The Triumph of Virtual Reality and Its Implications for Philosophy and Civilization

By McLaren, Glenn | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The Triumph of Virtual Reality and Its Implications for Philosophy and Civilization


McLaren, Glenn, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, argues, that as a consequence of our increasing engagement with the internet:

   What we're experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of
   the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being
   cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in
   the electronic data forest. (1)

This is Carr's generous way of saying that the internet is destroying the conditions for civilization and replacing it with conditions for barbarity and that the instrumental view of technology is dangerously naive. (2) In this paper I will examine Carr's and other's as well as some of my own concerns about internet use as well as speculate about why he may be right and why changing this trajectory will be difficult. I will also suggest that a world of data hunter-gatherers will not be one conducive to the practice of philosophy. Firstly, what are the concerns?

CONCERNS WITH THE INTERNET

Carr brings together an extensive and impressive body of research in psychology, neuro-science and philosophy to reveal the internet to be detrimental to our development of abilities for deep understanding and concept formation. His main argument draws on relatively recent research which reveals our brains to be highly plastic. He suggests that Marshall McLuhan was right and those arguing that technology is neutral, wrong, in that the medium of the internet and not just its content is changing its user's brains in ways which may undermine the conditions for civilization. These are. he argues, the conditions for deep self-reflection in which humans can engage in what was for early humans an unnatural activity of deep reading and comprehension; unnatural, because it requires the relatively secure and quiet conditions provided by a civilized society to enable deep concentration without distraction, a condition associated mainly with print technology and only available to humans for a relatively short period of our history. Alternatively, the internet is a technology designed to continually distract us; 'an ecosystem of interruption', as Cory Doctorow terms it. (3) The ability of the digital screen to be sectioned into multiple presentations of information makes it a medium in which the deep participation of continual decision-making is required. It makes it, as McLuhan famously argued, an extremely 'cold' medium. (4)

Engagement with the internet, according to Carr, changes our brains in such a way that we become less able to focus on deep concept formation which requires exercising our long term memory. Instead, through over-stimulation, we only engage our short-term memory limiting us to little more than hunter-gatherers, or data processors, expertly alert to continual fragments of information but unable to make sense of them or contextualize them. Carr cites many studies revealing retarded development amongst young internet users, but he also sees signs of retardation in the emergence of the integrated and perhaps, oxymoronic, post-literate intellectual who proudly argues that reading Proust, Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky is overrated. Carr warns us that these post-literates are more than the latest manifestation of the anti-intellectual wing of academia; they are products of digital computer technologies. He states that:

   Although it may be tempting to ignore those who suggest the value
   of the literary mind has always been exaggerated, that would be a
   mistake. Their arguments are another important sign of the
   fundamental shift taking place in society's attitude toward
   intellectual achievement. Their words also make it a lot easier for
   people to justify that shift--to convince themselves that surfing
   the Web is a suitable, even superior, substitute for deep reading
   and other forms of calm and attentive thought.
   [Post-literates]...provide the intellectual cover that allows
   thoughtful people to slip comfortably into the permanent state of
   distractedness that defines the online life. … 

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