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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, September 27, 2010

are we making each other stupid?

communication technologies change, and along with those technological changes come cognitive changes. for example, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy describes how the technology of writing (and then later, of print) had deep and far reaching cognitive, cultural, and social impacts.

it's not hard to extend this logic to more recent communication technologies, e.g., the internet. I recently came across Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, as well as his 2008 essay (which I presume was a forerunner to the book), Is Google Making Us Stupid? I've not yet read the book, but the essay's basic premise is that the communication medium (in a McLuhan sense of the term) of the internet discourages deep, thoughtful, reflective reading or contemplation, and it encourages frenetic switching between activities that only enables engagement at a shallow level. he connects these ideas to initial fears about Gutenberg's printing press, and even back to Plato's Phaedrus, in which he warns against the weakness of mind that will be encouraged by a society dependent upon writing (though, interestingly, he doesn't mention Ong's work along these lines).

in some ways, I share Carr's concern for how communication and information technologies reshape human cognition. I, too, worry about losing a space for quiet, thoughtful contemplation and reflection. granted, my interest is a bit more empirical, in understanding exactly what impacts such technologies have, and how they unfold. on the other hand, I felt that Carr's essay was missing an important piece of the puzzle: social interaction. communication technologies are used not only to gather information, but also to communicate with other people. focusing on information technologies reshape how we think, while certainly important, may distract from the ways in which they reshape how we interact.

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