The Emergence of the New – Curiosity Receives Support: The Role of the Symbolic Technologies

Curiosity is a cognitive ability that the brain uses to explore the environment. To unfold curiosity’s potential, the use of cognitive tools—particularly thinking, the capacity for abstraction, and the technical skills needed to produce material tools that change the environment—has to be embedded in cultural practices and anchored in a social structure. The human brain and its capacities are unique, not so much because of their biological development (which is not unique) but because of the human capacity to create and assimilate culture and pass it on to the next generation. The human brain and its capacities are the hybrid product of biology and culture. By itself, the brain can achieve little. The sources of experience may be initially individual, but for experience to be usable, it must be processed by culture and the synergies that result from interactions among many other human brains.

Paleontologists like André Leroi-Gourhan have long been interested in the close connections between hand and tool, face and language, and the influence of the motor functions of the hand and face on the connection between thinking and the instruments of material activity and sound symbols. When graphic symbols emerged, the formation of sounds and signs (graphism) was originally closely connected and only later replaced by a separation between the idea of the picture (art) and script, but today they are experiencing a renewed mutual rapprochement. The tool, says Leroi-Gourhan, “leaves the human hand early and becomes the machine: in the end, thanks to technological development, the spoken language and visual perception are subjected to the same process. The language that humans had objectified in the works of their hands, in art and script, now reaches the highest degree of its separation from them and they entrust their innermost phonetic and visual qualities to wax, film, and the magnetic tape.

The rise and spread of the new information and communication technologies turned the development that was just beginning in Leroi-Gourhan’s time into one of the key technologies of the closing twentieth century. Attention usually focuses thereby either on the economic effects, such as the increase in productivity, or on the scientific-technological achievements that lead to further advances, which were made possible by enormously increased computer capacities. Much less often are questions asked about the effects that these technologies, like other cognitive tools, have on the development of the human brain and the meaning of innovations in this context.

Along with language and the development of cultures of oral transmission, one of the most significant innovations in human history was the invention of script. The evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald posits that the abilities to use script and symbols changed the functional organization of the brain. His hypothesis is that the use of script effects a cognitive reorganization of the brain individually as well as collectively, especially when the majority of the members of a society uses it. Long years of schooling, for instance, enable people to achieve an adequate level of literacy (and thus of the use of symbols) in various flelds—technical, mathematical, scientific, but also musical—and by mobilizing uncounted neural resources alters the way people think and carry out their work. Recent investigations of dyslexic Chinese and European children, incidentally, shows that, in all of them, a certain part of the brain functioned less well than in a control group of children without weakness in reading and spelling. But it also turns out that the regions of the brain activated when reading Chinese are different from those activated when reading Latin script.

Literacy is not the result of a Darwinian evolution. The biological evolution of humans unfolded long before they invented symbols. Literacy is neither natural and given nor universally distributed. Humanity existed for thousands of years without script, and most languages developed at a time when there was no form of writing yet. Nevertheless, all children can learn to read and write if they have the opportunity. The neuronal basis of literacy is cultural.

The ability to read and write is a consequence of the invention of external symbols—that is, their materialization and material depiction. But their effect does not end with the suspected reorganization of the human brain. Donald assumes that they lead to much greater changes, expressed in the whole of perception and recognition and thus also in how a human society thinks and how it remembers. New forms of mental representation arise. So these are extremely powerful technologies that work with symbols. Once invented, they unleash their inherent creative force and continue their effects on their own. From musical and mathematical notation systems to the broad-est spectrum of artistic forms of expression, from diagrams through maps to multimedia imaging techniques, they com-prise the entire spectrum of the material culture of our days. Without symbolic technologies, our society’s scientiflc, techno-logical, and cultural institutions and its highly technologized work achievements would be unimaginable. Symbolic technologies made it possible to build up an externalized cultural storage system that is available as a constant group memory and that, analogously to the individual memory, constantly changes and is active. The external symbols are themselves highly developed technologies. They are cognitive machines that change how we see, think, grasp, and deal with the world. Their central importance is that they free human consciousness from the limitations laid on us by biological memory. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a radical innovation.

Whereas the preliterate cultures essentially had two technologies of memory storage at their disposal, storytelling and mimesis, today people have an enormously expanded set of symbol-technological instruments of preservation. Nonetheless, it is astounding how slow the development was from Ice Age cave art through the first calendar notations and earliest navigational aids to the invention of script and how long it took before the latter was reflectively used. For example, it is known that, in ancient Greece, the written notations of historical events made it possible for the first time to compare the accuracy of oral tradition with them. New concepts arose—like evidence and standards of validity and procedures for verifying them. When modern science began institutionalizing itself in the seventeenth century, it presented the demonstration of its experiments to the public, which functioned as a witness for what was seen and shown. But to this day, it has entrusted the real validation and certification of its results to writing, after appropriate quality control through peers. Publication in a specialized scientific journal aims not only to make the results public but also to put them into script.

Even if symbols are often invented by individuals, they build on the common stock of knowledge, and their use, their spread, and their further development is a collective enterprise to an even greater degree. To make full and efficient use of the power of symbolic technologies, a society must have corresponding tools, infrastructures, work habits, and communication mechanisms at its disposal. The presence of symbolic technologies alone does not suffice to trigger a cognitive revolution, and under certain circumstances it can even prevent one. What was emerging at the beginning of modern science— namely, that cultural and social mixing and the reduction of class boundaries and hierarchies promote the creative flow of ideas and are the indispensable precondition for the circulation of knowledge—is also true for the use and societal spread of symbolic technologies.

For Merlin Donald, human creativity unfolds at the inter-face between the cognitive activities of the brain and the materiality of symbolic technologies—in art as well as in mathematics, the sciences, and the development of institutions. The power and efficiency of symbolic technologies is based on the existence of an externalized field of memory and operation. This permits mental operations at the disposal of consciousness to extend their radius of effect. Thoughts can be “externalized” by shifting them into an external field of memory and operation. This produces the necessary capacity for distancing, which is the precondition for every form of reflexivity. Games between the internal and the external can be invented, and experiments can be conducted between proximity and distance in which various viewpoints and arguments are tried out and one can practice putting oneself in the place of the other. Moreover, these fields of memory can be reformatted and changed in accordance with the intended use. Human consciousness acquires a mirror world that makes it possible to swing back and forth between internal and external representation. The capacity for a multifocal attention arises that has practice in mediating between the tensions resulting from the dynamic diversity of standpoints and perspectives.

Today, symbolic technologies form a cognitive and materialized network that is cast over society and that organizes itself and strengthens the production of knowledge and the emergence of the new. Their initially slow spread was followed by a phase of acceleration that is still far from reaching its limits. The rise and development of symbolic technologies underscores the entanglement between the biological equipment of the human brain and the cultural inventions that it has brought forth, whereby the social structures take the active and necessary role of coupling the two. This hybrid nature contributes to the emergence of the new and corresponds to the dependency of the unfolding of biological potential on culturally and socially produced conditions. It also underscores the double shape of every innovation. On the one side stand individual creativity and the uniqueness of the individual. The creative abilities and their effect can be retrospectively described and analyzed, but the decisive creative moment eludes observation. On the other side are the diverse interdependencies, the plethora of social and cultural dependencies on others and on a community that can foster or inhibit individual creativity. This interplay, which constitutes the dynamic of the new, has not been adequately studied since it was long overshadowed by the fascination of a concept of the genius that arose in the Renaissance and that lives today in the cult of the star.

A glance back at the often neglected premodern techno-logical history of Europe reveals the degree to which precisely technological innovations depend on social and cultural factors, which can be joined by local and temporal shifts and simulta-neities or nonsimultaneities. The technological historian Steven R. Epstein posits that the industrialization of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the result of a long-term process of small but cumulative innovations that can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. Although technological progress was slow in premodern Europe between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, it was lasting and proceeded without interruption. Flourishing periods were not interrupted by such long-lasting stagnation as they were in the great Asian cultures of China and India. In addition, the geographical centers that led in technological innovations increasingly shifted from the south to the northwest. In each new region that they penetrated, the innovations mixed with the local given situation and found a way to combine with it to produce further steps of progress. Such a mixing process of technological diffusion and recombination under different social, economic, and institutional conditions was completely lacking in premodern Asia. Third, says Epstein, all premodern technological knowledge— knowledge of how one makes things so that they function—was conveyed by persons. Technological knowledge is embodied in its practices. Geographical shifts or the rise of new leading centers is possible only if those with practical knowledge take it with them. This kind of mobility was more possible in Europe than in Asia because family bonds were less rigid and locally anchored and because, in Europe’s fragmented political and economic systems, a competition in tendering bids could promote mobility.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, premodern technology can still be encountered locally, but “knowledge of how one makes things so that the function” has reached a highly technologized and science-based level. The contrast between nature and culture—between, on the one hand, the natural and the phenomena, organisms, and components occur-ring in nature and, on the other hand, artificial products created by people—appears to be dissolving and merging in a “vireal-ity,” a fusion of vitality and reality. But we have not yet arrived in cyberland, despite the fascinating and frightening glimpses that, warning or enthusing, reach us from there. Reports so far see humanity’s future home as an inhospitable place. Before such a future draws us into its thrall and brings about this imagined fusion of brain activity and emotions, of bodies and technology, that the new biotechnologies and other convergent technologies have brought at least into the realm of possibility, we should ask again how far curiosity can extend into the future and what answers, if any, it can find there.

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