Friday, June 3, 2011

Drowning in the shallows

Reading Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows.  Carr’s main thesis is that interacting with technology leads to physical changes in the brain.  He is specifically focused on internet technology and how spending time online changes the way the brain processes information.  One side-effect is that you lose both the patience and the cognitive skills for the sustained linear processing required for reading good old fashioned books.  He goes on to suggest that that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nothing new about this.  A similar book might be have been written about the brain changes elicited by the invention of cuneiform, or the alphabet, or the printing press, or the telegraph, or television, or the automobile, or…

There is also nothing surprising in his endorsement of the prevalent myth that technology is progressive, inevitable, and (after some minor loss or sacrifice) ultimately good.     

What bothers me most is that throughout the book he talks about these brain changes as if they represent changes in our species’ brain.  Although he is quick to point out that the mechanism of transmission from generation to generation is cultural—through changes in experience, expectations, and education—he nonetheless talks about how the human brain worked differently 30,000 years ago, as if the brain changes caused by the internet represent a facet of our biological evolution.

The brain changes he refers to are a response to changes in culture.  And they are changes that have happened in just the last generation.  And they are changes that don’t occur until you spend some time actually interacting with specific technology.  And there are still quite a lot of people who do not have access to this technology.  And the technology the next generation will interact with is likely to be substantially different from what we are interacting with today.   

So how can Google-induced brain changes represent changes in the human species

The brains of children born in the 21st century are not different in any meaningful way from those of children born 30,000 years ago.   The difference is entirely one of context.  A newborn brain in 2011 expects something quite different than what it experiences when it gets plugged into the modern techno-culture.  It is a brain that will have to first be domesticated.  It is a brain that will have to be conquered and colonized and programmed and anaesthetized.  Before we even start to talk about what has to happen to the brain in order to acquire the specific conceptual skills it needs to navigate the logic of cyberspace, the brain first needs to be civilized.  And the evidence that the civilizing process is not entirely successful fills our prisons and pharmacy shelves.  

There is perhaps a more disturbing problem with Carr’s insistence that techno-induced brain alterations reflect a change in our species: it completely ignores the fact that industrial civilization is not the only mode of existence on the planet.  There are people who continue to live in societies grounded in an oral tradition, people who have no use for writing, let alone Wikipedia hyperlinks.  But these are ignorant pre-literate people living backward—subhuman—lives, so the fact that the brains of these people are different than the brains of the rest of us real humans doesn’t really matter.   

It seems to me that the claim that our communication technology is causing a change in the human species relegates non-literate indigenous folks in the Amazon and elsewhere to a subspecies classification.  Hell, with the accelerating rate of technological change, if these few remaining oral societies manage against all odds to stick around for another generation or two they may actually qualify as an entirely separate species—a species of human that can select mating partners and engage in courtship without electronic mediation and reproduce without the intervention of fertility treatment or pharmaceutical erectile assistance.

For Carr (and far too many others) it is an obvious and undeniable fact that civilization is the greatest of all human creations. Civilization is our species’ highest achievement; it is the realization of our evolutionary manifest destiny, the material bloom of our superior intellect and ingenuity.  And its present iteration, our high-tech global industrial society, represents the leading edge in the progressive development of the human species that began in the forests and savannas of Africa five million years ago.  Civilization not only provides us with uncountable and undeniable benefits, it is the foundation and source of everything that is grand and sublime about human nature—to the point where the terms we use to describe what is counter to civilization have become invective: primitive, vulgar, barbaric—uncivilized. Life outside of civilization’s benevolent embrace is, as Hobbes famously proclaimed, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and for the technology-saturated, Viagra-popping, Facebook-addicted, tweeting urban inhabitants of the twenty-first century, literally unthinkable.

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