L'Oro dell' Azzurro by Joan Miro (via Spaceweaver)
Two interesting articles, one from The Atlantic called "Get Smarter", and another by Peter Daou called "The Philosophical Significance of Twitter: Consciousness Outfolding" reflect in their arguments the growing speculation that social technology is making us smarter.
Both articles come as a sort of rebuttal to the claim held by Nicolas Carr in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" also originally published in The Atlantic, that our scattered attention in the Internet era means that we are less capable of deep contemplation.
I've written about the fact that my continuous engagement with technology has noticeably decreased my attention span for doing certain things, such as reading literature ("Is the Internet Killing Culture?").
Carr's argument in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" draws on a similar experience. He writes, "Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do"(1). He sees the Internet as the culprit because "It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed."
Cyber-theorist Linda Stone describes the effect of technology on humans as one of "continuous partial attention"(2). Most online users, either at work or at home, can relate to being bombarded by a flurry of instant messages, emails, tweets, Facebook messages, etc. Checking your social media profiles is perhaps the most effective time-waster ever invented.
It seems as long as we are on our laptops, desktop computers, or cell phones, we are part of an information flow that never really ends. The ability to enter and exit this digital flow can be difficult, especially if you are prone to procrastination.
I believe we are coming to a greater understanding of the impact of intellectual technologies on humans. Carr's article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" only points to the drawbacks of a culture enmeshed in digital systems. What it does not do is assess the ways in which our collective and individual intelligences are growing.
We first need to concede to the fact that technological distractions are a major consequence of living during this time. If you have email, if you use the Internet, or a smart phone, you cannot escape digital distractions. Google itself is a sort of Siren that draws us to her search bar to make queries and get lost in a sea of ever-changing information. Every new social technology, from the latest Twitter app to Facebook's obsession with development, promises a cooler tool and a greater distraction.
Now that we all agree social technology limits our attention spans, let us examine the ways in which we are becoming sharper as thinkers and communicators, and more effective as individuals and societies.
Many bloggers, including myself, draw on print publications to form opinions and advance arguments. This is not to say that print publications are better, but simply that most of the time paid journalists from respectable sources have done their homework. The bridge between the blogosphere and print culture is narrowing, however; many writers for newspapers and magazines have blogs, and a new crust of elite Internet publications such as Huffington Post and TechCrunch are gaining ascendancy. The growth of citizen journalism essentially means that more people are writing about what they are reading. While it is true that I am reading less literature, I'm also reading more things that impact me in the news and arts. In short, I am engaging in a dialogue with other writers and culture as a whole.
The shift from a readerly culture which privileges paid, professional journalists to a writerly culture in which anyone can post their opinion and discuss a topic has been underway for some time now. What we are seeing, to interesting effect, is how traditional media relies on the same technology to disseminate information as citizen journalism does. Hyperlinks, Page Rank, and social media are not only leveraged by Internet publications but any publication that wants to be seen, heard, and talked about.
I believe an active, writerly culture is far more intelligent then a passive, readerly one. While both writers and readers seek patterns in information, writers do something with those patterns and that information. For example, to write this post I had to read four different articles, some of them with conflicting claims; I had to synthesize them, evaluate each of their claims, and assert my own. This is a much more complex process then reading a book. Even a great book, even literature. This is what people do in college and grad school, except I'm doing it on a regular basis for fun.
Now not every person on the Internet is a blogger. And not every blogger produces the same volume of content. The point is that everyone using the Internet is participating to some degree, forming what publisher Tim O'Reilly calls the "architecture of participation."
Built into the active component of using the Internet is also the social component. Since Daniel Goleman's groundbreaking book,"Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships", we have come to believe that there is more than one form of intelligence. Our abilities to connect with one another characterize social intelligence. What does this mean in the Internet era?
Jamais Cascio writes:
Intelligence has a strong social component; for example, we already provide crude cooperative information-filtering for each other. In time, our interactions through the use of such intimate technologies could dovetail with our use of collaborative knowledge systems (such as Wikipedia), to help us not just to build better data sets, but to filter them with greater precision. As our capacity to provide that filter gets faster and richer, it increasingly becomes something akin to collaborative intuition—in which everyone is effectively augmenting everyone else(3).Cascio seems to suggest advanced forms of information architecture. These advanced forms are social and participatory, targeted to our needs as individuals, and productive of a kind of collective intelligence.
Communication technology has progressed from oral culture, to manuscript culture, to print culture, and now information culture(4). Digital culture infused with social technology merges the characteristics of three of these four cultures. We can use Twitter as an example. Twitter reveals certain aspects of an oral culture (telling your friends what you are doing), certain aspects of print culture (public announcements, quotations), certain aspects of information culture (hyperlinks), and lastly a more inscrutable aspect that has yet to be defined.
The role that Twitter played in Iranians protesting the presidential election points to the development of this inscrutable aspect of the technology. That is the dynamic that gets created between users and whole populations. The dynamic shapes communication, insight, and action. It is inventive, always changing, and most definitely intelligent.
Peter Daou writes:
In the larger picture, the most intriguing thing about Twitter is not how it is different from other online communication mechanisms, but how it is the same: one more technological innovation enabling the outfolding of consciousness -- the collective turning-outward of human thought(5).The "collective turning-outward of human thought" is a vision that ultimately means we are growing more in tune with one another. When we are intuitive at a collective level, the potential for local, national, and global re-organization and improvement is possible and real.
The sequel to this post is, "Re-Thinking Iran and Twitter".
For more intellectual essays by the author, visit Escape into Life.