Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Two Views of the Wired Life

We live in a wired world. (And, increasingly, wireless.) Whether or not we embrace Internet-facilitated communications we are all affected by them, and are likely to be even more so in the near future. The books below offer thought-provoking discussions as to how the wired life is changing how we interact with information and each other.

Nicholas Carr wrote an article that was featured on the cover of Atlantic magazine, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" That July 2008 article generated much discussion and even some controversy, and enough interest that Carr expanded upon the article to produce the 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains.

In the article and the book Carr describes how he became aware of a problem in his life: he was rarely if ever finishing a book that he had started to read. At first he chalked it up to getting older. But once he started comparing notes with friends and colleagues he began to see a pattern. No one of his friends, it seemed, was finishing longer works. In fact, everyone seemed to have increasingly brief interactions with print materials. And with media in general. Just about everyone was sampling the information flow around them in quick sips rather than long drinks.

 "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words," says Carr. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Carr did research and came to a disturbing conclusion: not only is the way we interact with information changing,  the Internet is changing our brains. Due to "brain plasticity" (the more we do something, the more our brain "muscles up" to perform that action), we are actually rewiring our brains to have a broad and light association with information -- "the shallows" referred to in the title of the book.

Citing recent research, the author discusses how the very nature of the Internet encourages a shallow interaction with information regardless of the content. (Shades of McLuhan's "The medium is the message.") For example: studies show that when hypertext links are present in a text, the reader's retention of the concepts in the text is reduced -- the mere presence of the options to link outward reduces focus upon the material at hand.

The sheer volume of information presented to us is also discussed, how this may be a distraction from a deep linear channel of thought and how this ever-increasing volume makes filtering and critical thinking skills ever more important.

Thought- and discussion-provoking, The Shallows helps us examine how the recent rapid changes in electronic communication may be changing how we interact with the world in ways far beyond what we already recognize.

Some quotes from the book:

"With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use."

"It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards."

"The Net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment."

Nicholas Carr's article in Atlantic Magazine
Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google

Whereas Nicholas Carr suggests that we should examine, discuss, and sometimes even challenge how we utilize Internet-facilitated communications, Michael Chorost suggests that we should take such techologies to their polar extreme: a blending of implanted machine and human to optimize our connection to the information flow, and through that, our connections with each other.

In World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans, Machines and the Internet  (2011) Chorost discusses the technologies that might make such an integration possible, ways to make our interaction with information technologies seamless and intuitive. He also examines the goal of "telempathy" -- not telepathy, an exact mind-to-mind transfer of thoughts or information, but rather a (network-facilitated) telempathic understanding of what other humans are feeling or focusing upon:

"An implanted device would have to do much more than a BlackBerry. It would have to let people be effortlessly aware of what their friends and colleagues are doing. It would have to let them know what their friends are seeing and feeling, thus enabling much richer forms of communication. And people should be able to walk down the street savoring the richness of the world while also being aware, in the background of their minds, of the ceaseless hum of their friends' ideas and experiences."

Chorost (who has microchips implanted in his brain to allow him to hear more clearly) understands that this "ceaseless hum" may not seem attractive to everyone. But since he views such a machine-human integration as being increasingly inevitable, he feels it is vital to discuss the permutations of such an integration and how it will affect individuality, privacy, and society. As a vehicle for this discussion he takes a very personal trip through his comfort zone of personal space and human interaction, in parallel with his examination of the developing technologies.

Whether attractive or repulsive, the idea of a World Wide Mind is sure to generate discussion as we consider the possibilities rushing upon us.

Some quotes from the book:

"There is nothing new about the fear that technology is harming human interaction. People philosophized and worried about telegraphs and telephones in very much the same way that people now philosophize and worry about the Internet. ... The debate about technology's effect on social interaction has been around so long that it is essentially technology-independent. I see it as being about the tension between conflicting desires for autonomy and community. On the one hand we want to be autonomous, and seek space and privacy. On the other hand we want to be known and loved, and seek intimacy and community. These desires are in constant conflict. By constantly introducing new ways to be alone and together, technology keeps renewing the conflict. The conflict endures through the millennia; only the specific technologies change. Rather than try to resolve the conflict, I want to transcend it by introducing a new perspective."

"True communication, deep communication, empathic communication, always requires [a] rich information exchange in both directions. It has to exist between one person and another, but we can't stop there; it also has to exist between humans and machines..."

No comments: