Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Teleporting straight to hell in a handbasket

(Updated below.)

Ten thousand years ago, early humans were much better at spotting saber-toothed tigers approaching them across the grasslands than you and I are today.

Plato fretted that the new and increasingly widespread of practice of writing would undermine the intellectual foundations of oral culture. Turns out he was lucky--he died 2400 years ago, before things had a chance to get worse.

When Gutenberg started releasing his own bootlegged Bibles in the 1500, the Church figured this could be a problem. And that case, it was probably right, at least from its own point of view.

I grew up at the trailing edge of the era when comic books were assumed to be destroying the minds of America's youth. A bit of family lore involves my dentist remarking to my mom that young Bill, then about age 6, had surprised him by knowing that lead blocked X-rays, and expressing surprise that anyone of such tender years would be so up on science and what-not. (Do I have to explain how I knew that?) My mom was sufficiently impressed that she mostly stopped objecting to my reading comics.

Although, from her point of view, I probably escaped the frying pan only to land in the fire after the Beatles first appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" a few years later. A generation who danced to "Mairzy Doats" watched their children singing "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and knew their young minds were being turned irreparably to crap.

As an undergraduate at Purdue, I watched the engineering school wrestle like medieval theologians with the questions raised by the first generation of hand-held programmable scientific calculators (as they were called in those days) from HP and TI -- should they be banned from exams? Were they going to make engineers dumber because they wouldn't be able to do math by hand -- or using a Post slide rule?

In the 1980s I was a college professor when desktop computers became widely available. Once again, The Powers That Be worried that the new technology would corrupt and degrade the intellectual process. Faculty members rolled their eyes at the earliest student papers written on word-processors (as they were called in those days). Within a few years, they would cite with approval studies claiming that papers written on Apple computers usually "looked better," but papers written on PCs had "more ideas" in them. Readers in the grad school thesis office admitted that thesis manuscripts submitted from desktop computers got proofread much more rigorously than their typewritten equivalents.

Fast-forward another decade to the 1990s, when I actually remember an article in a respectable journal of ideas insisting that Windows Installation Wizards (which came online with Windows 95, I believe), were dumbing-down its users, stripping them of their opportunity to hone their intellectual problem-solving skills and digital pioneering spirit, presumably by no longer having to figure out port locations, IRQ conflicts, and DIP switch settings on their own. (If you remember home computing before Plug and Play and installation wizards, you're probably now cleaning up the milk that just came out of your nose. Yes, and eradicating smallpox stripped the human race of the chance to hone their dying-young skills, too.) This was roughly the same time that Neil Postman and Camille Paglia faced off in the pages of Harper's on the outmoded linear-thinking habits of a book-oriented world versus the sensory and intellectual chaos of the MTV-generation experience.

So now here we are in the first decade of the 21st century, and--would you believe it?--Nicholas Carr worries in The Atlantic that Google may be making us stupid.

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.[…]

But that boon comes at a price.

And so on.

In a century or so, parents will watch holovids explaining that teleportation has made their children unable to appreciate geography--and hence, unable to think spatially--the way previous generations did.

(A couple of decades earlier, when those parents had been children, netcast reports had warned that holovids were going to dumb them down, leaving them unable to use the intellectual and conceptual skills they learned by being raised with Google cybernetic implants.)

And so on.

(Update I: Thanks to Joel for reminding me that, in 2003, Edward Tufte warned us that PowerPoint was also making us stupid. Of course, in Tufte's case, he was right.

Update II: And here's the latest example.)                                

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