Media Theory for the 21st Century

January 16, 2008

Synaptogenesis in the Age of Digital Reproduction – Nick Roth

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — nickroth @ 7:45 am

[I was really hoping to think of a more clever title for my first blog-post, so apologies for that. Suggestions welcome – maybe something that puns “Synapse” with “Oh snap!”]

I want to address briefly a point that was brought up in today’s discussion first by John, and then by Harmony, that we didn’t really get closure on, but that I think warrants some more dialogue (and I certainly need to work through it a lot more myself to get clear), and that is this:

Can we describe the paradigm shifts in consciousness and brain development involved in the movements from oral to print culture, and from print culture to digital culture, as purely additive processes, or are there potentially also detractive or limiting synaptogenetic consequences, as well?

Or, to simplify (though I think we should be cautious in framing the problem in this way), did the movement to print culture have a negative impact on the development of the speech centers of the brain, and will the shift to digital media have a negative impact on the way people read and write?

First, it should be noted that the problem does not seem to be that engaging with print media would itself have a negative effect on cognition related to speech, but that the ensuing cultural de-emphasis on speech would limit the synaptic growth of those areas of the brain. In other words, it is the absence of the old media, rather than the presence of the new media, that might potentially have a limiting effect on synaptogenesis.

Here Harmony’s point seems valid – that the shift to print media did not entirely replace oral culture. The question is the extent this lack of speech-related input to the brain might have had on synaptic development.

My instinct here is that a significant decrease of synaptogenesis in the speech cognition areas of the brain seems unlikely. Children probably did not speak less, or hear less speech, because of the shift to print culture. Synaptogenesis is most pronounced in children, and decreases as a child matures, learns to read, and generally experiences more directly things like major cultural shifts. While the subtle differences between a child being narrated a story from oral tradition, and a child being read a fairy tale, are not to be overlooked, I am skeptical that that sort of shift would have a pronounced effect on neurological development – but I am by no means an expert.

Likewise, the shift from print to digital culture will certainly be in some ways an additive process (Professor Hayles asserted today that it would likely precipitate a de-emphasis of sequential cognition and an increased ability to process parallel or multiple information streams), but it might potentially limit synaptogenesis – not on account of the new media themselves, but due to the absence of the sort of sensory input involved in print culture.

My instinct here is again a skepticism towards any significant detraction or limiting of synaptogenesis. New media themselves tend to add to and rework print media in more intimate ways than occur in the relation between print and oral media – namely, that many new media so heavily involve text, which, from the perspective of neurological sensory input, is not so different whether on the printed page or on the computer screen. The differences are obviously important, but I am not so sure of their relevance when it comes to a lack of sensory input in children.

So to return to the relevant (and admittedly problematically framed) question, “Will the shift to digital media potentially have a negative impact on the way people read and write?” I think there’s no simple answer. I doubt there will be a direct negative impact on synaptic development in terms of reading and/or writing, but I also freely admit that the consequences to other areas of neurological development will be potentially even more pronounced and certainly more unpredictable. But, again, I’m not firm in this position and am attentive to objections.

A semi-unrelated note I think you’ll all enjoy: on tonight’s 11:00pm Simpsons re-run, the opening blackboard-detention-gag was, “My butt does not deserve its own website.”



  1. When Harmony asked whether the transition from print to digital culture was additive, I thought she was asking whether digital media culture could accommodate print and oral culture within it, rather than whether it was a positive or negative development. Maybe she can clarify.

    But regarding the tentative question you pose in the post, perhaps we should be asking how ontogenic changes in neural structure are happening, what technologies or other environmental changes are driving those changes, and maybe what’s the best way of adapting our existing institutions to meet the change. Kate (Hayles) mentioned the work of Gerald Edelman (, and I think his book Neural Darwinism is particularly relevant here, since he describes how interaction with the environment (including body parts) drives the selection of what he calls neuronal groups.

    Since these changes in neural structure would be responses to changes in the environment, if we start to ask whether the changes are positive or negative, we’ll also be committing ourselves to asking whether the technological and social changes are positive or negative. Whichever side you want to take doesn’t alter the fact that the change has already occurred, and I doubt any attempt to undo what the computer has done to our society and biology will be very successful. When the One Laptop Per Child aid group wants to provide children in Africa with cheap and durable laptops, we’re probably well passed the point of reviving some of the “positive” aspects of print culture.


    Comment by jjpulizzi — January 16, 2008 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

  2. To clarify, at James’s suggestion, I was interested not so much in what might be lost or gained in transitioning from oral to print to digital paradigms, but in how each perpetuates itself in a constant layering or interweaving. I think it’s a mistake to suggest that as we move from one paradigm to another that orality or literacy will not be valued. They may be valued differently and reworked in the process, but I don’t think they will disappear. Even at the so-called end of print culture, this society still values well-spoken, articulate people, and it still values storytelling. Sometimes those stories are read aloud from a printed collection of the folk tales they once were, sometimes they’re read by a machine as with the ever-popular LeapFrog, and sometimes they’re the rehashing of one’s day for a partner or friend.

    What I’m also suggesting is that defining cultures or cultural moments as an “oral culture” or “print culture” tend to singularize what are in fact complex interweavings of, okay, well, let’s just call them sign systems. So speech might be valued at certain point, but so will, for example, musical modes of expression, or ritual or weaving or theater–each of which have their own systems of meaning-making that just happen to fall outside of that which is expressed verbally. One cannot call a culture an oral culture without erasing all of these other aspects. One can, however, talk about the oral cultures within a culture, or the function of oral narrative within a culture.

    My point is that orality, print/literacy, and digitality are bound up with a host of cultural practices, of which they are a part–not an insignificant part, but only a part. Not only do they repackage each other along the way, they occur alongside non-linguistic arts, fashion and material culture, architecture and built environments, religious practices and symbology, etc. etc.

    My own conjecture is that “code switching” will become the norm–not as a way to escape detection or demonstrate competence in how one presents oneself, but as a mode of assimilating information, or, more colloquially, making sense. Digital information, after all, does not come only in alpha-numeric characters. It comes as sound, as images, as movement, as well as text. And, as stated above, it is accompanied by a slew of other things–hardware, office chatter, food. If there is something to be lost in all this, I think it will be, and has been, a gradual decrease in the sense of smell.

    Comment by hbench — January 18, 2008 @ 2:22 am | Reply

  3. I think both of you, are, more or less, entirely accurate. I just want to clarify that the point I was attempting to bring up was very small and specific. I have a four year old sister, so I suppose I was thinking specifically about her, and the way her brain will be affected by new media.

    Maybe another way to say what I was aiming for is that I think new media, in and of themselves, supply the potential to be almost purely beneficial in terms of synaptogenesis, but that the situation is necessarily so complicated (as Harmony writes, that these terms are only part of a much more complex set of environmental factors), and (with the risk of angering the McLuhanites) since the content of the media and the way we use them really do play some role in the sensory input perceived by children, that I really have no idea what range of neurological effects we’re going to see in my sister’s generation, but that I hope we find ways to realize the augmentative potential of digital media.


    Comment by nickroth — January 18, 2008 @ 7:25 am | Reply

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