Hello, beloved Flossers. Congratulations on making it over the weekly hump! In case this excessively rainy Wednesday didn’t sufficiently beat your soul into the ground, tonight’s topic of interest deals with why we’re all so friggin’ stupid–at least, so says Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas G. Carr.
According to Dr. Carr, author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, humans of the 21st century are experiencing a concerning decline in mental capacity due to our dependence on…
(cue Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5)
…. Shhh…. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of literally nobody being surprised by this idea.
The Rise of the Internet
So for the past twentyish years or so, the Internet has played an increasingly important role in the lives of modern-day people. The more we use it, the more accustomed we become to its unique pattern of reading: first step is to glance at an article’s title, second is to actually read a couple of sentences, third is to skim its content, and fourth is to get bored and quickly move on to the the next webpage… Probably something similar to what you’re doing at this very moment. And just how do I know that? Oh, my biggest clue was that you missed the extra “the” I intentionally planted in step four. #pwnedBut really, though. I know you’re essentially skimming over this article, and I can’t blame you; Carr has a point. We have all the world’s information right at our fingertips–of course we’re constantly going to be jumping from one thing to the next. There’s so much to learn and explore and so little time to absorb it all. If you read in this manner often enough, however, you’ll find that it will eventually start to carry over into other literary domains in your life–and not necessarily for the better. This becomes especially obvious when you sit down and try to read a chapter of that dreadful European history book you’ve been avoiding all weekend… Yeah, you know the feeling.
But, hey, you’re not the only one who can’t read a thirty-page chapter in less than two days. Most of us have a hard time maintaining our focus while reading extended pieces of literature, let alone comprehending the information. A major culprit of this phenomenon is Google–especially that convenient little Google box that tells us precisely what we want to know in as few words as possible. Hell, it even puts the exact words we’re looking for in bold print to prevent us from having to read a whole entire sentence.
Of course, this ease of access has taken a bit of a toll on our attention spans; we want the answer, and by God, we want it now. Possibly of even greater concern is its impact on our ability to think critically. We’ve become so accustomed to having things spelled out for us that we often don’t want to have to have to derive meaning from a text using our own devices. Such considerations may justify one of Carr’s greatest fears: humans essentially turning into computers.
"In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive." -Nicholas G. Carr
Yes, that sounds way too Stephen King to be taken seriously at first, but consider it this way: can relying solely on computers gradually cause our own human intelligence to morph into artificial intelligence? Go ahead, gather up any remaining capacity for critical thinking you might still have and use it to contemplate this proposition for a moment. It’s actually a pretty unnerving thought, isn’t it?
On a more positive note, however, all this doesn’t mean that the Internet has doomed us as a people. Let’s time-warp back to this blog’s first post (the one that mentioned Plato) and take a look at his teacher, Socrates. Socrates, brilliant as he was, detested the development of the written word. What? Why on earth would he be opposed to such an incredible innovation that would surely enrich the intelligence of mankind? Essentially, Socrates disapproved of writing because (get ready for this mind-blowing parallel) he was afraid that written documents would encourage future scholars to become isolated and lazy, turning to books for knowledge instead of communicating with one another. His fears were justified to an extent, but he most certainly didn’t account for all of the wonderful advances that the age of literacy spurred. History really does repeat itself, doesn’t it?
Following this logic, it seems our new style of information processing isn’t so bad after all. It’s not just the Internet that utilizes short, to-the-point communicatory methods; traditional forms of media are following suit (that’s why you see those annoying text crawls on the bottom of the TV screen that repeatedly distract you from what the newscaster is saying). The digital age isn’t the death of classic literature–I’d be so bold as to say it’s merely the next big transformation in how we learn and process information. Suppose skimming and jumping from webpage to webpage is actually a culturally adaptive skill that can pave the way for further communicatory evolution? Just think of the potential!
The New Generation of Communication
This more optimistic view leads me to my next topic of interest: electracy. Proposed in 1989 by English professor Gregory Ulmer, electracy (a nifty mashup of the words “electric” and “literacy”) refers to the next dimension of reasoning and understanding whose origin is rooted in the development of the Internet. Until very recently, there were only two levels of communication: orality and literacy. Historically speaking, orality (the older of the two levels) has been associated with morality–that is, right and wrong. This relationship is due to the fact that orality was the main method of communication in the days when religion was the primary mechanism behind societal operation. Later on, when written language began to catch on, the literary revolution co-occurred with the popularization of scientific thought; as a result, literacy essentially became the embodiment of true and false.
Many people perceive orality (religion) and literacy (science) as the two different schools of reasoning; one is governed by faith, the other by fact. It’s a very black-and-white matter–or, should I say, it used to be. Enter electracy, the colorful new dimension of communication! Electracy, unlike its counterparts, emphasizes subjectivity over objectivity. It isn’t about right vs. wrong or true vs. false; it’s about joy and sadness and everything in between! Unlike its ancestors, electracy values the individual person, encourages creativity, and fosters a more humanistic mindset.
Here, this table might help break things down a bit…
So in simple terms, orality focuses on religion, literacy focuses on science, and electracy focuses on humanity–this shift in priority is a key concept as to why electracy is such a big deal.
Electracy: The Second Enlightenment
Electracy is hugely important concept because of the tremendous amount of potential it holds. Electracy not only produces meaning in digital media, it also promotes the development of an entirely new culture. We’re standing on the cusp of a new age that’s all about emotion, creativity, and, most importantly, equality. The Internet has connected the entire world on an unprecedented level of intimacy. As a result, barriers are breaking down, stereotypes are dispelling, empathy is increasing, and so much more! All of these factors foster the humanitarian awareness that is currently driving countless social revolutions across the globe.Because electracy places so much emphasis on the individual, people are gaining a sense of worth and independence that has not been historically commonplace. The beautiful thing about electracy is that it rejects the categorical, black-and-white philosophies of its predecessors, instead choosing to embrace a more dimensional approach. In electracy, there is no definitive right or wrong, no clear-cut truth or falsehood– it recognizes that people are too complex to be neatly tucked away into such simplistic categories. Electracy is so innovative because it operates on the philosophy that everything falls on a continuum, a spectrum, much in the way of real-life humans. That’s pretty darn cool.
Though it has been on the radar for less than thirty years, electracy has already triggered huge changes in social dynamics around the globe. Acceptance and coexistence have become major societal themes over the past several years; this can be seen in the #blacklivesmatter campaign, the legalization of gay marriage, the crackdown on bullying, and in so many other domains. As interpersonal awareness continues to grow, progressively greater advances will be realized in social justice–I don’t know about you, but I’m about to thrill all over myself just thinking about all the wonderful possibilities.
In essence, Mental Flossers, we are only just entering a brand-new realm of understanding that is unlike anything the world has ever seen before. It’s not science, it’s not religion–it’s humanity. It’s the here and now. Get ready for revolution, my friends; it is the dawn of a new era.