Adam Gopnik’s article ‘How the internet gets inside us’ has been waiting in my ‘read it later’ box for a while now. It’s an excellent summary piece on books, technology and ‘how the internet changes the way we think’.
Gopnik identifies three types of thinking about change: the ‘Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers and the Ever-Wasers’. The never-betters are the techno-utopians, the better-nevers are the sentimentalists who believe the ways of the past are superior and the ever-wasers don’t quite believe what the fuss is all about. Aren’t we always dealing with change? Isn’t that what modernity is all about? Film didn’t kill radio; television didn’t kill film; video, then dvd, then streaming hasn’t killed film or television and ebooks are unlikely to mean the end of printed books.
Clay Shirky and his idea of ‘cognitive surplus’ is provided as the first example of the ‘never-betters’ who see technology as democracy at work, heralding in a new age of equitable access to information. (See previous links in this blog archive). Gopnik challenges the naivety of this view
But all the media of modern consciousness—from the printing press to radio and the movies—were used just as readily by authoritarian reactionaries, and then by modern totalitarians, to reduce liberty and enforce conformity as they ever were by libertarians to expand it…The Internet may make for more freedom a hundred years from now, but there’s no historical law that says it has to.
He discusses the other type of never-betters as those relying on psychology and neuroscience. But he reminds us that ‘cognitive entanglement’ can be as frustrating as it is expansive; and that the hive mind doesn’t necessarily pay a whole lot of attention to the facts. See the above quote for how the hive mind can be manipulated too (with references to Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ as obvious examples).
Not surprisingly, Nicholas Carr ‘The Shallows’ is the first example provided of a ‘better-never’. (Again see links in previous posts on this blog). Carr is worried that we will lose our ability to think deeply and reflectively. That our brains will be changed, rewired and the poorer for it. Other ‘better-nevers’ focus on the damage new technologies and constant distraction are having on both our social relationships and our inner lives.
when people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us …
Gopnik goes on to say
The odd thing is that this complaint, though deeply felt by our contemporary Better-Nevers, is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965
So, finally the ‘ever-wasers’. Gopnik cites the Harvard historian Ann Blair and her book ‘Too much to know: managing scholarly information before the modern age.’ According to Blair ‘information overload’ existed well before the Gutenberg press, before index lists and filing rules, before the card catalogue ‘the reader consulting a card catalogue in a library was living a revolution as momentous, and as disorienting, as our own. The book index was the search engine of its era, and needed to be explained at length to puzzled researchers.’
For me, the really important point of this article comes at the very end and provides a lot to think about.
What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there … things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own … Thus the limitless malice of Internet commenting…the monstrous music that runs through our minds is now played out loud.
Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Gopnik leaves us with some solace and a reminder of our own power
Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them.
Another nice summary from Aleks Krotoski in the Guardian (December 18, 2011)
Untangling the web: attention
… new technologies get to the very heart of us. How we adapt to the new thing reminds us of our limitations as human beings… Over the last year I’ve insisted again and again that the web is not doing anything to us; that it merely presents us with a mirror that challenges us to face ourselves. The only way we can untangle ourselves from the web is to pay attention to this, and to reflect on what it is, in the 21st century, we do to ourselves and to one another.