There is still value in trying to recognize how one's own standpoint and assumptions distort one's vision of the world; emotional and conceptual empathy are of continuing importance because they are how we embody the truth that we share a world with others to home that world matters differently. But we are coming to accept that we can't really get a view from nowhere, and if we could, we would have no idea what we're looking at.
In the excerpt we ran from your book earlier this week, you explain how today's data-driven science is producing knowledge - if you can call it that - that computers can understand but humans cannot. This, you imply, is somehow less satisfying than the Eureka moment of a Kepler, a Darwin, or an Einstein. Yet, this knowledge may be more reflective of the realities of biology or physics than something that humans could intuit. What do you make of that tension -- between the kind of knowledge that humans desire and the kind that accurately reflects the world?
I don't know if it's by culture or biology that we feel joy when a simple order is revealed behind a mangled confusion. That Aha! moment is like the punchline of a great joke or the final turn in a well-wrought narrative. We love it. And I don't think we'll ever lose it. (But what do I know?) It's just that the understanding that results in a sudden recognition of simplicity is not sufficient for a world as big and complex as ours.
Our new ability to know the world at a scale never before imaginable may not bring us our old type of understanding, but understanding and knowledge are not motivated only by the desire to feel that sudden gasp of insight. The opposite and ancient motive is to feel the breath of awe in the face of the almighty unknowability of our universe. A knowing that recognizes its object is so vast that it outstrips understanding makes us more capable of awe.
And, bonus question: Who would win in a fight, Clay Shirky or Nicholas Carr?
Carr would land some shallow punches, but then everbody would join with Shirky. So, no contest.
Cheap puns aside, my heart's with Shirky, although I liked Carr's The Shallows. It raises an important question, and pushes it hard. Further, when most people say that the Internet is making people stupid, they exempt themselves: it's those other people -- the ones I disagree with -- who are being made stupid. Carr on the other hand applies the critique to himself. He says he wants his old brain back.
Another reason I like The Shallows: It provides a rare and clear example of actual technodeterminism, a charge usually leveled against Shirky and his ilk. (I pride myself in being ilked with Shirky.) Technodeterminism is the claim that technology by itself has predictable, determinant effects on people or culture. Usually, in my opinion, the charge is a strawman argument, for the Shirky Ilk doesn't think that the effect of technology is independent of the factors that shape social and cultural reactions. Differences in culture, class, education, psychology, and personal history all affect how someone reacts to any technology. Of course. But with that limitation strongly in mind, we still need to be able to discuss how a technology is affecting a culture in general. Generalizations can be a vehicle of truth, so long as they are understood to be only generally true.