The Atlantic Monthly, July/ August 2008

The cover story of this issue asks “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”  If that article had run in The New Yorker, it would have begun with the sentence that in fact opens its 11th paragraph:  “Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter- A Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise.”  That story closes with Nietzsche observing that “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”  The article draws on recent neurological findings about the malleability of the adult brain to expand on Nietzsche’s insight, suggesting that just as those findings suggest that literacy triggers a large-scale rewiring of brain circuitry, so the web can be expected to give rise, not just to a new kind of research method, but to a new kind of human mind.  Homo Googlieticus, perhaps.  

Hanna Rosin’s “American Murder Mystery” notes the changes in the geographic distribution of crime reports in American cities in recent years and suggests a correlation between these changes and the breaking up of the big housing projects of the Great Society era.  As the poor have spread out through Section 8 housing programs, not only have the criminally-inclined among them come along; the old gangs that terrorized the projects have been dispersed and ambitious young thugs have seen an opportunity to create new gangs.  Creating a new gang tends to be a hyper-violent process, leading to spikes in homicide rates in midsize cities around the USA. 

Benjamin Schwarz goes to Brazil (home of our old friend Benjamin Swartz, but that’s a different story) and looks at the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer.  In his first sentence, Schwarz declares that Brasilia “was a heroic and inhuman scheme.”  Leaning on Styliane Philippou’s book Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, Schwarz defends Niemeyer as a blithe spirit who “offered a jaunty alternative to the geometric severity of the International Style” and whose “highest achievements are profoundly informed by a Brazilian aesthetic, which has long made sinuous forms a basic element of its vocabulary.”  Such buildings as the presidential palace, the Foreign Ministry, and the Supreme Court move Schwarz and Philippou to heights of lyrical rapture.  Even so, Schwarz describes Brasilia as “an awful city,” an “horrendous error,” “a colossally wrong turn in urban planning,” “soullessly set in immense paved fields that offer few places to sit and little refuge from the blinding sun.”

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