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The Information Revolution and Narrative Intersubjectivity
I want to end this chapter by relating a small part of my current research into technological
change. A central question here is: If, as I have suggested, narratives are empathy machines
that create intersubjective space, how are they adapting to the e-realities of today? Without
going into a complex ethnography of videogames and other forms of online storying, I want
to raise again that fundamental question of whether the changes we see in our modes of
narrative are affecting our emotional and ethical attitudes.
Just imagine an ordinary guy with a computer. He is no longer the messy person of
two decades ago with lots of paper, pencil, pens, and so on: he is fully wired and seemingly
freer, at least physically. What can we tease out of this simple observation in terms of the
narrative of evolution?
A special issue of
on ‘The Evolution of Language’ (2004)
constructed a timeline that went roughly like this: maybe 100,000–200,000 years ago,
humans had the hardware in place for the language faculty to develop – we stood upright, the
brain cooled and grew in size, and so on. Then 40,000–50,000 years ago the species settled,
following which there was a social revolution: the building of communities, people
discovering each other socially, arguing, pontificating, gossiping, all of which we still take so
much interest in today. And then only 5,000–7,000 years ago did the technology of writing
develop. One might speculate that writing further supported the brain changes in
lateralization that had happened owing to the left-brain location of language. Physical right-
handedness in humans was thus both a biological and a cultural adaptation, and it remained
so until the late twentieth century, providing basic support for the written transmission of our
narrative discourses.
However, if you turn back to the guy typing away at his computer, you will note that
the situation has changed. Stone and chisel, metal and stylus, pen and paper – all of these
needed what is known as the “dexterous grip” where thumb and forefinger join delicately.
Today, we no longer require this kind of grip, at least for the purposes of writing, because on
a keyboard we can use all five fingers. We have also evolved texting, which is thumb
oriented but has no use for the index finger. Paper used to lay flat on a desk, but now we have
the computer screen and it is upright, facing us at 90˚. In addition, the original physical page-
turning that we associate with paper books is on its way out because now we have tablets and
iPhones and so on. All of this observation is merely scratching the surface, but it
demonstrates how our bodies have reoriented in radically different ways over just the last
decade or two. How do these external and physical factors affect mental changes?
First, the
relationship between writing and speech is changing quite
dramatically. Writing has long been more prestigious than speech. Sites of high culture such
as universities have depended on writing; the rural peasantry who had less access to literacy
were also, by and large, poorer across cultures. So access to reading and writing was in fact a
good predictor of economic status; in the past it was also a good differentiator of location,
such as country and city. However, is all this set to change? Are forms that are poised
between speech and writing, like SMS, going to be preferred modes of communication in
virtual as opposed to geographical space?