Friday, April 22, 2016

This Is Your Brain Online

We live in the information age, yet we know less and less. We are manic about photographing our lives, but we remember less and less.

Alan Jacobs, Wall Street Journal

It seems that one of the chief activities of academic humanists these days is to write about technology. This is either pathetic or encouraging. It’s pathetic if you see humanists as mere hangers-on to the coattails of the technologists who are making our world. It’s encouraging if you desire an informed yet skeptical account of what we are doing with our new technologies—and what they’re doing with us.
Two books about technology sit before me. One is by a historian, the other by a philosopher; as is fitting, the one by the historian concerns memory and the one by the philosopher concerns knowledge and reason.
In “The Internet of Us,” Michael Patrick Lynch begins by pointing out, rightly enough, that in the age of the Internet we seem simultaneously to know more and know less. This leads him, philosopher that he is, to ask some questions about what it means to say that we know something. He tries to make the philosophical questions and answers as accessible as possible, by humanizing philosophers (“ Descartes was a late riser”) and making some pop-culture references (alas, the sitcom “Chuck” has disappeared from the public consciousness), but I’m not sure that helps. After outlining the conditions of and impediments to genuine knowing, Mr. Lynch concludes by saying that “we are becoming more powerful knowers. We just must also strive to be more responsible, understanding ones.”
Our problem, he thinks, is that the very tools that make us more powerful (Google, Wikipedia) make us less responsible. But he doesn’t give a very clear sense of how we might retain our power while increasing our understanding. He dismisses at the outset the possibility of radically altering our habits—“technology itself is not the problem”—and I think by so doing he renders his counsel less useful. 
Mr. Lynch’s basic argument is that if we understand better the conditions under which knowledge is produced and disseminated—conditions he explores clearly and cogently—then we will become more “responsible” knowers. But I wonder whether that can be done without reckoning far more seriously than Mr. Lynch does here with the powers of habit and addiction to what Cory Doctorow once called our “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” We’re very much like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Gollum and his Ring: “He loved and hated it, as he loved and hated himself.” I don’t see how we can become more responsible knowers without accepting and defeating this Power.


By Abby Smith Rumsey
Bloomsbury, 229 pages, $28


Michael Patrick Lynch
Liveright, 237 pages, $25.95
If you were to ask certain people why do they so obsessively document their experiences with photos—mainly “selfies”—they would probably tell you that they want to make sure they don’t forgot what happens to them. But Abby Smith Rumsey, in “When We Are No More,” wonders whether our mania for documentation doesn’t ensure, rather than prevent, forgetting. Her book is a thoughtful, often elegant meditation on memory, but it shares with Mr. Lynch’s a certain vagueness in its prescriptions.
Our current challenge, Ms. Rumsey argues, arises from the fact that “the carrying capacity of our memory systems is falling dramatically behind our capacity to generate information.” As a result, “we face critical decisions about how to rebuild memory systems and practices to suit an economy of information abundance.” For over a decade, Ms. Rumsey worked on just this problem with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress—a project I would love to learn more about. But it plays almost no role here. The author is more interested in helping us to think better about memory, just as Mr. Lynch wants to help us think better about knowledge. 
Much of Ms. Rumsey’s book is an episodic and reflective history of how we have in the past thought about memory, with appearances by such central figures in this history as Plato and Montaigne. The dominant historical figure here isThomas Jefferson, because of his role in establishing the Library of Congress, though it’s not clear to me that his place in the narrative should be quite so large. Only late in the book does Ms. Rumsey turn toward the future of memory, and these passages strike me as the most interesting, but also the most frustrating: Ms. Rumsey clearly identifies the threats that most endanger our faculty of memory—chief among them distraction and technology-induced amnesia—but says she believes we will successfully address those threats. She doesn’t explain why she is confident.
“When We Are No More” is an enjoyable and in some ways a wise book but also a puzzling one. I wish that it had been much longer or that the proportion between the historical and prospective parts of the book had been flipped. Like Mr. Lynch’s book, it left me wanting more. But that, I think, is an inevitable consequence of an information landscape so enormously complex that no one can account for all of its dimensions. We are still in the very early stages of mapping this landscape; unfortunately, its contours change more rapidly than any of us can sketch even the most abstract of maps.
Mr. Jacobs, a professor of the humanities at Baylor University, is the author of “The ‘Book of Common Prayer’: A Biography” and “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.”

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