BrainHex: How Do You Play Videogames?
Bioethics in the Age of New Media

Books vs Internet

Ebooks We tend to look at the internet as an entirely new phenomena, but isn't it simply an accelerated  successor to books and letters? Following in the theme that we were always already cyborgs, what, other than the speed of response and the sheer volume of text now being generated, differentiates the internet from the world of print and writing that proceeded it?

I have been wondering for some time about the frequency of my internet use... I am constantly looking things up, often via the Wikipedia. I have severe questions about the epistemological validity of the Wikipedia, which is to say, I believe its claims at presenting "knowledge" are even weaker than these claims usually are, but I still use it. I use it as a source of trivia - to see what the internet geeks collectively think. Some information (precisely that information one might need in a "pub quiz") is well provided for... much is dreadfully presented, confused, or just plain incorrect. But it still serves as a useful point of revision, even if I often suspect it's content.

Before I could google a topic and find a wiki entry, I turned to my reference books - encyclopedias and dictionaries, specialist references and technical manuals. I still prefer to do so. But I can only do this from within reach of my bookcases - with an iphone in my pocket I can look up something on the internet from practically anywhere. The reliability of the information is certainly lower on the internet, but the ubiquity of access is phenomenal. (And to be fair, my reference books are also often in error - particularly on subjects with a high rate-of-change, such as a great many scientific fields, where knowledge is not so much "revealed" as it is "constructed", not to mention the fluid national borders of geography).

In his 1984 essay Hypomnemata, Michel Foucault comments that the arrival of notebooks in Plato's time were as disruptive then as the arrival of the computer has been now - he sees the ancient Greeks as using these notebooks as external memory, and as a means of building a relationship with oneself. Joanna Zylinska sees this same theme in the modern blog.

We don't tend to see the person with a notebook as a cyborg, yet it is easy to see the person with an iphone as something of a cyborg (and even easier if we imagine implanting an iphone)... the science fiction narratives we have encountered presuppose that the cyborg's technology must be electronic in nature, and that it must become one with the flesh. But there is no need for it to be this way. The person with a notebook is also a cyborg of a kind... who they are, what they can be is radically altered by their interaction with technology, as it was for Plato.

Thus, the internet can be seen as a step along a path that began with language, written language, and eventually print media. Nothing the internet allows us to do was impossible previously - even virtual worlds - it just took far longer before the computer. We've had six millenia of writing, and nearly fifteen hundred years of printing. For how long, I wonder, will the internet serve as the backdrop to a technological era?

I'm uncertain how to attribute the opening image, it may be a book cover commissioned by Brian Judd. As ever no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down at the lawful copyright holder's request.

Comments

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Interesting comments. There's another way that the internet is different, though, and you sort of touch on it in your post. With the internet, and web 2.0 in particular, anyone (with the proper technological tools and know-how) can contribute, and knowledge becomes an increasingly participatory act. With books, on the other hand, knowledge is largely the domain of a handful of experts and specialists. Whether or not either knowledge is better is up for debate (by what criteria do we evaluate the knowledge - openness? correctness? usefulness?). However, this again may simply be an acceleration of previous trends (the printing press made knowledge more participatory than the prior system of scribes). One question I would ask is, why do we have less trust in the knowledge generated by the crowd (i.e. wikipedia) than we do of the knowledge generated by specialists?

@Jeremy:
"...why do we have less trust in the knowledge generated by the crowd (i.e. wikipedia) than we do of the knowledge generated by specialists?"
In my view the answer is (or rather was): lack of experience with a working solution.
Until the end of the 90s when various open source teams started to deliver ready-to-use software for the average user nobody in the political mainstream had imagined that a group that was not conventionally (i.e. institutionally (university, company, club)) organized (aka "a crowd") could accomplish something useful and trustworthy by technological, busines and public policy standards - and in fact the question whether the latter standard is met (copyright, file sharing,...) is still subject to red hot debate between open source/access advocats and the mainstream (media).

The Internet is an almost-perfect, almost-free copying machine. It's a factor of... what... a thousand? cheaper to download a novel than to buy the dead tree form.

In theory, this should be at least as disruptive as the printing press, which decreased the copying cost of books by a similar factor.

Finally, as you note, a book is static. A 'net feed is far more dynamic even than a daily newspaper. The 2-3 orders of magnitude in speed of dissemination of content *is* qualitative, as it allows conversation via the Internet, whereas it's not possible via books.

@Chris:
I see a fundamental difference to be made here between what one could call a "temporary" or "reversible" cyborg and an "irreversible" cyborg.

So a person with pen and paper is obviously in a reversible situation: she may enhance her powers of memory and logical thinking at one moment and then in the next revert to the unenhanced state and even more or less completely forget about what she just wrote or calculated.

At the other extreme, a star-trek-like cy-borg (is in a very different situation (or so it seems, forget about all those in this regard annoying plot twists ;): "assimilation" or similar procedures irreversibly transform the _nature_ of the subject - a transformation so horrifc that on avergae viewers cannot imagine that a person could possibly give her consent to such a horrific alteration of her body and personal identity.

In your Iphone example one may implicitly assume that its implantation also is an irreversible alteration to the persons central nervous system and that moreover that there is no off-switch to the thing. Of course, both assumption may or not be true given the level of specuulation we are at.

But on the more realistic level, the question whether a user of pda, laptop or game console has turned into a cyborg should be answered at least in part by looking at the level of irreversible changes in her behavior, e.g. certain behavioral patterns that make sense only if the person is online or in a technically enhanced context - online addiction in taht sense could be called a "cyborg disorder" - but a pathological urge to blog could be seen in that light, too. ;)

Thanks, translucy - that notion of reversibility pinpoints the unease I've felt about the definition Chris is using.

The purpose of Intelligence is Prediction. Evolution of the ability to predict the behavior of other agents and the likelihood of phenomena in the environment improved survival rates and created a strong evolutionary pressure to develop better and longer term predictions. This is how and why Intelligence evolved.

Let's say working with a screen, one can sum it up by saying when you play a computer game to rescue the princess, let's be honest, do you care about the princess? I bet you don't care about the princess, do you? But when you read a book, the whole point of reading the book is because you care about the characters, you care about the princess, you want to know what happens, you want to know exactly what she's feeling.

@Peter
I wonder if Chris also sees the question of (potential) reversibility and personal control as central to the bioethics issue - which of course leads us somewhat back to
previous philosophical debates about questions such as: To which extend can a "self" embedded in social context and with limited life span actually experience "reversibility", or is "life" in all its variations not always by definition irreversible in time and space.

Jeremy: "One question I would ask is, why do we have less trust in the knowledge generated by the crowd (i.e. wikipedia) than we do of the knowledge generated by specialists?"

Epistemology - the philosophy of knowledge - is far trickier than we give credit. :) But in answer to this specific question, the claims of knowledge produced by experts/specialists in, say, an encyclopedia have always been checked by multiple individuals who share specialist knowledge. Yes, the views presented need not strictly be knowledge, but a far more rigorous vetting process occurs.

I distrust the Trivipedia on numerous counts... Here are a few for your consideration:

1. Specialist topics usually attract fewer contributions, thus the content that appears is rarely properly vetted, and is often an individual opinion dressed up as knowledge. This may also happen with a print encyclopaedia, but there are more levels of defence against this in place in a conventional publication.
2. The wikipedia is notoriously open to manipulation by commercial and individual factions to pursue specific political goals etc. (e.g. eliding information that is not desired to be shared). While individuals contributing to an encyclopaedia *may* fall prey of the same, there is a better chance of such biases being caught in the formal process than in the "epistemological anarchy" of the wiki.
3. The formal process of auditing the Wikipedia focuses solely on the existence of attribution - no-one actually checks the validity of the attributions! Thus, for instance, in my previous piece on episteme versus paradigm the wiki-author managed to cite the book he was commenting on as his attribution. This is not a knowledge claim! But the wikipedia only checks for attributions, not for their validity.

Furthermore, there are biases behind the data in the Trivipedia which to me suggest that it really is pooling the opinions of "internet geeks" - for instance, the grey squirrel page (the only page I participate in) insists on taking papers and reports which express in terms related to evolutionary theories as having a higher merit than papers and reports which do not. This doesn't surprise me - internet geeks heart evolution - but as an epistemological process, it's questionable.

Thanks for wading in! :)

Peter: "In theory, this should be at least as disruptive as the printing press, which decreased the copying cost of books by a similar factor."

Yes, wasn't this my claim? :)

"Finally, as you note, a book is static. A 'net feed is far more dynamic even than a daily newspaper. The 2-3 orders of magnitude in speed of dissemination of content *is* qualitative, as it allows conversation via the Internet, whereas it's not possible via books."

Sure it's possible via books - translucy made this point to me ages ago in the early days of the Game. It's just you have to take "books and letters" as the medium, not just books themselves. Since the internet is also mixed media, I don't see this as an issue.

The speed of dissemination, as you say, is faster, but the process was always already taking place.

translucy: "I see a fundamental difference to be made here between what one could call a "temporary" or "reversible" cyborg and an "irreversible" cyborg."

I don't disagree, but in order to make this distinction you have to create a phantasmal assumption of what constitutes an "irreversible" cyborg. Suppose I have my iphone implanted and can neurally interface with it. What makes you think that my use of the iphone after this implantation is not elective, nor potentially reversible. The iphone could be disconnected, or even switched off.

Science fiction "threatens" us with this idea of the technological transformation taken so far that it "goes beyond" (as in the Borg et al) but it's not at all clear that isn't just a distinction of degree. If I get plastic surgery to implant metal plates around me, reconstruct my voicebox etc. until I resemble a Dalek, how reversible is this operation? And there, I am only talking about the cosmetic! (But this in turn has significant effects on who we are, does it not?) We already have the tools for radical transformations which go beyond the point of irreversibility in the surgical space i.e. sex change operations, pacemakers.

Furthermore, now that I *can* use the internet to look things up, how can I ever lose the knowledge that I can look things up on the net? Is this not equally irreversible in some sense? Consider that now it is impossible for me to pose a trivia quiz and expect it to be completed from memory, because the internet is always available to provide the answers. This cultural change is effectively irreversible.

"So a person with pen and paper is obviously in a reversible situation: she may enhance her powers of memory and logical thinking at one moment and then in the next revert to the unenhanced state and even more or less completely forget about what she just wrote or calculated."

May... but in practice does not. If all the paper in the world ceased to exist, would you really forget everything that you read? The transformation of Plato's time with the notebooks seems reversible because you say "take the notebook away". But similarly, "turn off the ipod", or "unimplant the cybernetic graft". The notebook changed the way the Greek philosophers thought about themselves, how they developed as people. Even taking the notebooks away couldn't stop this transformation once it had started.

"...'assimilation' or similar procedures irreversibly transform the _nature_ of the subject"

And my claim here is that the notebook, the printing press, the ipod, the internet also irreversibly transform the nature of the subject. Not necessarily in a way that proceeds to the point of horror, as in science fiction, but isn't this because science fiction has the remit to exaggerate for effect? But I am irreversibly transformed by 25 years of writing 500 words a day into my diary. Stopping writing the diary doesn't take away the transformation this has wrought to who I am. Neither would burning the diaries. This change is irreversible, because it is part of who I am now.

"...online addiction in that sense could be called a "cyborg disorder" - but a pathological urge to blog could be seen in that light, too. ;)"

Sure, no doubt about this in my mind. And so could Nietzche's obsessive scribblings by inadequate candlelight. :)

You raise an interesting an important counterpoint here, translucy - but I think you underestimate the reversibility of things like the internet, or for that matter books. I am intimately and irreversibly affected by the volume of books I read in my teenage years - I was always already a cyborg. :)

Great to hear from you!

mariana: You make some bold claims, but don't show your workings. :)

"The purpose of Intelligence is Prediction."

Either this presupposes a definition of "intelligence" or it is a teleological account of some kind. One may construct any number of teleological accounts, but that doesn't validate any of them e.g. "the purpose of intelligence is to increase the likelihood of mating", "the purpose of intelligence is to drive beings forward to higher levels of evolutionary complexity". This space - teleology - is supposed to have been excluded from science. But in fact, we just changed our tastes as to which teleologies we would permit. :p

"Evolution of the ability to predict the behavior of other agents and the likelihood of phenomena in the environment improved survival rates and created a strong evolutionary pressure to develop better and longer term predictions. This is how and why Intelligence evolved."

Hypothesis. To prove this, you will require either a time machine or a very long experiment. :)

I'm not saying this isn't a plausible claim, it certainly is, but "how and why intelligence evolved"? Not a given. 'Intelligence as prediction' (your restricted definition of intelligence here) could have occurred by chance, and then improved through generational iteration - which would counter "how intelligence evolved". Intelligence might also have been more focussed originally on tool use, not prediction - which would counter "why intelligence evolved".

So I'm afraid I reject your epistemological claims here as effectively speculation.

"let's be honest, do you care about the princess? I bet you don't care about the princess, do you?"

Depends upon the game. I don't care about Princess Peach, but I care about Yorda. It's not a given that one won't enjoy a videogame in a narrative or emotional way - some players certainly do come to almost all their play in this way.

Thanks for commenting!

translucy: "I wonder if Chris also sees the question of (potential) reversibility and personal control as central to the bioethics issue - which of course leads us somewhat back to previous philosophical debates about questions such as: To which extend can a "self" embedded in social context and with limited life span actually experience "reversibility", or is "life" in all its variations not always by definition irreversible in time and space."

This isn't my sole concern here in the bioethics mini-campaign, but you certainly nail my position when you observe that "reversibility" is not something beings with our limited life span have access to. We are constantly becoming something new, and the tools at our disposal radically affect that. We were always already cyborgs. :)

---

Thanks for the great comments everyone!

@Chris
"We are constantly becoming something new, and the tools at our disposal radically affect that. We were always already cyborgs."

I certainly see the point your making and as a reader of many of the philosophers you featured on this blog I guess I do agree with most of it. However, we seem to be thrown back to some form of language game here.

I would reserve the "cyborg argument" to the more far-reaching of your statements about technical enhancement (citing technical options that in our time and in the near future will involve large amounts of resources, time, capital and long years of expertise put to work) and see the "pen-and-notebook" parts as aspects of Arendt`s (et al.) "conditio humana" where all the distinctions concerning "vita activa" and so forth (and of course "natality") are something valuable not easily reduced to a single term.

Are you going to consider Arendt (and maybe Agamben?) in your bioethics discussion?

@Chris
Actually, there are authors who take the "we were always cyborgs" argument even further. For example, in many more explicitly dytopian world views (currently all examples I can think of are science fiction, like maybe "Blade runner", "Neuromancer", "The fifth element", "Logan´s run", and in a sense "Truman Show" and the like - "Brave New World" also qualifies) you get the eerie idea that modern man actually lives _inside_ a gigantic machine or rather _inside_ an organism, something like an ultimate termites` colony that swallows up the whole world (with space as maybe the last outer boundary).

Now, the beings existing on the "inner surface" of this world are exposed to the _totality_ of the (technically enhanced) powers that reign (usually some form of totalitarian rule) and therefore the suggestion that they live "cyborg lifes" has some plausibility.

But again these examples shows me that one has to carefully define the standards (like maybe "reversibility", "totality", etc.) by which to measure the degree of "cyborg-ness". Again, I suspect that "cyborg-ness" is just an aspect of the human condition not a concept in its own right.

translucy: thanks for a pair of interesting comments!

I like the way you re-frame this in the context of Arendt - that makes a lot of sense to me.

"Are you going to consider Arendt (and maybe Agamben?) in your bioethics discussion?"

Not in the pieces themselves, maybe in the comments! :) This is only a short mini-campaign (3-4 weeks), based around Zylinska's book; it's largely an opportunity to post a group of pieces from my backlog of topics that happen to be related to Zylinska's notion of bioethics.

"Again, I suspect that 'cyborg-ness' is just an aspect of the human condition not a concept in its own right."

I concur with your claim here except I think it also works as a concept in its own right - if only to give us a new way of looking at the relationship between technology and humanity, one which doesn't arbitrarily consider electronics to be the most significant boundary we can choose.

Best wishes!

"...if only to give us a new way of looking at the relationship between technology and humanity, one which doesn't arbitrarily consider electronics to be the most significant boundary we can choose."

That indeed is a worthwhile endeavor - looking forward to it!

translucy: well, I should offer a slight disclaimer in that having now drafted most of the pieces for this "mini-campaign", it may deliver rather less than you are hoping. :(

What I'm looking for is some lively discussion on the topics that are going to come up, and I'm hoping that the framework discussed this week will remain in play for those discussions in some way (but not one that I have planned out in any degree!). We'll see how it goes, I guess! :)

Hope you enjoy it!

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