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Minds and machines: Two books offer different takes on how we should relate to tech Add to ...

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

By Daniel J. Levitin, Allen Lane, 528 pages, $30

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connections

By Michael Harris, HarperCollins, 304 pages, $29.99

Technology advances furiously, but the human brain remains stubbornly human.

McGill neuroscientist and author Daniel J. Levitin writes that, “In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986,” but our internal hardware hasn’t adapted to keep pace. The average home computer has enough data to fill 500,000 novels, and yet the brain’s processing power is estimated at a meager 120 bits per second, hardly enough to parse two simultaneous conversations. In his new book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Levitin considers how we can use our limited mental capacity in an era of limitless information.

The book is a how-to manual and a mixed bag. There’s lots of useful advice, but I’m not convinced that we can adapt to the 21st-century information economy – with its many demands and infinite distractions – as fully or easily as Levitin says we can. Some of his best ideas might be described as counterintuitive but useful. He argues that, instead of relying solely on electronic memory aids, you should invest in index cards, which are tactile and wonderfully modular – you can rearrange them as your priorities change. Other pieces of advice are obvious but well worth emphasizing. Levitin repeats one sobering fact: you are not a multitasker. Studies show that when you switch between, say, work, e-mail, Instagram and BuzzFeed, you decrease the cognitive resources needed for deep thought and decision-making. For high-level mental work, Levitin counsels, you must avoid digital distractions.

Another category of advice might be labeled “impractical but thought-provoking.” Levitin says that when making tough medical decisions we should revert to dispassionate statistical reasoning, drawing on Bayesian probability analysis and the binomial theorem. He crunches the numbers on well-known hospital procedures such as prostate surgery and biopsies, concluding that, when the side effects are weighed against the benefits, these treatments aren’t as good as they’re made out to be. I find this claim unsettling, but I’m too innumerate to second-guess it. My helplessness reinforces Levitin’s point: if we were better with stats, we could form autonomous opinions instead of depending on the noisy external world.

A final advice category encompasses ideas that are so straightforward they hardly warrant more than a sentence or two. Consider some of Levitin’s suggestions on home organization (make the things you use often easiest to reach), filing (use nested categories), or productivity (try to sleep regularly). There’s nothing wrong with simple, practical ideas, but Levitin sometimes strays into what critics Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld call “neuroredundancy”: the tendency to bolster obvious points with neuroscientific explanations. I don’t need a lesson in evolutionary psychology, for instance, to appreciate that arranging household items by category is a good thing to do.

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize Levitin for lapses like these, since any 400-page book is bound to have at least a few flaws. But I’m not sure the book needed to be so long. For all of its braininess, The Organized Mind is a piece of service journalism, so I find myself wishing it were more serviceable – that is, shorter, crisper, and focused on game-changing insights. It could have exemplified the efficiency and practicality, which, for Levitin, are hallmarks of an organized life.

I read The Organized Mind alongside Canadian journalist Michael Harris’s comparatively pessimistic work The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connections, which was so engrossing I rarely stopped to check my phone. The book draws on research and interviews, but it’s ultimately about Harris himself, a contemplative thirtysomething coming to terms with the rise of digital technology and the corresponding loss of absence.

“Absence,” for Harris, means many things: immersing yourself in a book or conversation because there are no silicon devices making claims on your attention; experiencing a concert or meal for its own sake, without documenting it in a gauzy digital photograph; relying on old-fashioned flirtation over dating algorithms, or on memory and mastery over electronic aids. Absence is the deep restfulness you experience when you’re miles away from the grind of connectivity.

Harris isn’t an anti-tech evangelist. He’s a moderate – a young writer with an active Twitter account who goes offline for stretches of time; a gay man who’s squeamish about the meat-market mentality of hook-up sites like Grindr but willing to seek (and find) love on dating forums like Plenty of Fish. He’s also a Romantic: just as his heroes (Wordsworth, Thoreau) retreated into unspoiled nature, he believes in the therapeutic benefits of reverting, temporarily, to the rhythms of pre-digital life.

The book isn’t all Wordsworthian soul-searching. There’s plenty of journalistic material too. The most compelling interviews feature social-media luminaries, like MIT student Karthik Dinakar, who’s working on an artificial intelligence application – tentatively named National Helpline – that matches users with automated counselling services; or Noel Biderman, the Toronto-based CEO of Ashley Madison, the well-known hook-up site for cheating husbands and wives.

Harris shows these people for the savvy entrepreneurs that they are, but he takes issue with their slickness, their belief that efficiency is the only goal worth pursuing. National Helpline may someday grow into a useful application, and I’ve read defences of the Ashley Madison as a tool for unsatisfied people to seek fulfillment without blowing up their marriages. The problem with people like Dinakar and Biderman is that they refuse to admit what’s at stake here. (Why not automate psychology by removing some of the complexities of doctor-patient relationships from the equation, they implicitly ask? Why not expedite sexual encounters by dispensing with risk-taking, trust building, or accountability to your primary partner?) Harris suggests that we might lose something when we mechanize the most fraught, therapeutic, or intimate human encounters.

Ultimately, Harris is an elegist: he acknowledges that with every technological gain there’s an attendant loss, one that deserves to be recognized and maybe even mourned. Levitin is an accommodationist. What matters, for him, is that we cultivate the right habits so that we can be organized and efficient, even in an economy of limitless data and distractions. This discrepancy in worldview might reflect differences in genre – creative non-fiction versus service journalism – but I instinctively trust Harris’s stance more. True, some people are good at living emotionally healthy, productive lives in the digital world, but surely none of us are unaffected by the loss of absence.

To prove this point, Harris spends 30 days (from August 1 to 30) without going online. He describes how the experience makes him more observant, self-aware, and emotionally vulnerable. It also teaches him a few things: 1) it is extremely hard to be the one disconnected person in a hyper-connected world and 2) the more distance you take from digital culture the more peculiar it seems. On Day 24 of his experiment, he writes: “Behaviour that seemed utterly normal on the 30th of July now looks compulsive and animalistic. Now when I see teenage girls burrowed into their phones on the sidewalk I think of monkeys picking lice out of each other’s hair.”

If you’re looking for an authoritative study on human psychology and the Internet, there are other books you could read. Harris’s account is anecdotal and meandering, but that’s okay: we don’t expect theoretical rigour from an elegy. We expect compelling prose and emotional intelligence, which is exactly what Harris offers. If I could change one thing about The End of Absence, I’d put a question mark after the subtitle. Harris isn’t convinced that we really can reclaim “what we’ve lost in a world of constant connections.” He wants you to try, though, if only from time to time, since the pleasures are best experienced firsthand. And if you can’t do that, you can at least take a pause and acknowledge what you’ve left behind.

“Think of that moment when the fridge shuts off, causing you to realize – in the silence that ensues – that you’d been hearing its persistent hum before,” he writes. “You thought you knew silence, but you were really surrounded by the machine’s steady buzz. Now multiply that sensation by the world. Think how cold, how naked, how alone, how awake, you might be.”

Simon Lewsen is a writing instructor at the University of Toronto and a contributor to Hazlitt, Reader’s Digest, Toronto Life and The Walrus.

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