Autonomy of Means revisited: the Internet

Last May I wrote a piece for this blog entitled “Autonomy of Means and Education”. The choice of phrasing was drawn from Charles WIlliams, “Bors to Elayne, on the King’s Coins”. I’ve recently had reason to revisit the question again, from a different direction.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Some may consider it ironic that I discovered this book at the recommendation of some friends via Facebook: it is an extended (and not particularly optimistic) meditation on how the Internet is “rewiring” our minds — making quantifiable and physically measurable changes in our brains — by the kinds of information it delivers, and the way it delivers it.

Carr’s main point is fairly straightforward, and very hard to refute from common experience: he contends that the rapid-fire interruption-machine that the Internet offers us tends to fragment our attention, perpetually redirect us to the superficial, and prevent us from achieving any of the continuous long-term concentration from which emerge real ideas, serious discourse, and, in the long view, civilization itself. Not only is it not conducive to such thinking in and of itself — it actually suppresses our capacity for such thinking even when we’re away from our computers. Carr doesn’t point fingers or lay particularly onerous burdens of blame at anyone’s door, though one is moved to wonder cui bono? — to whom is all this a benefit, and where is the money coming from? There is a curious unquestioned positivist philosophy driving companies like Google that is not consistent with at least how I see myself in relation to my God, and the other people in his world.

Carr supports his case with a dazzling array of synthetic arguments ranging from the philosophical to the neuropsychological. He makes a very convincing case for the plasticity of the human brain, even into adulthood — and for the notion that those capacities that get exercise tend to be enhanced through measurable growth and synaptic enhancement of specific areas of the brain. All this can happen in remarkably short time (mere days or even hours). My own field is rather far removed from psychology, but what he says rings true with me — my ability do do almost any kind of mental activity really does improve with practice. Unused abilities, by the same token, can atrophy. That this happens is probably not very surprising to any of us; what is surprising is its extent and the objectivity with which it can be measured. I was intrigued to learn, for example, that one can identify particular developments characteristic of the brains of taxi-drivers, and that discernible physical differences distinguish the brains of readers of Italian, for example, from readers of English. We tend to think of language as largely convertible from one to another; it’s not necessarily so. Whether this has some other implications about why one ought to learn Latin or Greek is intriguing to me, but not something I’m going to chase down here.

Carr’s thesis, if it’s true, has serious consequences for us at Scholars Online. It has implications about who we are and how we do what we are doing. As a teacher who has found his calling trying to teach people to read carefully and thoughtfully, analytically and critically, with concentration and focus — via the Internet — I naturally feel torn. I like to believe that the format in which I’m pursuing that work is not itself militating against its success. It is at the very least a strong warning that we should examine how we work and why we do what we do the way we do it.

I do feel somewhat vindicated in the fact that we have never chosen to pursue each and every new technological gewgaw that came down the pike. Our own concern has always been for cautiously adopting appropriate technology. I still tend not to direct students to heavily linked hypertext documents (which, as Carr argues, provide vastly less benefit than they promise, with substantially lower retention than simple linear documents in prose); almost anything that requires the division or fragmentation of attention is an impediment to real learning. As I have said elsewhere in my discussions of the literature program, my main effort there has always been to teach students to read carefully and thoroughly — not just the mechanics of decoding text, but the skills of interpreting and understanding its meaning.

The book is not without a few technical flaws. Carr has either misread or misinterpreted some of the points in Paul Saenger’s Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Many of his claims about Latin and the development of the manuscript are too facile, and some are simply incorrect. Saenger points out that in Classical Latin, word order makes relatively little syntactic difference. He’s using that distinction precisely. Carr apparently takes this to mean that, as a function of the way manuscripts were written and produced in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, there was less concern for discrete idenitification of word boundaries (likely to be true), and less concern for word order in a given text (completely preposterous). Yes, it’s true that Latin syntax does not rely as heavily as English does on word order; it’s not true that word order is without significance semantically. The fact that many of our survivals from ancient sources are poetic would clearly argue against this: if you rearrange the words in a line of Vergil, you will destroy the meter, if nothing else. Word order in poetry is essential for meter (something we can verify objectively); it’s also powerful poetically. Words echo each other only if they stand in a certain arrangment; this one will be left enjambed at the beginning of a new line with potent poetical effect.

Of Horace, Friedrich Nietzsche said:

Bis heute habe ich an keinem Dichter dasselbe artistische Entzücken gehabt, das mir von Anfang an eine Horazische Ode gab. In gewissen Sprachen ist Das, was hier erreicht ist, nicht einmal zu wollen. Dies Mosaik von Worten, wo jedes Wort als Klang, als Ort, als Begriff, nach rechts und links und über das Ganze hin seine Kraft ausströmt, dies minimum in Umfang und Zahl der Zeichen, dies damit erzielte maximum in der Energie der Zeichen – das Alles ist römisch und, wenn man mir glauben will, vornehm par excellence.
(Götzen-Dämmerung, “Was ich den Alten verdanke”, 1)

To this day, I have had from no other poet the same artistic pleasure that one of Horace’s Odes gave me from the beginning. In some languages, what Horace accomplished here could not even be hoped for. This mosaic of words, where each word — [understood] as sound, as place, and as idea — exerts its influence to the right and left and over the whole, this economy in the extent and number of the signs, through which those signs receive their greatest power — that is all Roman and, to my way of thinking, supremely noble.
(Twilight of the Gods, “What I owe to the Ancients”, 1. Tr. my own.)

Nietzsche was a very strange philosopher (if that’s even the right term to describe him); I don’t hold with many of his ideas. But he was actually a pretty astute reader of Horace.

Cicero’s orations — not poetry — were similarly characterized by prose rhythms and semantic subtleties that could not possibly have been preserved were the scribes or copyists indifferent to word order. Whether we’re dealing with poetry or prose, word order is ultimately no less important in Latin than in English. It just has a different importance. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Carr also routinely refers to Socrates as an orator, which is certainly not how Socrates viewed himself. He correctly notes that Socrates eschewed writing, partly because (as is discussed in the Phaedrus, one of the weirder Platonic dialogues), the old Egyptian priest claimed that it tended to weaken the memory. This is true, but it’s only one of Socrates’ reasons. He also disdained writing and oratory both because they were one-way forms of communication. What he valued (as can be found elsewhere throughout his work) is the give-and-take of two-way conversation: in the Greek, διαλέγεσθαι (dialegesthai) — the root of our own “dialogue” and “dialectic”. He believed that the exchange was uniquely capable of allowing people to dig out the truth.

In the Apology (which I’m now reading with some terrific students in Greek III), Socrates specifically and fairly extensively begs to be excused from having to talk like an orator. This is how the dialogue begins:

How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know; but I, for my part, almost forgot my own identity, so persuasively did they talk; and yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they have said. But I was most amazed by one of the many lies that they told—when they said that you must be on your guard not to be deceived by me, because I was a clever speaker. For I thought it the most shameless part of their conduct that they are not ashamed because they will immediately be convicted by me of falsehood by the evidence of fact, when I show myself to be not in the least a clever speaker, unless indeed they call him a clever speaker who speaks the truth; for if this is what they mean, I would agree that I am an orator—not after their fashion. Now they, as I say, have said little or nothing true; but you shall hear from me nothing but the truth. Not, however, men of Athens, speeches finely tricked out with words and phrases, as theirs are, nor carefully arranged, but you will hear things said at random with the words that happen to occur to me. For I trust that what I say is just; and let none of you expect anything else. For surely it would not be fitting for one of my age to come before you like a youngster making up speeches. And, men of Athens, I urgently beg and beseech you if you hear me making my defence with the same words with which I have been accustomed to speak both in the market place at the bankers tables, where many of you have heard me, and elsewhere, not to be surprised or to make a disturbance on this account. For the fact is that this is the first time I have come before the court, although I am seventy years old; I am therefore an utter foreigner to the manner of speech here. Hence, just as you would, of course, if I were really a foreigner, pardon me if I spoke in that dialect and that manner in which I had been brought up, so now I make this request of you, a fair one, as it seems to me, that you disregard the manner of my speech—for perhaps it might be worse and perhaps better—and observe and pay attention merely to this, whether what I say is just or not; for that is the virtue of a judge, and an orator’s virtue is to speak the truth.
(Plat. Apol., 17a-18a, tr. Harold North Fowler).

One of the things that struck me while I was reading the latter stretches of this book was the subject I raised last May: when a tool — any tool — becomes autonomous, we’re heading for trouble with it. We pour much of who and what we are into our tools, and the making of tools is apparently very much a part of our nature as human beings. We are homo faber — man the maker — as much as we are homo sapiens. That is, as I take it, a good thing. With our tools we have been able to do many things that are worth doing, and that could not have been done otherwise. But we must always hold our tools accountable to our higher purposes. The mere fact that one can do something with a given tool does not mean that it’s a good thing. They say the man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail. That adage still holds good. We can be empowered by our tools, but every one comes at a cost — a cost to us in terms of who we are and how we work, and what ends our work ultimately serves. There is some power in choosing not to use certain tools on certain occasions.

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