This week’s post, entitled “Do the Evolution, Baby”, was originally written in June 2008:
I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.
But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance — as we all become “pancake people” — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.
Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or “super-consciousness”? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so — and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.
– Richard Foreman
In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Nicholas Carr posed the following provocative question: is Google making us stupid? [Ed. note: the article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue.] To roughly paraphrase the gist of Carr’s article, the ever-increasing use of and reliance upon the Internet as one’s primary source of information has the capacity to change the way we think. Carr elegantly puts it thus:
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
I understand Carr’s scepticism (ambivalence? regret?). It is akin to the feeling I have when I consider the possibility that books might one day be obsolete, and realize that the deep sentimental attachment that feeds my regret is an anachronism in this day and age. I suppose this is a natural phenomenon of living in an era of radical technological progress. The way we live, think, interact with one another can change so quickly nowadays that we can easily fall out of step if we stop, even for a moment, to reflect on what might be lost through our evolution. I’m not sure that humanity ever before faced such a fast-paced barrage of change – or embraced it quite as unquestioningly.
A century ago, people might reasonably expect to encounter no more than one significant technological advancement, and deal with its social and cultural consequences, in their lifetime. Now, the pace of technology is such that people can speak meaningfully about “generation gaps” – generations being sometimes less than a decade apart. I don’t think most of us have fully grasped the uniqueness of our present position. And, by many accounts, we are for now merely on the cusp of the actual technological ‘boom’.
For these reasons, I can’t speak unequivocally about my own feelings or expectations in the face of the coming change. I have no precedent by which to be guided, and the future – whatever it may be – is guaranteed to be so radically different from the here-and-now that it bears no scrutiny. All I can say is that I wish people were a little more conscious of the subtle changes being wrought in every aspect of their daily lives, and perhaps a little more circumspect in each step they take towards the brave new world.
We create technology, and technology changes us, influencing everything including the way and what we create. Where is the beginning and where is the end, and where does the balance of control rest in this equation? Trying to unravel this particular conundrum is a little like trying to answer that eternal question – which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we still, at this point, functioning within some natural framework – of evolution, God’s design, what have you – or are we now beyond any such ‘simplistic’ conceptions? If progress is good, have we thought about what it is exactly that we are progressing to? Who is, and should be, the “we” in question? Who is ultimately making the decision, and what’s being done to ensure that it’s an informed one? Of course, I’m over-simplifying things to the point of absurdity for the sake of my argument. It’s silly to think that humanity might strike up something like an ad hoc committee to decide its own fate. Even if it were logically – and logistically – possible, it would probably immediately degenerate into farce; its only fruit most likely nothing more than a useless report, 5 years and a billion dollars too late.
Yet, it strikes me that the goal or destination of our march of progress is an important question. Shouldn’t we have some idea, some general sense of direction in such matters? Shouldn’t we at least give some thought to the plausible outcomes, and arrive at something more solid than a mere assumption of their suitability? Merely plunging ahead, which seems to be our current modus operandi, seems fraught with possibilities for regret later on. While it isn’t exactly fashionable to question the Google that ‘feeds’ us, perhaps it might be wise.
August 10, 2012: I originally wrote this post a year or two after I signed up for a Facebook account. I had been one of the first people in my circle of acquaintances to do so, and I remember vividly how novel of an experience it seemed to be then, and even a year later. Four years after that post, I am hard-pressed to remember a version of my social life that didn’t revolve around Facebook. I can count on one hand the number of friends with whom I don’t interact – in many cases primarily or even exclusively – through Facebook. In fact, it would not be a hyperbole to state that the majority of my social interactions, outside of immediate family and work, occur through or are facilitated by Facebook. I also now have a Twitter account, a LinkedIn profile, and have been pressed on more than one occasion to sign up for Pinterest. And, even so, I remain one of the “old school” bunch. I prefer to read my books in paper form, and I don’t have an apps-loaded iPhone to navigate everything from shopping to public transit. Slowly but surely, the social hub of the entire plugged-in world is moving online. It might be taking old timers like me a little longer to fully assimilate, but to my son’s generation, it looks like this will be the only known mode of existence. Perhaps that is why I always feel a little bit of joy whenever I see my son turn his attention away from his determined pursuit of the laptop to a book. Of course, he can’t read yet. But I hope that the physical experience stays with him, acting as a counterweight to all the intangible technology that surrounds him.
One of the questions that jumped out at me on re-reading the post was this: “…what it is exactly that we are progressing to?” Having read bits and pieces on the philosophy of transhumanism, that question continues to fascinate and frighten me; most of us have given so little thought to our species’ future (separate and apart from that of the planet), even though it is likely to be such an unrecognizable one. Will humanity cease to exist at some point – not because of some global catastrophe, but because we will cease to be human? A blurring of the line between human and artificial intelligence has long captivated popular imagination, while at the same time proving repellant to our sense of (human) identity. But is that identity going to slowly become as much of an anachronism as a geographically-fixed sense of community?