” in the future). The control would be having your memory erased entirely, perhaps even with some re-conditioning to believe you’d grown up in the simple environment, and then see how dissatisfied your complex modern mind would be. I think you have a good point about the pace of life and conversations; at the same time, I think there would be enough difficult mechanical challenges (tinkering with primitive farming technology and building materials, etc) to keep your problem-solving abilities busy. There would be a frustration from knowing how much more mankind had figured out, and not being able to advance the frontiers of theoretical knowledge as you knew them, but there would still be satisfying problem-solving challenges to engage in (even in terms of entertainment– Settlers of Cataan doesn’t require the internet, or even electricity). You would also likely find other artisan-types to consult with, some of whom could potentially have a lot to teach you conceptually, since they’ve specialized their minds to certain kinds of technological problems, while yours is specialized to others. So you could still have intellectual companionship, and a means of sharing your enthusiasm for mental challenges.

    But on the whole, yeah, probably better to stick with the present 🙂


  3. No, can’t say I had heard about the book you mention before. Oh, for time to read…

    What you say is all true, and certainly I would not lack for things to work on. I’m more concerned about things to do in one’s leisure time. There’s only so much I could stand to hear about iron smelting, when what I want is a good movie or computer game or website. Settlers of Catan is a good point, but even there we play for a while and then after a few months have another big “thing”.

    Paul F: True, we’re very good at gathering and filtering information — but that’s developed in an environment where there IS lots of information to filter. With the Internet at hand, I could easily work out how to make a spinning machine; but if I had to wander the land searching for people with useful info, I would probably be a lot less efficient. Though certainly my knowledge that such a machine is inventable, and will prove useful, gives me quite a headstart.


  4. My biggest issue with being theoretically tossed back into the past is lack of modern medicine. Think of all of the diseases that we have today that are relatively “trivial”: cold, flu, strep, bronchitis/sinus/ear infections, pneumonia. Even things like smallpox, measles, polio, anthrax, and plague are treatable today, if treatment is started early enough. However, go back to a pre-penicillin time and most of those diseases have a rather high mortality rate. Then think about common medical procedures today: having your wisdom teeth removed, having your tonsils removed, or your appendix, or having a cesarean section performed during childbirth. None of that is possible without relatively modern medicine. While being tossed back into an agrarian society would have many plusses to it, I believe that the lack of good medicine would mean that I’d be dead within a few years.

    As a kid I often got things like strep and bronchitis/sinus infections. The sinus infections, if untreated, can spread from the sinuses and if you are unlucky, result in bacterial meningitis. Strep throat, if left untreated, can turn into scarlet/rheumatic fever, which can be either crippling or fatal. My guess is that without antibiotics, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the age of 18. No, while the lifestyle in the past might have some nice points, the lack of modern medicine would be a deal-breaker for me.


  5. Lets not kid ourselves here people, on infant mortality rates alone, which would dictate that at least one if not more of us shouldn’t be here having this conversation, the past has little to reccommend it.

    And hurrah for biscuits, it looks like this ‘simpler time’ is coming around the corner again. Yippity skip.

    However – should this grim back-to-the-land scenario actually take place, then its entirely possible to sustain quite large cities on a pre-fossil fuel technology level – I mean look at medieval Europe or Rome at its height. These were not tiny places, and think what can/will be achieved when instead of having a self-sufficient perfect communist society dedicated to God (a monastery) you instead have such a society dedicated to technical crafts. The Brotherhood of Fridges would be popular, I’d bet.

    As Adam very correctly points out, a really smart thing to do now would be to get some herbalism texts and particularly figure out how to do that ‘I boil down spiderwebs to get penicillin’ that McGyver and the Sliders always seemed to be at. ‘Cause everyone knows how to build a powerplant – I mean you just cobble together an AC/DC generator out of bits of steel and magnets and stick it in a windmill. Steady uninterrupted current could be a trick – but all you need for that is to use a windmill to refill a reservoir to drive a water wheel at a constant rate. Wind dies, get a bucket chain going, etc, etc.


  6. Oh, I absolutely agree that much of life in ages past was short and unpleasant. I too have had both tonsils and wisdom teeth out, and lots of orthodontal work, so I’d be a lot less healthy if it were not for modern medicine.

    Some people would say that at least there wasn’t as much stress and time pressure as the modern work environment implies, but I’d say (1) the stress you did have was over little things like would you have enough food to last the winter; and (2) we’re kind of used to stress and information density. In fact, we like it. In fact, refer back to my post. So yes, while lording one’s advanced technical knowledge over the population would be good, on balance I’m very happy to be here.

    As regards going back to living off the land, I’m not as optimistic as xaosseed. Sure, Rome had a few hundreds of thousands of people, and the Aztecs even had over a million in Tenochtitlan (which was larger than any European city when the Spanish conquered it). But that isn’t 16 million in Los Angeles, in the middle of a desert. Or 1.6 billion in China. Indeed, estimates are that, say, the world’s population was around 250 million in 1000AD. I really don’t think that returning wholesale to pre-industrial farming can cut it. At least, not unless we have some seriously GM’ed crops to work with.


  7. Oh by the way: thanls to this blog I wasted an hour this morning reading how to spin yarn and working out how all the machines work. But I guess that leaves me one skill set closer to coping in the past.


  8. Well, thanks for stopping by! For the rest of you: Paul F is a good friend of mine dating from my undergrad days, currently doing a PhD in chemistry at Cambridge.

    Anyway, if forced to choose one skill, I’d probably learn how to find iron ore — smelting should just involve liberal applications of charcoal, which can’t be THAT hard to work out. Though of course it depends on what era one is going to.


  9. Paul you’re silly! The article you linked to on rising IQs was written by the guy who wrote the book I mentioned– in fact the byline at the end is: “Contributing editor Steven Johnson is the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.”

    You realllllllllllly need to get out of this semester, don’t you!


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