Does Being Online Alter the Way Our Mind Works?

June 17, 2008

In a thought-provoking essay in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr reminds us how new technology has raised disquiet in thoughtful minds in the past:

Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong — the new technology did often have the effects he feared — but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

It is a commonplace of anthropology that feats of verbal memory become less common as literacy makes them less necessary. The Homeric epics or Beowulf would not have been as painstakingly memorized if paperbacks of them had been available. A very old lady, survivor of a lost civilization, used to tell me how the trading boats that served her family’s plantation on the St. John’s River in northern Florida employed illiterate African American women as their accountants. They relied on astonishingly retentive brains to keep track of orders, payments, change owed, retaining the information with unerring exactitude over the months that delivery and payment sometimes stretched. While something is lost when this kind of thinking becomes less common because less necessary, few would deny that much is also gained with the use of ledgers and double-entry accounting.

Every new tool shapes the way we think about a task — a musical instrument affects the way we approach music through it, as does limiting ourselves to a tempered scale of twelve tones. But it is not only the tool that affects our minds, but our minds that have produced the tools. While the questions raised in the essay are relevant to all areas of our increasingly information-hoarding intellectual lives, much of our music — both “folk” and “art” — dwells in that “complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality” that would have much to lose from “the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressure of information overload.”

But just as the West’s invention of music notation affected but did not replace musical memorization, as keyboard instruments introduced a spatial way of thinking about music that is unlike the more natural way stemming from the monochord, as recordings allowed “making music” to become a passive process, each brought benefits that extended music’s effect without overthrowing it. Music, like our brain, seems to be ever-reaching, but neither music nor our brain has its origin in technology. Both exist in nature and remain in fundamental ways accountable to it.

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