Evolutionary psychologists tell us that neuroplasticity and malleability of consciousness provide humans with certain survival advantages. Whether as individuals or in groups, being able to “go with the flow” (and to understand where and what the flow consists of) often presents the key to assuring genetic posterity. Of course, such flexibility may also set the stage for moral dilemmas, when by conscience or conviction an individual chooses to swim against the flow, even at the risk of being swept away and becoming the washed out end of the line.
In the world of ideas, the varied media of connection and communication shape the direction and intensity of the flow – sometimes even the taste of the water. Given the prevailing ubiquity of the internet, it is not surprising that the phrase, “the smartest person in the room is the room”, should become one of the more irritating commonplaces of recent years.
By their own intrinsic nature, most interactive networks will rank the value of individual contributions to the flow, one way or another; those ideas that “click” with the consensual inclinations of the network will bob up magically from the bit torrents, while dissenting or contrary views will achieve minimal splash (no thumbs up), and be shunted off.
With the number of potential participants limited only by demographics, global networks (scientific, financial, political, administrative or whatever) eventually become so complex that no single individual comprehend them, resulting in a tendency to abdicate all agency to collective “wisdom”, typically expressed as an algorithm. Thus the network becomes ever stronger while the solitary labors of individual minds are systematically devalued, and fade to black.
A number of years ago, Nicolas Carr posed the rhetorical question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Are individual citizens becoming more simple-minded as the social brain becomes ever more complex, while acting on our behalf? Is such networked complexity really “intelligent”, or something else altogether?
Carr argues that the media we use for research and communication will inevitably have strong impacts on our plastic, flexible neurobiology. Through constant exposure to the network and its own evolutionary imperatives, the neural pathways that are conducive to slow, deep philosophical reflection will be diminished in favor of the sparky buzz created by instant feedback. Through time, individual intelligence may thereby become extremely narrow, fast and thin – pancake subjectivity.
Qualities such as moral discernment and cross-cultural empathy require neural pathways that may no longer be present for network participants; nor may the ability to distinguish virtue from tyranny. Carr suggests that such intellectual qualities depend on a very different sort of media environment, one that supports solitude and reflection, and one where idiosyncrasy, dissonance and polyphony are valued rather than diminished.
David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know (for which the phrase “smartest person in the room is the room” provides part of the lengthy subtitle) has the virtue of logic and lucidity in describing how and why the room got so smart, so fast. Yet for all his nuanced and persuasive examples, Weinberger omits one extremely important dimension – the close entanglement of knowledge with relationships of power. Considering the intimate ontological affiliation between the internet and the vast apparatus of national security, such a glaring omission makes the author sound like a naive cheerleader at a Steubenville pep rally.
In the past, forgetting that knowledge and power often wrap each other in death embraces has not worked out very well for intellectuals, above all when the orderly voice (and all-seeing eye) of the One flattens the clamor of distinct individual voices. In her masterful study, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes
Principles of action govern individuals, one by one; when there is only the One (the condensed expression of all singularities into one throbbing Singularity), individuals are robbed of their autonomy and become nothing but storage vessels, conveying the essence of a totalized power.
From the scattering and splintering of thought assembled into an illusion of community emerges the sort of ecstatic groupthink oblivion that typically ends in a bloodbath. This is not to say that networked media and communications will lead inexorably to totalitarianism; rather, there is a sort of alignment of cognitive rhythms that may quite suddenly and violently explode into a fury of state terror and enforced conformity.
Flexibility and autonomy are erased, and from then on, the writing will be straight and uniform. Those who see it coming will be the first to disappear.
In closing, Jon Swan, one of our favorite poets here at DP, and a man who scrupulously avoids smart rooms, releases a new poem into the flow: