The Cultural And Cognitive Consequences Of Electronics

In 1953, exactly sixty years ago, the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote about the cultural future of electronics. As a young poet, before World War I, Ungaretti had been briefly fascinated by the Futurist movement and he had strong feelings about the "poetic" rhythm of mechanics and about the aesthetics in the technical discoveries. But after World War II, at the age of 65, he was worried. In the past, he wrote, technology followed human imagination but, in the future, the enormous set of engineering achievements, lead by electronics, was going to go faster than human imagination; thus humanity could end up thinking as machines, losing the ability to feel, love, fear...

Lately, many scholars have been giving more than a thought at this kind of matters. It has been a very generative debate that has touched anything from the way search engines change [the way we employ] our memorization strategies to the persuasive effects of specific interface design, and even to the way some open platforms enhance our tendency to co-operate instead of competing.

But after all that thinking we are, paradoxically, both bored and worried: in fact, innovation in digital technologies keeps moving at such a fast pace that we seem to be still needing more research about the cultural and cognitive consequences of electronics. For this research to succeed it must be focused on long-term changes, which means to define the problem in a more holistic and less deterministic approach, as Ungaretti suggested. And, by the way, poetry is also a generation of metaphors.

How can we think about the way we think without letting our mind being trapped in the means that we use to communicate? The mediasphere is a sort of environment where most of information and knowledge live and develop. And the "information ecosystem" is a generative metaphor to make sense of such a media environment.

This metaphor helps mediologists understand the coevolution of ideas and platforms. It is a notion that works if one wants to stress the importance of diversity and tolerance in the mediasphere. And it leads to approach the media as a complex system.

But as the "information ecosystem" metaphor grows more popular, it also generates a new set of "inconvenient" analogies. Thus, we start to look for an "ecology of information" and we worry about long term tendencies: this leads us to define specific problems about the risks of monocultures, the possible development of info-polluting agents, the existence of unsustainable media practices.

This approach can be useful, if we don't let ourselves misinterpret the metaphor. Science, economics, politics, entertainment and even social relations grow in the mediasphere. And ideologies, misinformation, superstition also develop in the information ecosystem. We cannot think at info-pollution in terms of some sort of "bad content", because nobody could define it as such, just like nobody could define "bad" any form of life in an ecosystem. Info-pollution is not about the content is more about the process. It is about the preservation of a cultural equilibrium. What exactly are we looking for, then?

We are looking for ways to let our imagination be free, to breathe new ideas, to think in a way that is not explained only by the logic and the incentives of the mediasphere.

How can it be possible? Poetry is a kind of research that can help. Digital humanities are a path to enhance our ability to think differently. An epistemology of information needs to be developed.

Knowledge is meant to set us free, provided that we preserve our ability to decide what it is important independently from what is defined as such by the platform we use. Freedom of expression is not only the quantity of different ideas that circulate, the wealth of which has never been so rich as today. Freedom of expression is also about the decision-making that lets us choose ideas that are better than others to improve our ability to live together.

We should be worried about how we go about finding the wisdom to allow us to navigate developments as we begin to improve our ability to cheaply print human tissue, grow synthetic brains, have robots take care of our old parents, let the Internet educate our children. Ungaretti would have been thinking, maybe, that what is required is only a digitally-aware name for ethics, aesthetics and poetry.