On technological shinies and the thinking brain

[…] “Her mother and I didn’t want to get her a feed at all. I did not have one. Neither did her mother. I said none for our family.

“Then one day, when her mother had left, and I needed work, I was at a job interview. I was an excellent candidate. Two men were interviewing me. Talking about this and that. Then they were silent, just looking at me. I grew uncomfortable. Then they began looking at each other, and doing what I might call smirking.

“I realized that they had chatted me, and that I had not responded. They found this funny. Risible. That a man would not have a feed. So they were chatting about me in my presence. Teasing me when I could not hear. Free to assess me as they would, right in front of me.

“I did not get the job.

“It was thus that I realized that my daughter would need the feed. She had to live in the world.”

— Mr. Durn, from Feed by M. T. Anderson

This passage came to mind the other day as I was reading a particularly interesting and thought-provoking passage from Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf. In that passage, Wolf walks her readers through Socrates’ three-fold objection towards the written language:

  1. You cannot dialogue with a written text. (To put this in context: Socrates prized active, verbal discussion. He firmly believed that it was the only way for individuals to truly learn, and to understand an idea. He also believed it invaluable to society. To quote Wolf, “only the examined word and the analyzed thought could lead to real virtue, and only true virtue could lead a society to justice and could lead individuals to their god.”)
  2. Writing interferes with an individual’s memorizing skill, and consequently, as Wolf writes, “the individual’s internalization of knowledge.”
  3. Writing presents no accountability or control  for its contents. To quote Socrates, “Once a thing is put into writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parents to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.”

His objections are well-argued, but what I found interesting was that it wasn’t writing, or even reading, that Socrates had an issue with, but rather what a written language would do to the way people think and used their minds. He believed very firmly that the dependence upon a written language—as opposed to dependence upon human memory and oral tradition—would cause society to, basically, get dumber. Which immediately made me think of what people—myself included—have said about humankind’s growing dependence upon things like the Internet, Google, and how our stuff is just becoming increasingly automated so that we ourselves are doing less and less. I used to think that the rapid surge of technological advancements in our society—like the infamous Google Glass—was completely unprecedented and utterly unnatural. But after talking about the matter with friends, I conceded that the aspect of technology progressing is old, old news. Throughout human history, technology has always been improving and changing. This is why we aren’t using bronze weaponry anymore, why we aren’t reading from scrolls, why we aren’t getting around town in a horse and buggy. Wolf says as much in her book:

[…] there would be no turning back from these new forms of communication and knowledge. Socrates could no more prevent the spread of reading than we can prevent the adoption of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Our shared human quest for knowledge ensures that this is as it must be.

But what still irks me about new technology is not so much that they exist, but that there is a lack of pause to consider the ramifications—cerebral, socially, culturally—of their consumption. I don’t think we should be decrying the Internet, or smartphones, or Twitter, nor should we ban people from using them. But I think we ought to be more mindful of how we use these resources and tools. If I’ve learned anything from Proust and the Squid, it’s this: that our brains wire itself according to what we feed it, sensorially and intellectually. It’s an impressive testament to the human brain, how it’s wonderfully complex, intelligent, and adaptive. It’s also a sobering reminder of what we might make ourselves into if all we’re doing is passively, apathetically consuming.

Going back to the passage from Feed—it reminds me of what Wolf said about the inevitability of technological progress. The world has and always will shape its infrastructure according to new inventions and innovations. We can’t detach ourselves from using new things if we still expect to be a functioning member of society. But we can and should take more ownership in how much we saturate ourselves, knowing that by doing so we have a direct effect on the sort of thinking people we become. The young characters in Feed live in a future plagued by political turmoil, environmental disasters, and impending war. But they are too distracted by the feed implanted in their brains—which flood them 24/7 with the equivalent of the Internet on crack—to care about the world outside of their hamster balls of comfort and entertainment. I already see that happening, in myself as well as the children and adolescents of our time. And I worry that if we don’t change the way we consume and utilize the technological tools available literally at our fingertips, we’ll end up just like Titus and his friends.


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