Thoughts on Ulmer and Carr

When your friends are too lazy to Google it on their own.

With a slightly long-winded introduction established, it seems like an opportune time to move into the “meat and potatoes” of the blog. Specifically, I want to give some thoughts on a couple of articles pertaining to digital communication written by Gregory Ulmer and Nicholas Carr, respectively.

Gregory Ullmer writes of a new theory called electracy to represent the transitional evolution of our communicable knowledge from traditions grounded in Greece to the digital age. Essentially, he outlines such a transition from orality to literacy to electracy. Wherein orality was grounded primarily in religion and the oral traditions of philosophers like Socrates who were able to recite their knowledge entirely through oral communication, literacy denoted a transition into written work and reading, grounding the medium in the realm of science. Electracy, to the best of my understanding, is grounded in the realm of entertainment, using still and moving imagery as its medium of communication.

Ullmer goes into extensive detail about the evolution of philosophy through Jacques Derrida, Wilhelm Heidegger, and Immanuel Kant which made aesthetic judgments equal to moral and truth judgments, but it is somewhat difficult to follow despite my background in philosophy. The important takeaway seems to be that this evolution has allowed for the emergence of electracy and the teaching of electracy methods are important from a very young age given the growing and widespread use of digital communication forms.

Although I find the notion of condensing our methods of consuming digital media into a theoretical construct intriguing, I’m not sure that it will work the same as orality and literacy did. Furthermore, it seems problematic to ground electracy in the realm of  entertainment, as the digital mediums which it refers to such as television, movies, and the internet, are not solely restricted to being entertainment. Images, as artists throughout history would surely contend, can convey far more than entertainment value as we consider it in this day and age.

Carr writes a far more accessible article, and one which I can relate to very closely. Carr’s primary concern is regarding the nature of web-surfing’s ability to rewire our thought processes to a great extent. In essence, the manner in which we consume web content on the net has led many of us to expect instant gratification and immediacy in the very content we browse. Consequently, our attention spans are shortened, our capacity for contemplation is hindered, and our desire to overlook exceptionally lengthy reads is heightened.

To some degree, I understand where he comes from and can honestly see it in some of my own web browsing habits. The tendency to grasp for article titles and abstracts to get a condensed version of the news is high when one finds little precious time to consume such content. Being the occasional browser of internet forums, most notably the comment sections on content aggregate site, Reddit, I often see users disrespect the writers of lengthier posts with the acronym “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read). It’s so common, in fact, that many who write comments include a “tl;dr” summary if their posts reach a substantial length. Furthermore, my own procrastination habits are fueled largely by a tendency to get distracted from reading and writing in favor of the instant gratification the internet brings (again, Reddit being a particular culprit).

However, I am not so certain that we will lose the capacity to give a reading its due course just because of our extensive web use. If I see an article which has a headline that truly intrigues me, I will give it my full attention to get the full details rather than grabbing a quick synopsis or deciding the title conveys enough information. Google exists as a convenience to retrieve forgotten information or information we simply do not have present in our minds. I do not think it is a substitute for a brain, nor will it ever be. If you have to pull out your Smartphone and Google every single thing you need to be able to think of while having a conversation, you will appear socially inept. And regardless of whether or not Google succeeds in creating an AI powerful enough to retrieve any fact we might desire, I do not believe it will ever replace the need for human discourse to discuss, contextualize, and give meaning to those facts. If they were to create an artificial intelligence with that capability, then we might need to worry. Until then, I say it’s merely overblown technophobia.


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