Internet, memory, & more things we don’t understand

On my birthday, my Grandma sent me a card, as she always does, without fail. Then, a week or so later, she sent another one. I saw the envelope and my heart skipped a beat.

My grandma’s losing her mind! I thought. And I’m getting so old! Life is so short! We’re all going to die! Etc.

But then I opened it and saw that she simply wanted to include a gift, didn’t have it in time for the first mailing, but still wanted to send something to arrive on my birthday. Then I realized just how many birthdays that woman has remembered for all of her 79 years. In fact, her mind might be sharper than mine! I asked her to recite them all over Thanksgiving. Not only could she remember her immediate family, all her kids’ and grandkids’, but she knew the birthdates of her great-grandkids. One of them is my only nephew, born just last month. No idea which day.

I’m with Carr on this one, our capabilities for processing are changing as a result of the constant influx of new information. But I also agree with some things Shirky has to say, like that mostly it’s probably a good thing. I think two of the main points he makes that I can get on board with were:

1. “Luddism is … where people are encouraged to believe that change is inevitable, except, perhaps, this time. This wish for stasis is bad for society, though not because it succeeds. The essential fact of Luddite complaint is that it only begins after a change has already taken place, so Luddites are mainly harmless whiners (except, of course, for the original Luddites, who were murderous thugs.) The real problem is elsewhere; Luddism is bad for society because it misdirects people’s energy and wastes their time.”

2. “Every past technology I know of that has increased the number of producers and consumers of written material, from the alphabet and papyrus to the telegraph and the paperback, has been good for humanity.”

So, he’s saying people resist change and that changes of this nature have always proven to be good.

Still, Carr’s evidence doesn’t bode well for my ability to engage in learning–something I used to enjoy. And I’ve proven his points through my own inability to focus in classes, conversation and life. What strikes me most about his theory is that we may start to lose our ability to discern important information from new information. That we will value new information over old information more worthy of further contemplation.

This is something I think is particularly true in regard to social media. The infinite scroll of news feeds keeps me wanting the newest information most.

Actually, The Atlantic (where Carr first made waves with his thoughts about thought) is one of the few news sources I read regularly that still seems to value interesting, in depth journalism over the newest information. Making my way to the end of one of their cover stories makes me think in that deep way Carr described–the way he suggests we may be losing.

Basically I’ve just said both theorists are right. I suppose they can’t both be entirely right. But isn’t it impossible to say who will end up being wrong about what?

I would however like to point out something that felt like a hole in Shirky’s argument. When I learned today about his more recent theory about television, I was confused. He says (as I noted above) that every change in communications has been for the better. But this argument seems to be that television was actually for the worse. So, he leaves room again for the possibility that bad things can happen as a result of ease of communication. People will sit in front of TVs all day and stop engaging in real life.

He suggests and I agree that there are some definite detriments to TV. So can’t we also recognize that the possibility exists for the internet to have the same capability?

I think that’s the most likely place for Carr’s theory to hold more truth than Shirky’s. But like I said, there are also things I think Shirky gets right.

In closing, I’d like to tangentially address another person whose theories I’ve been reading. Well, actually, I can’t really handle just reading these days, so I am listening to his audiobook, “Moonwalking with Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” while doing other things like jogging or driving. The author is 29-year-old Joshua Foer. He addresses a lot of the same research as Shirky and Carr while he discusses how humans have regarded memory throughout history through the frame of the US Memory Championship. The point I think he makes that adds to Carr and Shirky is that often, as changes have taken place it is impossible to make accurate judgements about what they will mean because we don’t understand the nature of the beast until we look back at it long after it’s been established. For example, Socrates didn’t believe writing things down would ever be useful to knowledge but in his time writing was on scrolls all in capital letters without spacing. So, how could he make a fair judgement?

In the same way, how can we possibly make a fair judgement about the internet without knowing how it will evolve?

Here’s a clip of Foer on Colbert:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Joshua Foer
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

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