Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is technology making us stupid?

Here is a list of things I find self evident: pizzas are good, the colour of the sky as seen from the ground in the third planet of the star system Sol can be represented by the RGB hexadecimal code #87CEEB, and whenever a new technology is discovered someone will complain that it is making us stupid/it is unnatural/it should be banned.

Ever since the Internet came along, we have been witness to all sorts of indictments on its intellectual merits. Some are somewhat justified; for example, I believe text-speak to be detrimental to people's ability to communicate with one another (have you ever tried chatting with someone whose vocabulary extends to "OMFG u r stoopid"?) However, new technologies have made our life easier, and have made it possible to access amounts of information like never before. Recently I was re-arranging the books in an old book-case, and was amazed to discover an encyclopaedia, the decadent symbol of a bygone era before Wikipedia and Google.

It would seem like there are those who insist on flogging the line that the Internet is making us somewhat dumber. Take this article by Naomi Alderman in The Guardian. She says:

"And it's not just television that poses a threat to reading, it's the internet too. Of course, using the internet certainly demands literacy. But reading on the internet isn't the same as reading a book. Recent studies have indicated that online reading tends to break down in the face of "texts that require steady focus and linear attention". [...] The Greeks may have replaced their oral traditions with Plato and Aristotle but, though I love computer games, I don't feel that trading the reading culture for Guitar Hero is a fair swap."
While I tend to agree that reading is great, and that there are few things as enjoyable as a good novel, I am baffled by the protestations of the death of the book, and I for one do not feel sentimental or regretful about its eventually inevitable demise. The problem with such wide indictments of new technologies is that they tend to ignore a very simple fact: while we bibliophiles still love the printed word, we have to accept that the tide is turning away from writing, and towards a more rich and democratic experience of expression.

Allow me to formulate this idea a bit more. For centuries, the main manner of communication was the written word. Some few people could read, even fewer could write, and those who could do the former would have a disproportionate influence on the world. Every generation would rely on a few voices to tell its stories, share its dreams, and formulate its goals and ideas. However, when you think about it, this state of affairs is highly elitist. How many valid voices have been lost because they could not communicate to a wider audience? One could be callous and assume that if it cannot be written, then it is not worth it. I answer those with one name, Socrates. We know of his thoughts through Plato's writing (I will not enter the debate of whether Plato accurately conveyed his master's philosophies), and one has to think what would have happened if Plato had not been there to share his thoughts with us.

Similarly, I can think of many people I know whose ideas and understanding of the world seem to be sophisticated and astute, yet have never written a single paragraph worthy of the name. The business of publishing is also inherently elitist, those writing have to jump through several hoops to get their words printed, and even those which are good are read by not many people. Even in the age of the participatory web, those who write tend to be fewer than those who do not. How many voices are being lost to this tyranny of the typeface? Writing requires a special mindset and set of skills that are not shared by all. The fallacy of intellectualism in the last centuries has been to assume that only those with the knack for putting sentences together are worthy of attention. Thankfully, the 20th century has allowed other skills and art-forms to have growing importance in the way we think. The audiovisual arts have a lot of potential to convey complex ideas in efficient an manner. To my mind, I have yet to find a book that describes the political history of the last decade as well as Adam Curtis' excellent documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Trap.

I recently read an article by Clive Thompson that makes a similar point. He commented that YouTube had the potential to become a new type of communication tool, implying its own rules and languages. He comments:
"What's happening to video is like what happened to word processing. Back in the '70s and early '80s, publishing was a rarefied, expert job. Then Apple's WYSIWYG interface made it drop-dead easy, enabling an explosion of weird new forms of micropublishing and zines. Laptop audio editing did the same thing, giving birth to the mashup and cut-and-paste subgenres of music. Then there's photo manipulation, once a rarefied propaganda technique. Photoshop made it a folk art. [...] Marshall McLuhan pointed out that whenever we get our hands on a new medium we tend to use it like older ones. Early TV broadcasts consisted of guys sitting around reading radio scripts because nobody had realized yet that TV could tell stories differently. It's the same with much of today's webcam video; most people still try to emulate TV and film."
I think there is something true in these words. We should not feel nostalgic about the loss of one form of communication, after all, people still write (you are reading this, are you not?) We should be enthusiastic about the vast range of new technologies that allow us to be able to express ourselves even if we are not able to write that well. Clarity of thought can take many shapes, why should we believe that it can only present itself in black and white?

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