Dr. Justin Clark is an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His research focuses on the cultural history of space, time and vision in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His recent research includes The Secrets of Fast Thinking: The Invention of Speed of Thought in America, 1890-1920 and The City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture.
Justin Clark:Cultural security is the harmony of cultural differences
1. In the article, you mention the time test as the reason why the American mental speed was able to increase on a cultural and scientific level in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is there any other reason other than that?
In the early 20th century, as today, the self-help industry (think of best-sellers such as How to Win Friends and Influence People) was thriving. It was growing tremendously alongside secondary-education levels and white-collar industries. That existing market provided an opportunity for entrepreneurial experts to promote their methods for improving mental speed. Those methods were attractive to increasingly well-educated consumers who had begun to seek out employment opportunities in the growing knowledge industries. As the public became aware that official institutions (schools, employers, and the military) had adopted timed tests, print publishers and eventually radio broadcasters saw the opportunity to sell that public an opportunity to improve their speed with books on speed reading, etc. In other words, the hunger for mental speed was as much “bottom-up” as it was “top-down”.
2. Do you think the mental speed of people has changed in the era of rapid development of intelligence and the prevalence of fragmented reading, and what are the reasons for the change?
There is plenty of evidence that our reading habits have become fragmented and our attention spans have shortened in the digital age. There is also a common perception that the rate of information consumption has accelerated. I think we should be cautious about that second claim, however. My personal belief is that there is no method of measuring the speed of information consumption that is not also biased toward a particular type of information or medium. It is certainly possible that a media consumer today might read more newspaper articles each day, or within a given half-hour, than twenty years ago. But it is not easy to compare the amount of information consumed from generation to generation. Information consists of something more than the number of words per article, or the difficulty of the vocabulary. To measure it, one would also need to know among other things how much of the information is new to the reader, which is very difficult to determine, given the many individual and cultural variables. In any case, exposure to information is not the same thing as comprehension.
So the problem of comparing mental speed, however defined, among contemporary individuals is trivial compared to the problem of comparing mental speed among different historical generations. As an historian, I am skeptical of the possibility of making any comparison of fundamental psychological traits or abilities across historical time.
3. From the perspective of cultural security, what risks and challenges will be brought by this increase in mental speed posing for the dissemination of culture and social creativity?
By cultural security, I assume what is meant is the harmonization of cultural differences. At the risk of seeming to contradict my previous answer, I think that there is a stronger case to be made that our collective mental speed is indeed accelerating. By this, I simply refer to the speed with which we collectively share information, not how well we understand or think critically about it. We have all become very familiar with the problem of fake news and the role that social media platforms have played. As platforms begin to monitor the spread of falsehoods through social media, they are challenged to keep up with their own users. This is not a new problem, of course; as Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” But technology has increased our collective mental speed, and accelerate falsehood in the process. In response, social media companies have invested heavily in the use of machine-learning to stay ahead of falsehoods – or whatever other communication is considered to be a cultural risk. While this method may be successful to some extent, it can also increase mistrust of governments, media, and other social groups, and it is precisely under conditions of mistrust that falsehoods thrive. There are many groups of people who believe in falsehoods (e.g. “the earth is flat”) not because they are bombarded by fake news, but because they have developed a general distrust of experts. Thus, the great challenge for societies is not really to stop fake news, but to establish trust.
Collator: Luo Jing