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July 1, 2010, noon

When “neuroplasticity” had a simpler name: Whispering books and other lionized memories

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He’s reading and reacting to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be running Matthew’s ongoing twin review; here are parts one and two. — Josh]

In the first chapter of The Shallows, Nick Carr contrasts the curious ennui of his college’s computer lab with the sustaining calm of the library stacks:

Most of my library time…went to wandering the long, narrow corridors of the stacks. Despite being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, I don’t remember the anxiety that’s symptomatic of what we call “information overload.” There was something calming in the reticence of all these books….Take your time, the books seemed to whisper to me in their dusty voices. We’re not going anywhere.

Books, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, always speak in italics.

The whispering tomes resided in Dartmouth’s Baker Library (where I doubt they were allowed to gather much dust); they enlivened the halcyon days before computers took over Carr’s life. Beginning with a little beige Mac Plus in 1986, Carr began the technological joyride of upgrade and ever-increasing entanglement: from MS Word to AOL to Netscape to blogging, Carr was careening with the rest of us towards Web 2.0. By the time he started blogging, he had long since noticed the ways in which the computer transformed work, experience, even consciousness itself:

The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked. At first I had found it impossible to edit anything on-screen….But at some point — and abruptly — my editing routine changed. I found I could no longer write or revise anything on paper. I felt lost without the Delete key, the scrollbar, the cut and paste functions, the Undo command. I had to do all my editing on-screen. In using the word processor, I had become something of a word processor myself.

This transformation — and the brain’s capacity for it — is the principal theme of Carr’s book. By the time the Internet had fully infiltrated Carr’s working life, he notes, “the very way my brain worked seemed to be changing….It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” Carr warns that brain’s susceptibility to such change leaves us open to being transformed by technology — and not in altogether positive ways. “[T]he Internet, I sensed, was changing me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine,” he writes darkly, “a human HAL.”

It’s a funny reference. For HAL, the deranged artificial intelligence at the center of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, intellectual inflexibility was his downfall: presented with seemingly incommensurable choices, his mind refused to expand, reflexively eliminating the variables (his changeable human crewmates) instead.

Again and again, Carr prefers to stack the deck against computers. The dusty books he extolls are quiet counselors, wise and infinitely patient. They refuse to intervene, to interact, as technology is wont to do; they prefer to wait until we’re ready to receive their gentle ministrations. But in fact books are no such thing. They’re seductive, manipulative, transformative. They’ve changed through time; they’ve changed us through time.

And we haven’t always agreed that those changes were for the better. Two hundred years ago, Washington Irving bemoaned a rising tide of newly-published books in terms Carr would find familiar:

The stream of literature has expanded into a torrent — augmented into a river — expanded into a sea…. The world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn their names…. before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue.

…which, I want to say, is perhaps an early nineteenth-century equivalent of a human processing machine. Irving was writing in a time when steam power was transforming the printing press from a craft into an agent of mass production, a book mill quite different from Gutenberg’s machine. With many of his contemporaries, he wondered whether we would adapt to the freshet of new books. But adapt we did. As intellectual historian Ann Blair has shown, early modern readers and writers worried about information overload — something Carr claims didn’t exist until roughly the time he bought his first Macintosh — and our strategies for dealing with it have been evolving for centuries.

The susceptibility to transformation that Carr discusses in The Shallows is real. It’s our native endowment — what the brain evolved to do. It is the vogue among scientists to call it neuroplasticity; before that, it was called learning.

POSTED     July 1, 2010, noon
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