Monday, October 03, 2005

Shore and Technology

I feel that Shore’s book adds a lot to the our general discussion of the topic of the mind and learning in one particular way: he seems to be the first writer we have read who gives a clear model for how new ideas (schemas) replace old ones. On page 49 he says that “it is reasonable to suppose that dominant cultural models are often accompanied by widely shared but not highly cognized or publicly symbolized alternative models,” meaning that the culture contains many models, some of which are dominant while others are less visible (especially to outsiders). His conception is kind of like a town with a red-light district. The folks who are respectable live their lives as if the red-light district does not exist; they may not acknowledge it or openly condemn it, but, though seem to ignore it, they are all aware of it, and that it offers an alternative—though psychically dangerous—mode of living. This particular conception helps explain why cultures, though they demonstrate widely similar traits, are not completely homogenous.

Shore’s distinction between social and cognitive models explains how cultures can adopt radically new social models. Shore explains the phenomenon this way:

It is conceivable . . . that under certain conditions, members of a community will fail to fully internalize a cultural model because their personal experiences are incompatible with the conventional model. For these people, the cultural models have become “dead models.” These individuals may well have alternative mental models, models that may be highly idiosyncratic or socially manifested as marginal cultural representations or as cultural innovations (52)

Take the example of T. S. Eliot. Did Eliot’s widely popular poetry—expressing a fractured sense of modern life and the despair that accompanied it—really indicate a new feeling on the part of the post-WWI, Western European, English-speaking population, or did he merely find a way to articulate a feeling that was latent in people, an alternative model, that had not been given a popular, representative voice? Or to put it another way, did life stink before the dawn of the 20th century, or was that a modern phenomenon?

I wasn’t as pleased with Shore’s chapter on technology (chapter vi), however. His description of modular living that is the result of digital technology seemed to be spot on, but his analysis of this shift—from analog to digital—is about as clear as a record junkie defending his or her refusal to switch to CDs. He sums up the chapter with Heidegger, noting that the author’s “technologically inspired crisis may be understood as the loss of analogically grounded and organically mediated cultural models that can serve as sources for meaning construction” and that “[t]he loss of such models amounts to what Heidegger called ‘the darkening of the world’” (160-61). First, I’m not sure that Shore proves that “meaning construction” is impossible in a digital world or with what he calls the “postmodern mind” (161). Second, I have no idea what he (or Heidegger) means by “the darkening of the world” and why we should fear such a thing. Perhaps someone else can explain that to me.

If one can put aside his fears of word processing, however, Shore’s point about the effect of technology on thought (or schema making) is fascinating. I think the effect of technology on though has been established (Ong, Havelock, and others) but Shore’s emphasis on how it can create culture-wide schemas that dominate our living is relatively new, I think.

2 Comments:

Blogger gt said...

jmj,
I agree with you that Shore is the first author we've read to propose a plausible model of how culture gets in mind, as well as how individuals change culture. As to whether Eliot gave "new" feelings and perspective voice or merely externalized a non-dominant cultural schema he had previously internalized.....pretty much a universal question; isn't it?
Strongly reminds me of Fleck's idea that there's no such thing as an individual thought.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Eileen McGinnis said...

Sean addresses Shore's attitude toward technology as well, but I thought I'd respond to your post, since Sean's already has its fair share of comments. I also thought that Shore's attitudes toward digital technology were a bit clunky and unnecessarily full of gloom and doom (I do love the term "techno-totemism," though), in particular, his reading of contemporary SF as indicative of a sense of self as fragmented and an inability to connect to an organic whole. He doesn't take into account a figure like Donna Haraway, who sees in the blurring of categories such as human and machine a (figurative) potential for hybridity and alternative identities--a much more analog than digital perspective.

10:36 AM  

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