Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Machine Stops

"Beware of first- hand ideas!" exclaimed one of the most advanced of [the lecturers]. "First-hand ideas do not really exist. ... Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation." -- E.M. Forester, "The Machine Stops" That short story, published in 1909 in the Saturday Evening Post still vibrates with erie echoes of a future accurately predicted. to read the whole story. As I now read Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains" it's easy to write myself off as a luddite, but it's more complex than that. An English instructor once told our class that he'd read "A Tale Of Two Cities" under the covers with a flashlight when he was seven. I remember reading Jane Eyere at aged nine. But today, I can't hardly absorb anything with long descriptive paragraphs. Today I am as impatient as Vashti, the main character in the Forester story who waits fifteen seconds for her son to speak with her long-distance. "I really believe you enjoy dawdling.", she tells him. I'm unsure whether my increased ability to rapidly shift attention from one task to the next is a plus. In "The Shallows" Carr spends several chapters analyzing how the internet was not the first paradigm shift that adjusted the way we work with time and attention. In analyzing the spread of literacy, he discusses both the gains and losses of the vanishing oral tradition. I've always been fascinated by the ways in which the train changed rural America, and how the car drove the new culture even more. It's too easy to think either that enhanced multi-tasking is bringing us greater intelligence or that a more superficial view is turning minds to mush. What really got me was joining Twitter and reading through what were mostly retweets; people passing on information that I might, but probably do not find interesting. It reminds me of Vashti, always in search of original ideas, while simultaneously abhoring their creation.