Monday, October 4, 2010
Sunday Night at Your Brain on The Internet
It was my first time at The New Yorker Festival. For a moment I felt a wave of pre-quiz jitters, as if I were about to be tested on everything that had appeared in the magazine over the past five years. But I was too content to be worried for long. It was an overcast Sunday in Chelsea where a panel of intellectual luminaries would soon take the stage ready to disect an interesting subject, Your Brain on the Internet.
The seats at SVA seemed enormous. I felt like a third-grader sitting in a high school auditorium, but a happy third grader. I resisted kicking the seats and playing with the arm rests. Many attendees passed the time reading before the event. Everything is Illuminated, The Corrections and Freedom were three titles I spotted. Sections of the Sunday Times found there way out of tote bags. Murmured conversations rose from all around the theater. My sweater from Norway sparked a conversation about knitting that migrated into a discussion about gender issues in Latin America. Then a hush moved through the crowd as a change in lighting signaled the start of the afternoon's program.
Jason Schwartzman opened the event in a funny, two-minute video introducing the new app for The New Yorker. Afterwards the panelists hurried up the aisle toward the stage along the right side of the theater, accompanied by zero fanfare. (It's amazing that celebrities generate screams and applause everywhere they go but people whose thoughts, research and writing directly impact the direction of education and technology walk around unnoticed most of the time.) In moments everyone was seated: Jaron Lanier, who coined the term "virtual reality" and wrote “You Are Not a Gadget”; Nicholson Baker, an acclaimed novelist who examines stream of consciousness; Jonah Lehrer, an editor at Wired, the creator of the blog The Frontal Cortex, and the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”; Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at N.Y.U. who studies how emotions affect memory; and Daniel Zalewski, moderator and features editor at The New Yorker.
Two hours, two out-of-ink pens and a frantic search for a #2 pencil later, the discussion about the Internet's effects on our brains (and our society, productivity, privacy and more) was over. Here are a few paraphrased notes from that lively event:
It can be harder to daydream if instead of staring out of train windows we're looking at three-inch windows.
Rest after learning new information strengthens networks of learning for later retrieval.
When writing a novel, let information pour in, make connections, but then disconnect from digital media for a time to let it all break apart and become part of you.
When you are writing you need at some point to feel like what you are writing is the only thing at that moment. So unplug for awhile.
A random walk through the digital ether is a good thing.
Make time to read without the distraction of hyperlinks, "Under the still umbrella of your own concentration."
"It's always nice to be potentially distractable" so hyperlinks are beneficial.
Hyperlinks may make you jump off one story to another but, "Not all articles merit reading to the end."
People are writing better because they are writing more. The level of fluency has improved.
But writing well may not transfer well to other (non blog, non Twitter) formats.
We're a culture of communal publication.
Go on a wild Google search for fun. "Be like e.e. cummings. Enter three random words to see what Google gives you then follow that thread. Break a few things in your mind and afterwards see if there's any interesting scar tissue left there."
Cities are the engines of productivity. The Internet is a city of minds.
Face Fatigue from walking crowded streets when over-tired happens online too when too much disembodied information comes at you at once. Step away. Come back to it refreshed.
"Put a penny in a jar each time you check your Facebook."
Suggested name change for The New Yorker: Too Long to Read.
Surprise. Most-Twittered New Yorker peices are 16,000 plus words long.
We have to encapsulate in order to be truly ourselves. Unplug.
Creativity doesn't emerge as a product of life hacking strategies but by becoming more truly ourselves. You don't foster creativity by inducing novelty in your brain.
Need to distribute online clout from Empire vs. peasants model before we split into a two-tiered H.G. Wells 'Time Machine' world where those who live close to the computer server dominate.
Regardless of Facebook friend count (10 or 10,000), studies show that people have 4-7friends in real life.
Future apps will have the potential to accelerate conformity. You'll enter a shopping mall and be bombared with purchase recommendations based on what your peer group would like.
One participant equated Steven Jobs to an emperor or guru who seems to have entered into an S&M- like relationship with his supplicants. He's not terribly kind but they love him anyway. Another participant rose to Jobs defense seeing in him a genuine desire to make great strides in technology for the good of all people. All agreed, the majority at the top of the Internet Empire are smart and decent.
The future of science education includes having kids create avatars of the subjects they are studying, for example molecules docking with other molecules.
Anonymity in the blogosphere can create a venomous atmosphere but it's worth it for the "mad cackling joy" of being unknown online.
Loss of online anonymity would prevent the sort of subtrefuge that allows self-invention. If Bob Dylan's high school profile had followed him through life he would still be "The Zimmerman Kid."
We should own our information and our spy profiles (now held by online giants) and sell or ignore them as we wish. "That will happen - it's the only way forward."
Tweeting is good discipline for writers. "We break out of the box by stepping into (140 character)shackles."
The harder something is to process that easier it is to remember. IPad may make reading so easy we may forget how to flex our minds for difficult reading.
Don't be oppressed by any having a fabulous life FB updates you might see. Use it as a mode of seeing how individual people are.
The reward system of the brain/tech addiction is emerging as a science.
Remember, online you are The Product.
Bottom line is we don't know what the effects of the Internet are on the brain in the long run. "We are engaged in a mass experiment."
"We're still enjoying this new experiment despite our wounds."