Caught in the net. The mind in the web era

Caught in the net. The mind in the web era

Raffaele Simone. Presi nella rete. La mente ai tempi del web. Garzanti, Milan 2012.

How is human intelligence changing in the Internet era? How do big or small digital screens modify our reading and writing ways and change the concept itself of texts? The answer to these challenging questions are discussed in the essay Caught in the net. The mind in the web era, the last stage of an interesting study made on the cognitive and cultural effects of the digital revolution which Raffaele Simone began ten years ago with the publication of his successful and much discussed book La Terza fase. Forme di sapere che stiamo perdendo. (The Third Phase. Forms of knowledge we are losing)

The context - The exploration of new forms of textuality and various other key issues starts from a highly critical context analysis which looks at the advent of the tablet and smartphone with diffidence and preoccupation. Simone describes our era as a mediasphere, a universe populated by converging technological devices which are mobile and omnipresent, objects we cannot do without (literally!). To this, they have induced radical transformations by claiming and invading our noosphere (our mind) and our personal ecology (our time spaces). According to the Italian scholar, the advent of the web and internet connected devices has been the cause of an extraordinary exaptation of the human kind because they have given rise to functions and needs which were previously inexistent (the reverse process is adaptation i.e. it is the function which creates the organ).

The senses and intelligence - Immersed in this anomic world all so powerful and compelling, Man experiences the decline of knowledge, the involution of body parts and the hierarchical redefinition of the sensorial organs. As a result, there is a growing pre-eminence of listening and non-alphabetic vision which permits only a perception of numerous and coexistent data that necessitates “a low level of command”. Sequential intelligence, nurtured by books and writings permits a straightforward method of learning but – as Simone warns – leaves space for simultaneous intelligence which in many ways is more primitive and facilitated by the widespread use of iconic codes. Such method of learning is characterized by a prevailing contemporaneity of stimulus and elaboration which leads to phenomena like impoverishment of language, deterioration in literary skills, alienation to reading, weakening of mnemonic capacity and lack of concentration.

Old and new forms of textuality – Like the alphabet – Simone points out - even “its key material, the text and the book have gradually lost their privileged terrain where the eyes once looked upon”. The digital book has transformed the classic book into a diverse entity with a deeply social and interactive nature which is able to store enormous quantities of data in it. The classic paper version has lost its steadfastness and has been transformed into a pocket size plastic object, it vanishes and shrinks in various ways depending on the technology used. In this way Simone feels a kind of detachment now respect to what he previously had with paper books. He presents the digital book like an ever growing “open and accessible object”, something which can be interpolated continually.

Reading and Writing - The introduction and widespread use of computers first -and the telematics web later on- have caused profound changes in reading and writing styles both on a ethology level (i.e. behaviour and rules) and on an ecology level (the organised environment where the changes take place). If we look at the classic way of reading, our thought takes us back to intimate atmospheres, silence, solitude and experiences of a registered polymorphic sensorial nature. Immigrant digital readers well know this experience when they enjoy reading a “paper” book. Quite the contrary with digital natives, well versed in the digital culture and fuelled by the widespread and pervasive connectivity experience. They experience things through multi-use and multi-media and consume all in crowded and noisy places. As for writing, one only has to look at the infinite possibilities and variations of texts which technology allows to understand how information technology has revolutionised the process and elaboration of thought.

These are only a few of the points discussed in Presi nella rete - Caught in the net which offer the reader a time to question and reflect in a play of interaction among various scientific subjects and researchers and theorists cites who have adjourned, revised and studied in-depth theories over a period of time. It does not offer any particularly new ideas to what we already know, if anything, it helps the learner to guide himself round the subject and gives a 360° panorama for the more educated reader by giving new leads for investigation and systemization. An informative essay with extensive findings, it makes hints about the relationship between mediasphere and democracy and the problems of an ever growing digital school where new forms of learning and didactic methodology are being used. Close attention is drawn to the eloquent thoughts on textuality and above all the process of deconditioning of traditional variables (the rigidity of the space of textual production has been surpassed); the book is the means par excellence to preserve and transmit knowledge; reading despite the digital era is a vital means of alimenting the brain as neuroscientists repeatedly state; writing is a technique which necessitates complex abilities but it is also a prosthetic device which amplifies amongst others the capacity to reason and memorize things.

A full-scale analysis, positioned midway between old and new theories, it evokes contrasting feelings in who is “moderately” digital - who cultivates the traditional idea of reading and writing from childhood through seeing, leafing through and smelling books but is able to appreciate the novelties which are introduced in technology. Presi nella rete, Caught in the net, if we like is a journey through memory which fervidly sustains the reasons for traditional culture but at the same time seeks to recognise the merits of digital culture. Its author – a worthy academic, refined and disenchanted polemicist, author of essays and pamphlets widely acclaimed all over the world – admits that he himself “was born in the first half of the last century” and is convinced that the explosion of telematics is “in many ways one of the many extraordinary manifestations of collective folly (and at times idiocy) which has ever happened. But not all evil is harmful…”

On closer observation, the author’s criticisms of the web, more than an apocalyptic vision -to put it in Umberto Eco’s words- they derive from a deep pressing preoccupation which unites the apparent ungovernability of technological devices to that of oblivion, of the refusal of the past in its various forms. However, the plaintive alarm given out by the author raises questions. It is difficult to share all his views – in particular the description of a 2.0 humanity, driven to a point of no return by obsessive-compulsive rituals and enslaving, anxiety inducing devices. It is true that the digital world is a chaotic world which is difficult to represent on a map with limits and where temptations undoubtedly lie but it also offers infinite resources.

Scholars should deliberate well before getting carried away with technological fundamentalism and likewise show sound judgement and have a broad-minded approach towards new technology advancements otherwise one risks falling into the trap of contrasting integralism with integralism.