Jonah Lehrer (a.k.a. the “boy-king of the neuroscience blogosphere”) has a mild and gentlemanly rejoinder to Zadie Smith essay which verges on moral panic about the Facebook phenomenon. Back in 2000 I remember listening to literary critics rave about Smith’s White Teeth. I’m a nerd, and when I read fiction it tends to be “speculative fiction.” But I decided check out White Teeth. It was OK, though I didn’t see what the big fuss was about. But then I suspect I lack some cognitive module which allows for the appreciation of “literary fiction.” Interestingly in the years which have followed a few people who have come to know me have analogized me to to the character in the novel named Magid. In any case in response to Smith’s overly grand panic, I would point out three things:
1) Facebook isn’t that big of a deal
3) The worries about the distortions which information technology impose upon humans goes back to the invention of the alphabet, which democratized literacy beyond the scribal castes, and purportedly was going to make memory obsolete (the printing press was actually the death knell of mnemonic techniques)
On the last point, many ancient letter writers behaved as if they were posting on a Facebook wall. Personal correspondence of prominent individuals were written with the expectation that they would be copied and circulated, and sometimes even read aloud. Memoirs and diaries were written in part to burnish reputations, and preserve for posterity one’s recollections. This is one reason that the letters of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus are apparently so boring. Everything new is old. Sort of.