Near the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche was beset with a number of illnesses, including troubles seeing and most devastatingly, writing. One attempted solution was to buy what was at the time a brand new technology, a typewriter. He ultimately discarded the invention. David Carr, in his famous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” describes it this way:
But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose ‘changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.’ ”
This anecdote is the introduction to a larger book by Carr called “The Shallows.” His thesis is that the new science of “neuroplasticity” is showing that the brain’s previously unknown ability to adapt to new environments is working against us in the Internet Age. The brain’s ability to change its circuitry is causing it to work less efficiently as the Internet serves more and more as a repository of information instead of one’s own memory.
Neuroplasticity is the idea that, rather than the fixed and immutable brain science previously believed we possessed, it now appears as though the brain is perfectly capable of rewiring itself spontaneously. The brain adapts to changes in your habits and environment, favouring one pathway over another as it suits your evolving needs.
You can experience this for yourself if you decide to take up piano, and over time, find that you think less about where to put your fingers as you play: the brain has selected the pathways that will best fit those needs and over the course of months and years, strengthened those signals and made them more efficient.
Carr’s contention is that, because the Internet now provides a collective repository of knowledge, we are as a species becoming “dumber” as our need to remember information becomes less critical. A similar notion that we’re losing the ability to form meaningful connections from a D&C opinion article sparked a small discussion on Twitter this weekend:
Reflection is becoming reactive: we face fitting ourselves into small windows and boxes, or Twitter’s 140-character limit. We filter our words voluntarily, complying with “terms and conditions,” or use emoticons as a prepackaged form of expression. Using reflective faculties less, we seem to favor today’s ruling formula: “read, react, send, receive, (defend), (agree), react, repeat.” Even worse, it can lead people to jump to damaging conclusions, without the benefit of a discussion.
Todd Clausen of the D&C, independent author Jonathan Everitt and I discussed it:
As interesting as discussions like this can be, as you can see, I’m a bit doubtful. David Carr’s Nietzsche anecdote is enticing, but it needs to be said that, among Nietzsche’s troubles at the end of his life, he suffered from a lot of mental illness. On top of that, let’s face it: Nietzsche’s kind of a Gloomy Gus in the best of times. And parenthetically, the manufacturer of said typewriter insists to this day that the model he got was broken, anyway.
If the anecdote is instructive of anything, it is that experiencing the sensation that the technology you use to communicate is changing the way you communicate is far from being a novel phenomenon. Nietzsche might be one of the more interesting stories, in that he exists at a time when Moore’s Law begins to outpace human lifetimes for the first time; he lives at a time technology is observably different at the end of one’s lifetime.
The fact that we don’t find ourselves “in the Matrix” so many years after Nietzsche’s time is probably proof enough that, while neuroplasticity now seems like a fairly reliable scientific theory, it doesn’t work in quite the radical way that David Carr would have you believe.
The way we communicate certainly informs the way we think, just as the books I read will inform the way I write, from one month to the next. But we’re too quick these days to believe that our technology so changes us. It is a kind of technophobia, not informed by science but enabled by junk interpretation of science.
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