Thoughtfully engaging modernity

Jonathan Franzen’s diatribe article in The Guardiana preview of his forthcoming book The Kraus Project, is provocatively entitled What’s wrong with the modern world? Trotting out many standard objections to techno-utopianism, he particularly bemoans overuse of Twitter, Apple products generally, and even calls out Jeff Bezos as one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. But it is not the Apocalypse of the Bible to which he refers but rather the more personal apocalyptic crises that we all experience. He was introduced to this idea by the early 20th century Viennese cultural critic Karl Kraus, also known as The Great Hater, an individual with whom Franzen has been obsessed for a couple of decades. He explains that,

Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.

Alexander Nazaryan is a bit dyspeptic himself in response to Franzen’s take on modernity, arguing that Franzen’s cri de coeur offers critique sans cure (Notably, Nazaryan offers no remedy either). Michael Jarvis is a bit more sympathetic to the neo-Luddism of Thomas Pynchon in his review of Bleeding Edge, the new novel by the famously reclusive author. Unlike Franzen who tells us that “Not only am I not a Luddite, I’m not even sure the original Luddites were Luddites.”, Pynchon is unabashed about his views on modernity. Like Franzen’s glorification of Kraus as The Great Hater, Pynchon is on the record as exalting Ned Lud – the original Luddite – as Badass. Pynchon argues that the 1779 movement known as Luddism was not a response to technology per se but rather class war, a reaction to the disenfranchisement of poor workers by modern machines. While there is a kernel of truth to his assertion, the mastery over technology that was wrought by the Industrial Revolution represents a cultural shift that is more than just concern for jobs. Tellingly, it was only a few decades later that Mary Shelley sat by the fireside at Villa Diodati, weaving the story that was to become the mainstay of every subsequent backlash to technology, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein still touches a chord, but in today’s world it is decidedly unwise to rail against modernity. Not only will you be pilloried in the press, but even if people buy the argument they will remain in thrall to modern technology – it is just too seductive to ignore. Moreover, the rants miss the point. Personally, I want to engage with modernity and live a rich, juicy life that is authentic and true. In short, I want to flourish as a modern. The better question asks how we might embrace modern technology and do it thoughtfully. And here the best lesson comes from most surprising of sources: the Amish. This past January, I had a chance to have an extended conversation with Jamie Wetmore in his office at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University where he enlightened me about Amish attitudes towards technology. According to Jamey’s studies, the Amish are not anti-technology. Rather, they think often and deeply about how technology affects their values. For the Amish, these are closely interwoven with their religion, and so they choose to decline the adoption of technologies that conflict with their religious values. But the choice is active – they gather together and consider the pluses and minuses, and then collectively decide on a course of action. Those with a more secular take on the world (me!) may harbour a different set of values, but values we have, and it seems to me that is worth following the example of the Amish and ask how does modernity impact my value system? Posed in this way, the question naturally leads to answers that lack the crankiness of Franzen and Pynchon’s tirades, while providing a way to engage that is more thoughtful than the techno-utopian musings of their interlocutors: weigh your engagement with technology with your own personal values.

Ah, but you might say that knowing something is a problem and doing something about it are two different things. Small steps are often the most effective ways to modify behaviour, and here is one that might help. A common complaint about modern life is that in the middle of a conversation, someone glances at their computer or smartphone (are they even different anymore?), checking for what can best be described as I-don’t-know-what-but-something-might-be-new. The person who looks away is distracted; the one who was ignored is, well, ignored. Everyone acknowledges the problem. And everyone does it from time to time. So for the next three days, just do this: notice. Don’t chuck your technology out the window, and definitely don’t beat yourself up about it when you sneak a peek at some digital screen in the middle of a conversation. You might try practicing what the Buddhists suggest to do with any behaviour you want to forestall – get curious about it. What was being said when you looked away? How do you think the other person felt? How did you feel about the whole thing? Most of all, ask yourself whether your actions align with your values. If you want to have the exercise really bear fruit, make a note each time it happens – it could be on paper, or in some electronic file, but the simple act of jotting down what was going on when your mind drifted from present to virtual will help change your brain’s ingrained pattern of behaviour. At first it will be hard, awkward, and maybe even a bit uncomfortable. You will start out catching yourself checking your whatever in the middle of a conversation as frequently as before, but by the third day it will become a rarity. And you will be better for it.


The High Price of Materialism

The Center for a New American Dream has just posted a great video by Tim Kasser entitled The High Price of Materialism.  In the video, Tim points out the myriad ways in which consumer culture degrades the quality of our lives. Worth noticing are the myriad neuroethical issues that he raises, from the effects of advertising upon our brains to the education that we provide to our children.

For a list of references on the subject, visit here

2011 Sharp Brains Summit

Registration is now open for the 2011 Sharp Brains Summit (full disclosure – I am a speaker this year). Sharp Brains is an organization that follows the business of brain fitness software and is primarily dedicated to promoting the business model of selling software.  At the same time, Alvaro and his team are quite serious about highlighting the best ways that we can improve our brains (non-pharmacologically, that is), and the information that Sharp Brains provides is not only intriguing but often practical. If you are at all interested in the latest and greatest in this rapidly growing field, by all means attend.

Even better, you don’t have to go anywhere!!  This is a virtual conference, so all that you need is a computer (you need to be  able to run Flash, but if you can watch YouTube videos, you are all set) to attend from the comfort of your own home or office.  I attended the 2010 Summit, and it was remarkably effective – not only did it save travel expenses and time for me (not to mention that it was environmentally responsible), but it turned out that the virtual conference had an advantage over in-person conferences in one way. Most people have had the experience that some of the most valuable discussions at conferences occur not from the podium but in the hallway. The virtual conference software allows for hallway conversations, but the bulk of that conversation occurs as a public comment stream. Getting to hear what many people are saying in the ‘hallway’ is much better than hearing only one person, and if you like what they say, you can send them a note and continue your conversation as a private one.

For the full list of speakers, go here.

For a brief intro to virtual conferences, go here.

No need to shut off the phone…it does it itself!

There is a fascinating article in the NY Times about how cell phone carriers are experimenting with technology that prevents phones from ringing when they are in a moving car.  This is an idea that I first heard about a couple of months ago when I had a conference call with a group of scientists who study attention – in particular the next generation of the phone being one that distinguishes between the driver and passenger.

Overall, the idea of harnessing our technology so that it works with us rather than against us is one whose time has come.  If you are interested in such issues, you might want to head down to Silicon Valley next month to the Wisdom 2.0 conference which is developed around the following remise: “Will we live increasingly distracted and hurried — or can we live mindfully and wisely, and engage the great technologies of our age in ways that benefit us, our society, and world?”  I won’t be attending this year, but there is an all-star lineup of speakers, and if it is anything like last year’s event, it is sure to satisfy those who want to remain calm while remaining technoprogressive.

Link to the New York Times article on cell phones that turn off in the car

Link to the Wisdom 2.0 conference.

Interruptions, interruptions

A recurring issue that I have been following for some time is the effect that the ecosystem of interruption technologies (hat tip to Cory Doctorow for coining the phrase) has upon our brains.  I have been focusing upon technologies, but as Jason Fried points out in this video, it is not just technology but even the ways in which we organize our workplaces that disrupt our flow of attention.  The video was voted the most popular video over at  Big Think; I have embedded Jason’s TED talk on the same topic below.

Jason is the co-founder and President of 37signals, a Chicago-based web-application company and co-author of the book Rework (the image at top left is the back cover of the book).

Link to Big Think’s Top Ten Videos of 2010



Natural Selection on the web

As one measure of how quickly things move in the world of IT, consider this.  On Monday, I put up a post on the effects of hyperlinks on the brain, suggesting that we here at the Core were going to carry out an experiment in which we would not include hyperlinks in the body of blog posts.  Later in the day, Nick Carr wrote about our experiment ‘de-linkification’, and his post evoked a fistful of blog posts along with comments, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes excoriating.  And now, at the end of the week, the folks over at Arc90, have modified their Readability bookmarklet to allow links to appear, magically, at the bottom of the page as a series of footnotes.  So here we are, five days later, and you can modify your web-surfing experience to conform to an experimental idea that was suggested on Monday.

The pace of such changes is what is both exciting and worrying about IT.  I very much appreciate the Arc90 team offering this solution, and they have wisely made it optional.  As with many downloadable enhancements to one’s environment on the web, this will either survive or not, depending upon user appetite (my guess is that a few enthusiasts will love it; most people will ignore it). In this way, the modern web is very much like evolution, with natural selection holding sway.

But in evolution, it is generally held that traits that increase fecundity – survival and reproductive success – are those that will persist.  On the web, what are the selection pressures?  At least in this instance, it is user experience.  This gets to the heart of the issue – just because your experience is more enjoyable hardly means that it is the best route to pursue.  One need only think about recreational drugs to understand the analogy.  The meme that Nick began with his Is Google Making Us Stupid article and continues in his new book The Shallows leads, inevitably to this insight: that as we (and the web) mature, we should also begin to make some intelligent choices about how we consume the bounty of information that the internet makes available to us.  Just because we can do it, or even just because we like to do it, hardly insures that it is worth doing.

Link to Arc90’s Readability Project and their blog post on the matter.

Hat tip to Nick Carr for alerting me to Readability’s update

Image credit


In July 1945, Vannevar Bush (pictured) published a landmark essay in The Atlantic entitled As We May Think.  In his article, Bush put forward his vision of the future of information technology, most famously describing something that he called a ‘memex’ machine which brought together information from a wide variety of sources and was the intellectual predecessor of the world wide web.  The essay turned out to be influential in numerous ways, and has been acknowledged by Doug Englebart as having contributed to his development of hypertext.  Fast forward 55 years and hyperlinks are ubiquitous.  Hat’s off to Bush: it is a rare insight that blossoms for decades after being conceived, and even rarer to have it thrive as something that is used by millions of people worldwide each and every day.  And, if you are like me, you really like them.

But as with candy, there is the possibility that too much of it will leave you with a belly ache.  Well, perhaps not a belly ache.  But there is the very real possibility that hyperlinks will affect your physiology with undesirable consequences. Continue reading

Does multitasking change your brain?

There has been quite a bit of interest in multitasking of late, most recently with a series of posts over at the Britannica Blog with contributions from Maggie Jackson, Howard Rheingold, Heather Gold, and Nicholas Carr.  The posts are quite interesting, and dovetail nicely with the thoughtful presentation by Frank Schirrmacher over at Edge entitled “The Age of the Informavore.”  I highly recommend the entire set to get an idea of what popular thinking is about multitasking.

From our perspective here at the Core, the real question is one that Schirrmacher addresses in his talk: is multitasking changing our brains?  Nicholas Carr’s infamous Atlantic piece “Is Google Making us Stupid” really set the stage, and it bears repeating that everything that we do affects the way that our brains work.  Especially so when we have something like multitasking that is inherently rewarding.  But the unanswered question is whether it is good for you.  The science is unresolved. Continue reading