The Future of Thinking in a Digital Age
How we think is shaped by what we read and how we read. The “how” is a vital part of the equation. Much the same holds true for writing and how we express our thoughts. In both instances method should play its part though it must be neither mechanical nor categorical. Rather, such method should be a way of opening the mind rather than cabining it. Yet so much of the process of contemporary scholarship cuts against this grain. Why?
Start here: Assume you’re invited to write for a print symposium on Plato’s Philibus or Rousseau’s Emile or Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition or Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots or even Leo Strauss’ The City and Man. Or assume you’re asked to prepare an essay for a scholarly journal on a topic such as “knowledge in a digital age.” Where do you begin and how do you proceed? The answer is simple: you do digital research – you “Google it.” That is both the answer and the problem.
“I feed on that food”
To expose the nature of that problem it may be helpful to return in time to what Niccolò Machiavelli penned in his famed December 10, 1513 letter to Francesco Vettori:
“When evening comes, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.”
When I read that passage, and then again, what came to mind was the word engagement. When Niccolò entered the world of those ancient thinkers he engaged them and they him. Their minds became involved with one another; the logos continued between the living and the dead; they occupied a space that was neither temporal nor predetermined; and their words “spoke” to him and he replied as if to breathe new life into them. Such was the back-and-forth discourse between friends. Not only did Niccolò pass into their world but they into his. Metaphorically speaking, think of it as them waiting for him so they might escape from their tombs and enter the light of a new day, a thinking day.
Leaving the dead . . . dead
By stark contrast, the contemporary scholar is content with leaving the dead . . . dead. They have had their say. Hence, there is no desire to engage them. What is desired is data. It is an old problem, one related to the various technologies of communication. The relationship between technology and thinking was illuminated by an ancient myth told by Plato in his Phaedrus (274-d – 275-b). The purpose of invoking the myth was to highlight the dangers of the invention of writing and the threat they posed to live discourse between human beings engaged in thought. The problem was that writing would provide “the appearance of wisdom, not its reality.” Much the same holds true, though in a greatly inflated way, with the invention of the Internet and surfeit of facts (true, false and chaotic) it dumps into the minds of those who use it, often cavalierly.
Digital data knows no end. It thrusts the mind into a realm of endless universes wherein it is commanded to fend for itself. This is the cosmos of perpetual data in which the mind frantically scrambles to grab as many tidbits as it can hold. In the process, engagement is lost and replaced with a kind of mechanized practice. The problem here is not only the assembly-line mindset – satirically portrayed in 1936 in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times – but also the scholar’s exclusion from real knowledge. Her knowledge, what there is of it as employed, flea-skips from one piece of data to thousands more.
The domain of data
In the domain of data, the scholar turns to Wikipedia and Google’s search engine to collect and stockpile as much information as she can. Plato becomes a project, Rousseau a research job, Arendt a study task, Weil an amassing enterprise, and Strauss a dizzying chase after commentaries on commentaries. As this occurs, the secondary becomes primary, and thinking succumbs to cut-and-paste approaches to “learning.” Where this is the practice a Google mindset is sovereign; here even 15 minutes of pure uninterrupted thought is automatically traded for quick-fix search-engine results. In the Google sphere, more is always better even if it means less thinking; a bevy of footnotes replaces a moment of unpolluted thinking; and lethargy replaces the exercise of the mind – the once engaged mind becomes a transmitter, a mindless medium of sorts. By this measure, minds operate akin to bots, busily transmitting data for mechanized storage in other bots.
If that is how we read, if reading is no more than electronic research, then what we write mirrors that. When that occurs, writing ceases to be an art; instead it becomes something akin to an algorithmic function. The mechanized mind produces mechanized writing. Thus, the grace of writing submits to the gravity of data. When words cease to be carefully and thoughtfully written, they lose the power to be thoughtfully read. What power they retain is too often used to trigger “dog whistle” responses – a classic example of words without meaning.
The tyranny of tweets
“If our speech has no meaning, nothing has meaning.”
– Albert Camus
As evidenced by the digital maneuvers of the 45th president of the United States, meaningless words play a dominant role in the digital age, the age in which tweets trump every form of reason and logic known to the mind.
Meaningless words have claimed countless lives in the history of humankind. Such words, in the form of propaganda, are well-suited for tyrannical use since they prompt mindless responses favorable to the cause or campaign being waged. Simply consider what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence the heart of the broad masses.” It was just that phenomenon that Ernst Cassirer analyzed in The Myth of the State (1946), this in his attempt to explain the origins of Nazism. Empty words took on a mythical status, words were at once “incoherent, capricious, [and] irrational” and at the same time acceptable. The German masses fed on his mantras. There was a sort of bestial appetite at work here that gorged itself on baseless impulses.
“The sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next.” So declared the late Christopher Hitchens. But who is to say that he was right? He had his opinions about the sun rising, but so do others who feel no need to anchor their views in scientific logic. Hence, where the sun rises depends on where one stands, physically and politically. Now there is a mantra meant for our historical moment.
Every despotic myth needs a mantra, words that short circuit thinking of the kind that comes with paused deliberation. And what better medium than social media, that world where electrified word-bites reign supreme? The new communicative technologies energized propaganda as never before; they spread its reach while intensifying its message. In the process, the line between fact and fiction – as science understood as no more than a choice between alchemy or chemistry – was often obliterated. Reality and science became matters of opinion. Think of it: this was the methodology championed in service of a highly popular cause – “Make America Great Again” (MAGA).
The continued impoverishment of the intellect, the blurring of fact and fiction, the ideologically determined use of evidence, and the denial of scientific truths have created an environment where speech is prized simply for speech’s sake. And with a surfeit of “facts” readily available on multiple electronic platforms, virtually any truth can be countered. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was beyond doubt. It was there, in such silos of barren minds, that thought went to die . . . a cause célèbre for those who had had their share of reason. In today’s social media world, the medium really is the message – a lesson that traced back to Plato, then to McLuhan and beyond.
Though it has long been the case, the regularity and rapidity of words acting as their own truths, regardless of whether they do or do not link back to some demonstrable fact, is an alarming element of modern life. Where Google is the referent point of the scholar, and Twitter the medium of political leaders, it is little wonder that social media echoes what comes from such chambers.
The joy that comes with the evening
The joy that of that evening of which Machiavelli wrote, of entering the antique courts of the ancients, seems to be lost, if only because we no longer value that joy or no longer yearn for those evenings to converse with the ancients. We are no longer engaged with them. We have not only lost that ability, we have lost the desire to engage them.
Albert Camus, Notebooks: 1942-1951, New York, Knopf, Justin O’Brien trans, 1965, p. 23.
Ernst Cassier, The Myth of the State, New Haven, CN, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 18, 281, 290.
“Chaplin: Analysis of Modern Times,” The-Philosophy.com.
Ronald Collins, “The Lonely Death of Ashli Babbitt,” ATTENTION, May 25, 2021.
Ronald Collins and David Skover, The Death of Discourse, Durham, NC., Carolina Academic Press, 2005, 2nd ed.
Neil Gregor, How to Read Hitler, New York, W.W. Norton, 2005, pp. 100-111.
Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, New York, Basic Books, 2005.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, New York, Houghton Mifflin, Ralph Manheim trans., 1974, p. 165.
Niccolò Machiavelli, Selected Political Writings: The Prince, Selections from the Discourses, Letter to Vettori, Indianapolis, IN., Hackett Publishing Co., David Wootton, ed. and trans., 1994, pp. 1-4.
Plato, The Phaedrus, Indianapolis, IN., Hackett Publishing Co., Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, trans., 1995, pp. 79-80.
Simone Weil, “The Power of Words,” in Selected Essays, New York, Oxford University Press, 1962, Richard Rees, ed. and trans., 1962, pp. 154-176.
—, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting on God, London, Routledge & Kagan Paul, 1951, pp. 51-59.