Except for Mondays, when the St. Lawrence Market closes its doors to the public, the one hundred and seventy year old Toronto city attraction on the intersection of Front and Jarvis is at the top of my list of candidates for buying lunch. More specifically, the Italian takeout in the basement, opposite to a souvenir shop and a hallway away from the jewelry stall staffed by an aging middle eastern couple, is my number one choice for a workday lunch. That does not mean, however, that I get to go to Uno Mustachio too often, at least not as frequently as I desire to. The reason for that is, partly my coworkers interest in many of the other food options that present themselves on the east side of Yonge Street between Dundas and King. I am not always inclined to wolf down the heavy and heavily loaded Nonna’s Favorite either.
At the times when I do treat myself to the layers of taste and guilt-soaked pleasure offered by the Chicken and Eggplant Sandwich, however, I also have the fortune of enjoying an encounter with the unmistakably Italian boss. That is what he calls me; “Boss”. “Any drink today, boss?” “What are you doing this Friday night, boss?” “What’s next boss? Paying through our teeth?” The middle-aged full-bodied man with a round face groaned this last one when I paid for my sandwich using my Samsung S3 smart watch. It was not a question, rather a grunt. A complaint about a situation that even the person who objects to knows that is irreversible.
The decision has been made. We can now pay using our wrist watches. What’s next? With all the technology that is packed into my Subaru Crosstrek, I wonder when I can pay through it in addition to texting and checking the pulse of the stock market. Maybe the driver side mirror would shine a beam onto the POS machine at the drive-through?
Recently, I ended up having to purchase an Amazon Fire Stick because I could not cast Amazon Prime videos on the existing Google Chromecast. As I was rewiring my apartment so that the “old” device would be rerouted to the sound system, I asked myself what might be next. I can now play music, off of Spotify, through at least three channels. Amazon Fire Stick and TV, Google Chromecast and the sound system, and the sound system through its own Bluetooth connection. I am surrounded by technology. What’s next?
The question kept meandering within and between the different corners of my cranial cavity until two nights ago. That was when, while walking on the west side of Yonge Street, between Dundas and College, I noticed how many people on the sidewalk ahead of me were affixed to their phones. I suddenly stopped, turned down the music, and looked behind me, then to the other side of the street. All around me screens were brightening up faces in this dim early winter Toronto evening. And then it hit me. Neural Rewiring. That is what is happening. More accurately, Neural Rewiring is one description for what has already happened and potentially one way to forecast what may be in store for Homo Sapiens in the next decade.
The train took a stop at Rosedale Station and I have to be quick. I imagine for a second that if I did not have a deadline at work, I would get off the subway and finish this piece in the cozy warmth of The Rebel House.
Neural Rewiring. Making the assumption that consciousness is a product of the cumulative activities of the human body and its environment, the properties of that phenomenon, i.e., who one is and what one aspires to be, are determined based on the patterns of connections of one’s neurons and the information that they process and how the results may be implemented. In this light, one may suggest that digital communication technologies have allowed any person as well as everyone else to gain access to everyone’s neural circuitry more directly and in novel ways.
Let me use an example or two to illustrate my point.
The human body is a dynamic system with its own regiment of timescales and causation paths. The society is another example of a dynamic system that is more comfortable when certain things happen in certain ways and at certain paces. For example, and I am borrowing this example from the fascinating book When Old Technologies Were New. Imagine that A wants to present himself as a suitor for B. Not a particularly exceptional story, of course, as more than a hundred thousand people make the same attempt every day. However, let us assume that this particular act of bravery happens in the early years of the twentieth century and in a large city in North America. Hence, for better or worse, the new chapter in the lives of A and B and the other people involved in this hypothetical story coincides with the advent of telephony in the West.
Carolyn Marvin dissects the changes in the properties of romantic encounters during that era and how the new inventions, i.e. telephone and phonograph, affected it. One example is the introduction of a shortcut to lovers, or mates for potential love affairs, for that matter. Before telephones appeared on the scene, a man could only gain access to a women through and under the supervising gaze of the sweetheart’s family. Telephone changed that structure. Now, one could call in. That is what I did when I was seventeen. I would call in, ask the father of my girlfriend to put her on the phone, then play some nice music and converse with her about math and books and whatever else there is that a teenager who suspects that the conversation is eavesdropped on both sides dares to talk about. Phonograph, according to Marvin, caused a somewhat different stir, as it converted speech from what comes out of one’s mouth and enters another’s ear and then dissipates, into a piece of evidence. There is a reference in the book to a newspaper item from that period wherein the father of a girl who has been lured into the bedroom through the disingenuous promise of a future life together, surrenders a recording of the said conversation as evidence and gets the court to condemn the “bastard” who was unlucky enough to be among the first victims of violation of privacy.
What does all of this have to do with the charming Uno Mustachio person and his concerns about the invasive tentacles of digital technologies and how is that relevant to whether or not the sanctity of one’s neural pathways has been breached?
Evolution is a process through which matter modifies its manifestation in order for a particular configuration to keep replicating. Why? There is no why. A configuration that manages to survive has managed to survive and thus it writes its own history, assuming that writing a history, in a literal sense, is what that configuration may have any interest in. Hence, as the context in which the configuration is defined changes, so does the configuration. Otherwise, other configurations may get the upper hand. Whatever survives, does survive, and thus shall inherit the earth.
Human consciousness is a product of three and half billion years of evolution. Change, rather drastic and catastrophic alteration of the environment, has been a constant affliction of life throughout that expansive period. And, as it appears, life, as we know it, has been able to survive the winds of change, by changing in return, of course. Digital technologies are solely a new chapter in the life of life. Intention used to have to pass through layers of flesh and air and dirt in order to turn into action; man wants to meet woman, he walks toward her hut, asks her dad, and if allowed in, talks to the woman, rather briefly and utterly soberly. Nowadays, there is no walking, and there is no dad. Man decides to contact the woman, and equally likely the other way around, and a second later a message is on its way. Is that “good”? I do not know, before at least knowing how one identifies being good.
For all that matters, the recent changes in the human landscape are not exogenous to man. Man has sweat over the ages in order to push forward piecemeal inventions that incarnated their collective scheme in what became the plethora of digital technologies that are intimately familiar to us now. The Internet is a man-made concept and man made it because, at least at an incremental scale and at the time, every step seemed like a worthy endeavor to at least one person.
And thus man disrupted the known rules for life and set up a new framework. What is going to happen to man? That is the important question and while not pretending to be offering any notion of an answer, I would like to point out that humanity, although it often makes the claim to be so, is not one homogeneous unit. Hence, the question is categorically not whether or not man will survive the hardships of digitalization as an entity. That is certain. In other words, it is very likely that something will survive the current cataclysm and it is possible that that thing might like to address itself as a man, possibly for the sole purpose of claiming ownership over the rest of human history and also in pursuit of identity, authenticity, and authority. The key point, however, is that survival is seldom a win-win situation for everyone.
The hen ends up on the dinner table and the ox pulls the plow. Would the bystander passersby of Yonge street, who are glued to their screens, end up around the table, in the sweatshop, or on the pages of history books, that is what is yet to be known.
Photograph courtesy of Wired