Upstream of Gay ‘Marriage’

How has our world got to the point where it is even necessary to argue that marriage can only be between a man and a woman? For millennia of human history, the institution of marriage has always been understood as being between a man and a woman. Even in cultures where the practice of homosexuality has been widespread, if someone had suggested widening the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, no one would have taken you seriously. So why now, all of a sudden, are so many states and nations jumping on the bandwagon to make marriage mean something else?

Clearly, there is no single explanation. However, in an article I recently published with the Colson Center, I suggested that one key factor has been the persistent erosion of the gender polarity that occurred throughout the 20thcentury. Throughout the last century feminist writers kept telling us that gender is irrelevant in man-woman relationships, including the relationship of marriage. What happens if you consider gender to be a functional irrelevancy long enough is that suddenly same-sex marriage, in which gender is a formal irrelevancy, starts to seem a lot more plausible. Continue reading

“voluntary elimination of gender in the human species”

“The heart of women’s oppression” Shulamith Firestone commented in 1970, “is her childbearing and child-rearing roles…To assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and seizure of control of reproduction…so the end goal of the feminist revolution must be unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself; genital differences between human beings would no longer matter.”

Welcome to postgenderism.

I first came across the notion of postgenderism when I was watching a video about transhumanism. I paused the video and looked up postgenderism on Wikipedia, which offers the following explanation:

Postgenderism is a diverse social, political and cultural movement whose adherents affirm the voluntary elimination of gender in the human species through the application of advanced biotechnology and assistive reproductive technologies.

Advocates of postgenderism argue that the presence of gender roles, social stratification, and cogno-physical disparities and differences are generally to the detriment of individuals and society.

Voluntary elimination of gender in the human species? Hmm.

When I wrote about the coming gender-free utopia for Salvo 11, I couldn’t have imagined how close to reality this was. But many, many important scientists are working on finding ways to eliminate gender from the human experience. If you want to know more about this, a good place to start is George Dvorsky and James Hughes’ article for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, ‘Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary.

Nudge Theory

In an article for the Telegraph, Philip Johnston explains about Nudge Theory. Nudge theory was developed by the American academic Richard Thaler and has been put into practice by UK prime minister David Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team at a tune of £500,000 a year.

The basic idea is that government can, and ought, to nudge us to be better people. “Effectively,” Johnston explains, “it is social engineering without anyone noticing, a nanny state where nanny stays hidden behind the curtains. Rather than ordering people around or leaving them to behave in ways that will damage their health or wealth, the state can gently manoeuvre them into behaving sensibly.”

David Brooke’s advocated something similar in his bestseller The Social Animal, which I reviewed here, and which also captured the imagination of Britain’s impressionable Prime Minister. Consistent with Nudge Theory, Brooke’s recommends that the government goes about making us better people with a kind of side-ways approach, prodding us in the right direction or propping up the web of relationships in the private sector. He uses the phraseology “limited but energetic” to describe the government’s role in enhancing social mobility and promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

There’s some definite value to this way of thinking, but also some legitimate concerns. C.S. Lewis raised some of these concerns in an article for the Observer in 1958. Lewis remarked:

The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.”

Brooks realizes with a consistency that is almost frightening that if the government’s vocation is to promote human happiness, then our whole lives become the business of the state right down to the synaptic connections controlling the neurons in our brains. “The unconscious, he says, “needs supervision.”

The Internet and Neuroscience

In yesterday’s post I summarized some of the argument from Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book The Shallows in which he explains the difference that different types of reading have on the brain.

So when it comes to reading online, a question we must ask is whether there really is that much difference between reading a webpage and reading a book? Carr shows that there is a huge difference. We read webpages differently to how we read books. We read books cover to cover, and even when we scan it tends to have a sequential quality to it. But research has shown that the average person does not read a webpage from left to right and from top to bottom. They skip around, scanning for relevant information. This helps to explain why our minds get information overload looking at just a few webpages, and yet we do not tend to get cognitive overload in a library of thousands of books. The books allow us to take our time and work through them slowly. They encourage slow reflection. By contrast, webpages invite distraction and put our minds in fast gear.

The brain of the net-user begins to demand to be fed in the way the internet feeds it, with the result that he begins to find silent reading a difficult chore. Joe O’Shea, a former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, once said that he had given up reading books. “I don’t read books,” he noted. “I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” By becoming “a skilled hunter” online, books become superfluous. “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense…I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.”

But the evidence for how the internet is changing our brains is not just anecdotal. One of the reasons that The Shallows makes such fascinating reading is because Carr gets inside the brain to explain scientifically exactly what is going on when we enter the online environment. He shows how our use of google, email and websites is actually altering the chemical flows in our synapses, leading to change in the physiological structures of the neurons in our brains.

Brain scans of net users show that just five hours on the internet is enough to rewire the brain of a new user. Book reading engages the activity of the brain associated with language, memory, and not much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. On the other hand, “The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information.” The subtle redirection of our brain from reading to making judgments engages the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex and has a huge casualty in comprehension and retention.  We exchange the calm mind of the book reader for the buzzing mind of the internet user, and in the process we lose much of our evaluative and memory skills.

“One thing is clear”, writes Carr, “if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that has been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”

Though The Shallows isn’t alarmist, the book does contain some sobering predictions of what will happen when all information – including information previously only accessible in books – is digitized. This is because, “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.”

The point is not that people need to stop using the internet. Since the internet is now so interconnected with our lives and employment, most people will not have the option of simply switching offline. Even the book’s author has confessed that he is an internet junky. However, the point is that by being aware of the neurological effects of online activity, we can begin to find ways to mitigate its power over us. The book could have been improved by including specific strategies on how to do this. Nevertheless, by so clearly diagnosing the problem, The Shallows provides a valuable starting place in rejecting the net’s mastery over our brains.

Further Reading

McLuhan and the Internet

More About The Shallows

More about The Shallows

In yesterday’s post I recommended Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which takes McLuhan’s theories about communication technologies and brings them up to date with a thorough evaluation of the internet. However, in describing the effect that the internet has had on our brains, Carr does not just draw on theorists like McLuhan, but also on cutting edge discoveries in neuroscience.

Nicholas Carr

Scientists are only just discovering how malleable the human brain actually is. Our brains do not come pre-packaged or hardwired, but have a built-in ability to constantly adapt to the demands of our environment, including the tools we use. By availing himself of all the latest laboratory research, Carr shows that our intellectual technologies do more than merely provide us with the means to transmit and receive information; they actually alter the neurocircuitry in our brains, changing the process of thought itself.

The advent of silent reading is a prime example of this. To be immersed in a book is to tune out all distractions, and this involves creating mental habits that do not come naturally to us. The primitive state of man is to be in a state of constant distractability. In earlier stages of human history, this helped us to survive. By being attentive to the smallest changes in our environment, our distractable brains were critical in avoiding being eaten by a predator or missing a crucial food source. Silent reading goes against the grain of this distractability, since it forces us to give sustained focus to one thing at the exclusion of everything else that is competing for our attention.

The advent of silent reading was not co-temperous with the invention of the book. Originally writing was simply an adjunct of speech and consequently writers did not put spaces between their words. (When you speak you do not pause between each word. “It would never have crossed the minds of the first writers” notes Carr, “to put blank spaces between words. They were simply transcribing speech, writing what their ears told them to write.” Even today when children begin writing, they have to be continually reminded to put spaces between the words.) Scrolls, codices and the first books were written in order to be read aloud. Indeed, before spaces were put between the words, it would have been almost impossible to decipher the meaning of any text without reading it aloud. Even then, the brain’s entire cortex, including the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have had to be actively engaged, buzzing with neural activity. Prior to the insertion of word spaces, the process of reading was a kind of intensive decoding that would have left little cognitive space for the type of prolonged reflection that we normally associate with reading.

It was not until around the start of the second millennium that monks in Ireland and England began inserting spaces between each word. As the new way of writing spread through Western Europe, silent reading became a popular pastime for those who could afford books. The result of this was that whole new areas of the brain were activated – parts of the brain associated with visual, phonological and semantic information and retrieval. Readers were released from the cognitive burden of having to decode a text and were able, consequently, to devote more time to interpretation, meaning and the richer and deeper ideas that authors began to increasingly explore.

After Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, books became less expensive and so reading became a popular pursuit for a much larger population. Carr tells us that “According to one estimate, the number of books produced in the fifty years following Gutenberg’s invention equalled the number produced by European scribes during the preceding thousand years.” Consequently, thousands of people began to practice something that comes unnaturally to man: tuning out distractions.

“To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought,” Carr observed, “one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object….Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.” The developments in art, science and cultural development that came in the Age of the Book were not merely the effect of the proliferation of knowledge, but resulted from the type of linear and sequential thinking that book reading trains us in. Moreover, the development of knowledge “became an increasingly private act, with each reader creating, in his own mind, a personal synthesis of the ideas and information passed down through the writings of other thinkers.”

If silent reading works against our natural predisposition is to constantly shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, the internet does just the opposite: it feeds our propensity for distraction. From pop-ups, to animations, to email notification to hyperlinks, the internet is designed to distract us from one thing to focus our attention onto something else. (Think about the purpose of a hyperlink: it doesn’t simply reference other works like the footnotes in a book: a hyperlink actually propels us towards the new source. The purpose of a hyperlink is to distract and their value as navigational tools cannot be separated from the distractions they cause.) When we go online, we enter an ecosystem of distraction.

In short, the internet seizes our attention, but it does so only to scatter it amid a cacophony of stimuli. The rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and options means that the net-user is inundated by mental stimulation. By design the net is an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention, creating a hunger for what Carr calls, “small, rapidly dispensed pieces of information.”

By coalescing a variety of interruption technologies and harnessing them into a single medium, the net pulls on our brain in the exact opposite way to a book. Significantly, Carr notes, “never has there been a medium that, like the Net, has been programmed to so widely scatter our attention and to do it so insistently.” This can be seen in the way people read online, in comparison to the way they read a conventional book. “[W]hen we go online,” writes Carr, “we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”

The net’s hegemony over our brains is not limited merely to the time we spend online. It is obvious that our minds work on our intellectual tools, but cognitive scientists are discovering that our intellectual tools also work on our minds, subtly changing our brains to adapt themselves to our tools’ requirements. Sometimes this can be seen in obvious ways: many people testify that when they are away from their computer or i-phone there is a sense of needing to be connected, to be able to check emails, click links and do googling. The net “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment,” and we do not feel right when we do not have access to such nourishment.

But the net is also changing our thinking in more subtle ways, as our brains morph to embody the staccato quality encouraged by the net. We skim and scroll through disconnected frames of life exactly like we do on the internet. Our brains are being trained to be easily distracted by ‘irrelevant environmental stimuli” and we carry with us the effects of this training even when we are not in front of the computer. The calm, focused, undistracted and the linear mind of the silent reader is being pushed aside by what Carr calls, “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”

Put another way, the net makes us skilful at being superficial, having knowledge that is expansive but doesn’t run very deep. The asset about living life in the shallows is that you can get around very quickly. The liability is that you can’t go very deep.