Because life is a series of edits

Review: The Shallows (Part 2 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 1, 2010 at 8:05 am

(The following is the second of a three-part review of one of the
more important books I've read in the past ten years:
Shallows by Nicholas Carr
. Thanks for reading.)

The Shallows I remember hearing a story about a man who died after being hit crossing a busy big-city street while talking on his cell phone. When paramedics arrived on the scene, they discovered that his cell phone was not a cell phone at all, but a child's imitation plastic toy phone. Unfortunately, it wasn't only the phone that was dead.

The story is one I tell my high school students (nearly all of whom shudder to think about going a day without their cell phones) in order to start a conversation about how our culture idolizes digital technology for social reasons – status and identity, ease and convenience, inclusion and interaction. Few teenagers will argue my claim of idolatry; fewer still will do anything about it. It is, after all, they say, how we live.

Or at least how we think we live. But is our obsessive (pathological?) devotion to technology really living? In creating something we can't seem to do without, are we the better for it in the long run? What's behind all that has come about as a result of the digital revolution of the past 20 years? Writes Carr:

"Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances – over nature, over time and distance, over one another…Intellectual technologies, when they come into popular use, often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work." (p. 44-45)

The discussion of an intellectual ethic is, in my opinion, what's been missing from so many of the conversations, books, articles, and emails I've read over the past 3-5 years about technology in society. This doesn't mean there isn't one – or even multiple ones – out there, but it seems to me that, as our use of technological tools becomes more and more constant, the attention given to considering an ethic – intellectual, spiritual, whatever – regarding them becomes less and less. Carr says this is not surprising:

"The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors. They are usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific or engineering dilemma that they don't see the broader implications of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic. They, too, are concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool. Our ancestors didn't develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking or to bring the world's hidden structures to light. Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies. But what by-products! Ultimately, it's an invention's intellectual ethic that has the most profound effect on us. The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users." (p. 45-46)

According to Carr, there are really two schools of thought on the matter: Technological determinists argue that “technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” On the opposite end of the spectrum (and where I had here-to-fore placed myself) are the instrumentalists, "the people who downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Instrumentalism is the most widely held view of technology, not least because it’s the view we would prefer to be true.” (p. 46)

But is it true? Is all the technology we're creating and then subjecting ourselves to really ours to control, or (from the point of view of the determinist) is it really controlling us? Shouldn't these questions be asked concerning a technology's medium and as well as its message? This seeming absence of consideration calls to mind actor Jeff Goldblum's portrayal of chaos theorist, Dr. Ian Malcom, and his explanation of all prehistoric hell breaking loose in the movie Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they
didn't stop to think if they should."

Granted, we're not dealing with dino DNA, but to what degree are we messing with ours? Carr gives numerous examples of how technological advances have often marked turning points in history, reminding us that, "In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use." But then Carr comes full circle back to his study of brain research, reminding us that, "What's been harder to discern is the influence of technologies, particularly intellectual technologies, on the functioning of people's brains." (p. 48) In the meantime, multiple generations of people – especially our youngest – are hardly waiting around for a verdict.

Carr lists Socrates as the first real critic of "new media," as the philosopher was suspect of the written word replacing oral tradition's memorized and spoken one:

“Socrates grants that there are practical benefits to capturing one’s thoughts in writing – 'as memorials against the forgetfulness of old age' – but he argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness." (p. 55)

Socrates' student, Plato, however, was an advocate for the written word and thus differed from his mentor with regard to the transition from an oral to a literary culture (ironic that, without Plato, we wouldn't know much of what Socrates thought). Nevertheless, writes Carr, "It was, as both Plato and Socrates recognized in their different ways, a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds." (p. 56)

From Carr's perspective, every early media transition was bumpy but beneficial to our brains in some way. Papyri reading required deep concentration combined with deciphering text and interpretation of meaning; book writing pushed the bounds of knowledge and culture as arguments became longer, clearer, more complex, and more challenging. Gutenberg introduced the printing press and literacy became increasingly common among the commoners. But the change was on more than just on a cultural level:

"One of the most important lessons we've learned from the study of neuroplasticity is that the mental capacities, the very neural circuits, we develop for one purpose can be put to other uses as well. As our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative. 'New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read,' says Maryanne Wolf [in her book, Proust and the Squid]; 'the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire." (p. 75-76)

This would be the case in increasing fashion for the next 550 years, but then something very different emerges on the scene: electronic media. Writes Carr:

"The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture's mainstream still ran through the printing press." (p. 77)

It did, that is, until now:

"Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer – desktop, laptop, handheld – becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet…But the world of the screen, as we're already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted." (p. 77)

I'll try to finish up on Friday with Carr's observations of the Internet's impact on our brains and some possible implications for the world of education. Hang with me.

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