I am fascinated with Rheingold’s discussion of the effects of the internet on our level of attention and insight. In Aotearoa, my more traditional Maori friends could spend all day, if they had the time and inclination, engaged in whakapapa with someone they just met: recitation of ancestry and connections of lineage. Throughout Polynesian culture, these connections were remembered and passed on via chant cycles. Unlike writing, the chant cannot go on without a chanter, though arguably, a recording can now live on, but those chants go back some 800 generations over 16,000 to 20,000 years (Kame’eleihiwa), to times when the first brave mariners set out from Southeast Asia across the vast Pacific and Indian oceans.
More happened in transmission of those chants than passing of information. By internalizing the names and stories they contain, a Polynesian chanter had a deep and complex sense of his or her place in their culture and on the planet. Ancestry.com, for whatever its merits, can never give a person the rich sense of identity that comes of knowing a complex genealogy learned “by heart,” as they say.
I use search engines like divergent trails of breadcrumbs, to turn the Hansel and Gretel metaphor around. It is more like I follow the crumbs left by others, and I may not know the destination. As Rheingold suggests, this kind of rapid access facilitates meta-level thinking, which is my preferred domain, but can lead to shallow thought, which is my fear.
I was also impressed to read someone else acknowledging that ancient cave paintings were no less a means to transmit thoughts to others across time. We do not know, however, what they meant to the artist, having no one to explain. Similarly, the spread of information at this phenomenal rate already brings to fruition Socrates’ fear that literacy without a tutor to explain meaning and morality can lead to disaster. The ability of two young Chechens to access plans for a bomb without having the moral reasoning not to use it serves as a stark example.
Kame’eleihiwa, L. (2009). Hawai‘i-nui-akea cousins: Ancestral gods and bodies of knowledge are treasures for the descendants. Te Kaharoa, 2, 42-63.
© Stephen Fox, 2013, contact firstname.lastname@example.org