So what is the evil Internet doing to our poor old brains?I hadn't read Nick Carr's typically brilliant piece in the Atlantic about Google when I wrote my own column for the London Independent this week. Coincidentally, we both wrote about the impact that the Internet is having on human intelligence. Carr is more pessimistic than I am (itself quite an achievement). While he appreciates the convenience of the digital revolution, he argues that the speed and immediacy of Internet communications comes with a significant intellectual downside:
"But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And 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 agree with Carr's observations about the speed of information -- exemplified, of course, by the latest fashion for Web 2.5 micro blogs like Twitter. But I'm not so sure that his "scuba diver in the sea of words" is any wiser or more knowledgeable than the "guy on a jet ski." Here's my Independent point about what the Internet is doing to our brains:
"Twitter isn’t necessarily turning us into twits. That’s because brevity doesn’t equal stupidity. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche might have been challenged by Twitter’s aphoristic culture. The next media stars will be masters of intellectual brevity. Be famous in 140 characters. That may not generate a digital Tolstoy – but it will, at least, force all of us to get our point quickly."
Interestingly, Carr also uses the late 19th century German writer Friedrich Nietzsche to make his argument about the dumbing down of culture. Machines both quicken and flatten our thinking, he argues. Carr suggests, therefore, that when, in 1882, Nietzsche was forced to use a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter to write down his thoughts, his thinking degenerated:
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.”
I'm not convinced, however, by Carr's argument. Nietzsche's greatest legacy lies in his aphorisms, puns and telegrams. His early writing -- conventional (ie: argumentative, thoughtful and rhetorical) books like The Birth of Tragedy" (1872) and "Untimely Meditations" (1874) -- is less influential than his post 1882 aphoristic works such as "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (1883), "On the Genealogy of Morals" (1887) and "The Will to Power" (1889). Without that Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter, Nietzsche may never have arrived at the "Anti Christ" (1888); without that fateful machine, we would still be before "Beyond Good and Evil" (1886).
So perhaps Nietzsche was the first micro-blogger, the father of icy brevity, the original guy skimming across the water on a pair of jet skis. Maybe we all need to come up to the surface and slip on our own skis. Digital free spirits might begin by Twittering the history of philosophy in under 140 characters.