I got a note from someone at Britannica online telling me about a discussion prompted by Clay Shirky’s riposte to Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
The conversation on the Britannica site, and the related posts on John Brockman’s EDGE, remind me as much as anything of the conversational swordplay typical of TV pundits, who are so enamored of their own words that they can barely be bothered to listen to or read each other’s ideas, much less respond sincerely.
(Can it possibly be a coincidence that all the players in this drama are male? Get a grip guys! This is not about scoring points. You’re dealing with issues central to the future of the species and the planet.)
And as long as we’re dealing with missing persons, i was stunned to realize that not one of these media gurus references McLuhan, who as far as i’m concerned, not only asked more profound questions about the effect of media on humans and their society, but provided first-pass answers which we would still do well to heed.
Of the myriad posts and pages that now comprise the Britannica Carr/Shirky discussion, three posts are particular interest.
The first is from the critic Sven Birkerts, whom many people consider conservative. I don’t. Rather, I see Birkerts as the most eloquent voice on behalf of what we are losing as we shed the culture of the Gutenberg age. Birkerts doesn’t entreat us to stop time or throw wrenches in the wheels of change. He’s just asking us to be conscious of what’s good about the present.
Another is from George Dyson who writes in a way that in my worst nightmares i fear is prescient:
Nicholas Carr asks a question that all of us should be asking ourselves:
“What if the cost of machines that think is people who don’t?”
It’s a risk. “The ancestors of oysters and barnacles had heads. Snakes have lost their limbs and ostriches and penguins their power of flight. Man may just as easily lose his intelligence,” warned J. B. S. Haldane in 1928.
The third is a comment by Blair Boland, which appears as a comment to Nicolas Carr’s response to Shirky. Not only does Boland provide a taut history lesson, setting the record straight on the Luddites, but he states a fundamental issue of our time more clearly than anyone else: “who controls technology and for what ends?”
What both critiques share in common and take for granted is a smugly false and typically misleading disparagement of so-called Luddism. The original, much maligned Luddites are commonly dismissed as cranks, or worse still, “murderous thugs” and the “essential fact” of Luddite “complaint” twisted to serve the ends of propagandists for capital. Ned Ludd and his followers were not necessarily opposed to technological ‘change’ or ‘progress’ per se but the social context in which it occurred and the economic consequences it presaged. As Ludd expressed it, “we will never lay down our arms…[’til]the House of Commons passes an act to put down all machinery Hurtful to Commonality”. They realized that these changes were being undertaken undemocratically for the benefit of a narrow class of economic elites. Luddite anxieties were well founded as was their understanding of the implications for the working class in general, even though they couldn’t have foreseen all of the consequences fully. Their protests and resistance was met with the most aggressive and “murderous” suppression by the British government of the day. Thousands of troops were dispatched to put down the rebellion, not only succeeding in ruthlessly exterminating the Luddite uprising but also serving notice to workers in general of the close bonds between the state and industrialists; and the means that could be employed to discipline intractable workers. The dire conditions of the working class in the new “industrial age’ that ensued proved Luddite premonitions largely prophetic. These conditions still exist in many parts of the world. So while it’s fine to fret over the impact of the net on the reading habits of the affluent, the concerns of the Luddites still haven’t gone away. The important principle then as now, is who controls technology and for what ends? Taylor’s time/motion practices further tightened the hold of the owners of production technology over the wage serfs operating that technology, again in a very undemocratic and restrictive way, “hurtful to commonality”. These, as noted, are the same principles that guide much technological development today and are among the most worrisome aspects of its ultimate applications. “And now we’re facing a similar challenge”, to see that the latent democratizing abundance of the net is not “shaped” into the greatest expansion of social control and commercial concentration of power the world has ever known.