The effects of new technology on our minds and culture

This is the background research for a project I am working on this winter. I have asked several friends and family to document their lives for 8 days. Essentially, the goal is to determine if their thoughts are affected by their technology or if they realize the effects of their technology on their thoughts. This is an age-old question starting back in the days of Plato and the invention of texts. I will be publishing more of my “findings” however unscientific, in the coming weeks.

Artist Statement

I will design an experiment centered around the influence of constant digital and analog (real-life) communication on thoughts, behavior, and language.

Research

In Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, character Lord Henry Wotton tells character Dorian Gray, “Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passion. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sin, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him” (p. 16). It is this idea of influence that I am pondering within my experiment in which I examine the effect of constant digital and analog (real-life) communication on thoughts, behavior and language.

The idea of consciousness and self-identity have been long been an issue of anxiety for artists of all types. In fact, Harold Bloom, an academic of writing and theory with an almost obsessive focus on the distinctions between tradition and innovation, cited this very struggle in letters by poets such as, Wallace Stevens. Bloom’s essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” describes the poet’s desperate need to differentiate himself from predecessors and contemporaries. The only way to do this, Bloom states, is through the denial of all influence and a misunderstanding of his actual sources. In other words, a self-creation based on an internal spring of inspiration that is untainted by outside forces. Bloom’s view is that we are inevitably influenced by our readings, but in order to create new art we must rid ourselves of past influence. However, the hyper-self-aware process of this cleansing is actually detrimental to our creations over time.

In 1962, Marshall McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. This publication studied the effect of media on the cognitive process as well as a broader influence on culture, proposing that any new communication technology such as an alphabet, book, or electronic medium that is able to affect our social world, will then alter the makeup of our culture. He writes “[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.”

Essentially, this is a study of the distribution of information and how the availability of that information affects our behavior and thoughts as a society and leads to the creation of what he calls the “global village.” He predicted the influence of the electronic media would lead us to a state where, “Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.”

Author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr, takes McLuhan’s affirms McLuhan’s projections in his article “Is Google Making us Stupid” through antidotes from various academics who profess to no longer be able to focus on longer texts. He proposes “Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self.”

Carr brings up the influence of context as well suggesting that reading on a screen will create a different set of patterns within our brains than reading from a printed text, “We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.” Carr also mentions the self-fulfilling effect of these newly woven circuits, “The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.”

John Lehrer, in his article “Our Cluttered Minds,” which is a review of Carr’s book, he states “One of Carr’s most convincing pieces of evidence comes from a 2008 study that reviewed 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005. While the digitization of journals made it far easier to find this information, it also coincided with a narrowing of citations, with scholars citing fewer previous articles and focusing more heavily on recent publications. Why is it that in a world in which everything is available we all end up reading the same thing?”

This concern is not unique to Lehrer, in fact the “filter bubble” has become a point of interest and alarm for author of “The Filter Bubble” and TED speaker, Eli Pariser. He worries that the personalized search intended to provide us information more relevant and useful to the user may actually be narrowing our worldview. Pariser examines how the actions we take while on the Internet determine the unique Internet experience that is created for us in the future. The point being, what we read today, will impact what we read tomorrow. Beyond that, there are, at the time of the talk, 57 pieces of information that Google is using to tailor your search results, even from the first search on your very new computer.  He warns the audience that, “your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”

There was no research or theories regarding the argument that the Internet was not affecting the way we think or form language that I could uncover. It seems that every generation has a technology that the culture believes changes them. For Plato it was the written word, later it was the printing press, then the radio, and then the television. Overall, the theories are often associated with fear or anxiety surrounding the impact of the new technology. The effects are assumed to be negative on the mind and the culture. However, looking back, it is clear that the technologies developed up to this time have actually benefited culture and the mind overall. I searched for anything that took the point of view that this was just another disruption that causes unease but turns out to be beneficial, but I was unable to find this.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Bloom, H. (1973). The anxiety of influence: A theory of poetry. US: Oxford University Press.

Carr, N. (2008, 07 01). Is Google making us stupid. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/

Lehrer, J. (2008, 06 03). Our cluttered minds. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Lehrer-t.html

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Pariser, E. (Performer) (2011). Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

Wilde, O. (1890). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.

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