Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

“We are all cyborgs now”

July 12, 2012

Really? Being a cyborg, in Sherry Turkle’s sense, apparently just means always being connected (or within easy reach of a connection) to social networks. Newsweek wonders if that’s going to make us crazy. “New research,” once again construed with alarm, is presented to alarm us about our devices, the time we spend with them, and the time they take from more traditional pursuits. It’s an old story by now.

So, no. Some of us are crazy, many are much too obsessed with technology and social media, but we can’t blame it all on the Android or the Apple, on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or whatever. We’re still running our own programs, if we ever were.

That’s what I thought about on yesterday’s walk in the cool interregnum before the marvelous arrival of yet another rainfall. (And it’s raining right now, again.) Smart phone in hand, occasionally receiving my dictation and occasionally speaking back to me, we (the dogs & I) strolled pleasantly through the neighborhood, following our whimsy and our intermitent trains of thought. They were more zen about it than I, of course, letting the “thoughts” come and go without much troubling themselves to make larger  sense of anything.

But if they were to trouble themselves, I think the pooches would agree: the  simple prescription for sanity in this brave new inter-digitized age is to move away from the big screens, and pocket the small ones often enough to smell the flowers and follow the breeze. Turn it off at the dinner table. Seek out real “facetime” with real people.  As Mr. Bradbury kept reminding us, and himself: You’re alive! Be your natural self, and you’ll be  human (or canine) enough. The Internet can’t make you crazy unless you’re already crazy enough to let it.

Sitting and thinking is harder than it sounds

July 20, 2011

Still ruminating on Professor Forni’s dichotomy between communicating just because we can, because we have the Internet, and thinking because we must, because we have thoughts worth thinking. He has a point. We talk too much, we who’ve established these little beachheads and megaphones in the blogosphere and twitterverse and on Facebook and Tumblr and etc. etc. We listen less than we speak. We don’t even listen well to ourselves.

We should be still, sometimes. Read a book cover to cover, listen to an entire lecture, follow a single train of thought to conclusion before jumping to another breathless snippet of “feed” in the never-ending stream of everybody else’s fluttering consciousness. Try to really know a singular point of view.

Sit. Think.

On the other hand, just sitting does not always conduce to constructive thinking. The will to communicate something worthwhile may need to be summoned out of solitude, strengthened by the possible presence of communicants. Dawn reflections may sometimes require the prod of prospective publication.

As always, the search for a happy medium is complicated.

Against the tyranny of hyperconnection

July 18, 2011

An important, uncomfortable challenge to everyone who spends a lot of time attempting to communicate online(that seems to be most of us, nowadays, some more than others):

…we communicate because we can and not because we have something important to say.

We invest in the swapping of trivialities, precious time that we could use for serious reflection. I want to believe that when we stumble upon black holes of silence on the net, that depends at least in part on someone reacting against the tyranny of hyperconnection.

There must be brave and smart souls who came to realize that thinking is more important than communicating. I see them in my mind’s eye a brave minority, sitting in silence, pondering and planning — the way it used to be.

That’s Johns Hopkins Professor P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility, quoted in the Times yesterday. He’s right, I think. I’m going to try and spend more time in silent reflection, in the good company of receptive and nonjudgmental friends like Moleskine and Leuchtturm, in no special hurry to ring the “post” bell.

But… the ultimate goal of thinking, still, is to arrive at something worth communicating. It would just be nice to arrive there calm and sui compos, with breath and sanity intact. Quality matters most, not Quantity.

gadgets 2.0

November 1, 2010

On, now, in FoL, to Jaron Lanier and his surprising, arresting, perplexing, sane and humane You Are Not a Gadget. And on to some more report presentations.

[Web resources and FAQs… homepage & bio… Must-read quizbooks]

Lanier writes:

A central thesis of the book is that it ought to be possible by now to criticize aspects of digital experience without criticizing the whole of it.  Unfortunately, it is not always easy to get that point across.

Non-technical readers can easily come to a misunderstanding about the scope of my criticism, because they aren’t used to  differentiating the things I criticize from the things I praise.  Even some of the book’s positive reviews [nyt, Independent] have given the wrong impression.   It can be confusing even for technical people to keep in mind the differences between things like the Internet, the Web, cloud computing, and Web 2.0.  I am critical of Web 2.0 but am thrilled and delighted by all the other things on this list.

Most of all, he’s convinced there’s a baseline reality we’re all more-or-less acquainted with at first hand; but, increasingly, we’re more-or-less confused about it, and at risk of killing it on the altar of Information. He pioneered Virtual Reality, Lanier says, because Reality 1.0 is too cool to lose. He just doesn’t get transhumanism and its posthuman dreams:

It’s so weird to me that Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near, wants the global computing cloud to scoop up the contents of our brains so we can live forever in virtual reality. When my friends and I built the first virtual reality machines, the whole point was to make this world more creative, expressive, empathic, and interesting. It was not to escape it.

He’s a kind of romantic about mortality and hard reality. I think he has a case. But what is virtual reality, anyway? Is it so new? Let’s talk about it. (Talk is itself another form of mediated experience that extends our range of practical reality, no?)

holy grail

August 25, 2010

Very interesting “Fresh Air” interview yesterday:

The constant stream of information we get through mobile and hand-held devices is changing the way we think. Matt Richtel, a technology writer for The New York Times explains how the use of digital technology is altering our brains — and how retreating into nature may reverse the effects.

Richtel’s latest Times piece on this topic caught my eye while I was traveling last week, in particular this buried line from a psych professor who joined colleagues on a digital-free holiday to “study what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected”:

Attention is the holy grail.”

I read it on my iPod.

narrative and identity

August 24, 2010

Back to the question about storytelling in our time…

What do we stand to gain and lose, specifically in terms of our personal and collective “identity,” through the incessant spinning of all these public “narratives”?

I was wondering about Julia Sweeney’s decision to stop telling stories in public, for fear of warping the private relationships in her life with daughter, husband, and perhaps herself. Not unreasonable fears, in the digital age.

So many of us have gone public now, casually hitting the “publish” button almost daily, sharing personal information with “friends” we’ve never met, impulsively tweeting our unfiltered thoughts and feelings.

What would Socrates say? Is this the examined life? Or is it cave painting and shadow puppetry? Do we know ourselves better than ever, or have we become shallow image-makers? Are we really connecting with one another, and deepening our relationships? Or are we cutting ourselves off from genuine reality and disbanding the ties that bind?

When a brilliant pro like Sweeney, whose stories almost always transcend the personal while still striking her listeners in a way that feels intimate and direct– becomes doubtful of the value and impact of public narrative, the rest of us ought to take notice. The philosophers who will meet next March in her hometown to talk about “narrative and identity” certainly should.

One relevant consensus amongst my colleagues emerged and caught my attention, at the Symposium up east: philosophers  in the pragmatic pluralist grain must learn to be good listeners. A story worth telling is worth hearing. The best narratives are not merely internal monologues, they’re to be shared.

That’s why William James’s best essays (in his own estimation) were those in which the words of other persons outnumbered his own. There are so many stories yet untold, so many voices are required for a harmonious chorus. We must all sing our songs.

Fortunately, Julia’s are already recorded.

plugged back in

August 2, 2010

Robert Pyle’s little essay in  Orion magazinea few years old now, still has the power to inspire and infuriate. The author’s brother-in-law challenged his lament for young people who’d rather connect with the Internet than with the Earth itself.

“How do you know,” Leon asked me, “that these kids aren’t just as stimulated, and ultimately fulfilled, as we were by making up our own games outdoors?” I had to admit that he had a point. How indeed could I be sure? But by the third glass of champagne I had an answer—or at least a couple of questions: For one, what happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat? And where will all the conservationists come from when kids no longer have a patch of ground that they can truly call my space?

My original comment on this article, posted Dec.’07:

Bill McKibben was prophetic about this, as about so much else. Our vaunted Information Age really is an “Age of Missing Information.” But rather than pull the plug in a literal way, I’m going to continue tasking myself each day to pull away from the keyboard and the email in responsible moderation. Our evolutionary health depends on our learning to do this.

So: once more into the breach. “Moderation” is not much of a rallying cry, but there it is. It was good to get away, it’s good to be back, and it’ll be healthy to “pull away” again as needed.

Just trying to evolve here a little.


January 10, 2010

Found the perfect diversion to keep Dell busy, now that Toshi’s back: signed her up for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) screensaver program. It’s a big sky, but think how cool it would be if your machine were the one to make first “contact”!” Deep-space exploring from the comfort of your own home, while it’s 10 degrees outside your window, feels productive. And at least she’s stopped glaring at me.

NOTE to Intro students. Here’s an addendum to the syllabus, another “recommended” text:

For your mid-term report, track down one of the ubiquitous and proliferating pop philosophy publications, like those in the Open Court Popular Culture and Philosophy Series (Simpsons, Baseball, Beatles, Buffett, Dylan, Colbert, Soccer, Star Wars, Transformers, ad infinitum) or in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, including whole volumes dedicated to Lost, House, Daily Show, South Park, Twilight… and Mad Men, one of my favorites, is coming in June.

Your assignment: tell us (or me) what you think of what the philosophers say about your chosen object of personal enthusiasm.

Think of it as another kind of  search, for meaning and relevance and intelligent life on earth.

O machine!

December 13, 2009

My machine has stopped. The end of the world as I knew it, and I feel fine.

The Toshiba will shortly be winging its way to repair, but I’m not hugely impatient for its quick return. Why not? In part because I’ve just re-read a 1909 short story that scared me silly in 1978. It evokes a nightmare more frightening by far than anything Rod Serling ever served up, and though it depicts a world of the impossibly remote future it feels too much like now.

I first encountered E.M. Forster’s dystopian cautionary tale “The Machine Stops” [wiki] in an English sci-fi survey course at the University of Missouri, before the Internet or Virtual Reality glimmered even in Al Gore’s eye. (Jimmy Carter had recently told us to put on our cardigans, Star Wars had just hit the screen, “Y2K” meant nothing.)

Read it. It’ll make you want to spill beer on your keyboard.

It’s the worst possible answer to James’s Vital Question: humanity makes of itself a “mechanized” subterranean race of hi-tech cave-dwellers. They “seldom move their bodies” or touch (or even see) one another, they shrink from “the terrors of direct experience,” they caution themselves to “Beware of first-hand Ideas!”

And then “there came a day when the entire communication system broke down” and all was lost.

All? Surely someone will figure out how to start the Machine again?

No, the story concludes. “Humanity has learnt its lesson.”

Fat chance.


December 12, 2009

This was the first morning in months when my trusty Toshiba failed to answer the bell for me. A manufacturer’s shipping box is on its way, so it looks like I’ll be counting down the twelve days of Christmas this year in a different kind of anticipation and wistful wonderment… wondering when my wayward laptop will return.

Meanwhile, it was nice to discover this morning that I can still do it the old-fashioned way:  scribbling in a notebook, with a pen, and still making it to the backup machine with a quick dawn reflection before the first mug of java runs out.

I won’t be texting these posts from the handheld device, I really am all thumbs with that. I predict that I will be writing more (in little black notebooks) and publishing less, with less prolixity, these next few weeks. At the moment, I’m choosing to feel happy about that. It’s good to shake up our routines periodically, they so easily become ruts. Habit may be the great fly-wheel of society, as James said, but sometimes it can also be fly-paper. I feel oddly un-stuck, this a.m.

It’s also nice to know that if I spill my beverage on that writing surface– the little black notebook, the truly portable laptop writing tool– my equanimity will not depend on the solicitous intercession of a polite but very remote customer service agent somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.