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Complexity and flow: Never what is seems

Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, continues to spawn conversations regarding what we can and cannot know about the effect of cybertechnology on our brains and cognitive abilities. (A recent post about the book is here with links to earlier posts about agent provocateur Carr.)

In an article posted on Miller-McCune by Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell, the authors draw parallels to the jeremaids written in the 50s about the damage television would do to intelligence and education. That turned out to not be true. (Research the Flynn Effect for more information on this.)

Kornell and Kornell make their case regarding the internet:

Is Nicholas Carr correct to argue that the Internet is remapping our neural circuitry in a harmful way? Critics hoping to poke holes in Carr’s argument have cited a 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found that compared to reading a book, performing Google searches increased brain activity in the area that underlies selective attention and deliberate analysis.

It’s not a bad study to cite, since Carr specifically claims that the Web is bad for our neural circuitry. But it’s also misleading, because the term “intelligence” is so broad and complex that neurological research hasn’t begun to explain it in its totality — which means that the study shouldn’t be used to support the claim that the Internet is making us “smarter,” either.

The authors point that everything affects the neural circuitry and that neural circuitry per se is not the place to explore effects on intelligence.

So what, finally, of the simple logical argument that skipping from hyperlink to hyperlink online is less mentally nourishing than reading a challenging book or a long magazine article? Here, critics of the Web have a strong case. Life is a daily struggle to attain clarity of thought, and devoting your undivided attention to something for an extended period of time — like a book — is a good way to achieve it. Better, probably, than surfing the Web.

But clarity of thought and IQ — which is the measure of intelligence independent of knowledge — are not the same thing. The great wealth of empirical data gathered by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in recent decades suggests that “intelligence” is a broad term for a very complex phenomenon, which makes it tenuous at best to draw conclusions about the effect of the Internet on something as “global” — as the Nobel-prize winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman has put it — as intelligence.

So even though bookreading requires a formalized concentration and surfing the Internet disperses it, that is no foundation for saying that life on the Web makes us less intelligent. “It can be mentally distracting, but that doesn’t mean it’s mentally deforming.”

It’s useful to remember, when considering the argument that Web is contributing to our mental downfall, that ruing the invention of new forms of mass communication is a historical tradition of long standing. Television, typewriters, telegrams, telephones, writing in languages other than Latin, writing at all—at one point or another all of these were declared sure signposts of the fall of Western civilization.

None of them did, and if history is any guide, the Internet won’t either.


Every one of us loves our own story. We are all attached, consciously or unconsciously, to our very personal version of truth, our take on who is right, our convictions about what makes sense, our determinations about how one should live in the world. Certainly the fallacies in our thinking that blindside us about ourselves and others is one of the great themes so deftly handled by Jonathan Franzen in his spectacular new novel, Freedom.

It is also a concept that has come to have particular meaning to me in the last few weeks. A dear friend has recently become an ideological militant. She is taking the path of anger rather than gentle persuasion in her self-professed mission to change the world and to leave it a better place. The vitriol she has been spewing leaves an acidic residue on anyone within ear shot.

Cindy, a dear friend and a wise woman, wrote this to me recently when I told her about my discomfort:

I am struck with how much she loves her story. Before I did a lot of work on these issues, I would fight tooth and nail for my beliefs about things. One of the most helpful things I heard was this: “If you want to make someone happy, let them be right.” I know whenever I defend myself and my viewpoint, I am going to war. Who am I to make anyone believe or think differently than they do? If I loved them, wouldn’t it be an act of love to let them have their point of view in all its glory? And they will anyway…so in reality it’s hopeless. The question is, “Do I want to suffer over it?” That’s my choice.

Your friend seems quite happy with her anger. It seems to be working for her as far as I can tell. And for me, I’d ask, what does her anger have to do with me? What does her opinion of anything have to do with me? She is just believing her thoughts.

Cindy’s words helped me see the transparency of my own biases. Of course they are there and of course they are relatively invisible to me. It goes without saying that I think that my view of things is right and that I see things clearly. I believe that coming from anger is a bust, that it repels people away from you and creates resistance to your ideas. If you really want to change the way people think and behave, you cannot come from condescension and contempt but from a place of vision, optimism and hope.

Says who? Says me I guess. My belief system is no more or less valid than its counter argument that anger is the only way to really bring about change. As Cindy pointed out, we are all in love with our own version of life.

Taking this stance of the either/or and the both/and doesn’t feel like prevarication or evasion to me. It feels more like some valuable life wisdom, the kind you get more of during the second half of your life.

Well anyway that’s my story.

At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

I have had Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Yael Reisner and Fleur Watson) on my desk for weeks now but have not been able to give it my full attention just yet. The distractions have not been minimal, from four weddings in five weeks—these have been those full immersion, all weekend long destination nuptials—to a full allocation of my reading quotient spent finishing Franzen’s Freedom (And a worthy distraction it was. A few previous posts about the book can be read here and here.)

But Reisner (married to architect Peter Cook) is keeping the topic in the ideasphere. A recent panel discussion staged in Los Angeles featured Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn.

From a review of the evening written by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne’s most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beautiful.” Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.

That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.

Hawthorne goes on to get a few digs in about what was probably a bit of an awkward gathering. He reports that Moss held his head in his hands for most the discussion and then offered his view that he didn’t think talking about beauty was “useful” any more. Gehry is reported to have advised not to consider outside judgments regarding which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important. “You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps. And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s probably a great place to be as human beings.” Mayne is quoted as saying that issues of globalization, the Internet and instantly changing fashions have made it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talking about?” he asked.

A new generation of artists ARE interested in beauty, and Hawthorne points to the recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice. Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, beauty is brought back, front and center. the exhibit features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid’s Andres Jaque, the Indian firm Studio Mumbai and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among others.

I particularly liked Hawthorne’s closing point:

The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.

“When you go directly after beauty, it’s like you’re competing with God,” he told me. “If you go after other things, you’re only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not impossible.”

The painting by Fred H. C. Liang that hangs next to my desk. Its surface, almost impossible to capture in a photograph, pulls me into its labyrinth of layers every time.

Closer view

Boston-based Fred H. C. Liang is one of my favorite artists and also a finalist for the ICA’s Audrey Foster prize. He blends an ongoing homage to his Chinese heritage with a visually rich and complex approach to painting, printmaking, sculpture, installations. Congrats to you Fred.

From Sebastian Smee’s response to the Foster Prize finalists in the Boston Globe:

Fred H. C. Liang…left China when he was 12 and came to the United States via Canada. Liang combines Eastern and Western idioms to eye-catching effect. His work here includes a decorative, free-form version of traditional Chinese paper cutouts that combine elaborately detailed drawing with screen printing. Resembling a rococo or Song Dynasty interpretation of a world map, the thing sprawls across two walls and onto the floor, where the patterns, which include the glimpsed forms of Chinese zodiac animals, are imposed on a reflective surface.

Titled “Dream of a Thousand Springs,’’ it’s seductive without quite transcending its own prettiness. Better is Liang’s “Untitled (Nushu),’’ a paper accordion book on a plywood plinth that stretches up 10 feet toward the ceiling. Cut into each page are Chinese symbols based on “nu shu,’’ a recently rediscovered secret language invented and used by women in southern China. The form of the piece is deeply satisfying, and the sense of buried secrets rising and expanding into open air charmingly poetic.

A video of the installation is available with Smee’s article if you are unable to see the ICA show in person.

At some level, everything is of interest to the eye…a view of one corner of my studio space

How do artists work? In a recent posting on Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski makes the case that as mysterious as the creative process is, it is that which people most want to know. And that interest exists in spite of the fact that most artists don’t really even know what their process is.

Some may say they know and wax on about their creative process. But in my experience the best you can do is create a convenient narrative. Our mind (or part of it) wants to be able to sense a path or a plan, to grab on to some sense of order in even the inchoate zones like creativity. But whatever story you tell it is just one version of the journey that actually lives in a Rashomon of valid narratives, all of them incomplete.

For example, Dobrzynski includes a quote from Georgia O’Keefe about her process:

I have picked flowers where I found them, have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.

(This appears in the catalog for an upcoming show in Santa Fe, O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials.)

Dobrzynski goes on to describe O’Keefe’s way of working:

O’Keeffe was very organized. She placed her drawings in named file folders, took photographs of her still subjects from many vantage points in different light, trimmed her brushed meticulously, and so on. Associate curator Carolyn Kastner, who organized the show, told the Associated Press that she looked hard for something “messy,” but could not find a thing.

There is value in seeing an artist’s work space. It is yet another clue in the back story but just that—only a clue. Over the years I’ve visited hundreds of studios, and each tends to speaks to the highly personal journey that is happening in that work space. Mondrian came to his studio every day in a suit and never spilled any paint on his attire, an approach I have always found resoundingly impossible to imagine. On the other end of the spectrum, some artists epitomize the old saying, “An artist is just someone looking for somewhere to store stuff” and have studios that might qualify as reality TV hoarding. My friend Nancy Natale has posted dramatic “studio before” and “studio after” photos right on the home page of her wonderful blog, Art in the Studio. She may have changed teams at some point.

And as for me, I don’t know for sure which team I am on either. My studio has two parts—one is ordered and relatively presentable, the other wildly chaotic, messy and (in my mind) chock full of possibility. I always seem to opt for the both/and.

Blake Morrison has published his review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, in the Guardian. Reading a Brit’s view of this very American novel is refreshing. Plus Morrison is an insightful reader.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like most writers, Franzen is a mass of contradictions. His fiction is generous and expansive, but it’s achieved through monastic discipline: no children, no holidays, several years spent working on each book (seven for The Corrections, nine for Freedom). He has a great ear and eye for contemporary speech and manners, but during spells of writing The Corrections he sat in the dark with earmuffs and a blindfold. He’s up-to-speed with technological developments and how they’re changing the world, but he doubts whether anyone with an internet connection at the workplace can write good fiction. His literary taste is sternly high-minded but he claims not to understand how anyone can enjoy reading Samuel Beckett. He thinks of fiction as a “form of social opposition”, but his prevailing tone is sociable, ironic, forgiving. He’s widely acclaimed for having written the first great novel of the 21st century, but the form of that novel – state-of-the-nation social realism – looks back to Dickens and George Eliot.

Most of these contradictions, especially the last, aren’t contradictions at all. The 19th-century novel had, at best, a moral complexity and social range that allowed readers to understand the world they lived in. And although Franzen knows that television, radio and the internet have supposedly replaced fiction as “the pre-eminent medium of social instruction”, he doubts whether they can offer what the novel does. “More than ever, to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,” he has said, books being the place “where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world”.

An earlier post about my response to Freedom here.

From the wry mind of Andrei Codrescu in The Poetry Lesson:

The Ten Muses of Poetry

1. Mishearing
2. Misunderstanding
3. Mistranslating
4. Mismanaging
5. Mislaying
6. Misreading
7. Misappropriating cliches
8. Misplacing objects belonging to roommates or lovers
9. Misguided thoughts at inappropriate times, funerals, etc.
10. Mississippi (the river)

I have found that these muses are useful for more than just poetry.

“Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one,” is saying that one witness is everybody else giving you their feedback and opinions (which is worth listening to, there’s some truth in what people say) but the principal witness is yourself. You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is—working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows.

– Pema Chödrön, from Start Where You Are

This concept, so wonderfully stated by Chödrön, is anthemic for anyone who makes art. A mantra to keep right at hand, at the front of the feeling mind.

And for finding this quote, thank you to the river that just keeps giving—Whiskey River.

Judy Pfaff’s work has inspired me for a long time. Her new show at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe called Five Decades, includes work from various times as well as formats. Seeing artifacts made by her always thrills something in me, particularly her 2D creations. But this show has playfulness and delight on exhibit in both 2D and 3D. Her aesthetic swings out wide and then comes round again and again to themes that are essentially her signatory concerns.

The show is up through October 16.


The simple contact with a wooden spoon and the word
recovered itself, began to spread as grass, forced
as it lay sprawling to consider the monument where
patience looked at grief, where warfare ceased
eyes curled outside themes to search the paper
now gleaming and potent, wise and resilient, word
entered its continent eager to find another as
capable as a thorn. The nearest possession would
house them both, they being then two might glide
into this house and presently create a rather larger
mansion filled with spoons and condiments, gracious
as a newly laid table where related objects might gather
to enjoy the interplay of gravity upon facetious hints,
the chocolate dish presuming an endowment, the ladle
of galactic rhythm primed as a relish dish, curved
knives, finger bowls, morsel carriages words might
choose and savor before swallowing so much was the
sumptuousness and substance of a rented house where words
placed dressing gowns as rosemary entered their scent
percipient as elder branches in the night where words
gathered, warped, then straightened, marking new wands.

–Barbara Guest

The previous post below features a passage by Barbara Guest from her book, Forces of Imagination.