Tag Archives: internet

Google and the Human Brain

12 Jun

One day, my eight-year-old asks me, “Daddy, who invented the swing set?” I immediately answered that much like Samuel Morse invented Morse code and Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, the swing set was invented by Alexander Swing back in the late 1700s. He didn’t buy this (or the suggestion that it might have been Esmerelda Set) for more than a couple seconds, so I said what I usually say in these situations: “OK, let’s ask the Internet!” Which means to Google it.

The cover of the July/August Atlantic magazine reads, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” It’s a thought I’ve often had as I find us using Google — and the Internet as a whole — like Dumbledore’s Pensieve to hold information outside of ourselves that otherwise would overflow our ability to contain them.

Carr makes a compelling point about how technology structures the way we think:

…what the Net seems to be doing is is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: In a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski...

It’s as if the more we can find out through a simple search, the less we need to know, the less we’re required to discover something unknown, the less need we feel to create something new. It’s true when you’re a part of a network as well — back when I was at the Big Agency, we talked so much of experience from anywhere in the network, we sometimes neglected to train and empower teams to be experts.

Carr says that like mechanical clocks and every other major communications technology, our minds are adapting to the Net. In the process, some things are gained, and some are lost.

In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

But maybe the competition will do us good. Facts are a commodity — junk food for the brain. Thinking, inferring, and imagining are what propels us, and gives each of us something distinct to contribute to our worlds. Carr says that this is where deep reading benefits the brain.

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire … but for the intellectual vibrations those set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation…we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

So, I’ll tell my kids to Google the facts, and to keep reading, and even see if they can discover something new. Because the Net doesn’t have all the answers.

The 1990’s Internet: An Appreciation

30 May

I was listening to Richard Clarke’s chilling talk about how easy it was to hack into the Pentagon’s computer systems back in 1997 (and he says things aren’t much better today)…and about digital picture frames pre-installed with pernicious viruses…and despite the fear and paranoia that thought generated, I also found myself reminiscing about 1997…and earlier…when the Internet was new, and merely putting a website out there was a newsworthy event… I starting thinking about:

Mozilla:  Remember watching the adorable lizard slowly form on the first browsers, line by line, like they were sent to your screen by a Star Trek transporter in very slow motion?

PointcastIt was the bane of the IT department, but this progenitor of ‘push’ technology was notable for how it prepared us for the constant news crawling across CNN, MSNBC, ESPN and their ilk.

Pathfinder: Anyone remember Pathfinder?  It was this massive portal to the news properties of Time Warner — Time, Money, People.  It was one of the first efforts by a major publisher drag themselves onto the web.  It also was clunky and boxy and massive and almost impossible to navigate.  Amazingly, the URL still exists!

Melvin.com.  The first humor website I came across on the web. It was sort of a bewildering hybrid of The Onion and something not really that funny. But whoever wrote it was out there…doing the best they could.  Then it disappeared, never to be seen again.

StarTribune Online… and every other newspaper that has a website:  I remember when my local metropolitan daily, the StarTribune, went online, they announced it with this massive ad campaign that featured billboards with giant smoking three-dimensional spaceships.  I think the idea was that StarTribune.com was the place you would go if you were an alien who crash landed in downtown Minneapolis and needed to know what to do next. 

But you know, just about every newspaper in the country bowed to the inevitable and went online, despite that fact they had no clue how they were going to pay for their shiny new websites or replace the employment ad revenue rapidly fleeing to monster.com and the classified ad revenue rapidly not being spent on craigslist… et cetera. 

And yet, we love reading our news online, and how the stories they write about us and our clients live on on and on…  I guess what I’m saying is that we all owe our daily newspapers a hearty thank you for their selfless sacrifice. 

That’s mine for today…what are your 1990s Internet memories?


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