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[Xmca-l] Re: Why Computers Make So Little Difference

Hi David,

My guess is that the primary impact of the printing press for many years was to keep a bunch of monks from developing carpel tunnel syndrome.  I doubt anybody foresaw the large distribution systems of texts let alone the invention of public libraries.  Maybe we are in a similar place with the Internet - although history seems to have sped up quite a bit.

The idea of comparing the Internet to the printing press seems relatively new (perhaps I'm wrong) and I'm not sure how helpful it is.  First because I don't know if that is that best of historical analogies, and second because I don't know how much we actually gain from historical analogies.

People have compared it to the invention of the telephone, to the invention of the governor (the thing that maintains machines not Arnold Schwarzenegger), I think if Lewis Mumford were alive today he would compare it to the invention of the mechanical clock - just came off a big discussion about this and it is currently my favorite in the way it changes our conceptions of time, space, the way we work, the way we do leisure.

The printing press and the Internet -

Well similar impacts in that they both involve the distribution of information/knowledge

Very different impacts in that the printing press is about the way we consume language while the Internet is more about the way we think.

Opposite in that the printing press was used to individualize and reify text as knowledge while the Internet at least might (and at its best) id used to collectivize knowledge/information and make it more dynamic.

Perhaps one of the most important philosophical lines of our time,

I've got a horse right here....his name is Paul Revere....and the man does day it the weather's clear....can do....can do....the man says the horse can do.

We choose our favorites, we listen to what its backers tells us, and if everything works out exactly as they tell us they think it will in the future....well, can do!!

The reason the line is so great is the subtext - it almost never works out that way.  We’re going to have to see where the Internet takes us.


-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu] On Behalf Of David Kellogg
Sent: Saturday, March 07, 2015 5:59 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [Xmca-l] Why Computers Make So Little Difference

In a recent interview, Chomsky was asked how computers would transform language. He scoffed a little, and remarked that he didn't think they would, at least not nearly as much as printing presses did. I am inclined to attribute this view to Chomsky's general anti-developmentalism, but on reflection, it occurs to me that there are three good reasons to suspect that so far, Chomsky's right.

First of all, the printing press made it possible to create whole populations of literate people. The impact of computers has been much more restricted, simply because it requires a certain capital threshold to buy into that impact, and this threshold is denied to whole countries and to whole sections within even the most affluent countries.

Secondly, the printing press made it possible to turn information into a printed commodity at a moment when the creation and distribution of commodities was a central neoformation in human productivity. The impact of computers has been--well, largely to create and distribute commodities. But this just isn't a neoformation any more, and it actually has the effect of atomizing and trivializing information in many cases, the way that putting a poem or even a good scientific book on a PPT atomizes and trivializes it.

(Sometimes when I walk over to the stacks in the nearby library and look up a journal article, I take a moment to marvel at how much historical perspective--how many opportunities to learn things while looking up other things--I lose when I simply "hunt and peck" for articles I need on the

Thirdly, and most importantly from a CHAT perspective: the priniting press changed our unit of analysis for language in a very fundamental way:
meanings, wordings, and soundings became clearly distinct and differentiated for the first time. There isn't any comparable shift in the unit of analysis for language wrought by computers.

For the illiterate, the printing press made it possible to abstract meanings from wordings and wordings from soundings for the first time: the distancing effect destroyed forever the illusion that words were simply names for actual objects and forced every literate person to think in terms of examples of concepts instead. Even for the literate, the printing press made it possible to see wordings and even soundings as made of interchangeable parts, and of meanings as examples of concepts that have to be built up from soundings and wordings.

(As an idealist, Chomsky has a good grasp of this: he often points out that words like "river" only really refer to concepts within the mind, not to physical objects, and the correspondence of that concept to reality is really a coincidence and not a reflection of any kind--what he is not ready to accept is that that coincidence is carefully set up and stage managed by culture and history and not simply a product of evolution.)

The computer actually obscures all this, not only by bringing graphics, sound, and text together again, but also by creating, on the semantic plane, the illusion of a single concrete virtual reality, when in fact all we really have are separate computers, which we can use to create that illusion by technical rather than imaginative means.

We often think of the history of information as speeding up as it progresses, the way life appears to a man in his late middle age. But it is also possible to regard it as slowing down, the way life appears when we look at a small child, or, more generally, when we consider this history not as the creation of information but instead as the creation of potential.

David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies