The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul. Margaret, in Richard III
In a brief statement first published on Edge in March, 2005, dramatist Richard Foreman released an impassioned cri de coeur into the flow:
The notion that hyperconnectivity creates a diminished subjectivity and reduces the depth of individual intellectual experience has been taken up by several others, most notably by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows, in which he persuasively outlines how web-based discourse and enquiry impacts our neurobiology: flattening cognition and emotions, thereby hollowing out our capacity for moral judgement and empathy. In what for me is the most significant passage in the book, Carr references the important work of Antonio Damasio, whose experiments suggest that such judgements and evaluations are inherently slow. As Carr writes:
In one recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain – when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your brain activate almost instantaneously – the more sophisticated mental processes of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation”.
In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger argues that our traditional conceptions of authoritative knowledge, and of Foreman’s complex inner density, all derive from qualities and limitations intrinsic to the printed page and book, and that as we pass into “the expertise of clouds”, the nature and structure of knowledge production fundamentally changes. Thus we must rethink our understanding of intelligence within the context of networks, “where the smartest person in the room is the room.”
We have no argument with Weinberger, as far as he goes. Indeed, his skillful discussion of how networks dissolve traditional power structures within academia and bureaucracies is accurate and illuminating. Yet strong as he is when discussing the impact of the web on scientific knowledge in particular, he evades the deeper dimensions of Carr’s critique, particularly regarding the “nobler instincts” of moral consciousness.
The worm of conscience needs a rich and dense soil to sustain its penetrations; the lifelong self-examination that is essential to our humanity. What sort of soil does webbed intelligence offer to the worm? Is the network Too Big To Gnaw?
Weinberger’s final chapter focuses on those qualities that make for good netizens, urging us to open access; provide hooks; link everything; include everyone; teach everyone. Laudable as such normative behaviors may be, what about those pesky ancient questions of virtue, justice and wisdom; the conduct of a good life, and the character of a civilization? Or perhaps the new structure of knowledge production is “too smart” for such old fashioned aspirations?
Towards the end of his book, Nicholas Carr writes:
What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become. In the 1950s, Martin Heidegger observed that the looming “tide of technological revolution” could “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” Our ability to engage in “meditative thinking,” which he saw as the very essence of our humanity, might become a victim of headlong progress. The tumultuous advance of technology could, like the arrival of the locomotive at the Concord station, drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection. The “frenziedness of technology,” Heidegger wrote, threatens to “entrench itself everywhere”.
It may be that we are now entering the final stage of that entrenchment. We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.
Returning briefly to Foreman and his theater: Over the years, we have had several occasions to witness the feverish lumberjacking taking place inside the darkened chambers of Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric theater. Several of the devices used by Foreman to clear cut the dead wood of previous achievements from our assembled sensoria, including rapid and sudden changes in the intensity and volume of light and sound, all too closely resemble the sort of brutal wood chipping of existential platforms developed by the CIA (among others) within the Total Theater of “no touch” psychological torture.
On each occasion, we left Foreman’s theater of sensual and cognitive disorientation feeling exhausted, rather than illuminated; pacified, rather than provoked; flattened, rather than engaged. Come to think of it, we left his theater as less of a person, and more of a pancake. Could it be that the Ontological-Hysteric theater anticipated and represented for its audience Heidegger’s frenziedness of technology, the final stage of which Foreman now decries? The gods pound on our heads, and play with us all.