Friday, July 04, 2008

On the effect of clocks, typewriters and Google...

My good friend, Scott Brunner, sent me a trilogy of characteristically lengthly Atlantic articles to peruse over the long holiday weekend.  The first one I read is a fantastic reflection on the effects of technology of various sorts on the process of human thought. 

The writer argues that technologies - such as the typewriter, the clock, and the Internet - have not merely changed the way we access or manage information, but have actually changed the way our brains work. Those who know me know I'm a tech-addict - never separated from my handheld computer/phone with its high speed web connection; perennially reading my RSS feeds and catching up on Facebook or LinkedIn; ever-ready with a text-message or push-email exchange.  I found the article interesting and compelling. 

What I found most interesting was the several references to anecdotes in history of how other, much more "primitive" technologies had had similar effects on others.  Take, for example, the way Nietszche believed his new typewriter altered his writing style:

One of Nietzsche's friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. "Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom," the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his "'thoughts' in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper."

"You are right," Nietzsche replied, "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche's prose "changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style."

Or how the computer scientist demonstrated how clocks changed the human brain's way of monitoring metabolism:

[T]he conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments "remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality." In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

The author evens drags up the perennial trouble-maker Socrates and his concern about the emergence of basic writing technology:

In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue's characters, "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful." And because they would be able to "receive a quantity of information without proper instruction," they would "be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant." They would be "filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom."

Fascinating stuff. Read the entire article here.

1 comment:

Steve said...


Marshall McLuhan wrote several books emphasizing how that the type of communication technologies we use affect how we think. I read one of his books in the seventies and promptly forgot about it till reading Brian McLaren and Rex Miller a few years ago. Rex's book, the Millenium Matrix sealed the deal for me. They both relate how the communication era one grows up in and embraces affects the way that theology and church is done. Whereas the print era lasted centuries, the broadcast era lasted from ~1950 to ~ 1990. And, we are now in Digital Culture with its new characterstics. Until the early 2000's I was unrepentantly print oriented even though I didn't know it. Am now an immigrant to the Digital.