The New Republic of Letters

We shape our tools, and there after they shape us. (John M. Culkin)

I’ve read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011) and I remembered Plato. In Phaedrus’s dialogue (sect. 274-275), Plato presents a story about the invention of letters by Thoth. This new skill is a gift, a “pharmakon” (in ancient Greek “pharmakon” have two opposite meanings, depending of proportion/usage: “medicament”, but also “poison”). The external memory/writing

[…] it “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Nicholas Carr talks a lot about how using Internet can affect our cognitive skills, some of them being boosted, while others are atrophied. It is not about technophilia or technophobia. We must accept that in any gift we receive, there is something we lose.

When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. (p. 211)

“I can’t read War and Peace anymore, I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” (page 8)

As McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it. (page 7)

Progressive educators banished the practice [of memorization] from classrooms, dismissing it as a vestige of a less enlightened time. What had long been viewed as stimulus for personal insight and creativity came to be seen as a barrier to imagination and then simply as a waste of mental energy. (page 180)

The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even we’re away from our computers. (p. 194)

The computerized grading system would “read and assess” the essays that British students write as part of a widely used test of language proficiency. A spokesman for Edexcel, which is a subsidiary of the media conglomerate Pearson, explained that the system “produced the accuracy of human markers while eliminating human elements such as tiredness and subjectivity,” according to a report in the Times Education Supplement. A testing expert told the appear that the computerized evaluation of essays would be a mainstay of education in the future: “The uncertainty is ‘when’ not ‘if’.” How, I wondered, would the Edexcel software discern those rare students who break from the conventions of writing not because they’re incompetent but because they have a special spark of brilliance? I knew the answer: it wouldn’t  Computers, as Joseph Weizenbaum pointed out, follow rules: they don’t make judgments. In place of subjectivity, they give us formula. The story revealed just how prescient Weizenbaum had been when, decades ago, he warned that as we grow more accustomed to and dependent on our computers we will be tempted to entrust to them “tasks that demand wisdom.” And once we do that, there will be no turning back. The software will become indispensable to those tasks. (p. 223-224)



Here comes the other opinion:

  2 comments for “The New Republic of Letters

  1. February 15, 2013 at 10:51 am

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