Friday, January 16, 2009

David Brin - Is the Web Helping Us Evolve?

This is an excellent article from David Brin, posted at Salon, on how technology (specifically, the web) may be shaping our current phase of evolution. It is certainly changing the ways our brains function, especially in kids who have been raised with the internet always being accessible. But the hysteria on either side (Google is making us stupid vs. the singularity is coming) is way off base. Brin brings some common sense to the issue.

Is the Web helping us evolve?

The truth lies somewhere between "Google is making us stupid" and "the Internet will liberate humanity."

By David Brin

Dec. 23, 2008 | Some of today's most vaunted tech philosophers are embroiled in a ferocious argument. On one side are those who think the Internet will liberate humanity, in a virtuous cycle of e-volving creativity that may culminate in new and higher forms of citizenship. Meanwhile, their diametrically gloomy critics see a kind of devolution taking hold, as millions are sucked into spirals of distraction, shallowness and homogeneity, gradually surrendering what little claim we had to the term "civilization."

Call it cyber-transcendentalists versus techno-grouches.

Both sides point to copious evidence, as Nicholas Carr recently did, in a cover story that ran in the Atlantic, titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In making the pessimists' case, Carr offered up studies showing that the new generation of multitaskers aren't nearly as good at dividing their attention effectively as they think they are. According to Carr, focus, concentration and factual knowledge are much too beneficial to toss aside in an avid pursuit of omni-awareness.

A related and even more worrisome trend is the decline of rigorously vetted expert knowledge. You wouldn't expect this to be a problem in an era when humanity knows more -- and shares information more openly -- with every passing year, month and day. Wikipedia is a compendium vastly larger than all previous encyclopedias combined, drawing millions to contribute from their own areas of micro-expertise. But the very freedom that makes the Internet so attractive also undermines the influence of gatekeepers who used to sift and extol some things over others, helping people to pick gold from dross.

In the past, their lists and guides ranged from the "Seven Liberal Arts" of Martianus Capella to "The Great Books of the Western World," from Emily Post's "Etiquette" to the Boy Scout Manual, from compulsory curricula to expert scientific testimony. Together, this shared canon gave civilized people common reference points. Only now, anyone can post a list -- or a hundred -- on Facebook. Prioritization is personal, and facts are deemed a matter of opinion.

Carr and others worry how 6 billion ships will navigate when they can no longer even agree upon a north star.

Of course, an impulse toward nostalgia has been rife in every era. When have grandparents not proclaimed that people were better, and the grass much greener, back in their day? Even the grouches' ultimate dire consequence has remained the same: the end of the world. Jeremiahs of past eras envisioned it arriving as divine retribution for fallen grace, while today's predict a doom wrought by human hands -- propelled by intemperate, reckless or ill-disciplined minds. The difference, from a certain angle, is small.

Take the dour mutterings of another grumbler, Internet entrepreneur Mark Pesce, whose dark rumination at last year's Personal Democracy Forum anticipates a dismal near-future commonwealth. One wherein expertise is lost and democracy becomes a tyranny of lobotomized imitation and short-tempered reflex, as viral YouTube moments spread everywhere instantaneously, getting everybody laughing or nodding or seething to the same memes -- an extreme resonance of reciprocal mimicry or hyper-mimesis. And everybody hyper-empowered to react impulsively at almost the speed of thought.

"All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw," Pesce said. "Politics, as the most encompassing of our mass institutions, now balances on a knife edge between a past which no longer works and a future of chaos."

From there, it seems only a small step is needed to incite the sort of riled-up rabble that used to burst forth in every small town; only, future flash mobs will encompass the globe. Pesce's scenario is starkly similar to dystopias that science fiction authors Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth portrayed, back in the 1950s, as in "The Marching Morons," or Ray Bradbury in "Fahrenheit 451," with civilization homogenizing into a bland paste of imitation and dullard sameness, punctuated by intervals of mass hysteria.

Indeed, it is this very sameness -- the "flat world" celebrated by pundit Thomas Friedman -- that could demolish global peace, rather than save it. Arguing that an insufficiency of variety will eliminate our ability to inventively solve problems, Pesce dramatically extrapolates: "Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes' war of all against all ... Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyper-empowerment. After the arms race comes the war."

Wow. Isn't that cheery? Well, with Michael Crichton no longer around to propound that there "are things mankind was never meant to know," perhaps Carr and Pesce are auditioning to fill in, offering the next vivid anthem for a rising renunciation movement -- the nostalgic murmur that technology and "progress" may have already gone too far.

Responding to all of this -- on the Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog -- Clay Shirky, the technology forecaster and author of "Here Comes Everybody," presents an equally impressive array of evidence showing that the ability of individuals to autonomously scan, correlate and creatively utilize vast amounts of information is rising faster, almost daily. In the human experience, never before have so many been able to perceive, explore, compare, analyze and argue over evidence that questions rigid assumptions. How can this not lead to insights and exciting new breakthroughs at an accelerating pace?

Perhaps even fast enough to get us ahead of all our modern perplexities and problems.

Nor is this refrain new. From Jefferson and Franklin to Teilhard de Chardin and J.D. Bernal, the tech-happy zealots of progress have proclaimed a rebellious faith in human self-improvement via accumulating wisdom and ever-improving methodology.

Even some artists and writers began siding with the future, as when Bruno Bettelheim finally admitted that it was OK to read fairy tales, or when H.G. Wells stood up to Henry James over whether stories can involve social and scientific change. Confronting stodgy culture mavens, modernists and science fiction writers spurned the classical notion of "eternal verities" and the assumption that all generations will repeat the same stupidities, proclaiming instead that children can make new and different mistakes! Or even (sometimes) learn from the blunders of their parents.

Before the Internet was more than an experimental glimmer, Marshall McLuhan fizzed: "But all the conservatism in the world does not offer even token resistance to the ecological sweep of the new electric media."

Read more.

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