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The Attention Span. “Digital Scurvy.”

My last few pieces have been longer and part of an unintentional unfolding series. Today’s is considerably shorter and on a single topic.

Reviewing all the 2022 preview pieces, many of the big investment megatrends revolve around the metaverse, psychedelics, tech devices, and mental health. There’s a fascinating idea that links all of these huge opportunities together while posing an intriguing question: Why is there so little technology focused directly on our flourishing?

“Digital Scurvy”

[7 minute read]

Source: Getty Images

For centuries, sailors would set out to sea stocked with provisions for long voyages. Despite taking everything they thought they needed, they would soon start dying in spectacularly unpleasant ways. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that we realized that an absence of Vitamin C from fresh food was causing scurvy.

We are now on the cusp of one of the most staggering capex arms races in history. The attention monopolies have signaled their intent to compete to build a virtual “metaverse.”

This always makes me think of scurvy. To borrow a metaphor from The User Illusion, we experience reality at 60-bit resolution, pulled from a potential pool of 11 million bits. But the reality we can never be truly aware of could be trillions of times more complex. However high the graphical fidelity of the metaverse, we can only ever include what we already know exists. By recreating only the version of reality we comprehend, then deciding to live in it, we risk “digital scurvy.” Does the global epidemic of mental illness already reflect our decision to isolate ourselves from a reality that could be a trillion times more nourishing to us than we realize?

It’s therefore strange that relatively little attention is being paid to tech that can enhance our experience of existing reality. We’ve written previously about Kevin Kelly’s enthusiastic vision for the “Mirrorworld.” This is an augmented reality overlay that brings more of cyberspace into meatspace. Rather than an enclosed digital world, this at least holds the potential to layer more information onto a richer base.

An interesting alternative vision comes from technological visionary Brian Roemmele. He has been developing a digital personal assistant called the “Intelligence Amplifier.” As I understand it, it’s a highly contextual audio assistant. Essentially a Siri that knows you intimately and can anticipate your needs. A vision that’s closer to Samantha from the magical movie “Her.” A compassionate voice inside our heads is something I think we all secretly long for.

But there’s an element to this emerging industry that seems simultaneously terrifying, fascinating, and neglected. This is the marriage of technological devices and spirituality; technology that can induce altered or peak states. Or, put even more simply- why is there so little technology that leaves us feeling better after we’ve used it?

The earliest iteration of this trend has already been achieved through feedback loops, both positive and negative. Smartphones have irrevocably altered our consciousness, for better and worse. We now check our phones an average of 96 times a day. I clock about 170 a day. Ugh. Smartwatches and fitness bands are already influencing our sleep, exercise, and alcohol consumption. When my wife was researching her new book on sleep, she discovered the new phenomenon of “orthosomnia.” This is when over-focusing on sleep trackers paradoxically impairs sleep quality.

Electronic devices that can induce altered states seem like an inevitable growth area. The general goal of many of these devices seems to be “enlightenment, but now.” Many of the product websites promise states of mind only previously available to veteran meditators, and in a fraction of the time. Whether you think it’s desirable to put a generation 1.0 electronic device on your brain, the most complex object in the known universe, will be entirely subjective.

Neurofeedback is non-invasive but can powerfully alter your consciousness. Meditation headbands can make you aware of your brainwaves and create a feedback loop that enables you to influence them. Obviously the nature of quantification is problematic: are you optimizing for objective theta waves, or a subjective sense of equanimity? Moreover, it takes an already-powerful practice like meditation and supercharges the potency.

In their new book Spirit Tech, Dr. William Wildman and Dr. Kate Stockly discuss the emerging growth areas of transcendental meditation with EEG-guided neurofeedback, ultrasound brain stimulation, and virtual reality (VR). I spoke to Dr. Stockly about her best guesses for what’s next. VR has an installed base and promising early innovations. For example, “Technodelics” uses a combination of virtual reality and breath-work to induce a psychedelic-like state. But this still sounds more akin to metaverse-style innovation.

The most interesting and worrying area for spirit tech is direct intervention. Robust technologies like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation are already being used in medical settings for the treatment of major depression. There are commercial devices already available which offer transcranial direct-current stimulation. Dr. Stockly has been encouraged by the responsible approach being offered by Shinzen Young and Dr. Jay Sanguinetti towards Transcranial Ultrasound.

I spoke with Dr. Sanguinetti about his collaboration with Young, and it was hands-down one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had. His podcast with Jim O’Shaughnessy this week (below) did not disappoint. He’s been working on depression, but there are also incredibly interesting applications to more fundamentally qualitative areas. His studies with ultrasound have allowed him to target the “internal monologue” area of the Default Mode Network in the brain. Participants reported that their thoughts seemed “less sticky” as well as a drastically increased sense of peace. He equates the effect to a microdose of the psychedelic psilocybin. Participants also experienced time-distortion; they couldn’t believe they had been in an fMRI for 30 minutes. Sanguinetti was also most encouraged by the fact that they showed a significant ability to sit in quiet contemplation afterwards, relative to the control group.

But the real reason I found the conversation with Sanguinetti so refreshing was his sensitivity and caution. He was well aware of the extreme potency of contemplative behaviour, the dangers of tinkering with the brain, and the massive risks of adding in technology as an accelerant.

This marriage of spiritual and technological seems inevitable and is in its very early stages. Jay thinks ultrasound transducers might be 3D printable in future. It’s coming. The regulatory approach is unclear, and might end up being a retroactive “regulation by class action” as reckless actors get weeded out.

It’s hard to comprehend what a mass market “enlightenment device” would do to society, but it does bring to mind Carl Jung’s admonishment to beware unearned wisdom. The second-derivative impacts on entertainment, social media, alcohol, healthcare and the entire economy are hard to comprehend.

The flipside is that Dr. Iain McGilchrist believes left-hemisphere imbalance is at the root of our societal and personal malaise. If we can address that quickly, cheaply, and at scale, that might be one of the most consequential technological developments of our lifetime.


Recommended Reading:

  • Read. The Depths She’ll Reach. (25 minute read, contains instances of profanity).
  • Why Read. After my last piece on freediving and breakdowns, I stumbled upon a staggeringly beautiful multimedia experience telling the story of Alenka Artnik. I don’t want to say any more because it deserves to be experienced, carve out a quiet space and enjoy.
  • Read. Age of Invention. Plague of the Sea by Anton Howes (19min read).
  • Why Read. A really informative account of the history of scurvy. It simply reinforced how long it can be before we really understand what we need from our environment. And the massively tragic consequences of getting it wrong.
  • Listen. Jay Sanguinetti on Infinite Loops (1 hour listen).
  • Why listen. This is a great conversation and a deeper dive on Jay’s work. You realise listening to him that the first products to mass market could irrevocably change our existence in both very good and very bad ways.

Have a great weekend!

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