Just Skip to the End

“Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”

-Alan Kay

Although the internet did exist when I was born, it’s usage has changed quite a bit since its early days. What was once a text-only space filled by some of the proud few who actually owned a computer is now a graphics-based sprawl of sites catering to any and all demographics that exist. While blogs at one time were basically repositories of interesting hyperlinks to follow, now they take the form of journals, self-help guides, and wikis.

As our favorite guy, Marshall McLuhan, said, “All media are extensions of some human faculty.” But media don’t just extend us, they change us and how we view the world too. Author Nicholas Carr is acutely aware that media can change a person. Among his writings, his article Is Google Making Us Stupid? addresses the changes he feels in himself from immersion into the Internet.

Carr is not the only person to claim that using the Internet has made it more difficult to read long texts. I myself have experienced the same phenomenon. However, the loss of the quiet contemplative reading that Carr loves, although traditional to us now, really is still a big step ahead of the worldwide analphabetism of which we so recently rid ourselves. Reading books may seem to us to be a central part of American life, but it is really a modern addition to Western culture. Only well after Gutenberg’s 1450 C.E. invention of the moveable type printing press was widespread literacy able to come about; before then, the only people who could read were some of the incredibly wealthy, men of the cloth, and the few others who went to school for some reason. So, even though Carr brings up that Socrates, “Bemoaned the development of writing,” he didn’t mention that that writing would not be used by most of the world for another few hundreds of years after Socrates.

Socrates Louvre

“Watch out for them darn newfangled letters!” -Socrates

And why did Socrates dread the rise of written language? In Plato’s Phaedrus, he is reported as having said (Socrates couldn’t write), “If men learn [to read], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks… Men will be filled not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

I suppose it is a little difficult to compare the memories of us compared to dead people (they can’t remember anything now!), but Greek orators like Demosthenes were used to delivering long speeches without notes and poets would have recited epic poems like The Illiad over the course of multiple days. So, maybe it is true that we don’t remember as well as we used to.

Demosthenes is remembered for being the origin of the phrase 'marble mouth'

Demosthenes is remembered for being the origin of the phrase ‘marble mouth’

Harold Innis could have told us that too. Adjusted to a space-biased medium like writing, we have lost connection to our time-biases to the past. We’ve favored being able to transport our messages widely. On the other hand, while being able to jot notes down has caused us to practice our memorization less, we can now read notes from across time and space. Even if I might know less of the oral tradition of my tribe, with writing, I can know some of the tradition of my culture, some of the French culture, some Mexican, some Rwandan, etc…

It’s important for us to remember that the internet is in fact a big truck. We can use it to transport massive quantities of information across long distances and we can use it to store information for later. This is a rare case where I agree more with McLuhan’s methods than Innis’. Hot and Cool as McLuhan defines them do form a dichotomy, but Innis’ time-biased and space-biased do not. Innis’ categorization forms a continuum from the most time-biased medium (maybe carving a message into the side of a mountain or tree) to the most space biased medium (radio waves that can travel vast distances almost instantly, but then never return).

Note that oration is not the epitome of time-biased media.

The internet, like most media, falls in the middle. If we had to say to which side it lays closer, we’d probably choose space-biased. However, with websites like http://literature.org/ and https://www.wikipedia.org/, the internet catalogs data indefinitely and may be accessed by any generation. I’d call that a time bias.

Is The Internet Making Us Stupid?

So, is Carr on to something? Is the internet making us stupid? Or are we just giving in to our laziness? Long, scholarly articles are on the internet. Entire epic poems are on the internet. Entire textbooks are on the internet. Yet, we choose to follow after clickbait. That’s not the internet’s fault, that’s our fault. Every generation has a tendency to criticize the next. Society isn’t getting worse and worse, it’s becoming completely different.

The internet isn’t making us stupid, it is making it easier for us to choose to be stupid! Writing in the modern world offers the same choice. Should we take the time to write something meaningful that will stand the test of time, of shall we bitch and moan into our diaries? Why put the effort in to write a thoughtful essay when you know you can pass the class with much less? Technology is a tool and we can find ways to make it useful. If we choose to pass-over the opportunities presented to us and lay shame on the young ones who use them, then the cycle continues. History repeats itself.

TLDR; Did you actually read this? Or did you just skim through as you skipped to the end?

If you skipped to the end, you may have allowed the internet to condition you into being stupid. If you were able to resist, then you’ve helped me show that the this powerful, new technology is just what we make of it.

Mandatory Life

In the first few chapters of his book, Coming of Age in Second Life, Boellstorff argues that life lived through a computer is no less real than an offline life, and so we shouldn’t distinguish between ‘real life’ and ‘virtual life’. Instead, he thinks we should say that ‘real life’ is made up of our ‘actual lives’ and our ‘virtual lives’. Boellstorff expresses the idea that living life in Second Life is just as good as in our ‘First Life

Second Life

Second Life

One can build a house, shop for clothes, meet new people, even get married in Second Life just like you can without Second Life! How cool is that? With all the versatility of Second Life, it must be at least as awesome as actual life, but you can also fly.

The issue with saying that virtual life is just as good as actual life is that it really isn’t true.

Anyone who said they valued their virtual life as much as their actual life is either crazy or didn’t think that through very thoroughly. Would you really spend the time to build your avatar a house if you didn’t have your own home to live in? Would you really buy your avatar food if you hadn’t eaten in two days?

You need to live your actual life to be able to live in your virtual life, but not the converse. One can thrive in their actual life without even having a virtual life. In this article from the Art of Manliness Blog, which we’ve discussed before on the Cool Math Blog, it is argued that learning how to unplug ourselves from the electronic devices that take up so much of our attention can help us thrive in our actual lives. Becoming a basement dweller can only help your avatar live, but being a well-rounded human being can help both you and your avatar.

Does Second Life need to go away forever? No, but we need to see it for what it is-a fake life– a distraction from our actual lives in the real world. If we can use Second Life as a way to keep in touch with our friends and family who live far away or to promote our business or even just as a game to entertain us, we can still thrive and make the real world a better place.

The Reality of Fantasy

In Alexander R Galloway’s article Social Realism in Gaming, he argues that polygon count is a less-than-accurate way to characterize realism in video games. In his words, a game achieves realism by,

“constructing a one-to-one relationship between the affective desires of gamers and the real social contexts in which they live.”

His argument throws out games he classifies as fantastical, since most would agree that fantasy is the opposite of reality.

However, I would like to pose a counterpoint to his argument. Reading this article 12 years after it was written, I don’t recognize most of the games he mentions… The Madden NFL and Tony Hawk Pro Skater franchises are still known, but the games that make up the core of his argument have not left a history for those of us who were too young for them back then. The games like NARC, Toywar, and Under Ash, may have injected gamers into the worlds they inhabited, but they failed to leave a mark on history.

The games that really stick with people are the ones they can immerse themselves in. Like the protagonist in the video at top who can more easily exist in the text-based [How do you like that, McLuhan?] worlds of Zork or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he defines his reality based on what he can metaphorically surround himself with. Series like Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, or Sonic the Hedgehog are still alive and well whereas more ‘realistic’ games like first person shooters are even tending towards the fantastical with games like HALO and Call of Duty: Ghosts.

In a similar medium, how many people have you heard of who liked M*A*S*H so much they went out and learned Korean? And how many people have you heard about who liked Star Trek so much they went out and learned Klingon? I can tell you that the fantasy game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time left such a big impression on its fans that one made an entire rap album narrating it.

Media can reflect the physical world, but the physical world also reflects what we take from media and the most impact comes from media with legacy. Whether it be Star Wars, Super Mario, or Game of Thrones, whatever can bring its viewers/participants in deeper, will last longer.