“Global Uniformity”

Prophetic words from 1995:

“I think cyberspace means the end of our species….Because it means the end of innovation….This idea that the whole world is wired together is mass death.

“Every biologist knows that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. You put a thousand birds on an ocean island and they’ll evolve very fast. You put ten thousand on a big continent, and their evolution slows down. Now, for our own species, evolution occurs mostly through our behavior. We innovate new behavior to adapt. And everybody on earth knows that innovation only occurs in small groups.

“Put three people on a committee and they may get something done. Ten people, and it gets harder. Thirty people, and nothing happens. Thirty million, it becomes impossible. That’s the effect of mass media—it keeps anything from happening. Mass media swamps diversity. It makes every place the same.

“Bangkok or Tokyo or London: there’s a McDonald’s on one corner, a Benetton on another, a Gap across the street. Regional differences vanish. All differences vanish. In a mass-media world, there’s less of everything except the top ten books, records, movies, ideas. People worry about losing species diversity in the rain forest. But what about intellectual diversity—our most necessary resource? That’s disappearing faster than trees.

“But we haven’t figured that out, so now we’re planning to put five billion people together in cyberspace. And it’ll freeze the entire species. Everything will stop dead in its tracks. Everyone will think the same thing at the same time. Global uniformity.”

–Michael Crichton, The Lost World

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Further On Entertainment Technology Versus Literacy

I can’t get out of my mind how glibly so many among us brush off the loss of literacy as we become more plugged in as just another in a series of history’s trade offs when new technology arises.  We lost a lot of memory when books became popular, goes one mantra. 

But here’s why that analogy doesn’t work—the “loss of memory” was a tradeoff for the higher literacy that was then available.  Books had always been around, but only within the last several hundred years have they—and literacy—become common, so it wasn’t an introduction of a new ability, but rather a spreading of a resource that had been restricted before.

Moreover, the skill sets mentioned here are not equivalent.  We may have traded some memory for literacy, but the fundamental, underlying skills of the mind—deep, focused thought; concentration; engagement with language—was always there. 

Only now, with electronic entertainment, has that changed.  We are losing those basic skills and trading them for…what?  My students, when we talk about this, are quick to say that the new skill set is computer skills.   Really?  Relatively few people are skilled at designing, programming, or repairing computers.  The vast majority of users are merely playing games. 

The assumption which has successfully underpinned all education for thousands of years is that the skills we practice in school are transferable to infinite activities in the real world.  We even teach the way we do with a faith that these skills will prepare students for the unknown, unexpected innovations of the future–a faith that has always been rewarded. 

But what is the transference value of computer skills?  What basic cognitive functions do games and applications stimulate that will ready children for a wide variety—including those of a currently unknowable nature—of skills for the future?  Other than stronger thumbs, I can’t think of any.  Certainly no major brain function is trained by computers nearly as well as by traditional learning and books.

We’re trading an egalitarian, literate culture for an elitist, technological culture.

The “it’s just another change and we’ll adapt” mantra is a flaky one at best, as this change has no precedent.  We’re exploring a dark, mysterious land, and we must proceed with far more caution, or we might just end up blindly hitting a wall or going over a cliff.

You Are Not a Gadget…Or A Passive, Vacuous Techno-Consumer

“It has become appalingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”     –Albert Einstein

Einstein was mostly talking about the bomb, and how we don’t have the maturity to handle such a powerful weapon wisely.  His thought applies equally well to that other insidious invention of the last century, electronic entertainment.

I was thinking of this again this week as I read a brief new essay at City Journal, Adam Thierer’s even-handed, thoughtful review of the new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  Lanier writes persuasively, Thierer agrees, about the need for caution and analysis in our application of online technology, but he also singles out some of Lanier’s major themes and disagrees with them.  In this, Thierer’s review is faulty: when he tries to rebut Lanier’s points, he falls into a trap of contrarian clichés, asserting blindly that Lanier is wrong:

Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.

It’s interesting that Thierer uses Neil Postman as one of his references as a promulgator of the “mythical ‘good ol’ days,'” when much of Postman’s most popular book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, establishes quite firmly that general literacy and attention spans used to be significantly greater than they have been since the introduction of mental-labor saving devices during the 20th century.  Thierer commits his greatest fallacy, though, when he asserts that “despite the hand-wringing and occasional ‘techno-panics,’ we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.” 

This is patently false. 

Thierer seems to base his claim in the fact that technology critics predict dire consequences, yet we’re all still here, therefore the prophets of doom are wrong.  But nobody ever said that turning over more and more of our intellectual autonomy to electronic toys would completely destroy us (except, of course, for The Terminator, The Matrix, and pretty much everything Michael Crichton wrote), but that it would result in a world increasingly sterile in its mental acumen.  Is there any way to deny that that’s exactly what’s happened?

This week I watched an episode of PBS’s Frontline, from just last month, called “Digital Nation.”  It’s a stunning documentary about how the minds and lives of young people have been fundamentally changed by their sudden and total immersion in an electronic entertainment technology climate.  Continue reading