27 August 2009
The Atlantic Monthly is nurturing a good debate about whether the Internet age is transforming our brains for the better, or for the worse. This month, Jamais Cascio makes the argument for better; a year ago, Nicholas Carr made the argument for worse. Both agree that our brains are indeed being transformed.
A year ago, I was on board with Carr; today, reading Cascio’s article, I find myself eager for a counter-argument. What’s changed? Essentially, I think I have grown exhausted of pessimism. Which is another way of saying I am officially weary of my own fundamental temperament.
I just might be ready to be swept up in Cascio’s optimism:
If the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: by getting smarter. But this time, we don’t have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our intelligence. We can do it ourselves.
Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they’re very much part of who we are today: they’re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today’s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”
I feel cornered, to tell you the truth — my hands in the air in surrender. There’s no turning back. We have choices, but to resist is a lonely road. If I were forty years older, the prospect of noble resistance might seem more realistic; I’d move to Kentucky and have evening tea with Wendell Berry, write about the virtues of a localized, work-with-your-hands (analog), live-off-the-land existence. As it is, fifty-some years of resistance to technological trends would be like taking the other-worldly vows of a monk, but without the community or structure.
I am a writer; words and how we interact with them is central to this technological revolution. There is no way to non-participate, to be ignorant, of these major shifts.
So convince me. I’m ready. Show me the money. Show me how all the compression and speeding up and gadgets will make both our minds and our souls better. How digitization and byte-sizing of everything adds up to good. How the lasting things will not be lost to us.