Paradigm Shifts and Technological Alarmists
In Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? the author worries over something which has certainly made the rounds over the years:
“Is this [Insert New Technology of Your Choice] making [Our Youth Disrespectful/Milk go Bad/Destroying Western Civilization/ Incouraging Immorality]?”
Admittedly, Carr’s article is not exactly current, but it’s a fear that we’ve all heard many times from many sources: Is the Internet making us less intelligent?
As a misanthrope, I’m obligated to point out the vast majority of our species isn’t exactly the brightest bunch of primates around, given the number of absurdities which I’m sure my readership can name. I digress. I’m not here to insult the human species- to do that, simply turn on the major News outlet of your choice- but to talk about this fear of the Internet. It’s really just the fear of the new.
To those that know me well, they’re probably pointing out that I’m not the most forward looking guy. I actively resist using my cell phone. I prefer to remain unconnected and wire-free. Where others use an Ipod, I whistle. Where others check bus times with their tablets, I pull out a book and wait for the bus.
Saying all this makes me sound like a hipster, trying to be contrary simply because it makes me unique. Not true. I’m contrary because I’m as mean as a snake, not because it makes me different. I do appreciate modern technology- heck, I’m online right now, aren’t I? I require the Internet to both do my job and to talk to friends, have fun, connect with others and all else that we do online. I simply feel that when I’m not in front of my computer, I should be interacting with the real world without any distractions whatsoever.
But enough about me. New technologies, indeed, new ideas, new ways of doing things, new tools, new concepts- have changed how we think. This is nothing new.
The advent of agriculture, way back in the dawn of history, altered far more than the Internet has. Permanent homes, a class system, financial inequality (and the concept of money- abstract representations of wealth), writing, reading, precise calenders and many other things- are all the children of the rather straightforward concept of ‘grow enough surplus food to get us until the harvest next fall”. When we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers, suddenly we had new things to think about- how to plant, harvest and store, how to build, how to protect what they had made, and most importantly, how to plan, and who should do the planning. Every complex society has been a settled one for a reason. There’s no need for a king when you’re a wandering tribe.
My point here is that new tools and ideas begat more tools and more ideas as well as a thousand new civilizations. It was an end to one way of life, and the beginning of another.
We see this repeated with many technologies. Faster travel creates new understandings of far off places- it also necessitates new developments in navigation, time-keeping and construction, while altering markets and remaking economic patterns. This is not always a good thing.
Certainly Google is not the first innovation to alter how we think. The clock altered how we thought about time- For a very long time, the seasons were how most people watched the calender for. When you are a farmer, knowing that it is Tuesday isn’t very important. Knowing that next week is usually when the frosts come, so you’d better harvest your wheat now, is vital. Clocks sliced up days into hours (at first- most early clocks were not reliable enough for a minute hand to make sense, let along something as precise as a second hand) and suddenly, you could be late for an appointment! Hard to be rushing across town to your 2 o’clock when there is no clock. Hours and minutes are human-created divisions, and yet they seem to control us.
The same with the auto mobile, the typewriter, the telephone, the computer and a thousand other devices. This is what annoys me about Carr’s article. Our lives have been shaped and moulded since the moment we were born, by our culture, our language, our tools. People who speak other languages, who are part of other cultures, who lived in different eras, who, indeed, lived very different lives, did not and do not think like 21st Century North Americans do.
So Google may be changing how we think. So what? Everything else already has. We are, however, luckier that those hunter gatherers. Thanks to our experiences and our history with our tools, we understand (perhaps better than most) that actions have consequences, that new tools can change things unexpectedly. We have let the genie out of the bottle- I doubt Google is going to shut down any time soon- but we can moderate how it affects us.
Besides, it is not as if this will eradicate long-form thought like Carr worries it does. As long as being able to think deeply is useful to us, we will retain it. After all, we learned how to read once, didn’t we?
Film did not kill the book.
Books did not kill story telling.
Writing did not destroy the art of memory.
But they did give us more options.
What was I talking about again?
Scott W. E. Dickinson