Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cognitive Surplus

This week for my Technology, Culture and Learning Class, we read the book “Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” by Clay Shirky.  When I first read the title I had to really think about what Shirky meant by “Cognitive Surplus.”  Basically, what my understanding of this term is the excess amount of free time we have and how we use it.  Shirky discusses several examples of what we do with our cognitive surplus, but one of his main focuses is the amount of time people spend watching TV, which he feels could be used for other purposes. 
In the first chapter entitled Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus Shirky discusses a fascinating history of the “gin craze” that began in London around the 1720’s.  “The Gin Craze was a real event-gin consumption rose dramatically in the early 1700’s even as consumptions of beer and wine remained flat” (Shirky 2). 
People began moving into the city of London from the countryside seeking work due to the industrialization of society.  There were major changes in society due to this growth in populations, “with predictable effects on living conditions and public health, and crime of all sorts was on the rise.  Especially upsetting was that women of London had taken to drinking gin, often gathering in mixed-sex gin halls, proof positive of its corrosive effects on social norms” (Shirky 2).  Due to this issues there were several laws passed in order to prohibit the consumptions of gin.  Although parliament would pass law after law trying to prohibit gin, there were always ways around these newly passed laws.  One such example of circumventing the law was when, “Parliament outlawed flavored spirits; so distillers stopped adding juniper berries to the liquor” (Shirky 3).  According to Shirkey, it wasn’t the laws that eventually decreased the consumption of gin and the issues that accompanied it, but the changes made due the industrialization and creation of the modern city.
Certainly, all our societal issues were not resolved with the decrease of gin consumption.  We still encounter change in population trends such as urban growth, and increased suburban density, and an increase in educational aspirations.  According to Shirky we just transitioned into a new addiction, “During this transition, what has been our gin, the critical lubricant that eased our transition from one kind of society to another?” (Shirky 4).  It was one I mentioned in the first paragraph, television.  
Although I thought the book was very interesting, there were some parts I felt dragged on a bit too much.  In Chapter 3 “Means”, Shirky’s description on how the Grobanites (hard-core fans of Josh Groban) started their own charity organization on behalf of Josh Groban, was interesting at first but I felt he spent way too much time on this example.   I understand that his point was to show how the internet allows you to connect, produce and contribute.  However, have we not always been able to connect, produce and contribute without the internet?  People organized and influenced society in the past, more than likely through political groups, churches, schools and other community organizations.  So, without modern technology what did our society do before the internet?  One could argue that it took more time and energy to get organize, so did people have more cognitive surplus then we do today?  Reading this chapter, just made me think and ask a lot of questions. 
I did find Edward Deci’s 1970 study on the soma puzzle where participants were instructed to solve a puzzle and then left alone for eights of free time interesting.  It showed what can motivate people and what happens when take away that motivation.  In Deci’s first experiment he studied participants during their free time to see they continued to work on solving the puzzle, he found they continued to work on puzzle for half of their free time.  In the second experiment he offered half the group money to solve the puzzle and again during their free time he observed that those participants that were offered money worked on the puzzle longer than those who were not offered money.  This is not surprising; I think we all know that money is a great motivator when it comes to accomplishing tasks.  In his final experiment Deci, did reverted to his initial experiment and did not offer anyone money to complete the puzzle.  What he found was that those that were offered money in second experiment spent less time on the puzzle during their free time.  This reminded me of the day care experiment mentioned in Chapter 5 entitled Culture.   Some of the day care centers implemented a fine to the parents who were late in picking up their children.  The study showed a dramatic increase in the number of parents who were late in picking up their children.  In essence because these parents were paying a fine, they felt it was alright not to follow the 4:00 pm pick up time.  They felt that the fine was enough punishment for them not to follow the rules.  However, once the fine was removed the numbers did not decrease, they remained the same.
Shirky’s most interesting chapter is the final chapter entitled “Looking for the Mouse,” where he offers his observations and provides lessons on how we can harness our cognitive surplus.  The three main categories are Start, Growing and Adapting.  In the first category start, Shirky states, “You can never get complex social interactions right first crack out of the box, but you can get them wrong.  The key to starting well is to understand how the initial launch of social media is special.” (Shirky 193-194).  So how do you start?  You start small, ask why, behavior follows opportunity and default to social.
Growing which is the second category Shirky feels it’s “one of the great challenges of such systems, especially in their early days, is to manage the dynamics of growth.” (Shirky 197).  The four sub-categories consist of A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand; People differ, more people differ more; intimacy doesn’t scale; and support a supportive culture.
In regards to the final category adapting Shirky says, “If successful uses of cognitive surplus required designers to get it right the first time, you be able to count the successes on the fingers of one hand.  Instead, the imperative is to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again.” (Shirky 203).  The four sub-categories are the faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; success causes more problems than failure; clarity is violence; try anything, try everything.
This book showed how beneficial the internet can be when used in an informative and entertainment manner.  For example when women were attacked by a group of men from the Sri Ram Sene, video of these brutal attacks were uploaded on the internet and the group said they would commit future attacks a group of women started a facebook page of support for each other.  The internet can be a useful tool and can provide an opportunity for those who otherwise, may not be heard. 

Works Cited

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: The Peguin Press, 2010.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains The Shallows

This week for my Technology, Culture and Learning Class, we read the book “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains: The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.  In the first chapter I loved how Carr explained his first experience with a personal computer.  It was interesting to read his journey through this process and how quickly the technology changed.  I especially enjoyed when Carr said that he “grew fond of the sound of my modem connecting through the phone lines to the AOL servers.” (Carr, 14).  I used to dread the sound of the modem connecting to the internet servers because it would take so long. 
Also, the idea that AOL allotted only a certain number of hours, five hours to be exact, to surf the web is unbelievable.  I use the world wide web for all sorts of things.  Personally, I use it to stay updated on current events, directions, communicate with family and friends, shopping, and even listing to music or watching movies.  For school and work I use the internet for research and homework, communicating with co-workers and classmates, ordering equipment and supplies.  Just like Carr, I no longer read newspapers.  I also do not use phonebooks, because sometimes the information is outdated and it is much easier to look online for a company’s information.  Plus, their website has much more information than the phonebook provides.  After viewing a company’s website I may not need to contact them, because the information I need may already be on their website.
Carr’s description of Michael Merzenich’s post doctorial work on brain mapping at the University of Wisconsin Madison was quite insightful.  I found Merzenich’s work on the brain’s reaction when the peripheral nerve system is damaged and then how it heals interesting.  How the nerves grew back haphazardly and signals were crossed but later after some recovery time this confusion has been cleared up.  This contradicts what was mentioned in the earlier part of the chapter in Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s (Spanish physician, neuroanatomist, and noble laureate) belief that the brain’s virtual path once laid out cannot be changed, regenerated, or rerouted. 
I do agree with Carr in how we have changed the way we use technology.  It has changed from just information based to more of enhancing conceptual thinking.  In the Chapter entitled “Tools of the Mind” Carr, this discusses this very idea, “Our ancestors didn’t develop or a use map in order to enhance their capacity to conceptual thinking or to bring the world’s hidden structures to light.  Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking.” (Carr, 45).
Technological determinism, a term invented by sociologist Thorstein Veblen, is a theory that a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values.  On the antithesis instrumentalism is the belief that “tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users.  Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own,” (Carr, 45).  I think both of these theories are true and Carr gives great examples in his book.  In regards to instrumentalists, we do make decisions on how and when we use our technological tools.  “The Japanese, looking to preserve the traditional samurai culture effectively banned the use of firearms in their country for two centuries.” (Carr, 47).  On the flipside determislists believing that technology drives our society provide a great example of how clocks changed the way society worked, “bells sounded for start of work, meal breaks, end of work, closing gates, start of market, close of market, assembly, emergencies, council meetings, end of drink service, time for street cleaning, curfew, and so on.” (Carr, 42).
Carr insists that the negative side effects of the Internet outweigh its efficiencies, stating that we are only getting fragmented information from the web. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web…we don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”   I do not necessary agree with this point of view.  The good thing about the internet is that we have much more information at our fingertips then we without the internet.  For example, if I was reading an article and I was not sure what the definition of a certain word meant or who a person mentioned in the article was, I could be missing important information that could help me understand the article better.  However, if read the same article online, I could pause look the word up or even “Google” the person and find out some background information on the person to help me better understand.  Now, I understand that this is one of Carr’s points when he talks about being distracted, but in this particularly case I think it is enhancing my learning and not distracting from it.  “We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information.” (Carr, 133). 
“Studies of office workers who use computers reveal that they constantly stop what they are doing to read and respond to e-mails.” (Carr 132)  As a person who works in an office, I chose whether to check an e-mail notification or not.  Usually, if I check an e-mail it is because I am waiting on a response for a question or project I may have.  However, this is not the only interruption I have throughout the day, I have phone calls, meetings and people constantly stopping me to ask for assistance or ask me a question.  Unfortunately, multitasking is in every workplace and is something we must be able to adapt to in order to do our jobs.
Another point can be made is that are we limiting the information we receive?  One of Carr’s arguments from a study on over 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005 by James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.  Found that after analyzing citations from published online articles, scholars cited fewer articles.   Also, mentioned in the study that older issues of articles were not being cited as much as newer articles.  Now, this point I can understand.  We do want the most recent information when we are researching, the information in an older article could already be outdated and no longer useful.  “automated information-filtering tools, such as search engines, tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t.” (Carr 217). 
I can also see some validity to Carr’s ideas on the internet and how it is changing our thinking process.  Take for example Carr’s own description of his concentration, “I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.” Carr writes, “That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, being looking for something else to do.  I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.  The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” (Carr 5-6). 
Another point I found interesting was when Carr spoke about the change in our reading, and how this would also impact a change in our writing style.  He mentioned how Japanese women begin writing stories as text messages on their cell phones and uploaded them to a Web site.  These stories were later published as books and became very popular.  One reason given by one of the author’s on why young readers have abandoned novels “They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and difficult to understand, and the stories are not familiar to them.” (Carr 105).  I found this comment to very discerning, but if you put it into context these type of stories were love stories, which I would view as purely entertainment.  If this was a research based article or book then I would be even more concerned.
Our society is always looking for the latest and greatest ways to improve and make things more efficient.  It seems like with every new technology we have had in history we have always had people who are going to adopt this new technology or people who feel with new technology comes new problems.