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Gutenberg’s ‘old-intimacy-reading culture’ versus Web 2.0’s ‘Cognitive Entanglement’

23 Feb

            How does the web get inside of us? This question is posed in Adam Gopnik’s “The Internet” article published in The New Yorker (2011). In the electronic age of Google and e-books, one can’t help but to question the effects with which the human psyche undergoes. As children, we grew up outdoors. Our imaginations led us to the far reaches of the world-when in actuality, it was the point that one’s parents had designated as the “do not cross this line when playing outside or bad things will happen”- far reaches of the backyard.  We turned mud into delicious cakes, and rainy days warranted bare feet and messy clothes. But with the advent of these new mediums, is harm being done to our cultural frames? Gropnik (2011) argues that “the digital world is new, and the real gains and losses of the Internet era are to be found not in altered neurons or empathy tests but in the small changes in mood, life, manners, feelings it creates-in the texture of the age” (p. 8). So what is the so called “texture of the age?” To answer this question, Gropnik (2011) discusses three schools of thought: the Ever-Wasers, Never-Betters, and the Better-Evers -try saying that three times fast (p. 2). These three schools of thought, regarding the effects of the Internet, relate to Marshall McLuhan’s Technical Determinism.

             McLuhan’s Technological Determinism is defined as “the perspective that our growing ability to alter or replace nature provides a central reason for most personal and social trends” (Wood and Smith, 2005, p. 30). The Ever-Wasers school of thought, briefly stated, is that there has always been a machine, but it has evolved as humans deemed necessary to fulfill cultural and spiritual needs. This can be explained with McLuhan’s four epochs: Tribal Age, Literate Age, Print Age, and Electronic Age (Reardon notes, 7 February 2011).  As each epoch gave way to the next, new ways of orating and relating emerged.  The Ever-Wasers perspective believed that “in any moment in modernity [there is] something like this going on, and a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others” (Gropnik, 2011, p.2). As Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the spread of secular and religious material, it also caused a fragmentation in society.

            As the Ever-Wasers saw the Internet as a “sense of vertiginous overload,” “The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t” (Gropnik, 2011, p. 6, 2). As McLuhan argued that the Print Age was the forerunner to the Industrial Age, and gave way to a new fragmented society that glorified individualism, Nicholas Carr would agree with this school of thought (Reardon notes, 7 February 2011).  Carr “is most concerned about the way the Internet breaks down our capacity for reflective thought” (Gropnik, 2011, p. 5). The Electronic Age, with its hypertexts, asynchronous communication styles, and multimedia has given rise to the 21 Century tech-zombie. As Sherry Turkle argued in “Alone Together,” “the old intimacy-reading culture” has been destroyed by the “new remote-connection-Internet culture” that John Brockman relates to John Keats’s “waking dream” (Gropnik, 2011, p. 5-6). The zeitgeist of this school of thought is one of “disassociation and fragmentation…[where] Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part…impossible to fix” (Gropnik, 2011, p. 6).  But can the zeitgeist ever really be destroyed, or is it a malleable interpretation and reflection of the socio-economic and cultural values of the time?  Gropnik (2011) makes an excellent point when he states, “Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them. Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos” (p. 9).

            Finally, the Never-Betters ideology is comparable to the 1960’s mentality of peace, love and happiness. They “believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves” (Gropnik, 2011,p.2). Does Wiki-leaks come to mind? Of the three schools of thought, this is the hardest one to buy into. Gropnik (2011) states “the new connective technology, by joining people together in new communities and in new ways, is bound to make for more freedom” (p. 2). Really? Can we discuss Egypt for a moment? Yes, the Internet provides the forum for free speech and the freedom of expression, but freedom becomes just an empty concept in the face of the words, oh, regulation and censorship. There will always be the so called innovators for radical change; the ones, such as the Egyptian populous, who challenge the safe or the undemocratic or the corrupt. So to say that “the Internet produces the global psyche” and “Contraptions don’t change consciousness; contraptions are part of consciousness,” while somewhat accurate, aren’t entirely true and seems to be a horribly creative way to restate McLuhan’s saying “we shape our tools and they in turn shape us” (Gropnik, 2011, p. 4).

As the Internet has the capacity to turn the human population into tech-zombies, each person has unique tools to fight against such a transformation. As stated above, the Internet ‘contraption’ has had enumerable effects on the human populous and not all has been bad.  As Wood and Smith (2005) state “even reality becomes subject to manipulation” (p. 8). Are we entering into a zeitgeist categorized by fragmentation and disassociation, the inverted self, or a new era of “peace, love and happiness?” To borrow a quote from Sir Walter Scott, “What a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to…”.

Works used:

Gropnik, “The Internet”. Published in The New Yorker, February 14, 2011

Wood, A. F., & Smith, M. J. (2005). Online Communication. Muhwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum     Associates.