[-empyre-] post for convergence; print to pixels

nicole heber nicole.heber at gmail.com
Tue Jun 15 15:24:29 EST 2010

Hello all - this is in response to Michael's statement that scholars in the
humanities have difficulty accepting the so-called 'neurological' approach
to net criticism.  I think, like Katherine Hayles, that it's important to
engage with this material before dismissing it, and I've outlined some
reasons below.

For Lovink, ‘neurological’ or ‘medicalized’ analyses of the internet
necessarily detract from – or distract us from – the economic analysis that
he is interested in undertaking.  But internet criticism doesn’t have to be
a zero-sum game, and I think there are developments within the neurosciences
that offer us a better understanding of the way that technology capitalises
on particular propensities related to the structure and function of the
central nervous system.  To my mind, the mistake is to assume that
technology acts directly on our brains, or even that it impacts immediately
upon our cognitive capacities.  I’m not sure that we know enough about the
way that cognition works to support these claims – it seems to me that we
still lack a guiding framework or paradigm in which to contextualise
them.  Stanislas
Dehaene’s ‘Reading in the Brain’, for example, is a fascinating and
well-researched account of how the capacity to read might have evolved, but
it deals with the very earliest stages of sensory processing that might have
allowed letters and words to be identified.  These mechanisms alone are
incredibly specific, complex, and still contentious, and they also indicate
just how far we are from understanding the processing of larger linguistic
structures such as grammar or narrative – let alone how mechanisms for
reading or other cognitive capacities might be recruited and adapted by new

I am, however, interested in what can be learned from those theories that
view cognition and emotion as distinct systems that are both inextricable
from, and yet incompletely integrated with, each other.  Of course these
theories are open to question too, but I do think they are well enough
established that any ‘neurological’ analysis of the internet should take
them into account.  To give one example - according to Antonio Damasio’s
somatic marker hypothesis, each and every event is marked by its induction
of a specific bodily state, and by a corresponding feeling- tone.  Whenever
we enter into a context that resembles the earlier situation, the
feeling-state is instantly and unconsciously invoked, and impels us towards
(or away from) particular decisions, directs our behaviors towards
particular ends, and influences the kinds of cognition that we can undertake
in that context.  I think this applies directly to our time spent online,
because the social aspect of the internet means that it constitutes a domain
that is probably more highly charged with emotion than any other.  It is
loaded with deeply affecting pleasures, and with rewards that are at times
are both exhilarating and comforting - but it is also imbued with powerful
fears, anxieties, and with the possibility to make serious errors.
in the absence of the usual interpersonal markers – posture, tone of voice,
facial expression – that regulate social exchanges, it is not surprising
that the internet becomes a highly fraught space.

Each and every time we enter into this context (and even when we are in the
same room as the computer, as Katherine Hayles’ anecdote suggests) this
complex of mingled emotions is recalled and invoked.  The fact that the
technology brings our working lives and social lives into such immediate
contact only complicates things further: presented with dual possibilities
for supreme (but economically necessary) boredom and intense stimulation, is
it any surprise that we experience this as a site of anxiety, frustration
and conflict as well as of possibility?  As Joseph LeDoux points out, events
that possess emotional salience are far more likely to become conscious.  So,
if our time online is characterised by a certain ‘distractibility’, it may
be because the possibility for an emotionally charged encounter hovers
continually at the edges of our consciousness.  Katherine Hayles recounts
evidence that people spend a comparable amount of time browsing a
magazine-style document on an iPad as in print.  Could this be because some
of these more urgent and affecting possibilities are reduced by the tablet
format – that the space is therefore less affectively charged, thus allowing
a more extended engagement with a single document?

For these reasons, I very much like Alessandro Ludovico’s formulation of the
‘The Persistence of Paper’.  I think Ludovico’s evocation of the qualitative
aspects to print media, a ‘stability’ that is increasingly ‘precious for a
generation stuck for most part of the day close to their unstable laptops’
is valuable, as it indicates that our ties to media are qualitative and
affective, rather than solely related to the kinds of cognitive tasks that
the medium allows us to undertake.
These are just my personal impressions, but I do think that anecdotal – or
even personal – evidence is relevant in this context.  For example,
Katherine Hayles’ admission that she had to enter another room of the house
to read a book from cover to cover is telling, because it exemplifies just
how deeply our behaviours are intertwined with the specific space, location,
or context in which we habitually undertake them.

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