thomas_metzinger's picture
Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Adjunct Fellow, Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study; Author, The Ego Tunnel

I heard a strange, melodic sound from the left and turned away from the Green Woman. As I shifted my gaze towards the empty landscape, I noticed that something wasn't quite right. The new visual scene, the hills and the trees, were as real as it could be — but somehow it just hadn't come into sight as it would in real life, had I turned my head as I would normally. Somehow it wasn't quite real-time. The way the visual scene popped up had a slightly different temporal dynamics, an almost unnoticeable delay — as if I was surfing the Web, clicking my way on to another page. But I certainly wasn't surfing! I had just talked to the Green Woman, and no!, my right index finger wasn't clicking, and my right hand certainly wasn't lying on a mouse pad — it hung down from the side of my body, completely relaxed, as I gazed into the empty landscape of hills and trees. In a flash of excitement and disbelief it dawned on me: I was dreaming! 

Lucid dreams are something I have always been interested in, and have written about extensively. For consciousness researchers lucid dreams are interesting, because you can go for a walk through the dynamics of your own neural correlate of consciousness, unconstrained by external input, and look at the way it unfolds, from the inside. For philosophers they are certainly interesting too. You can ask dream characters you encounter what they think about notions like "virtual embodiment" and "virtual selfhood" — and if they actually believe they have a mind of their own. Unfortunately, I have lucid dreams only rarely — once or twice a year. The episode above was the beginning of my last one, and a lot of things dawned on me at once, not just the fact that I was actually all inside my own head: The Internet is reconfiguring my brain, it changes not only the way in which I think. The influence is much deeper; it already penetrates my dream life. Sure, for academics the Internet is a fantastic resource — almost all of the literature at your fingertips, unbelievably efficient ways of communicating and cooperating with researchers around the world, an endless source of learning and inspiration. Something that leads you right into attention deficit disorder. Something that gets you hooked. Something that confronts you with your greed. Something that is already changing us in our deepest core.

This is about much more than cognitive style alone: For those of us intensively working with it, the Internet has already become a part of our self-model. We use it for external memory storage, as a cognitive prosthesis, and for emotional autoregulation. We think with the help of the Internet, and it helps us determine our desires and goals. Affordances infect us, subtly eroding the sense of control. We are learning to multitask, our attention span is becoming shorter, and many of our social relationships are taking on a strangely disembodied character. Some software tells us "You are now friends with Peter Smith!" — when we were just too shy to click the "Ignore" button.

"Online addiction" has long become a technical term in psychiatry. Many young people (including an increasing number of university students) suffer from attention deficits and are no longer able to focus on old-fashioned, serial symbolic information; they suddenly have difficulty reading ordinary books. Everybody has heard about midlife burnout and rising levels of anxiety in large parts of the population. Acceleration is everywhere.

The core of the problem is not cognitive style, but something else: attention management. The ability to attend to our environment, to our own feelings, and to those of others is a naturally evolved feature of the human brain. Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life. We need attention in order to truly listen to others — and even to ourselves. We need attention to truly enjoy sensory pleasures, as well as for efficient learning. We need it in order to be truly present during sex, or to be in love, or when we are just contemplating nature. Our brains can generate only a limited amount of this precious resource every day. Today, the advertisement and entertainment industries are attacking the very foundations of our capacity for experience, drawing us into the vast and confusing media jungle. They are trying to rob us of as much of our scarce resource as possible, and they are doing so in ever more persistent and intelligent ways. We know all that. But here is something we are just beginning to understand — that the Internet affects our sense of selfhood, and on a deep functional level.

Consciousness is the space of attentional agency: Conscious information is exactly that information in your brain to which you can deliberately direct your attention. As an attentional agent, you can initiate a shift in attention and, as it were, direct your inner flashlight at certain targets: a perceptual object, say, or a specific feeling. In many situations, people lose the property of attentional agency, and consequently their sense of self is weakened. Infants cannot control their visual attention; their gaze seems to wander aimlessly from one object to another, because this part of their Ego is not yet consolidated. Another example of consciousness without attentional control is the non-lucid dream state. In other cases, too, such as severe drunkenness or senile dementia, you may lose the ability to direct your attention — and, correspondingly, feel that your "self" is falling apart.

If it is true that the experience of controlling and sustaining your focus of attention is one of the deeper layers of phenomenal selfhood, then what we are currently witnessing is not only an organized attack on the space of consciousness per se but a mild form of depersonalization. New medial environments may therefore create a new form of waking consciousness that resembles weakly subjective states — a mixture of dreaming, dementia, intoxication, and infantilization. Now we all do this together, every day. I call it Public Dreaming.