One of the best ongoing investigations of thought and the universe is Radiolab, a show produced at WNYC by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (no small point of pride to me, both Oberlin grads). One of their very best and most mind-blowing episodes came a couple months back, called “Words.” I’d recommend you listen to the show in its entirety, and there are dozens of strands I could pull out and discuss all day. For now, I’d like to focus on the (intentionally) provocative claim made by Charles Fernyhough, a writer and psychologist at Durham University (UK):
“I don’t think very young children do think.”
Spinning this out in a later podcast led to (to my total delight) an in-depth discussion of L.S. Vygotsky’s theories of self and child development, especially on the internalization of speech – learning to refer to oneself as one refers to others. The podcast focuses on non-normative variations in development – how sometimes, people internalize not just their voice but other voices as part of their internal monologue. Or dialogue. This can in its worst instantiations lead to things like schizophrenia, which is bad.
But I’d like to move one degree further, and think about how these issues relate to ideas of ourselves, and to our shifting media consumption and discussion habits.
Contra the much-discussed Death of Reading, the media landscape today in fact represents the apogee of reading in all of human history. More people are literate today than ever before, and they consume more written text than ever before. That they do not all do so through a printed medium called “book” or “newspaper” is beside the point, as is the fact that they also watch television. Words are being consumed and produced internally in simply staggering amounts, and a great deal of many people’s days – both in the developed world and less-developed countries – involves people, themselves, consuming and producing words internally.
What is the effect, then, of all these internal words on our own personal monologues? What is the effect, in particular, of the chatter of social media, where the voice is not our construction of anonymous authority (or not) from some Media Source but people that we know, whose actual – both written and spoken – voices we are familiar with?
One of to my mind the most elegant definitions of self (also referenced in “Words“) is that it is nothing more than a continuous story we tell: one thing happened, then another, then another, all in the same voice, and that’s how I’m me. Schizophrenia and similar disorders are so terrifying because that basic premise is violated – all of these voices are competing for attention, and it becomes impossible to determine what is real, or who you are.
Pulling all of these threads together, then, the question becomes: what happens to the story of ourselves becomes the story of ourselves? When the “I” is spending so much time with the “we” and the “they” inside our skulls? As a purely personal anecdote, I do know that while I know more specific and timely things than I used to, source attribution is often murky. Did I hear that on the radio, or when talking to a friend? Did I think it myself, or read a blog? Does it matter?
This is not a new question or problem, entirely – the tension between individualism and communitarianism stems from the same dynamic. But the scale of this shift in our internal voices is unprecedented, as is the breadth of effect in the day-to-day lives of people in our technologically-mediated culture. While I tend to eschew both Utopian and Dystopian readings of technology’s effects on us (the Internet being, like Soylent Green, made of people), I do think that it’s worth considering (agnostically) what the longer-term effects of a society-wide shift in the kinds of internal voices we maintain might entail. Probably a big deal.