Saturday, January 17, 2009
The Literary Mind and the Digital Mind
So I wrote this letter to a friend that goes as follows:
There was a guest on NPR who talked about how the Internet is causing us to lose our literary minds. Basically the literary mind is the mind shaped by reading books. It has become increasingly common since the invention of the Gutenberg press, and unlike the pre-literary mind which is steeped in firsthand knowledge of the surrounding natural world, the literary mind is much more focused on cultural knowledge (history, laws, economics, etc…).
The speaker argued that Google, Wikipedia, and all the other knowledge seeking software out there are eroding the literary mind.
Rather than focusing on a theme for an extended period of time like book readers do, Internet users are short-term ADD thinkers who lookup a cloud of related knowledge concerning whatever topic is at hand, and then they move on.
The speaker was of course worried about a loss of depth and understanding.
On the other hand, it occurred to me that the digital mind, the one shaped by the Internet, may well end up being an adaptation to an evermore complex and interlinked world. Planet Earth was a much simpler place when it was broken up into isolated, monoculture regions. Depth and immersion were affordable luxuries in that environment.
Our world, of course, is far more complex today. It is one shaped by a multitude of interacting cultures, and by vast bodies of scientific and engineering knowledge. The average citizen is faced by dilemmas involving medical knowledge and treatment options that did not exist 50 years ago. In a year she may meet and interact with more people from foreign cultures than her grandparents did in their entire lifetime.
The emerging digital mind may well suit a world in which everyone must at least know a little about a lot.