27 August 2009

The Atlantic Monthly is nurturing a good debate about whether the Internet age is transforming our brains for the better, or for the worse.  This month, Jamais Cascio makes the argument for better; a year ago, Nicholas Carr made the argument for worse.  Both agree that our brains are indeed being transformed.

A year ago, I was on board with Carr; today, reading Cascio’s article, I find myself eager for a counter-argument.  What’s changed?  Essentially, I think I have grown exhausted of pessimism.  Which is another way of saying I am officially weary of my own fundamental temperament.

I just might be ready to be swept up in Cascio’s optimism:

If the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: by getting smarter. But this time, we don’t have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our intelligence. We can do it ourselves.

Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they’re very much part of who we are today: they’re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today’s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”

I feel cornered, to tell you the truth — my hands in the air in surrender.  There’s no turning back.  We have choices, but to resist is a lonely road.  If I were forty years older, the prospect of noble resistance might seem more realistic; I’d move to Kentucky and have evening tea with Wendell Berry, write about the virtues of a localized, work-with-your-hands (analog), live-off-the-land existence.  As it is, fifty-some years of resistance to technological trends would be like taking the other-worldly vows of a monk, but without the community or structure.  

I am a writer; words and how we interact with them is central to this technological revolution.  There is no way to non-participate, to be ignorant, of these major shifts.

So convince me.  I’m ready.  Show me the money.  Show me how all the compression and speeding up and gadgets will make both our minds and our souls better.  How digitization and byte-sizing of everything adds up to good.  How the lasting things will not be lost to us.  


5 Responses to “You-Plus”

  1. Eric Says:

    This worries me to no end. I don’t know how to write what I do with the presence of all this technology despite it being a part of my life. I’m party to it all but I don’t know what to make of it in relation to humanity at large. No matter how intelligent we become I think the basic mechanics of meaningful interaction aren’t going to change. Our use of those interactions *is* changing, and for the worse. Texts and tweets and embarrassing stories ( are becoming online commodities (not quite the same as information) and losing their initial, real-world value. I find myself doing this, wanting to use the internet as an echo chamber/megaphone. These things become a measure of popularity and entertainment, a way to win a sort of unscored contest.

    When I’m offline, when I’m walking or when I’m swimming or anything like that, life is quickly the same as it was ages ago. I was lost in downtown Riverside and I had to ask a woman for directions. I had a cellphone with me, I could have called someone and had them Google the area. But I didn’t.

    What I’m doing a poor job of arguing here is that I don’t see the very necessary interactions changing in any way but the negative with this advance in technology. My generation was brought up on this blog earlier in regards to how we process what we find on the internet. I mention this because while we may become temporarily aghast at the horrors we’re exposed to by the internet, our reaction is largely in that medium, where sound, fury, and significance are made equally moot by a hurried eye or hand.

  2. sonyachung Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Eric. I think there is some element of faith to be drawn upon here. That if you take the time to immerse yourself in the natural world or choose to interact with a human being, the value is inherent, and nothing can ever change that.

  3. Eric Says:

    I agree. But I fear that technology is making those interactions less necessary and perhaps even undesirable. In a way they may become a luxury.

  4. Danny Says:

    I am nostalgic for the days before cell phones, caller ID, the Internet, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

    But at the same time, I love Google and Wikipedia.

    If I were the ruler of the universe, I’d bring about some sort of blend between the two. Information only, as far as electronics. All person-to-person interaction would be by landlines, letters, and personal contact.

    Every book, magazine, and newspaper would exist in print, only. Blogs would go back to being zines. MP3 players and their stupid white earphones would disappear.

    We are in the age of instant gratification, and so far as I can tell, all things that have moved from a time when waiting was necessary to the age of instant gratification have suffered. You respect things and cherish them more when you have to wait. That album you couldn’t find for years but finally run across in some other city sounds 100 times better than the iTunes downloaded version. That letter in the dirty envelope with the cancelled stamp is read more slowly and more often than the e-mail. That book you had to order from England–even though it cost twice as much due to the exchange rate–was cherished more for the simple fact that you couldn’t go out and buy one right now in your own city.

    From all that, I would guess that the word “appreciation” is going to mean something different to us than it does to our grandkids. There’s that feeling of waiting-turned-accomplishment that I already miss.

    • sonyachung Says:

      There’s an article in this week’s NY Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan on the possibility that Facebook has “jumped the shark,” so to speak. People seem already to have tired of it. Which makes me think Twitter may be close behind.

      Slowness, cherishing… another word I’d use is savoring. I struggle to see how my own work as a writer will thrive, because it’s become increasingly clear to me that I work best — my best and most worthwhile writing emerges — in slowness. In quiet and expansive mental space and closing off of minute-to-minute external-world demands (of course, we always have to be faithful to our life commitments, but I’m referring more to the full inbox that needs to be replied to within the hour, or else…) Indeed, this slowness and mind-quiet has become the ultimate luxury, what with the expectation for the author to always be “interacting,” and at super-fast pace.

      I think it always comes back to staying true to what you know, in your gut, to be true and good and right. The “cost” of that has always been high; perhaps as technology continues to evolve, the loneliness cost will increase. Or maybe a mild backlash — a “market corrective” — is just around the corner. The optimist and the pessimist in me continually duking it out!

      @DP — by the way, I’m actually a fan of the mp3 because of podcasts. I’ve found it’s the best way for me to manage the deluge of news media and current events, and I’m actually able to stay reasonably informed on things only because of the ability to listen to news while commuting or walking.

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