Monday, 24 January 2011

Eclipsing Cybertopias

The Internet does such remarkable things our egghead’s first reactions was to describe electrified utopias. Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. sociologist led the parade in 1995 with a book about identity called “Life on the Screen”. She’s having second thoughts in “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," Basic Books,$28.95.) The kind of things giving Cybertopias a bad rep was the recent suicide of Simone Back from Brighton who wrote a suicide note in her “Facebook” to which none of her 1,048 “friends” raised so much as a Mouse finger throughout her travail. And when Turkle recently made the Stephen Colbert comedy stint to tout her newest book, she groused that at a recent funeral, everyone there was busy using their iPhones, to which Colbert smirked, ”We all say goodbye in our own way.” Alone Together indeed!

Her thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. We have assumed new technology allows us to communicate better while in fact the new cyberworld often isolates us from each other. The solipsism of the “inventor” of “Facebook” astonishes us, as well it might. And his instant philanthropy of $100,000,000 in aid of the beleaguered Newark, New Jersey school system reeks of preemptive justice as his Harvard “friends” sue him for stealing “their” invention. Anti-social media?

And she is not by far the sole cyberskeptic. Kent State education specialist William Kist reports a backlash re the new modes of communication as scaring people. By far the most coherent and comprehensive criticism of cybertopias is in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains” (W.W. Norton, 2010). He warms up to the subject with solid and literate commentaries on Marshall McLuhan’s theories of the New Media as well as his mentor Walter J. Ong, S.J.’s pioneer research on orality in medieval rhetoric, a long, shamefully absent prologue to his student McLuhan’s oracular aphorisms about the emerging complex. The Mediator was the noisy Massager!

But by far the most interesting episode to this new intellectual crisis is Friedrich Nietzsche’s experience with the new Danish made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. The philosopher was sickly throughout his life, especially after he fell from a horse while serving with a mounted artillery unit in the Prussian Army. In 1879, aged 34, he had to resign his post as a professor of philology at the University of Basel. He went South in the winter to Genoa and returned North in the summer in Leipzig, all the while losing his vision. The new typewriter was delivered at the end of 1882.

Mastering the 52 key typewriter (capital and lower case plus punctuation marks), he was no longer “silent”. With practice, you could type 800 characters a minute, making it the fastest that had ever been built. He was so charmed he typed an ode to his salvation:

The writing ball is a thing like me: made of iron
Yet easily twisted on journeys
Patience and tact are required in abundance,
As well as fine fingers, to use us. (Carr, p.i8.)

But the real story on Action News was that it changed the way he wrote—and thought. His close friend, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed that his prose had become tighter and more telegraphic. (“The medium is the message” makes its debut.) Carr notes “There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power—its “iron”—was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.” Köselitz noted that thoughts in music and language “often depend on the quality of pen and paper.” (p.19). The philosopher concurred. “Our writing equipment takes part in the framing of our thoughts.”

After clearly summarizing the entire history of speaking, writing and printing—clearly and succinctly, he explores how the use of the computer has influenced his writing—not always for the better! It has reduced as well his capacity to read long, complex texts. Thus the grave risk that cyberthinking and writing will be shallower and less authoritative. No hysteria. Just the way it goes in the new cyber life. Carr’s book is the clearest guide I have read yet for preparing adults, especially teachers at all levels, for orienting the under-lettered for intellectual life in the future.

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