September 17, 2010

Is Google Making Us Evil? ~ Dan Slanger

Because the Net’s No Bodhi Tree (Part Two).

The Net might oppose calm, creative intellect

Part One’ linked being attentive to being good and opposed being attentive with being online. In opposing the Net and the Bodhi tree, I offered two arguments:

First Argument:

First premise: c’monnn.

Second premise: you know what I’m talking about.

Conclusion: the Net’s no Bodhi tree.

Second Argument:

Premise: there’s this one book I read.

Conclusion: the Net’s no Bodhi tree.

Neither argument seemed sound so I promised the next post would ‘look closely’ at the ‘one book I read’.

The book — Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains — argues that our time online displaces our ability to attend to one idea long enough to remember it and create something with it. The book’s official upshot, then, is that the Net opposes intellect. (The book expands Carr’s 2008 Atlantic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”.)

How the Net affects intelligence, though, is only one of Carr’s concerns. Carr also worries the Net displaces the feeling of calm we get from reading a book:

Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter into a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.” Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was —and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. ~ The Shallows, page 65

(As someone who meditates, I starred the passage, a pitch for back-bends and zazen as much as for books. As Carr notes, switch ‘filling’ with ‘clearing’ to arrive at the essence of the unique mental process of deep stretching or deep sitting. The switch, steadied on the common ground of attention, is less violent than it sounds.)

If the Net might oppose calm, creative intellect, then the Net might oppose calm, creative empathy

Carr’s official worry, then, is that the Net displaces our capacity for calm, creative intellectual effort. The Net asks the soul to click and scan and, in asking again and again, atrophies the soul’s ability to tend to any idea long enough to take it in and make it new.

As we (violently) switch to online lives, Carr considers intellect a loss worth calculating.

Though, for Carr, intellect is not the only old-world loss with which we weigh the Net’s new goods and services. The lead is buried—a bit, light dusting will do—but the bolder claim Carr wishes he had space to safely make is that the Net might well oppose our capacity for calm, creative empathy:

It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion…the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” cautions Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a member of…[Antonio Damasio’s research team]… “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.” It would be rash to jump to the conclusion that the Internet is undermining our moral sense. It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts. ~ The Shallows, pages 220-221.

(As someone who values contemplative practices precisely for their (occasional, fleeting, nonetheless all the worth it) ability to let me calmly forget my loud, attention-starved self enough to focus on the right-before-me needs of another, I starred the passage, a pitch for downward dogs and zafus as much as for books.)

The lightly buried less official upshot, then, is that as the Net displaces the soul’s ability to attend to an idea long enough to calmly take it in and creatively make it new with this or that intellectual synthesis, so also the Net displaces the soul’s ability to attend to another long enough to calmly become them and kindly make them new with this or that compassionate act.

Simone Weil, Patron Saint of Attention

Simone Weil is awesome

Carr’s less official claim is a bit bolder and I can understand why he pulls back.

Simone Weil, however, toward the end of the essay I began ‘Part One’ with, does not pull back, does not bury the lead; rather, she puts it on a stand:

In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, “What are you going through?”

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.

Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

~ from “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”

I am none the sounder

I began this post with a promise to improve my last post’s arguments for the conclusion that the Net is no Bodhi tree. It would seem that I have  made good on my promise in precisely the following way:

Third Argument:

First premise: there’s this one book I read; really, I read it; just look at this quote and that quote.

Conclusion: the Net’s really, even more than I first claimed, no Bodhi tree; it might even be evil.

So it seems I have improved my argument by emboldening my conclusion without adding a single premise. It seems all I have done is raise stakes for the still unanswered question

What is Google making us?

Google might not be making us ‘evil’.

But, as I hope the above at least puts on the edge of the table, Google might not be making us ‘good’, either.

The claim I want to always keep on the table is that Google is making us something—probably something, yes, ‘between good and evil’—and we ought to pay attention to what that something is.

With that obligation in view, I’ll continue to journal my thoughts on the matter in subsequent posts—perhaps a premise or two will finally emerge.

As always, your comments and related posts are appreciated as they alone redeem the mildly ironic use of the internet to critique the internet—for they alone point to the Internet’s potential for dialogue that online communities like elephant attend to, recognize and make real.

Dan recently moved to Boulder to be with mountains and friends. He enjoys biking about town and his one big desire in life is to have sustainable desires. Write him at dslanger(at)gmail(dot)com or visit his neo-natal blog not quite worth going to yet.

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