Category Archives: Reading and writing

Is stupidity making us Google?

is google making us stupid - Google SearchDiary date: 12th September, 1985

My working stay in Sweden lasts around six to eight weeks. It was a real eye-opener at the time, but reading back through my 28-year old diary, the whole period feels distinctly analogue.

A lot of the time, I don’t really know what’s going on and frankly seem to have very little way of finding out. I write longhand messages to friends and family on pieces of paper which are then carefully transported to them over a period of several days by a series of paid messengers. I lose track of what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and seem to struggle even to find out what’s going on in the immediate vicinity. I collect maps by the armful to help me get around. When I finally leave Gothenburg by train, I have no way of letting my family in Munich know that I’m two hours late, so they have to hang around the station just hoping I’ll turn up.

But taken as a whole, one thing stands out more than anything else in those innocent, analogue days – the tremendous effort I put into trying to know stuff.

And when I say know, I really mean know.

For certain.

You used to need to know stuff. Back then, it seemed really important. These days, you just need to feel reasonably sure that the stuff you’re concerned with is knowable, and that if and when it’s needed, you’ll be able to find it.

In other words, we’ve slowly but surely begun outsourcing the knowledge that we used to carry around with us – principally of course to the Internet and our friends at Google, but also to phones, satnavs, e-readers, tablets, MP3 players and lots of other devices.

So what are we doing with all the spare mental capacity that our outsourcing policy has presumably produced? Is it really all being spent on Angry Birds and watching cat videos on YouTube? Perhaps we’ve now got the potential to know a great deal more than we ever did before – albeit by proxy. Or maybe we’ve got surplus brainspace available to know and store more and more interesting/useful/esoteric/ephemeral stuff – leaving all the dull, heavy-lifting to the magic of the Internet.

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield for one has her doubts. She’s argued frequently and publicly that the human brain’s incredible ability to adapt may well mean that life online and our obsession with the “yuck! and wow!” of the Web will result in lasting and not necessarily desirable changes to how we interact, think and manage knowledge. She’s occasionally been criticised for her views, but she’s far from being alone. Even Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt sounds concerned that we’re losing the ability to think deeply enough to retain genuine and profound knowledge.

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking.

Celebrated technology writer Nicolas Carr – asker of the original question, Is Google Making us Stupid? – has written along similar lines, suggesting that the Internet may represent a Faustian pact that will trade ‘deeper’ thought for something more superficial:

For most of the past 500 years, the ideal mind was the contemplative mind. The loss of that ideal, and that mind, may be the price we pay for the Web’s glittering treasure.

Outsourcing both knowledge and storage is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years as evidenced by everything from the Pyramids to the Rosetta Stone. But the sheer power, speed and ubiquity of the Internet may well mean that unlike the mechanisms we’ve used in the past, this one has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of the minds that created it.

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The only way is Ethics

WhatsApp logoDiary date: 19th May, 1985

Whoever wrote my diary 28-years ago this week sounds like a bit of a whinger. Whoever he is, he’s angsting about revision. A lot.

However, if you’re prepared to believe my A-Level-studying daughter, this is one area of life where times have definitely changed for the better. It seems the best place to deal with revision angst these days is not your desk or the library, but in fact mobile messaging service WhatsApp. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it might amount to more than the usual phone-based time-wasting, so I’ve magnanimously agreed not to pass final judgement until the exams are over – at which point my already irrelevant opinion will be even more academic.

As for the mutual support and expertise WhatsApp helps provide, a real-life example will tell you all you need to know. Faithfully reproduced from my daughter’s phone and saved for posterity, here’s a revision thread covering the complex, highbrow and morally challenging world of A-Level Philosophy and Ethics.

I pass no comment. But I may conceivably be arching an enigmatic eyebrow. Needless to say, names have been changed to protect the innocent:

AP: Shit for ethics I’ve barely gone over genetic engineering and war haha

EM: Neither but ive done bentham and kant

SC: Mee too

EM: So lets hope they come up!!

FG: Im going bentham and kant hopefully

AP: When it says prime mover, what argument is that from? Cosmo or aristotle?

FG: Aristotle

AP: Kkk chillin

SC: Im going ontological and god as creator if thats right

EM: Ok thats not terrible if they come up, wanted ma boy plato though

AP: I really dont mind any of philosophy but not god as creator

FG: I was hoping cosmological?

AP: I wanted paleys watch but that was too optimistic

EM: All the ones i havent done properly have come up apart from science and religion, which is scary

SC: The 2 i know quotes for arent there ffs haha

EM: Can i use ‘good will shines forth like precious jewel’ for kant in ethics?

SC: Yeah

AP: I literally havent even looked at genetic engineering!!!! Scared 😦

FG: I know a long teleological quote, i want that to come up

AP: Quite honestly, im going to fail

EM: Mee too

AP: Seriously id be better off not turning up

EM: Gonna die

AP: Its gonna be horrific

SC: Im gonna bring snacks for that six min break haha

AP: Cant seem to find all my revision for ethics, theres an issue

FG: So funny how we have a six minute break i dont quite understand

SC: Wonder why six not five

AP: Hahaha

FG: We wont leave the room

EM: Omg gals this time tomorrow we’ll have finished philo!!! Woooo

AP: No guys ive lost all my ethics

AP: No ono

AP: well im failing ethics.

Ten reasons why a Kindle is more than just reading

Diary date: 29th March, 1985

I’d forgotten how much obligatory reading I used to have to do. In 1985, I was in the first year of my degree course in French and Scandinavian Studies (mostly Swedish, with a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure). I was never the fastest of readers, so by the time I’d got through Stendhal‘s epic Le Rouge et Le Noir (which, according to my diary, I bought today), the entire four-year course was all but over.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

These days, it feels like it would be so much easier.

Yes, I’m talking about my Kindle.

I haven’t read a physical book since I was introduced to my Kindle; but I’m not sure ‘read’ is really the right word – Kindling is an activity that feels different enough to deserve its own name.

Like everything else, Kindling comes with its good and bad points, so here are my top ten reasons why it’s great – plus another five that should reassure you that my love is not blind.

The good stuff

1. I can read faster on my Kindle.

I have absolutely no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but as a notoriously slow reader, I can tell when I’m motoring through pages at a decent lick – and my Kindle maximum is a darn sight higher than my standard top speed.

2. I never have to buy trashy airport novels or exceed my baggage allowance with loads of weighty books.

I have as much of the world’s literature as I can afford already in my pocket – and it will never weigh an ounce more, even if I do decide to buy Le Rouge et Le Noir at some point for old times’ sake.

3. I can try before I buy.

As someone from the old school of being morally obliged to finish a book once I’ve started it, sample chapters are a godsend and can save me months of heartache and frustration. I just wish my Kindle had been around before I bought The Da Vinci Code. There’s a few months of my life I’ll never see again.

4. I can concentrate on what I’m doing.

There’s nothing else really going on to get in the way of some serious reading, like dog-eared pages, coffee cup stains or distracting covers. The uniformity of the overall experience lets me hone my powers of Kindling to the max.

5. No one knows what I’m reading.

Embarrassing books or covers are no longer a worry in public places. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no intention of doing so, but you get the idea. ‘Nuff said.

6. I have a vague feeling of being part of something.

In a spooky way, I feel just a teensy bit connected to other books and other people. I can ignore both if I want to, but at least they’re there if I need them.

7. I Kindle on my own terms.

Font size and line spacing are suddenly up to me, not an anonymous typesetter somewhere. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.

8. I can save my favourite bits.

Not just from one book, but from every book I read – and keep them all together in one place. I have no idea why I find this so cool, but I do.

9. I actually look up words I don’t understand.

In the past, I would almost never have looked up the meaning of a word I didn’t know in a dictionary – especially if I was cosy and warm and tucked up in bed. On my Kindle, I do it all the time and now know the meaning of crepitus , xenobiotic and of course, sciolism.

10. I can fool myself that my eyesight is not deteriorating.

Just adjust that font size and pretend it’s not happening. Who knows, it might not be.

The not-so-good stuff

1. Every book feels a bit the same.

There’s so little that obviously distinguishes one book from another – size, weight, colour, font, spacing – that I occasionally get myself all mixed up and start wondering why Jack Reacher is suddenly in Life of Pi.

2. You can’t easily flick backwards to check stuff.

OK, you can, but not easily or quickly enough for my liking, and especially not if you’re going back a long way and need to check the name of a minor soldier you last encountered 300 pages ago in War and Peace.

3. Pages don’t stay the same.

This is probably just me, but I remember a lot of what’s-happened-when in a book from the physical layout of the page. I’ll know for example that a particular scene happened a couple of pages after the start of the previous chapter, on a page with lots of dialogue and a long, solid paragraph at the bottom, and with a speck of mud-coloured dirt in the top right-hand corner. Kindling doesn’t give me these kind of clues, and if a bit of mud-coloured dirt is on one page, it’s on every page.

4. There’s no hard evidence of what you’ve read.

Finishing a book has always provided a moment of minor celebration and achievement for me, but somehow I don’t get the same buzz with my Kindle. Putting a completed book on a shelf somewhere has been like a rite of passage. All I’ve got now is a screen full of digital covers that only I ever see. My bookshelves are starting to look rather forlorn, and increasingly either out of date, empty, or filled with other stuff that’s probably even harder to dust. If I was in the bookshelf industry, I might start thinking about diversifying.

5. You can’t see what other people are reading and get inspired by it.

Watching someone absorbed in a book on the train and making a mental note to buy a copy is becoming a thing of the past. I can confirm that peering closely at fellow travellers’ Kindles to try and achieve the same effect is frowned upon and considered impolite, creepy and whatever else it was that woman said before she moved to the other side of the carriage.

Happy Kindling!

Belgium, man! Belgium!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tape boxed setDiary date: 20th March, 1985

On this day back in 1985 I am not happy. One of my cassette tapes has broken, beyond even the ability of a rewinding pencil to repair it.

Understand please that this was not just any tape. To record it five years earlier in 1980, I had plugged a tiny microphone into my portable cassette recorder, and propped it up against the speaker of my bedside radio alarm clock. The squeaky-sounding reward for my efforts had eventually been the full second series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I then listened to on a fairly perpetual loop every night for years afterwards. The lost episode was the one in which Zaphod utters the most obscene word in the universe (‘Belgium’, in case you were wondering – fortunately here on Earth we don’t know what it means) – not once but twice.

No such trouble these days, with the entire five Hitchhiker radio series available for download from the likes of the iTunes store, stored in the cloud if I need to access any of them, and syncable across as many devices as I can afford.

It can feel as if this sort of ubiquitous availability is somehow also equivalent to  permanence – that Douglas Adams‘ work is now saved and secured forever. But that’s surely a mistake. Who’s to say what the world will be like years from now, and whether we’re even capable of building a digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time?

Interesting then, that when the Long Now Foundation – an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking and the originators of the wonderful 10,000 year clock – were considering how best to preserve a record of the world’s many disappearing languages, they decided to etch the information onto a nickel disk in addition to committing it to the potentially ephemeral ones and zeroes of the cloud. Copies of the disk will be sent off into the centuries to come in the hands of individual owners across the world – a physical, distributed, analogue storage system far more capable of surviving a journey of thousands of years into into the future than anything the digital world currently has to offer.

If we want to avoid on a grander scale the kind of sad end that befell my cassette, we’re going to have to work a lot harder at managing both our data and the platforms that allow us to access it. Within a year or two – possibly less – the technology required to play my remaining Hitchhiker tapes will probably have departed the house – unlikely ever to return.

Life as a child of 2000 AD

2000AD Prog 1 coverDiary date: 26th February, 1985

My diary entry for this date briefly laments the fact that I was no longer buying my favourite childhood comic, 2000 AD. I distinctly remember the excitement of the very first edition on the same date in 1977 (which was why I was writing about it). It had a free mini-frisbee taped to the cover and promised space-age dinosaurs, an all-new Dan Dare, and a kind of bionic man called M.A.C.H-1. Interestingly, there was no mention of the comic’s most famous and long-lasting son, Judge Dredd, who didn’t appear until issue two, and even then didn’t make the cover.

2000 AD tapped perfectly into the 70’s feeling that the end of the century was one of those watershed moments before which anything was possible and at which everything would have changed. Knowing it was coming was like having your own personal and predictable singularity, constantly on the horizon.

Everyone used to work out how old they’d be in the year 2000, and wondered  about things like whether they’d be married and have children, or what job they might be doing. Anything and everything seemed possible. In the end – married and with two children at the time – I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 rather mundanely at work, watching  the office survive the much-hyped Millennium Bug.

The year 2000 gave everyone a kind of collective and optimistic milestone (the Millennium Bug aside) – something we were building towards together and which we shared. Now it’s done and dusted, the emphasis has moved quietly back to individual, cultural, sporting or national milestones. Perhaps the lack of a year 2000 equivalent accounted for at least a little of last year’s  buzz about the end of the world supposedly predicted by the Mayan Calendar on 21-12-12.

Meanwhile – and rather wonderfully and reassuringly – 2000 AD comic is still called 2000 AD, having managed to come to stand for an entire millennium rather than a single year.

And perhaps without even acknowledging it, the rest of the world has made exactly the same shift.