Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 28, 2010

this is dialogue?

library ad infinitum:

Putting The Shallows into dialogue with Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, the latter book seems like the one with an actual idea. However smartly dressed, Carr's concern about the corrosiveness of media is really a reflex, one that's been twitching ever since Socrates fretted over the dangers of the alphabet. Shirky's idea — that modern life produces a surplus of time, which people have variously spent on gin, television, and now the Internet — is something to sink one's teeth into.

This is pretty typical of the technophilic reviews I’ve seen so far of Carr’s book: let’s just pretend that Carr didn't cite any research to support his points, or that the research doesn't exist. Let’s just assert that Carr made assertions. In short: Carr makes claims I would prefer to be false, so I’ll call his position an archaic “reflex.” That way I won't have to think about it.

(Steven Johnson, by contrast — see my comments a few posts back —, acknowledges that the research on multitasking is there, that it’s valid, and that Carr has cited it fairly. He just doesn't think that losing 20% of our attentiveness is all that big a deal.)

It would be a wonderful thing if someone were to put Carr’s book and Shirky’s into dialogue with each other — I might try it myself, if I can find time to finish Cognitive Surplus — but saying, in effect, “this book sucks” and “this other book is awesome” doesn't constitute dialogue.

9 comments:

  • Also, that's a pretty interesting "reflex" that obtains only in the relatively small number of people throughout history who've been concerned about the deep, invisible effects of a new medium.

  • but saying, in effect, “this book sucks” and “this other book is awesome” doesn't constitute dialogue.

    I wrote nearly the exact same thing about a recent dust-up in the pro-porn/anti-porn debate; and that one of the things I'd posit is that our current socio-economic landscape contributes to this sort of "dialogue" and that the internet contributes to people being able to live as functional "rageaholics" in much the same way that living in a place like St. Croix USVI makes it easier to live as a functional alcoholic.

    Of course the internet also allows people from very different backgrounds, people who might never had the chance to meet and exchanged ideas, the opportunity to do so. But it does take some effort.

    Also, I think human brains don't deal with numbers very well; we confuse "everybody" with "everybody I know"; and I think that plays out in interesting ways in the peculiar sort of abundance of information and contacts the internet provides.

  • Funny—I just wrote a long post on The Shallows. I think the issue isn't that Carr didn't cite any research—he did—but that he still hasn't established the causal chain between Internet-style reading, shortened attention spans, and that that's a bad thing.

    In addition, I'm not convinced that the distraction research memory tests in a lab necessarily transfer to personal distraction in chosen multitasking the real world, which is a point Tyler Cowen has made.

    That being said, and as I say in the post, I do feel some of the changes that he describes, which is why I read the book in the first place.

  • Battles's second post on The Shallows/Cognitive Surplus walks it back. Worth another look.

  • jseliger, your post is a much more thorough and responsible post than either of Battles's. Tim, it seems to me that the second is as bad as the first: assertions without evidence and a complete failure to reckon with Carr's evidence. "Again and again, Carr prefers to stack the holodeck against computers as agents of change. The dusty books he extolls are quiet counselors, wise and infinitely patient. They refuse to intervene, to interact, as technology is wont to do; they prefer to wait until we're ready to receive their gentle ministrations." Really? Am I supposed to take Battles's word for it?

    Similarly: "The susceptibility to transformation that Carr discusses in The Shallows is real. It's our native endowment—what the brain evolved to do. It is the vogue among scientists to call it neuroplasticity; before that, it was called learning." Again: really? "Neuroplasticity" is just fancy scientist-talk for "learning"? What nonsense.

    There's one almost-good point, though: Battles would be right if he said that Carr doesn't reckon enough with how earlier generations perceived and dealt with information overload, but he chooses to say that Carr doesn't deal with it at all: "Carr claims [information overload] didn't exist until roughly the time he bought his first Macintosh." Battles seems to have missed the whole chapter that deals with anxieties about writing, text, and memory, starting with the Phaedrus.

    Fortunately for humanity, I deal with these matters in more detail in my forthcoming book. Whew!

  • Fortunately for humanity, I deal with these matters in more detail in my forthcoming book. Whew!

    I look forward to reading it, although I suspect there's not going to be a good answer for a very long time.

    One thing I find interesting is that our age seems to be much more self-conscious and self-aware of the major technological transitions happening than earlier ages. That's my impression, anyway, although I'm not sure how it could be proven.

  • "One thing I find interesting is that our age seems to be much more self-conscious and self-aware of the major technological transitions happening than earlier ages. That's my impression, anyway, although I'm not sure how it could be proven."

    I have heard it asserted, and tend to believe that the skeletal record indicated that up until as little as 100 years ago the advent of agriculture was an unmitigated disaster for all but a tiny fraction of the human race -- that the average post-agricultural human lived a shorter and more disease-ridden life than his pre-agricultural ancestors.

    As a beneficiary of this innovation, I like to think of agriculture as a 500 generation-long project devoted to the advancement of the species. I think that sort of rationalization gets to the heart of what it means to be human.

  • I think you're being peremptory in your dismissal of my series of posts. I'm trying out something there, which is not to review but to live-blog my reading of two books that seem to have something to say to one another. I've been quite critical of Shirky's book in subsequent posts, and I expect to have much to say in favor of Carr's evidence and observations. To be frank, though, thus far I've found both authors insights falling short when it comes to complexity—a charge I could level at your straw-manning of me as an unreflective technophile as well. Give me the time to get to Carr's reading of Phaedrus! And the rest of it as well.

  • That's a fair cop, Matthew. I promise to read future posts more patiently and withhold judgment until you're done. Thanks for asking so kindly!

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]