Theatre and the Cognitive Surplus

Tuesday, June 8, 2010 Leave a Comment

A fascinating debate has erupted over the impact of the internet on our brains. In one corner, the utopians, led by Clay Shirky and Jonah Lehrer; in the other, the contrarians, led by Nicholas Carr.

In the contrarian corner, Carr's book The Shallows posits that the hyperlinked, multi-tasked, interruption-driven nature of the internet has robbed us of our capacity for deep attention. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

In his New York Times review of The Shallows, neuroscientist Lehrer politely debunked much of the research driving the book, presenting a more complex picture, saying, "There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind."

Clay Shirky made a similar case on June 4th with his WS Journal post Does The Internet Make Us Smarter? Carr responded the following day with Does The Internet Make You Dumber?

Then several articles from the New York Times came out more or less supporting dystopian Carr's view of our perpetually distracted, dumbed down future.

But Shirky's case, that we are witnessing The Great Spare Time Revolution, leading to what he calls a Cognitive Surplus:

"Free time has mainly been something to be used up rather than used, especially in postwar America, with the rise of suburbanization and long commutes. Suddenly we no longer lived in tight-knit communities and therefore we spent less time interacting face-to-face. As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television...Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already...But once we stop thinking of all that time as individual minutes to be whiled away and start thinking of it as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population—maybe a trillion hours per year—is a new resource. It’s what I refer to as the cognitive surplus."
However, both these utopian and contrarian viewpoints miss an essential question, one that not only theatre makers but all artists need to ask themselves, one that occurs to me every day with increasing urgency:

Are online technologies simply a new means to old ends, or are they an end in themselves?

When theatre makers talk about online technology, they talk about it as a means to an end. Whether we call it marketing, or marketing's classier cousin, audience engagement; the idea is the internet serves to better connect artists and audiences in order to bring them together in the theatre.

But what if this online world isn't the means to an end, but the thing itself? What if the role that theatre (and other media) played in our culture is now better fulfilled online?

In the past, I have countered this fear by exploring the value of Presence, the unique junction of life playing out in real space and time through our shared attention. This idea, of the intrinsic value of liveness, is something most of us believe in without question.

But the idea of Presence, of a unique identity expressing itself in a particular place and time, has been shattered by our increasing engagement in the online world; where place, time, and identity are fluid, where connection is incredibly intimate and yet disconnected from the body; where community is unbound by the responsibilities of physical proximity.

We have entered an age of quantum personality, where an identity can't be said to reside in anyone place or time, but is rather a series of probabilities dependent on who is observing, when, and with what platform; where nothing is local.

And what does that mean for theatre, which is above all the art of here and now, of a local presence, of intimate identities sharing the same air?

Says Shirky in a different context: "organizations that are founded to solve problems end up committed to the preservation of the problems. So Trentway-Wagar, an Ontario-based bus company, sues PickupPal, an online ride-sharing service, because T-W isn’t committed to solving transportation problems. It’s committed to solving transportation problems with buses. In the media world, Britannica is now committed to making reference works that can’t easily be referred to, and the music industry is now distributing music that can’t easily be shared because new ways of distributing music undermine the old business model."

Is theatre a bus, an encyclopedia, an album; and archaic means to an end? Or is it the thing itself?

I don't have answers, but this question comes to me again with greater urgency than ever, as what it means to be human continues to rapidly shift beneath our feet.


  • DPS said:  

    "We have entered an age of quantum personality, where an identity can't be said to reside in anyone place or time, but is rather a series of probabilities dependent on who is observing, when, and with what platform; where nothing is local."

    And of course, this has ALWAYS been the case. But what we've come to is an age in which we can recognize this in a fairly concrete way because the vocabulary and symbol systems are readily apparent to do so. It's a lesson that doesn't have to be taught through some esoteric school of mysticism; it's right there in front of our eyes (if we choose to see).

    Marshall McLuhan's theories on media are incredibly pertinent to all of this. His definition of technology was anything that extended the body/senses. The car or bicycle is an extension of the foot, for example -- but he made sure to specify that at the same time technology is amplifying the senses, it's also amputating them to some degree. By riding in a car, you don't get the same feel of the ground beneath your feet, for example.

    McLuhan considered the electric age of television and film to be an extension of the human central nervous system. I would posit that the computer, now in conjunction with the internet, is an extension of the brain -- of consciousness itself. Unfortunately, I think it "amputates" our empathy through abstraction.

    Still, the question then becomes, how do we want to use that enhanced consciousness? As children, it's perfectly fine to dwell in one's own dream-world, with imaginary friends, creating worlds of our creation. I think that's where we're at in our developmental relationship with the technology.

    Eventually we'll move beyond that when we're ready. But I do have difficulty with children being scolded for being children. Even if those children are adults.