Saturday, July 18, 2009

luddites hate jetskis

Today my sister and I almost missed the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince because she misread her watch. I don't wear a watch, see, and she wears an old-fashioned analog wristwatch so it was her job to keep track of time.

As our timekeepers get increasingly digital, it appears, we have a tendency toward being less capable of quickly interpreting analog time markers. So at 1:00, she thought her watch said noon. She caught her error five minutes before the show was scheduled to start and thanks to our ability to bustle when required and theaters' tendency to start movies much later than scheduled, we got there with enough spare time for me to get my popcorn and for my sister to settle her smuggled-in candy on her lap before the previews started rolling.

The argument that relying on technologies makes us dumber is not a new one; Plato kinda started it by opposing writing because he believed that it would
introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have came to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

It was downhill from there, of course; and it may be that we hit bottom, at least in terms of networked technologies, with Nicholas Carr's June/July 2008 Atlantic piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

In considering the changes to his own orientation toward text (he's less able to read lengthy articles or books; he gets fidgety when he tries to focus on one text for an extended period of time), he writes:
The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

In fact, in drafting this post I zipped along the surface of multiple different texts, from Plato's Phaedrus to Carr's piece on Google to Jamais Cascio's response piece in this month's Atlantic, "Get Smarter." (It argues that technologies and pharmacology can help boost our intelligence.) I may not know what swims beneath the surface of any of these pieces, but I am familiar enough with all of them to use my spare cognitive energy and time to craft a blogpost that links the three. And I did it by typing (without watching the keys) at a rate of approximately 100 words per minute. I employed some basic html code, some of which I know by heart and some of which I keep on an electronic clipboard. I was able to publish it immediately, to the delight or dismay or general apathy of my intended reading public. I could (and, if you're reading this, probably did) direct traffic to this post via Twitter, Facebook, or any number of other blogs.

God knows I could have spent the time reading Plato's Phaedrus in its entirety, and I'm not disputing that I would have been enriched by the experience. But you can't argue that what I did with my time instead (synthesizing, devising an argument, increasing familiarity with html basics, crafting the argument with an intended public in mind, then circulating it among that intended audience) was not an enriching experience.

Back to the jet ski metaphor: Comedian and philosopher Daniel Tosh argues that it's impossible not to be unhappy on a jetski. "You ever seen a sad person on a waverunner? Have you? Seriously, have you?...Try to frown on a waverunner."

Watch the clip till the end. He talks about how people smile as they hit the pier--and they hit the pier because you're supposed to hit the gas to turn--"it goes against natural instinct," he says. Well, maybe at first, but once you get the hang of it, I imagine you learn how to use the gas in ways that keep you from hitting the pier. It's just that most of us hit the pier once and once is enough: we stick to dry land, which is safer but far less fun.

Okay, I'll confess: This entire post is really just a plug for Daniel Tosh's amazing new show, Tosh.0. It airs Thursdays at 10:00 P.M. ET (9:00 Pacific) on Comedy Central, and it may be the funniest half-hour show I've ever seen in my entire life. Even so, it might get canceled because of low viewership. Please just give it a try. I guarantee you'll laugh out loud at least once or your money back.

Tosh.0Thurs, 10pm / 9c
Motorcycle Granny
Daniel ToshMiss Teen South CarolinaDemi Moore Picture

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