Monday, April 4, 2011

Fretting about the 'net

I shun celebrity gossip sites and Web videos because I decided a while back that if I'm going to kill brain cells, I'd rather do so over a well-aged bottle of amber bliss with a good friend or two. Recently, though, I realized I have another weakness that, while not killing as many brain cells, certainly isn't giving the ones I still have the kind of workout they need, and is taking up an inordinate amount of time to boot. The culprit is the melancholic essay about the 'net's detrimental effect on our social lives and/or mental health. (That's right, essays just like this one.)

Nicholas Carr's Rough Type blog is dedicated to investigating the effects of the 'net on our minds; Carr has even written a book on the subject, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. (Visit the Rough Type blog for the actual link, in case he gets cash for the clicks. I haven't read it, by the way, so don't ask me if it's any good.) I read a lot of what Carr posts; I don't agree with it all, but I appreciate that somebody is reading and thinking about the subject.

That said, reading about the 'net's detrimental effects on our minds ultimately is pointless. People have anecdotal evidence to support this narrow finding or that one: the 'net is decreasing our ability to focus, unless it isn't; we're losing our capacity for deep thought, except when we aren't; etc. Few well-designed studies have been done. Nobody can say whether our 'net-addled brains work differently today than brains did a hundred years ago, much less say whether any differences are beneficial.

Moreover, there's something narcissistic about 'net-fretting. We who spend a lot of time online tend to obsess about it in ways that bemuse, if not amuse, others. We think we're hyperaware of our environment, imagining ourselves to be fish who realize they live in water. It's probably truer to say we're self-absorbed: we can't get enough about how the 'net has changed us.

So why write another navel-gazing piece? Actually, I'm hoping this won't turn out to be one. Believe it or not, this professional pessimist and part-time cynic is going (to try) to offer a non-cynical, mostly non-pessimistic take on the subject. For this surprising turn you can thank Alice Gregory, who penned (can I still use that term?) a book review last November that Carr made the focus of a recent blog entry.

Gregory's review of Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story is really an excuse, and not a bad one, for an extended reflection on how technology and circumstance have changed the way she thinks since she graduated from college. She's not happy with the changes.
In the past year, I graduated from college, got a desk job, and bought an iPhone: the three vertices of the Bermuda Triangle into which my ability to think in the ways that matter most to me has disappeared. My mental landscape is now so altered that its very appearance must be different than it was at this time last year. I imagine my brain as a newly wretched terrain, littered with gaping chasms (What’s my social security number, again?), expansive lacunae (For the thousandth time, the difference between “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” please?), and recently formed fissures (How the fuck do you spell “Gyllenhaal?”). This is your brain on technology.
I'll hazard a guess that she's wrong to make technology the primary culprit. College requires you to spend hours, days, or even weeks on a single topic. Most jobs neither encourage nor permit that kind of singlemindedness. You're engaged with the outside world, and the outside world is wont to destroy your carefully constructed plans for organizing the day. This happens whether or not you own an iPhone.

(I can't resist observing that Gregory writes in a very fresh-out-of-school way. Flourishing her erudition alongside her earthiness shows us and future employers that she not only received a good education, but can write for the common man too.)

Certain software, though (and by "technology" Gregory really is talking about software, not hardware), does habituate us to what she calls "the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation." Where I think she errs is in assuming such stimulation is entirely pleasurable. Up to a point it is: we all like new experiences. However, eventually we grow tired of being stimulated and we need to rest. Gregory finds herself wearier and wearier, and perhaps as a consequence, finds much about social media to be a chore.

Sometimes 'net obsession goes beyond being a chore, and turns into something that sounds like a narcotic.
Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.
[Grumpy aside: it's "the Internet," capitalized. It's still a proper name, even today.]

None of the foregoing would have gotten me to comment on this review, though. What spurred me to do that was a bit of amateur prognostication of What All This Means For Our Future.
The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.
I don't know what to make of ominous visions like this. My inclination is to observe that in spite of books, radio, films, television, and now the Internet, people still see plays. They no longer command the same degree of attention, but they survive. I'll warrant that books, and deep discussion and appreciation thereof, will survive, too.

Anyway, I've stopped worrying about humanity's future.

If you were to transport Aldous Huxley from his heyday to right now, would he conclude that we had escaped or fulfilled the dystopian freak show of Brave New World?

If the Greek philosophers who first imagined "democracy" could see us now, would they think we had distorted human society all out of reason, and fallen from what they would consider their own state of relative grace?

Whether you answered "yes" or "no" to the foregoing, consider this:

What does it matter?

We can't and won't go back to an earlier state of society. We always look forward. The result might be something that looks similar to what came before, but it will have arisen in response to current needs and current abilities, and it will never be exactly the same as what came before.

So fretting that the 'net is changing the way we think isn't going to get us not to use the 'net. It might get us to use it less, but that's all. None of us wants to turn the clock back, even if we could.

The 'net-addled might not be as intellectually rigorous or as deeply thoughtful as earlier generations. It doesn't matter. If it's a problem, future generations will make those characteristics a priority (again). That's how our future brains will take care of themselves. That's why hand-wringing like Gregory's doesn't impress me any more.

Humanity will muddle through somehow.

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