Saturday, November 13, 2010

Possibilities and Inclinations: Mediums, Choices, and Free Will

Last night I was out with some friends and I came upon a distinction that helps me deal with two pressing issues of mine. One is a more specific issue, and one is a more general issue of which the former is an example.

The specific issue is the internet, the enormous amount of information it gives us access to, and the way it tends to lead to a distractible mind that doesn't fully engage with all the available information. In other words, there is tension between the possibilities of the internet as a medium, and the inclinations of the internet as a medium. Sure, the internet has enormous potential to open us up to other people's cultures, to other people's thoughts and feelings, to anything in the world. But how does the nature of the medium itself encourage us to engage with this enormous amount of information? Does it not encourage us to shallowly leap from one tab to the next, clicking as many links as possible? Doesn't the internet's inclinations detract from the possibilities of the internet? I fear that people focus too much on the possibilities of the internet without reckoning with its inclinations. Since reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, I have been much more aware of the internet as a medium and not simply as a source of content. I think that this distinction between possibilities and inclinations will help me analyze this issue more carefully. So that is what I want to do.

But I also see this is part of a larger issue. I think that this distinction between possibilities and inclinations can also help me grapple with what I perceive as inadequate definitions of 'choice' and 'free will'. I often think that these ideas of choice and free will are muddled and are discussed like their efficacy is somehow self-evident. But doesn't it seem like it can be awfully hard to choose the right thing? Doesn't it seem like we are inclined to do certain things? Whether it is our macro cultural situation or our micro personal situation, doesn't it seem like the notion of 'free will' comes into violent confrontation with our inclinations? What I'm saying is that free will doesn't function like some light switch that you flip, it isn't a mechanical, easy, or directly applicable process. It is always a relative thing. We are not simply choosing into a void of possibilities, we are choosing against a set of inclinations. But to me it seems like people speak of choice as simply a world of possibilities, and all we have to do is seize upon the correct possibility. And I think the ubiquity of metaphors about 'seizing' the moment and the like suggest that choice is not that simple of an issue. We have to seize choices and freedom because we are already dealing with a world of inclinations that forces our decisions to be forever relative, forever combative. There is no choosing unless we are choosing against something else. There are no simple possibilities without already existing inclinations. In short, I think that the notion of choice needs to become less reductive and far more nuanced, and I think that we can do this by recognizing that our possible choices are always working in relation to our already existing inclinations.

So I will just spend a little bit of time, a few paragraphs, dealing with the more specific issue of the internet and the more general issue of choice. I am hoping that by first writing on the specific example of the internet I will be able to clarify these terms, which will hopefully allow me to give a closer look at the issues of choice and free will. Here I go.

Now, as I said, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows was a very interesting book that has prompted me to consider the internet as a medium and not a simply a source of content. Carr's main concern is how mediums implicitly encourage certain types of behavior. He addresses this issue by talking about how each medium has its own 'intellectual ethic'. Carr notes that inventors rarely consider the intellectual ethic that their new medium encourages. The intellectual ethic is something that lies behind the scenes of a medium. Carr argues, furthermore, that each medium comes along with its own unique forms of neuroplastic change. The brains of literate people, for example, look and work differently from the brains of illiterate people. The internet, too, causes unique neuroplastic changes. I admire Carr for incorporating new findings about neuroplasticity into his work on the intellectual ethic of books and the internet. My reading on neuroplasticity has always been fruitful, and I think that it has implications that go way beyond the field of neuroscience. The discovery of neuroplasticity has implications for all of the humanities, for most fields, I bet. Carr dares to ask what types of neuroplastic changes are associated with modern mediums?

But anyways, as I said, Carr discusses the intellectual ethic of both books and the internet. So, what are the intellectual ethics if these mediums? If the medium is indeed the message, as McLuhan argued, then what is the message of these mediums? I will be cursory about this so that I can get to my main concerns.

Carr believes that the book encourages long concentrated bouts of attention. He thinks that the invention of the book did a lot to enhance our ability to concentrate and to follow narratives. The internet, on the other hand, encourages us to be distracted. It encourages us to click as many things as fast as possible, to fly from one page to another. Carr believes that the internet's intellectual ethic is ultimately one of distractibility and shallow engagement with many different things. Not that the internet has to be used this way, but that the internet encourages us to think in this way. The inclination of the internet as a medium is to make us distracted and shallow.

Perhaps this sounds hyperbolic and too gloomy doomy. But I think that Carr's stance, and my stance, is in response to a discourse that only speaks of the wonderful possibilities of the internet. People talk like the only thing to be worried about is how there is all of this information for us to gather. The internet = more date. More data = smarter people. Not always the case. We don't always need more data, what we need sometimes is slow and lazy rumination. This reminds me of Guy Claxton's emphasis on d-mode thinking: an over-deliberate and rational form of thought that places all of its faith in date and logic. The assumption seems to be that people are logical, and that given access to large amounts of information they will choose to intelligently engage with it. But that only gives credence to the hypothetical possibilities of the internet, and ignores the real inclinations that the internet encourages. Speaking personally, I feel that the internet just lets me lazily glide from one website to the next, playing computer games, looking at facebook, so on. I think that we need to start paying a bit of attention to the inclinations of the internet as a medium, and stop focusing so much on the possibilities of its content. Not because its content isn't vast and amazing. It is. But because the inclination of the medium, its intellectual ethic, has the power to render its possibilities moot. It doesn't matter if we have access to tons of information if we are being implicitly encouraged to shallowly engage with games and facbeook.

In short, if we started to look at the inclinations of the internet we might see that its possibilities are not as rich as we have supposed.

Now how applicable are these ideas to the rest of life and the ideas of choice and free will? We suppose that 'if only people made the right choices they would be able to take advantage of the internet's awesomeness. But what Carr's work shows us is that it isn't that simple. That the internet is subtly encouraging us to not take full advantage of its content. That the medium itself contains a message of distractibility and shallowness. So perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from Carr's work is that 'choice' is not something that is enacted rationally in some kind of void, but is rather something that is always relative. We have to choose in the face of inclinations. We have to do battle with the intellectual ethics that are communicated to us by our mediums. Free will is about struggling against already established inclinations and intellectual ethics.

So then, if choice and free will become a matter of dealing with and reacting to already established inclinations and ethics, then how far do these implications go? If it is a matter of mediums,how mediums encourage us to behave, and how they structure our choices, then what is and is not a medium? Can the city itself be considered a medium of life and expression? Can the capitalist system be considered a medium? If so, how do these mediums structure our lives?

Let me take the example of libraries, because I think that the internets about them are in many ways be similar to the ones about the internet. And it also gives me an example to discuss the city, urban lay outs, as a medium in itself. So, people may say 'the library is right there, if people only choose they could go and read and learn anything they want'. But then why aren't people taking advantage of the library? Why isn't everyone in the city flocking to the library to learn and grow as people? Because the city as a medium for existence encourages lots of behavior that is not about libraries. The city is also loaded with bars and with liquor stores and strip clubs and drugs and restaurants. So the city, therefore, implicitly encourages all kinds of vice that would prevent people from taking advantage of the benefits of the library. The implicit ethic of the city, the inclinations of the city, prove stronger than the hypothetical possibilities of learning. So, just an example of how in general choice should be thought of more in terms of the inclinations that we are going against, and less in terms of the hypothetical possibilities.

Now, if this idea of choice as being more about overcoming a medium's implicit inclinations and less about hypothetical possibilities, then how far can this idea be taken? What in life can be considered a medium? And how do those mediums effect the way we make act? How do those mediums structure choices? Can the capitalist system itself be considered a medium for life? It certainly seems like it is a medium for all of our actions. If this is the case, then don't we need to start thinking about choice in society the same way that we think about choice in specific mediums like the internet? Don't we have to recognize that the medium is providing us with a set of inclinations that are often counter to how we conceptualize our possible choices? It seems to me that this would help us accept the relative nature of choice, that we would always be choosing against or with the implicit ethic of our social system.

Free will has to be relative, a relationship. It has to be about moving through already established ethics and inclinations. Perhaps society establishes for us an existential ethic. We are unconsciously told what the best ways to live. And if society can be considered a medium for our choices, then we need to reckon with the implicit existential ethic. Because only by adopting a new definition of choice as a relative action. Ummm. Possibilities and inclinations. We need to stop relying so much on this idea of what is possible, and start thinking about what is implicitly encouraged. Because choice is always in relation to these underlying inclinations. The internet is just a good example of this idea. The internet is a world of massive possibilities, but the implicit intellectual ethic is in opposition to these possibilities of education.

I have lost my steam on this essay. I'm not sure why I feel so tired. But I think that I need to let this idea, this distinction between possibilities and inclinations mature. I think it can hopefully be fruitful. I really need to ask myself more about this question of mediums. What exactly is a medium? Where do they end and begin? How do we choose? How do mediums effect our choices? Why do we have so much emphasis on the possibilities of choices? What is a medium? What is a choice?

I feel tired. But I suspect these are fruitful lines of thought. And I want to pursue them. But I can't right now. But in the future I will hopefully read with these ideas in mind.

Original notes:
- The city as a medium
- The capitalist world as a medium
- The entire world as a medium
- Subjective experience and emotions as a medium
- All of these having their own corresponding implicit 'existential ethic'
- It is both macro and micro
- Does the temporality of choice fit in somehow?

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