Text Technologies, Electronic Transitions

The theme most clearly emerging from our first unit of Convergence Culture is the question of how new technologies that have been introduced to and absorbed by our culture in the past 20-30 years have changed how we interact and communicate with one another.

With Dennis Baron and A Better Pencil, we look at how text technologies come about, replace and reshape existing technologies, change and evolve themselves,  are adapted to fit people’s needs, go dormant and/or (as is rarely the case, it turns out) become extinct.  We get the sense that Baron is answering the cultural narratives he sees surrounding computer technology, the narratives that position computers and their implications as unlike (in any way) any other technology that came before them.

With Clay Shirky and Cognitive Surplus, we examine how those computer technologies have begun to replace older technologies in our spare time, how they are occupying our “surplus” in ways that for 50-60 years prior was being done by television.  In our networked society, with the perpetual potential for having a global audience for what we write and create, the new kinds of activities and perspectives that emerge are endless.  And due to this, I would argue, is an acceleration of those same forces, a feedback loop of introduction, utilization, and adaptation.  E.g. texting begets twitter begets storify etc.

The most salient text for me, though, is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which has received a lot of popular attention in the wake of his polemically titled and often-cited article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?,”  in a summer ’08 issue of The Atlantic and his ’08 book The Big Switch (which I highly recommend).  Carr’s argument, which by now is familiar, is that the internet, with its fragmented, hyperlinked, distraction-laden nature is altering the way we think and, simultaneously, the physiology of our brains.  Thus we as individuals are less capable of the deep thinking associated with the codex, and we as a society will have to deal with this change.

As we read Carr in light of Shirky and Baron, a particular critique we might have of The Shallows emerges: everything we do, each behavior we enact, changes our brains by altering our neural pathways.  If technology is always changing, so then are our brains.  The question then becomes so what?  Carr tellingly describes mass deep attention as resulting from the printing industry and thus an anomalous blip in the history of mankind.  So a bookish society thinks in bookish ways, and an internet society thinks in internet ways.  What’s the big deal? Or, as Adam Thierer says, “The problem [with Carr's argument] is, there’s just no scientifically precise method of stacking gains against losses.”

It makes a lot more sense to me to think of Carr as articulating a problem specific to our age, an age of electronic transition — the same transition Katherine Hayles writes about — because the ways of thinking and working that were persistent in the 20th century, as Shirky explains, are going away.  So people should get ready.

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