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July 07 2010

17:30

From prefab paint to the power of typewriters to the Internet: Distrust of the Shallows is nothing new

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, and four. — Josh]

When factory-produced paint was first made available in tubes in the 1840s, it transformed the practices of painters. Previously, paint-making had been part of the artist’s craft (a messy task, ideally handled by assistants). Grinding pigments, measuring solvents, and decanting the resulting concoctions into containers (glass vials and pigs’ bladders were frequently used). The texture of the artist’s work was determined by the need to make paint, but the paints themselves also literally determined the palette, and even to a certain extent the subject matter, of their works. With the advent of cheap, manufactured tube paints, paint could be a sketching medium; it became easier to carry paints into the field to paint en plein air. Renoir even went so far as to say that without tube paints, the Impressionist movement would never have happened.

Looking through new tubes, so to speak, nineteenth-century artists found a new way to look at the world. Rarely will you find an art historian who will complain about the damaging effects of manufactured paints, or talk about ready-made pigments as if they determined the course of nineteenth-century art in some limiting fashion. Technological innovation made possible a creative renascence in painting.

Nicholas Carr begins the second chapter of The Shallows with a similar story, describing the transformation that took place in Nietzsche’s work when the beleaguered, convalescent philosopher purchased his first typewriter. A friend noticed a change in Nietzsche’s work after he began to use the machine — and Nietzsche agreed, noting that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Observers have long noted the uncanny capacity of the typewriter to tranform the very thinking of its users. Indeed the typewriter transformed many aspects of life in the last decades of the nineteenth century, from correspondence and private literacy to the role of women in the workplace — changes both lamentable and liberating. But the machine’s cognitive capacity was particularly disturbing to writers and critics.

Carr traces the advent of the typewriter brain to the concept of neuroplasticity: the notion that the brain is susceptible to changes in structure and function throughout its lifetime. It’s a broad concept, as Carr allows, covering addiction, neural adaptation to the loss of a limb or the mastering of a novel musical instrument, and the sort of changes in working pattern, attention, and even aesthetic sensibility that seem to accompany the advent of new tools. Carr begins in this chapter to trace some of the history of our understanding of the brain’s adaptability, arguing that neuroplasticity is a relatively new discovery in the cognitive sciences. (It isn’t; as this post at the blog Mind Hacks shows, research into various aspects of plasticity has been going on for more than a century.)

Carr’s concern about the effect of the Internet on our brains hinges on the slipperiness of neuroplasticity as an idea. Because after all, there’s good change and bad change, and little way of telling whether the Internet will induce all one or all the other — or (far likelier, if history is any guide) a fair share of both the good and the bad. Carr puts it like this: “Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism…As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

I have no doubt that the Internet has changed my brain, and in a few of the ways Carr worries about. Some of those changes feel like transformations of consciouness; others feel like worrisome addictions. Thinking of Shirky’s cognitive surplus in particular, I can conceive a peril that Carr might agree with. Shirky’s surplus can be thought of as a newly-discovered resource — and it’s in the nature of capital to try and harness such resources. It’s becoming obvious that one way to harness it is by creating systems of reward that neurochemically goose our brains in exchange for access to our spare cycles. Cory Doctorow has aptly described the social media, and in particular Facebook, as “Skinner boxes” that reward our brain’s desire to communicate in return for access to our minds and our information.

So I agree with Carr to this extent: As users of new tools, we need to take care. But for our brains’ ability to adapt and change over time, we should be grateful. Looking to the past, we see that new tools have led to new possibilities, new ways of thinking and seeing, again and again. As a writer, I’m curious to find out where the tools of our time will take me; to the extent I’m an historian, I’m very skeptical that we can discern the form those transformations will take in aggregate.

To many art lovers in the nineteenth century, Impressionism looked like the Shallows in its obsession with surfaces and in its overturning of deep-rooted canons of painterly sensibility. But today, most of us are likely grateful for the changes the new tubes wrought in the brains of Renoir and Monet. Perhaps the tubes of our time should be approached in a like spirit.

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