Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is the internet preventing us from living in reality?

In a mostly predictable and overly long New Yorker article on whether the internet is changing how we think, Adam Gopnik has one great passage (based on John Brockman's anthology entitled Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?):

[W]hen people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

The odd thing is that this complaint . . . is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it’s true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don’t seem remotely capable of producing it. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.


LemmusLemmus said...

I'm not buying the "we must need this to be true" interpretation. The sense of fragmentation the author describes is not some quality inherent in our environment, but rather the impression of the environment that is formed in people's minds. Once you realize this, the contradiction disappears.

For example, the aesthetics of a film like Trainspotting look and sound pretty run-of-the-mill to me, but I grew up with music videos. To my mother the film might well look confusing and fragmented. Likewise, in 1855 (no radio, no cinema, etc.), a busy Paris street must have been one of the most unstable stimuli there were. No wonder people described it as such! We shouldn't be surprised about this, just as we shouldn't be surprised about the fact that people experienced early trains as very fast - they were, compared to horse carriages.

So, my model here is simply that humans perceive as normal levels of speed, fragmentation, etc. that are normal (in the statistical sense of the word) and that strong deviations from this norm will, naturally, be perceived and hence described as extreme. And it takes some time to get accustomed.

It is remarkable nonetheless that early city life, for example, was once experienced in the way described. The fact that these descriptions now seem so out of whack demonstrates the immense adaptability of the human mind. What a piece of work is a man!

Jason (the commenter) said...

I used to think the New Yorker was for cutting edge intellectuals, but now that I see its articles are matching the current story line of Mary Worth, I wonder if my impression was mistaken. Is the New Yorker something people read ironically, because it's so lame it's hysterical?

Help me out here.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I've been reading it lately because I couldn't resist their subscription offer of $25 a year. It's not my favorite magazine, but it has an occasional great article, and I figured it was worth 50 cents an issue.