Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It ain't over 'til it's over

If only scientists would stop learning new things, I could be comfortable in my previous assumptions. For several years, I have accepted as true that we confront the modern age with essentially Stone Age minds and that human evolution had receded to vanishingly small levels, shielded from adaptive challenges by technology.

That some people speak and act with Neolithic sensibilities seems indisputable in my experience, but in general, I may be premature in marking an end to human evolution and guilty at least of oversimplication in thinking that we are mostly wired to hunt Mastodons. Writing in the December Scientific American, Peter Ward describes the ways in which agriculture and urban life have contributed to changes in the human genome:

...over the past 10,000 years humans have evolved as much as 100 times faster than at any other time since the split of the earliest hominid from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees. [Scientists attribute] the quickening pace to the variety of environments humans moved into and the changes in living conditions brought about by agriculture and cities. It was not farming per se or the changes in the landscape that conversion of wild habitat to tamed fields brought about but the often lethal combination of poor sanitation, novel diet and emerging diseases (from other humans as well as domesticated animals).

As to the Stone Age mind, philosopher David Buller argues in the same issue that we can't really know enough about the environment of our ancestors to describe their psychology with any precision and, that, indeed, the concept of a Stone Age mind does an injustice both to our pre-human past and to our more recent development:

[The] claim that human nature was designed during the Pleistocene, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, gets it wrong on both ends of the epoch.

Some human psychological mechanisms undoubtedly did emerge during the Pleistocene. But others are holdovers of a more ancient evolutionary past, aspects of our psychology that are shared with some of our primate relatives. Evolutionary neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University has identified seven emotional systems in humans that originated deeper in our evolutionary past than the Pleistocene. The emotional systems that he terms Care, Panic and Play date back to early primate evolutionary history, whereas the systems of Fear, Rage, Seeking and Lust have even earlier, premammalian origins....

The view that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind” gets things wrong on the contemporary end of our evolutionary history as well. The idea that we are stuck with a Pleistocene-adapted psychology greatly underestimates the rate at which natural and sexual selection can drive evolutionary change. Recent studies have demonstrated that selection can radically alter the life-history traits of a population in as few as 18 generations (for humans, roughly 450 years).

Of course, such rapid evolution can occur only with significant change in the selection pressures acting on a population. But environmental change since the Pleistocene has unquestionably altered the selection pressures on human psychology. The agricultural and industrial revolutions precipitated fundamental changes in the social structures of human populations, which in turn altered the challenges humans face when acquiring resources, mating, forming alliances or negotiating status hierarchies. Other human activities—ranging from constructing shelter to preserving food, from contraception to organized education—have also consistently altered the selection pressures. Because we have clear examples of post-Pleistocene physiological adaptation to changing environmental demands (such as malaria resistance), we have no reason to doubt similar psychological evolution.

I don't know if the Internet rises to the level of a selection pressure or not (for me, post-divorce encounters with Internet dating sites have acted more as an inducement to celibacy), but some hold high hopes for it. Futurist Raymond Kurzweil believes that human and machine intelligence will eventually merge, perhaps improving both. Other observers believe and hope that the Internet will enable a qualitative advance in communication that results in the merging of all minds into a super-mind, a whole greater than the sum of its parts (an expectation that I think is completely unfounded, for the simple reason that two cars don't make a bus).

Still others are deeply skeptical about the influence of the Net on civilization, and the two sides have lined up in a clear and vigorous debate, as noted by David Brin in his article "Will the Net Help Us Evolve?" in today's Salon:

Some of today's most vaunted tech philosophers are embroiled in a ferocious argument. On one side are those who think the Internet will liberate humanity, in a virtuous cycle of e-volving creativity that may culminate in new and higher forms of citizenship. Meanwhile, their diametrically gloomy critics see a kind of devolution taking hold, as millions are sucked into spirals of distraction, shallowness and homogeneity, gradually surrendering what little claim we had to the term "civilization."

Call it cyber-transcendentalists versus techno-grouches.

Nicholas Carr weighed in for the skeptics with his article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in the July Atlantic. Carr laments:

...what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing....Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?”

....Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “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.”

Responding to Carr in the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, Clay Shirky agrees that

The web presents us with unprecedented abundance. This can lead to interrupt-driven info-snacking, which robs people of the ability to find time to think about just one thing persistently. I also think that these changes are significant enough to motivate us to do something about it. I disagree, however, about what it is we should actually be doing.

Shirky suspects that Carr has misdiagnosed his own pain and only thinks it's about the Net while actually, it is a lament for a literary culture that was vanishing before the computer age even began:

Despite the sweep of the title, it’s focused on a very particular kind of reading, literary reading, as a metonym for a whole way of life. You can see this in Carr’s polling of “literary types,” in his quoting of Wolf and the playwright Richard Foreman, and in the reference to War and Peace, the only work mentioned by name. Now War and Peace isn’t just any piece of writing, of course; it is one of the longest novels in the canon, and symbolizes the height of literary ambition and of readerly devotion.

But here’s the thing: it’s not just Carr’s friend, and it’s not just because of the web—no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting.

This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true. The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it, but that process started long before the internet became mainstream. Much of the current concern about the internet, in fact, is a misdirected complaint about television, which displaced books as the essential medium by the 1970s....

And this, I think, is the real anxiety behind the essay: having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.

While agreeing that the need to focus must not be lost, Shirky argues that the challenge with which the Net presents us is not an avalanche of intellectual junk but merely a selection problem analogous to what happened a couple of centuries ago when the printing press produced so many works that one man could no longer hope to be master of all knowledge. The concept of the sage as cathedral-like structure, Shirky says, must give way to the idea of a shopper in a bazaar.

Brin isn't ready to wholeheartedly sign up with either side. He agrees with Carr that the internet tempts some to become part of a dim-witted mob but also hails the same abundance that so delights Shirky and his fellow techno-enthusiasts. His solution is to ensure that there are tools on the web for winnowing the wheat from the chaff:

...what's needed is not the blithe enthusiasm preached by Ray Kurzweil and Clay Shirky. Nor Nicholas Carr's dyspeptic homesickness. What is called for is a clear-eyed, practical look at what's missing from today's Web. Tools that might help turn quasar levels of gushing opinion into something like discourse, so that several billion people can do more than just express a myriad of rumors and shallow impulses, but test, compare and actually reach some conclusions now and then.

But what matters even more is to step back from yet another tiresome dichotomy, between fizzy enthusiasm and testy nostalgia. Earlier phases of the great Enlightenment experiment managed to do this by taking a wider perspective. By taking nothing for granted.

Being temperamentally inclined toward the conservative and curmudgeonly, I ought to give Shirky his due. Folly didn't begin with the Internet, and gullibility existed in the days of the papyrus scroll and before. By itself, the Net can't keep people from reading Milton any more than widespread popular use of the transistor radio in the '50s could destroy interest in Antonio Vivaldi; indeed, Vivaldi enjoyed a revival in that decade, as did Georg Philipp Telemann in the decade after, which was also, of course, the decade of Woodstock. As to reading great works, it was true once, as Samuel Johnson said, that "Classical quotation is the parole of educated men the world over," but sadly, no longer (I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the moment in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis, playing a Ph.D. in Psychology, had to look up the meaning of De Profundis).

Still, I'm less concerned over whether or not someone can quote Vergil than whether he is inclined to examine questions rigorously on the evidence, and in sufficient detail to verify anything. As to verification, Farhad Manjoo correctly points out in his book True Enough that many people no longer care as much for the truth as their truth, and their truth may be that Obama is a Muslim or that the Pentagon secretly planned 9/11. How is this any worse on the Net than in print 200 years ago? It spreads more quickly, and its credit is aided by the almost superstitious awe in which many people hold technology—for some, the Internet itself is taken as a sort of verification of even foolish claims.

As to reading at length, I have seen the way instant messaging and the BlackBerry® have transformed the workplace; for many, if it can't fit on a BlackBerry screen, it's superfluous. Shirky partly misses the point by focusing specifically on Carr's mention of War and Peace; under the trend to fragmented reading and thinking promoted by the Internet, how many people does he imagine are willing, even today, to read a piece of the length and conceptual complexity of his own essay?

Lord Chesterfield wrote:

A man is fit for neither business nor pleasure, who either cannot, or does not, command and direct his attention to the present object, and, in some degree, banish for that time all other objects from his thoughts....steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.

Were he alive now, Chesterfield might be hired for his skill at making himself liked, but his disapproval of multitasking would make him an odd egg in today's business environment.

A book or essay, whether sitting on my shelf or downloadable online, reminds me of what Robert Maynard Hutchins called "The Great Conversation," a dialogue that has lasted for centuries, on texts that were the result of wrestling with important questions. The Internet, which makes its users impatient to read any one thing for very long, is less like a symposium than a food fight. Just as the democratic character of Wikipedia® made guardians of content more necessary than ever, the openness of the internet, the variety of its distractions, and the brevity of many of its offerings make it necessary for the user to recollect himself and ask if the entertaining site he has discovered conveys the truth of the matter or is the online equivalent of a supermarket tabloid. It is a question that I think fewer and fewer are willing to ask.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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