This is a long read of great depth by Joe Stadolnikis, an independent researcher, writer, and editor who lives in Chicago. If you read Mr Stadolnikis’ essay carefully, you will get a tour of how over the past 10,000 years, human beings have thought about subjects regarding how we learn to think, how we learn how to process information from the world around us and how our brains are shaped by the interplay of taking in information, assimilating it and then doing something with that stimulus.
The conclusion of this history tour is surprising and liberating: human beings have perpetually been worried that the latest greatest technology is leading to mental degeneration and distraction. These worries have proved to be unfounded. Over several millennium, our minds have adjusted to many different types of technologies – from writing, to printed books, to indexes in libraries and in the back of books, to the internet and to social media. We as a species have repeatedly taught ourselves new ways to assimilate information, to understand the world and forge ahead: “Should we look back on these changing interactions between books and minds, and worry that some ‘Great Rewiring’ was taking place centuries ago? Obviously not…New regimes of memory and attention replace the old ones. Eventually they become the old regimes and are replaced, then longed for.”
Mr Stadolnikis begins by citing Plato’s commentary that the Egyptian gods who were worshipped by the Pharaohs were worried about the growing popularity of writing: “Plato would have us believe that this double feeling of anxiety and nostalgia is as old as literacy itself, an inescapable problem that is inherent in the technology of writing. In one of his dialogues, the Phaedrus, he recounts how the ancient inventor of writing, an Egyptian god named Theuth, presents his work to the king of the gods. ‘This invention, O king,’ says Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom.’ The Egyptian king of the gods, Thamus, predicts the opposite:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
We then fast forward around 9,000 years and in the Middle Ages there was concern around the world regarding how books could mess with our minds: “By the 12th century, the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi saw himself living in a new age of distraction thanks to the technology of print: ‘The reason people today read sloppily is that there are a great many printed texts.’ And in 14th-century Italy, the scholar and poet Petrarch made even stronger claims about the effects of accumulating books:
Believe me, this is not nourishing the mind with literature, but killing and burying it with the weight of things or, perhaps, tormenting it until, frenzied by so many matters, this mind can no longer taste anything, but stares longingly at everything, like Tantalus thirsting in the midst of water.
Technological advances would make things only worse. A torrent of printed texts inspired the Renaissance scholar Erasmus to complain of feeling mobbed by ‘swarms of new books’, while the French theologian Jean Calvin wrote of readers wandering into a ‘confused forest’ of print. That easy and constant redirection from one book to another was feared to be fundamentally changing how the mind worked.”
And then if we move forward another 800 years, we find similar concerns being aired in contemporary society: “In the 21st century, digital technologies are inflaming the same old anxieties about attention and memory – and inspiring some new metaphors. We can now worry that the cognitive circuitry of the brain has been ‘rewired’ through interactions with Google Search, smartphones and social media. The rewired mind now delegates tasks previously handled by its in-built memory to external devices. Thoughts dart from idea to idea; hands drift unwittingly toward pockets and phones. It may seem that constant access to the internet has degraded our capacity for sustained attention. This apparent rewiring has been noticed with general uneasiness, sometimes with alarm, and very often with advice about how to return to a better, more supposedly ‘natural’ way of thinking. Consider these alarming headlines: ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ (Nicholas Carr, The Atlantic, 2007); ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’ (Jean M Twenge, The Atlantic, 2017); or ‘Your Attention Didn’t Collapse. It Was Stolen’ (Johann Hari, The Observer, 2022). This longing to return to a past age of properly managed attention and memory is hardly new. Our age of distraction and forgetting joins the many others on historical record: the Roman empire of Seneca, the Song Dynasty of Zhu, the Reformation of Calvin.”
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