Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Scattered Brain, part 1

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

The Scattered Brain 
by David Novak 
"I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies 
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and T.V.'s 
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare 
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there" 
David Bowie, Five Years 
I'm dreaming about a legless blind man when the radio alarm wakes me.  In the short time it takes me to crawl to the bureau to turn off the radio (an arrangement designed to get me out of bed) I hear the DeeJay tell me that 5% of men surveyed admitted to wearing women's underwear.  I drift to the kitchen to feed the cat and dog and pour the coffee and juice.  I go to the front door to collect the morning paper which informs me of the multimillion dollar judgement against O.J. and of an area magnet school which teaches children how to play the bagpipes.  By the time I step back inside, my son is awake and Darkwing Duck is "getting dangerous" on the TV.  I've been awake for less than 30 minutes and already I'm drowning in a sea of information, images and stories. 
The day is far from finished.  Everything is far from finished.  I feel like my life is in the hands of an insomniac channel-surfer: unfinished stories in constant collision with one another adding up to one story: life today. It is all so scatterbrained. I worry: what am I adding to the noise as a voice telling stories in the thick of all this? Who am I to enter the fight for everyone's attention?  What is the point of storytelling in the technologically determined culture of today? 
Technology enhances us: clothes enhance skin, glasses enhance eyes, wheels enhance walking.  Such enhancements extend our physical bodies outward.  Our techno-bodies can "see," "hear," and "reach" farther than our bio-bodies.  We technologically express our bodies outward, forming an exoskeleton of clothing, cars, and houses.  Inasmuch as our communica- tion media express images, ideas, and informa- tion, we express our minds outward too, forming an exo-brain.  The exo-brain is the scattered brain. 
In The Global Village (1989) Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers discuss the way technology affects cultural change.  New technology, they suggest, begins as a distinct figure set against the current cultural ground.  Eventually that technology becomes the new cultural ground.   As our new technologies become assimilated they reform the ground which determines our culture.  McLuhan and Powers: 
"Media determinism, the imposition willy-nilly of new cultural grounds by the action of new technologies, is only possible when the users are well-adjusted, i.e. sound asleep." 
To be "well-adjusted" in this sense, is to be accepting yet unthinking; to be an open receiver like a well-adjusted antenna.  For such media determinism to be possible, it helps to have a populace that is illiterate, anti-intellectual, inarticulate, and emotionally reactive.  The well-adjusted user is hungry (literally and figuratively); dissatisfied with what he has  ("been there, done that"); afraid of the unknown ("brand x"); afraid of the outside (the only safe places, we are told, are the places where you find an approved point-of-sale that accepts the right credit card); accepting without thinking (uncritical and thereby open to shallow rhetoric and "sound bites"); has a short attention span (being therefore less likely to scrutinize merchandise or ideas very closely); and is impulsive (reacting to ersatz emergencies from headline news to one-day-only sales.)   In short, the well-adjusted user lets the scattered brain do its thinking.  The scattered brain directs our attention to what it considers important, leaving what does not interest it to be forgotten. 
If this is the culture we live in, it is also the culture that welcomed a revival of story- telling.  Why? 
(continued in part 2)

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