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The Internet Changes How We Think, Uh?

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Every major transition in communications has an effect on the way people think. Proof of the pudding is easy to cook up. For example when people began to write, they lessened their dependence on memory.

Imagine the early civilised human endlessly reiterating directions, recipes, truisms and names, just so nothing of value would be forgotten – well we see that in rhymes, epic poems like the Iliad, and the begot and begat lists of the Bible.

Language at that point is imbued with mnemonic devices like alliteration and rhyme. That argument was first presented by people like Eric Havelock (The Muse Learns to Write) and Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy).

Once people learned to write – or at least when writing became pervasive within a social group – the purposeful inner dialogue changed.

The mind was released from its copious and continuous memory tasks and began its slow transition into the variegated potential we’ve seen realised since classical antiquity: literature, maths, objective science, philosophy, pragmatic technology. A mind bedevilled by remembering cannot spare the time for these activities.

But once you have a computer, which does all the memory work for you, what then?

The question isn’t just confined to how you and your memory might possibly change when you are further liberated from memory tasks.

Memory tasks are deeply social as well as personal. Collective memories usually led to some form of memorialisation, the 'Lest We Forget' type symbols of past struggles, sacrifices, and heroism that are dotted around cities, the countryside, and Mount Rushmore, among other places.

And they are social in the sense that oral uses of language are generally pertinent to a society’s political life.

Shakespeare was a great writer in part because he reflected the conflicts of the society of his day by writing about old Denmark, Rome and Egypt. Language used to be so allusive, symbolic and ambiguous and therein lay its power. It had many masters to serve and rarely has the task of exposing corrupt political relationships been a welcome one.

A point that Havelock makes astutely is that epic poetry was used to reveal corruption in oblique ways. The pleasure of the Homeric performance was seeing the well-to-do exposed, but discreetly.

A further feature of memory is creativity. Because memory is so closely allied to traditional forms of expression it has been viewed by many experts as the seat of creativity (the thesis is explored in various books by Stephen Bertman, particularly his Cultural Amnesia).

How does the memory-creativity link show itself? In a world with no pervasive forms of recording, for example, the quality of language is paramount as a mnemonic device. You simply don’t remember unimpressive prose.

Shakespeare not only wrote beautifully but also memorably. His characters are larger than life – which is a reasonable definition of any good traditional drama. Many memorials are made exactly like that: larger than life, so they will be remembered. Memorability is both a criterion of quality and a characteristic of art.

Creativity, traditionally, took us beyond ourselves in these exaggerated ways, painting life in caricatures in order that we remember the characters and their relationships. The sculpture of Winston Churchill outside the Houses of Parliament in London is hardly realistic. It is huge. But then art is never realistic because its purpose, like Churchill’s statue, used to be remembrance in all its forms.

And finally knowledge. It should go without saying that in those days when recording was piecemeal and when we relied largely on oral mnemonics – remembering by what we say – when language and the purpose of creative activity was deeply ambiguous and difficult to arrest in time, we had a tenuous grip on knowledge, as we define it now.

The corollary of this is that in a world of allusion it is ok to know things intuitively. And since there are few records it is ok to change your mind on matters of apparent fact.

These are important differences with the formal life of modern society. We tend to believe we know facts and in so far as there are public records then there is a documentary base for what we know. Nonetheless the solidity of knowledge is over-rated. Even written records are open to interpretation.

Unless you have written records knowledge is somewhat in the mix, a fact that Law Courts are often faced with. Even in the presence of written records, what we know is not as safe as we would like to believe.

The significant change is not that we are more certain now but that we are more concerned about certainty.

We should say that the past hundred years have been marked by a degree of certainty that we wouldn’t previously have been bothered with.

So what’s changing?

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