In my never-ending praise of disruptive movements (when that power is used for good) and desire to find examples of folks tweaking their corporate masters and doing good work, I picked up a text that might curb my enthusiasm a bit, Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. Wolf is a neuroscientist who uses this text to collate recent brain research about how we read and then use that collation to help us understand where we’re going with technological development, and it definitely served to correct my relentless search for a way out of the dystopic trends in our culture. Better summaries of the text are available on the open net that will no longer exist if certain alpha males get their way, so I’ll just add a few notes:
- Her argument is that despite how natural it feels to read, our brains were not designed for reading, despite our cultural privileging of that activity.
- She sees that as a feature, not a bug – “thus, the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually” (5).
- She combines Proust’s use of reading as an “intellectual ‘sanctuary'” with the idea of the squid, an animal that helped us understand how beings with long central axons transmit sensually-derived information in the body. The squid essentially serves to help her explain the biological components of reading, Proust the cultural.
- Her findings have a ton of implications for how we think about dyslexia (not some sort of defect but rather a brain that processes information differently) in particular.
- It has also been used by folks like Nicholas Carr to try to understand what the different types of reading we are asking people to do now affect the brain. There have been all kinds of studies on reading and its affective qualities (I’ll link to them in another post that I’m working on), and technoculture (and digital culture), and Wolf’s argument that we are losing some sort of “associate dimension” when we read on the web, losing our abilities to make truth out of the world for ourselves and instead relying on search engines (wow, The Circle reappears constantly) to identify truth for us.
- This argument is firmly in the dystopic, skynet-is-active vein of technological criticism. Wolf’s findings, I think, can certainly be seen in that light – we will get shallower, dumber, less capable of making associations, and our brains will be forever tweaked, incrementally, in that direction by our addiction to the net.
- I’m going to try to think about this in a different direction, however – those incremental changes, if we’re fast enough and smart enough, might well lead incrementally to a far different place, one in which we value the plasticity of our brains and look to ways to make those connections useful, empathetic, and driven by our needs for connection. Wolf devotes her entire final chapter to what she sees as ways to start this disruption.