Many years ago I read an odd little book called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain. It’s one of those desperately magisterial tomes like Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness — an overview by a nonspecialist attempting to assimilate a raft of information from disparate disciplines into a new overarching theory — and like Jaynes’ book, it’s worth reading even if most of its conclusions are probably wrong.
Shlain’s theory is that the advent of widespread literacy, especially in alphabetic languages, brings about changes in brain function, shifting the dominant hemisphere from right to left. He believed that the right hemisphere is associated with “female”traits while the left is associated with “male” traits; thus, the switch from one hemisphere to the other precipitated societal changes that worked to the disadvantage of women. In the original period of alphabetic literacy, the old goddess religion, matriarchal and pacific, was suppressed and replaced by new god-centered, patriarchal, militaristic faiths. In the much later period after the invention of the printing press, when literacy was rapidly extended to much of the population instead of being limited to an elite, there were further reactions against women, including the witch-burning manias that flared up unpredictably around Europe. Finally, Slain speculates that the rise of movies, television, and the Internet — all of which place more of an emphasis on visual information — will cause a shift back toward equality of the sexes and a more peaceful world.
I am skeptical of the gender assignments given to the two sides of the brain, and even more skeptical when Shlain extends his thesis to the cells of the eye, distinguishing between “male” cones and “female” rods. I am also skeptical that the goddess religion, as he describes it, even existed; while fertility statuettes with exaggerated female features turn up in many prehistoric sites, it’s a bit of a stretch to infer a matriarchal society, much less a time of Edenic peace. We don’t even know if these female figures were goddesses or simply charms, perhaps used to ensure a favorable pregnancy.
Though Shlain’s thesis is far from proven, one aspect of it has stuck with me – the idea that changes in communication technology can rewire the brain, with destabilizing societal effects.
Which brings us to what’s going on today.
Throughout much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we see intensifying polarization between increasingly extremist and uncompromising ends of the political spectrum. On a daily basis we’re treated to public displays of hysteria – wild outrage expressed by both left and right, though for different reasons. No area of life is off-limits. Escapist movies about comic-book superheroes give rise to charges of racism and sexism. Twitter and Facebook have become ideological battlegrounds. Restaurants offering ethnic foods are flashpoints for controversies about “cultural appropriation” (as if all culture is not appropriated from somewhere). Sports shows and teams are boycotted for political reasons. Everything is a hot button issue.
Many explanations for this new intensity in our political life have been advanced. It is said that the middle class is being “squeezed”; yet statistics indicate that while both middle-class and lower-income shares of the population have shrunk over the past 35 years, the percentages of Americans defined as upper-middle class and rich have grown – suggesting the middle class is contracting mainly because some of its members are migrating to a higher tax bracket.
Source: Urban Institute study
Or it’s said that middle-class affluence simply has less to offer us than it once did. But this seems to be a case of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Recently, in doing research for a time travel novella that takes place in 1972, I was intrigued to discover how much lower the standard of living was for middle-class people in that era. Houses, for example, were significantly smaller and had fewer amenities, while many ubiquitous modern-day items would have been considered science-fiction. A computer you carry in your pocket, which connects you to databases throughout the world and incidentally serves as a videophone? Household robots that vacuum or mop your floor? Wall-size flatscreen TVs with hundreds of channels, many commercial free and uncensored, in high definition? Self-driving cars, prosthetic limbs almost indistinguishable from the real things, medical treatments using genetic engineering to target specific cells, an orbiting telescope that sees to the ends of the universe …?
No matter how you look at it, our opportunities for leisure, recreation, and discovery are greater than ever. And the average middle-class American today lives like a sci-fi character in a '70s TV show
It is also claimed that people are frustrated by unchanging social problems such as race and gender discrimination; but again, this claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There is far less discrimination in the developed world today than in any previous generation. As an example, a newspaper article I came across from 1972 reported casually that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks had just voted to reaffirm their policy of not admitting blacks as members, a policy that was only rescinded in 1976 under intense legal pressure. The same newspaper regularly published the names of divorced couples in what I took to be a sign of the social stigma attached to divorce. (Mary Tyler Moore's groundbreaking sitcom of that era was originally intended to depict her as a divorcée, but the network balked at anything so controversial.) Interracial relationships were illegal in many states and virtually unheard of anywhere. Gays had to remain closeted or face ostracism and abuse, including physical attacks. And on and on. No matter how you look at it, society has grown much more open and tolerant. A black president, a serious female presidential candidate, gay marriage – all would have been completely unrealistic 40 years ago.
Crime is down, too. Way down. Parts of New York City that were virtual no-go zones four decades ago are thriving now. Remember the scene in 1973's Live and Let Die when James Bond nearly gets killed in Harlem? That's right - in 1973, Harlem was too dangerous for James Bond.
And let’s not forget that in 1972 draftees were being sent to fight and die in Vietnam. The casualties that the US accepted in that unpopular war were far higher than US losses in any recent conflict (58,209 American deaths in Vietnam vs. 4,497 in Iraq and 2,356 in Afghanistan), yet the war dragged on for years, and those who opposed it were labeled traitors.
America of forty years ago often seemed to be spiraling into chaos, with assassinations, urban riots, war, Watergate, the energy crisis, sky-high homicide rates, skyjackings, rampant prejudice and closed-mindedness, cult movements, apocalyptic predictions of the End Times, and TV fodder consisting almost exclusively of mind-numbing pap ("the glass teat," Harlan Ellison called it) ... and if we think our present conditions are worse, we are only fooling ourselves.
But if the external circumstances – the economic, social, political, and cultural climate – have not worsened, and have in fact improved by any objective standard, then why are people becoming so upset about everything, to the point where it can reasonably be argued that we’re experiencing a “cold Civil War”?
People often point to cable TV and the Internet, both of which feed news consumers a steady diet of inflammatory stories while encouraging people to confine themselves to channels or websites that reflect their own biases; as a result, people become trapped in an echo chamber or bubble that reinforces and amplifies their opinions. This is clearly true. But I’m not sure it’s the whole truth, and this leads us back to Leonard Shlain and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.
It’s at least arguable that the advent of the Internet poses as big a social and psychological challenge as the advent of literacy did for previous societies. I’m not sure anyone yet understands how the brain is affected and changed by the constant processing of online information – not only when one is sitting at a computer, but when one is using a smartphone or any web-connected device. It may not be too far-fetched to think that literacy altered brain function by making the left brain more dominant. Is it possible that the Internet is altering brain function in some new way?
What if the intuitive process of clicking on links and following one link to the next while chasing down snippets of information tends to activate the intuitive faculties of the brain, popularly supposed to reside in the right hemisphere? Perhaps this very process, endlessly and obsessively repeated, has the effect of deemphasizing or inhibiting those qualities associated with the left hemisphere — notably logical reasoning, goal-setting, and objectivity. There is a widely publicized claim that Internet usage correlates with a decline in attention span; though this study may be junk science, it’s hard to deny that the rapidity and convenience of the Internet can make it intolerably frustrating to plow through the pages of a book in search of information. There may be other, more subtle changes in neurological/psychological functioning that are not yet understood or even recognized. Could the surge in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, autism, and Asperger’s syndrome be related to widespread neurological reprogramming?
Let’s suppose so. Even if most of us aren’t affected that profoundly, we may still feel as if things are somehow getting out of control. The changes in our mental processing may bring on the same kind of anxiety, confusion, mania, and hysteria (think of the witch burnings) that Shlain sees as the historical result of rapid advances in literacy.
In other words, it’s just possible that we are undergoing a massive transition from one mode of consciousness (developed as a result of general alphabetic literacy) to a new mode of consciousness (currently developing in response to the new technology of the Internet). And because we experience this change as something alien, we look for a cause outside ourselves, even though actually it is the inner workings of our mental mechanism that are directly responsible. Feeling confused and lost, we latch on to any convenient bogeyman to explain our chronic insecurity. We don’t hunt witches, but we do harass anyone who thinks differently than we do. Alt-right types mock and insult their critics and spread vicious memes. “Social justice warriors” define anyone who disagrees with them as racist, misogynistic, fascist, etc. The problem is always Someone Else.
By getting wired up to an endless supply of digital information, we may be rewiring our own brains – and experiencing all the unintended side effects that go along with a neurological remodeling job. The trickle of information from books and magazines that we perused in our spare time has become a spurting garden hose of facts, opinions, memes, urban legends, “fake news,” lies, distortions, slanders, and insults, illustrated with vivid images and sounds, 24 hours a day. And our beleaguered brains are melting under the strain.
Again, this is only a speculative hypothesis. It may be all wrong. It’s almost certainly at least partly wrong. But it just might be partly right. It could help to make sense of the rapid and baffling descent into hyper-partisanship, political polarization, and escalating demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings (on the left) and border walls and authoritarian crackdowns (on the right). In an era of relative peace and prosperity, when the West faces no true existential threat remotely comparable to the Axis powers of World War II or the USSR of the Cold War, it is truly strange that we find ourselves coming apart at the seams. We live in what should be seen as a Golden Age, yet we’re obsessed with apocalyptic visions and paranoid fantasies.
Instead of scanning the cultural and political trends of the modern world to understand our anxieties, perhaps we need only direct our attention to the softly glowing screen in front of our face.