The greatest contribution of Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows comes from his use of neuroscience to contest any neutralist argument that technologies are neutral tools that only attain value, good or bad, when and how they are used by human agents. Following in the trajectory of Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology and McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Carr’s discussion of human neuroplasticity and the role communication technologies can play in this plasticity offers a strong critique of the neutralist position.

Lest we imagine the neutralist position as a naive and uncritical approach, I’ll briefly draw our attention to Richard Cohen’s affirmation of the ethical neutrality of cybernetics in his article, “Ethics and Cybernetics: Levinasian Reflections.” Demonstrating the complexity of the issue, Cohen begins with two opposing evaluations of the ethical possibilities of internet communication technologies, Turkle’s poststructuralist championing of cybernetic’s potential to destabilize and emphasize difference and Introna’s condemnation of these same technologies for irremediably mediating his idea of Levinasian face-to-face ethical encounter.1 Cohen actually accuses both Turkle and Introna of giving too much power to information technology and its role in shaping the human person.2 Leveraging the Levinasian concept of proximity, which imagines human encounter as irreducible to the data transfer we often call knowledge or consciousness, Cohen argues that internet communication technologies are neutral with respect to the human person because they simply facilitate information processing, not human sensibility.3 Computers simply can not participate in human proximity, which for Levinas and Cohen constitutes ethics, good and bad, and the human person. Thus, cybernetics remain neutral until taken up by human agents in the process of proximity.

I appreciate Cohen’s attention to the dangers and possibility of internet communication technologies and their relationship to difference and the human person. That thoughtful scholars like Turkle and Introna can reach such different conclusions when critically exploring the same cultural phenomenon, cybernetics, suggests a complexity that deserves analysis. Much like the data processed through the cybernetic infrastructure of the net, the information processed through our neural pathways does not define the human person in its entirety, particularly in the ethical encounter. Yet, internet technologies have at least two effects on proximity as Cohen and Levinas imagine it. Carr convincingly shows that technology can and does shape the trajectories of human neuroplasticity in significant ways. Even if I agree that human selfhood is infinitely irreducible to cognition or consciousness, this does not necessitate the extreme eradication of cognition or knowledge or information processing from having a role in constructing the sensibility and proximity that constitute human encounter. So, in one sense, Cohen’s warning to Turkle and Introna can be seen as one of degree, not kind. One need not take a neutralist stance toward technology to challenge the degree to which some scholars and philosophers allow technologies to determine the human person. Holding Carr and Cohen together, it seems entirely possible, even likely, that the wires of the internet and the wires of the brain both shape and are shaped by the sensibility of human proximity.

Cohen also highlights a decentering of spatiotemporal proximity. Here again, ideas of entanglement can help. Quantum entanglement asks us to reimagine proximity much like Levinas does. For Levinas, proximity, even the face of the other is not primarily characterized by the phenomenology of perceptual encounter, though it is that in part. Proximity denotes an intersubjective relation that resists the consumptive and homogenizing tendencies of perception and categorical knowledge. Thus, two people in relationship without one subsuming or absorbing the other. In this case, proximity need not be limited to nearness in time or space, but a nearness of relationship with an irreducible distance/difference, thus always proximate and always distinct.

Just as Levinasian proximity deemphasizes spatiotemporal nearness and highlights difference in the meaningful relationship between two people, so quantum entanglement demonstrates that spatiotemporal nearness is not a necessary condition for meaningful and ongoing relationship between particles. Once two quantum systems interact, even after separated at large distances, these systems can exhibit ongoing influence on the properties and behavior of one another.4 Much like McLuhan imagined nearly 50 years ago, internet communication technologies too have collapsed time and space in some ways as constraints on human encounter, with just the same tension between nearness and difference entangled in Levinas’s idea of proximity. If technology shapes the way humans imagine and construct space and time, how does this not have a significant impact on human sensibility? Here, I agree with Carr’s critique of the neutralists. Technologies are far from neutral, participating in the shaping of the plasticity of our brains and the entanglement of human proximity.

Next post, I’ll take a brief look at Carr’s helpful use of maps and clocks as examples of technologies that impact the way we imagine the world in significant ways.

  1. Richard A. Cohen, “Ethics and Cybernetics: Levinasian Reflections,” Ethics and Information Technology 2 (2000): 27. 

  2. Cohen, “Ethics and Cybernetics,” 28. 

  3. Cohen, “Ethics and Cybernetics,” 35. 

  4. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Quantum Entanglement and Information,” where Schrödinger is quoted saying, “When two systems, of which we know the states by their respective representatives, enter into temporary physical interaction due to known forces between them, and when after a time of mutual influence the systems separate again, then they can no longer be described in the same way as before, viz. by endowing each of them with a representative of its own. I would not call that one but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought. By the interaction the two representatives [the quantum states] have become entangled.” 

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Michael Hemenway



a proximate interface

An arcade of musings from my encounters with curiosity.

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