Sunday, 4 December 2011

Plumbing The Shallows and Playing Hopscotch With Nicholas Carr, Julio Cortazar and Brion Gysin

In his article for The Atlantic Carr famously asked:  Is Google Making Us Stupid? It works on the assumption that most users were smart to start with. I know I'm not, so what have I got to lose?

So I'm reading his book, The Shallows, which extends the essay idea into a longer analysis of how the Net changes our brains, which used to be thought of as machine-like and fixed in their ways from an early age, but are now confirmed as being 'plastic', malleable.

But I'm also read Brion Gysin's 'The Process' , which William Burroughs claims is actually about 'man's condition in the Space age' whilst telling the story of one man's adventures in the desert. 

Then, yesterday, I picked up 'Hopscotch' by Julio Cortazar, which I've been meaning to read for a long time. In the preface Cortazar says it mainly consist of two books, the first of which can be 'read in a normal fashion' ending with Chapter 56. The second starts with Chapter 73 and you follow the sequence as indicated by the chapter number at the end of each one. he then offers a list of all chapters in the correct order 'in case of confusion or forgetfulness'. Clear? I was immediately taken by the opening chapter (73), especially paragraph 2, which opens:
   'How often I wonder whether this is only writing, in an age in which we run towards deception through infallible equations and conformity machines. But to ask one's self if we will know how to find the other side of habit or if it is better to let one's self be borne along by its happy cybernetics, is 
                                    that not literature again?'

If the Net hadn't made me dumber than I was when I started using it I might fully grasp what Cortazar is saying there. Regardless, I love the phrases 'conformity machines' and 'happy cybernetics'. I am now tempted to read the novel.

Gysin, as (accidental) inventor of the cut-up, would surely have applauded Cortazar's idea that a reader may hop around within the covers of a novel; especially if the suggested route was abandoned in favour of random chapter selection. He may well have even embraced the idea that we surfers ingest a multitude of information in our daily lives to the point where content form a kind of cut-up reading experience. Then again, he might think us all idiots for not being able, apparently, to concentrate for long enough to absorb more than a couple of hundred words at a time.

We may well, as Carr suggests, have 'numbed an essential part of our self' through regular engagement with the online world. I'm not sure which part, though, because it takes intelligence to recognise and understand what's going on in our heads. And as I said at the beginning, I'm rather stupid. And I'm distracted by Cortazar and Gysin whilst trying to read 'The Shallows'.

Gysin said 'We are here to go'. It seems a fitting statement for the mouse-brained era in which we are always on the 'go' from site-to-site. For fear of supplying you with too much text to absorb (I know you have an itchy mouse finger), I hereby give you permission to go.


  1. Watch Adam Curtis' 'The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom' if you want to know about happy cybernetics...

  2. Thanks for the tip. I've seen quite a few Adam Curtis films.


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