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This has to be my favorite entry into the ongoing debate about whether the Internet and all things digital make us smarter or if they reduce our capacity for deeper thinking. It’s from one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Steven Pinker, who is a psychology professor at Harvard. From his op-ed in the New…

Mind over Mass Media

This has to be my favorite entry into the ongoing debate about whether the Internet and all things digital make us smarter or if they reduce our capacity for deeper thinking. It’s from one of my favorite thinkers and writers, Steven Pinker, who is a psychology professor at Harvard.

From his op-ed in the New York Times, Mind Over Mass Media: “Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

“And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.”

In a related article here, Jonah Lehrer, another young thinker whose books I’ve enjoyed very much, writes a review of Clay Shirky’s latest book titled Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (see previous post). An advocate for what the Internet has to offer, Shirkey might perhaps take his argument a bit too far for Lehrer’s tastes. In particular, Lehrer wonders where casual use of the Internet fits into our lives today:

“The second thing is that it remains entirely unclear if the creative and generous acts made possible by the internet are really a replacement for time spent watching sitcoms. After all, people have always had hobbies; although they watched plenty of bad television, they also read newspapers and built model airplanes, went on hikes and volunteered at the local shelter. In other words, we weren’t quite as mindless or disconnected as Shirky seems to believe. In his zeal to celebrate the revolutionary capabilities of the internet, Shirky downplays the virtues of the world before the web. And then there is the terrifying possibility (not addressed by Shirky) that our online life is detracting, not from time spent watching TV, but from our interest in things that have nothing to do with technology, such as talking with friends or taking walks in the park.”

Posted by Joel on June 13 2010 • Multimedia

The Internet is Making us Smarter

Author Clay Shirky writes a good refutation of the idea that the Internet is making us stupid in this article in the Wall Street Journal.

“The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture. There are likewise three reasons to think that the Internet will fuel the intellectual achievements of 21st-century society.”

Posted by Joel on June 06 2010 • Multimedia

Page v. Screen

It’s the technophobes versus the technophiles. At least that’s the knee-jerk assessment of the debate between those who praise the latest e-book portable devices and those who say that nothing tops the printed page. Where do you fall? In many ways it can be seen as a debate about form rather than function; e-books simply pick up where books leave off. The reading experience is not significantly different on a e-reader, tech advocates say, but such devices allow you to do so much more than the traditional codex. You can carry a lifetime’s worth of reading material in a single device. You can shop and buy at will, using the device itself to feed your every textual whim. No longer must customers wait to get the latest bestseller, but publishers need not print and distribute thick bound volumes in the hopes of enticing a buyer at the store. What’s not to like, correct?

But there’s a flip side to the argument being made. Those who make their claim against the digital word say that the argument is more than a matter of form. Sure, the first (and perhaps loudest) complaint against the digital device is one of aesthetics. “I love my book. I love turning the printed page. I love the feel, shape, smell and weight of the text in hand.” Perhaps that’s enough of an argument against the onslaught of digital media; I don’t want my every encounter with a new book to be exactly the same experience (as it would be with your device of choice, be it a Kindle, iPad or a Nook) for the rest of your reading life. End of story. But that’s enough for those who feel they are on the side of progress to label you a simple Tweed-wearing, hard-bound book loving, “those-kids-on-Twitter-don’t-know-what-they-are-missing,” Luddite. (OK, maybe not that bad but you get my point.)

Yet many critics of the e-book are beginning to craft an even bigger argument beyond “don’t change it if it ain’t broke.” They argue that today’s digital environments have changed how we encounter long-form text. And if we don’t take note of what’s being changed, both neurologically in our brains and sociologically in how our society encounters and incorporates new ideas, we could begin to lose what makes human culture what it is. Such is the premise of a new book out by Nicolas Carr, who has been featured in this blog before when he wrote a cover story in Atlantic called “Is Google Making us Stupid.” In his latest book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Carr writes about how even his own brain has begun to rewire itself as a result of the many distractions created by the Web, email, Twitter, etc.

A description from Barnes and Noble and the Library Journal: “Expanding on his provocative Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” technology writer Carr (The Big Switch) provides a deep, enlightening examination of how the Internet influences the brain and its neural pathways. Computers have altered the way we work; how we organize information, share news and stories, and communicate; and how we search for, read, and absorb information. Carr’s analysis incorporates a wealth of neuroscience and other research, as well as philosophy, science, history, and cultural developments. He investigates how the media and tools we use (including libraries) shape the development of our thinking and considers how we relate to and think about our brains. Carr also examines the impact of online searching on memory and explores the overall impact that the tools and media we use have on memory formation. His fantastic investigation of the effect of the Internet on our neurological selves concludes with a very humanistic petition for balancing our human and computer interactions.”

More than just a change in information access, e-books also pose a threat to literary culture. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer also put her hat into the debate this week at the Guardian Hay festival, saying (courtesy the Guardian) “there is no substitute for the book, and it would be a great deprivation and danger if the book should disappear and be replaced by something with a battery ... I am not talking in a fuddy-duddy way about this. These things are wonderful for disseminating information.

“But for poetry, for novels, stories – those things that have the imagination at their heart – there is no substitute for the book.”

Speaking about the future of library and literary culture, Gordimer said that the future involves the printed page, particularly in poverty-stricken African villages where the need for education is most important. But while online and mobile technology is wonderful for disseminating information to far flung locations, Gordimer argues, it’s the durability of the book that holds the most promise. “This is a very big question: whether technology will outstrip the printed word. But with a gadget you are always dependent on a battery and on power of some sort. A book won’t fall apart; you can read it as easily on a mountaintop as in a bus queue. The printed word is irreplaceable, and much threatened.”

Minnesota’s own Garrison Keillor takes a look at the demise of print culture from a different perspective in this recent Op-Ed in the New York Times. He views the move to digital as having a detrimental effect on publishing itself. “Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.”

If you want to write, just publish yourself, says Keillor. “And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.” Sure, you can write whatever you like, he says, but then everyone in the world will “exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.” His op-ed is over the top as only Keillor can write, but I encourage you to read it.

An end of an era? My favorite paragraph: “Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.”

Posted by Joel on June 05 2010 • Multimedia

Will Apple Save Big Media?

It’s the million-dollar question. Will Apple, the iPad and the iTunes business model save journalism and magazines? It’s uncertain. Whether or not you believe Apple knows something about selling “content” to the public, the debate will need to be discussed by virtually every publishing company in the country. Will they go the iTunes route or is there another path to compete in the digital age?

There’s an interesting debate going on at Gigaom after Steve Jobs’ recent appearance at the D8 conference last week. The Apple CEO said, “I think people are willing to pay for content. I believe it for music and video, and I believe it for the media.” The question is how to get readers to pay for the material they’ve become accustomed to reading for free online.

From the article: “The vision of an iTunes that served up paid-for newspaper and magazine content to millions of adoring readers has captivated the traditional media for some time. One of the most eloquent pleas for such a model came from New York Times media writer David Carr last year, in a column entitled “Will Someone Please Invent iTunes For News?” Carr described Apple’s success in selling music, and then said he hoped that someone like Jobs would come along and convince “the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspapers sites that it’s time to pay up.”

Posted by Joel on June 05 2010 • Journalism