Analog Youth, Digital Adults

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Is there subjective value in ideas? Over at Surprisingly Free, Jerry talks to author Nicholas Carr, who thinks the internet is destroying publishing and literary culture. His book is based on an older Atlantic article. In his excellent TED Talk, Jonathan Haidt claimed that the tabula rasa, the idea that we are born a blank slate, is painfully misguided. Our moral foundations fall along five lines, and we develop and regress. Carr argues that our mental muscles are equally malleable, and cites an interesting historical example:

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

Sound familiar? Carr believes that contemplative, long-form thought is gone. Clay Shirky thinks otherwise. From his WSJ piece titled “Does The Internet Make Us Smarter?”, he points to his own historical example, the institution of peer-review:

Wikipedia took the idea of peer review and applied it to volunteers on a global scale, becoming the most important English reference work in less than 10 years. Yet the cumulative time devoted to creating Wikipedia, something like 100 million hours of human thought, is expended by Americans every weekend, just watching ads. It only takes a fractional shift in the direction of participation to create remarkable new educational resources.

Similarly, open source software, created without managerial control of the workers or ownership of the product, has been critical to the spread of the Web. Searches for everything from supernovae to prime numbers now happen as giant, distributed efforts. Ushahidi, the Kenyan crisis mapping tool invented in 2008, now aggregates citizen reports about crises the world over. PatientsLikeMe, a website designed to accelerate medical research by getting patients to publicly share their health information, has assembled a larger group of sufferers of Lou Gehrig’s disease than any pharmaceutical agency in history, by appealing to the shared sense of seeking medical progress.

Of course, not everything people care about is a high-minded project. Whenever media become more abundant, average quality falls quickly, while new institutional models for quality arise slowly. Today we have The World’s Funniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube, while the potentially world-changing uses of cognitive surplus are still early and special cases.

He points out that erotic novels appeared a century before scientific journals. Shirky (and his intellectual compatriot Tyler Cowen) believes this revolution in thought-mode is a good thing; that increased abundance and access will have long-term benefits that more than offset the loss of the older system. Creative destruction, baby.

I tend to agree. Carr holds that longer-form reading, writing, and thought, are more valuable than the modern utilitarian institutions. Any philosophy student who tried to power through Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the aphorisms could argue that this:

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.

Is far superior to this:

Behold, I teach you the overman! The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go!

I disagree with Carr. He’s arguing for some kind of objective value that comes from contemplation. People are finding new and more useful ways to interact with ideas. Who can say what’s better and what’s worse? Carr’s letting the perfect being the enemy of the good.

If our minds and mental patterns are as malleable as Haidt and Carr believe, surely we can do something to offset the costs Carr and Jerry talk about, noteably . . . um, something about memory? Let me listen to that again.

Full disclosure: I wrote this while watching several episodes of Arrested Development, listening to the Jerry’s podcast, and checking the box score from Strasburg’s first game. I also read about a novel a week, mostly at night before I go to sleep. My point is this pattern wouldn’t work for everyone, but it seems to work for me. If you’ve read this far, I bet you won’t make an “it didn’t work for you this time!” joke, but take your best shot. What works for you? What pattern do you wish you could get into?

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