Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bitten by bytes

It appalls but does not completely surprise me that a 3-month-old Korean girl slowly starved to death while her feckless parents haunted a nearby internet café playing computer games; the horrible irony is that the game that addicted them was a simulation in which they raised a virtual child online.

The article from the Guardian Online cited yet other instances of the same social evil:

A 22-year-old Korean man was charged last month with murdering his mother because she nagged him for spending too much time playing games. After killing her the man went to a nearby internet cafe and continued with his game, said officials. In 2005 a young man collapsed in an internet cafe in the city of Taegu after playing the game StarCraft almost continuously for 50 hours. He went into cardiac arrest and died at a local hospital.

Admittedly, distraction from the obligations of the immediate was not born with the Internet. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift satirized absent-minded thinkers who needed minders to follow them around through the day and periodically tap them on the shoulder to remind them where they were. A guilt-ridden Mark Twain confessed in his Autobiography that his oldest son's death was his fault; sunk deep in thought as he took a carriage ride one winter day with the toddler, Clemens did not notice that the blanket had slipped off the boy's bare legs; his son caught a chill and died shortly after.

Perhaps the difference with the Internet is that it is interactive and that there is an immediate payoff; this, plus the distraction from tedium, must be among the reasons that people text while driving. As long as people are obsessed with the world online, they could do worse than to spend their time addressing one of the next great issues in national security: the ease with which unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can be assembled, chillingly detailed last week in Newsweek by P.W. Singer:

At least 40 other countries—from Belarus and Georgia to India, Pakistan, and Russia—have begun to build, buy, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, showcasing their efforts at international weapons expos ranging from the premier Paris Air Show to smaller events in Singapore and Bahrain. In the last six months alone, Iran has begun production on a pair of weapons-ready surveillance drones, while China has debuted the Pterodactyl and Sour Dragon, rivals to America's Predator and Global Hawk. All told, two thirds of worldwide investment in unmanned planes in 2010 will be spent by countries other than the United States.

When we invaded Iraq, I explained to my worried son, then 14, why Saddam couldn't send planes to bomb us as we could bomb Baghdad. Times are changing: Singer's article mentions that a 77-year-old blind man in Canada designed a drone that flew across the Atlantic to Ireland. These home-made gadgets actually gain from being less advanced than the machinery of our current defenses:

Smaller UAVs' cool, battery-powered engines make them difficult to hit with conventional heat-seeking missiles; Patriot missiles can take out UAVs, but at $3 million apiece such protection comes at a very steep price. Even seemingly unsophisticated drones can have a tactical advantage: Hizbullah's primitive planes flew so slowly that Israeli F-16s stalled out trying to decelerate enough to shoot them down.

According to a robotics expert cited in the article, an amateur could build a machine for less than $50,000 that could shut down Manhattan. Actually, our own government nearly achieved that when some nitwit let Air Force One fly over the city for a photo opportunity last year, panicking thousands.

Getting back to UAVs, the "Popular Mechanics" aspect isn't the only problem; even worse, it seems that overlooked and easily exploitable security flaws aren't limited to the Giant of Redmond:

More recently, The Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. ignored a dangerous flaw in its UAV technology that allowed Iraqi insurgents to tap into the planes' video feeds using $30 software purchased over the Internet.

Until this Terminator-like future arrives, one can still take refuge in the quiet pleasures of an art museum (though the guard at the Phillips Collection in Washington nearly assaulted me last year when my flash went off as I photographed Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party), but according to Newsweek staffer Jennie Yabroff, art appreciation can have its own hazards:

Stendhal syndrome isn't included in the draft version of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, released last month, but with proposed additions including "apathy syndrome" and Internet addiction, it's probably only a matter of time. The affliction takes its name from the 19th-century French writer, who was overcome after visiting Florence's Basilica di Santa Croce. In 1989 an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini published La Sindrome di Stendhal, describing more than 100 tourists who suffered dizziness and heart palpitations (some requiring hospitalization) after seeing the Florentine sights. According to Magherini, great art can make you sick.

Yabroff cites Stendhal's own account of the experience that caused Magherini's diagnosis:

Stendhal visited Florence in 1817: maybe he was suffering Grand Tour pressure to have a properly edifying travel experience. But what actually happened? He writes, "On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."

I doubt that any age has ever equalled ours for discovering previously unknown disorders and tagging them with clinical names, but I think there may be something to this. What happens if a work of art really grips you? If it is sufficiently powerful, it may affect the viewer, on a smaller scale, like the feeling described in Sylvia Plath's poem, "Mystic":

Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?
Once one has been seized up

Without a part left over,
Not a toe, not a finger, and used,
Used utterly, in the sun’s conflagrations, the stains
That lengthen from ancient cathedrals
What is the remedy?

How many transformative experiences can one endure in a single day? As my son wisely observed after we had toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, "I think I'm all museumed out for now."

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.


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