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I’ve been eagerly emphasizing the point scholars and sceptics such as Nicholas Carr have been making: that the Internet is changing the way we think.

Today it’s time to shed light on the other side of the debate. In today’s Guardian there’s a superb interview with Clay Shirky in which he explains why he believes the Internet is a force of good in the world.

The interviewer, by her own admission, doesn’t really ‘get’ social media:

Unfortunately, I am precisely the sort of cynic Shirky’s new book scorns – a techno-luddite bewildered by the exhibitionism of online social networking (why does anyone feel the need to tweet that they’ve just had a bath, and might get a kebab later?), troubled by its juvenile vacuity (who joins a Facebook group dedicated to liking toast?), and baffled by the amount of time devoted to posting photos of cats that look amusingly like Hitler.

But Clay Shirky’s boundless optimism is infectious, to say the least:

“If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”

Shirky also makes the point that new technology doesn’t create entirely new behaviour, but instead enables already existing motivations to be expressed in new behaviour:

“Techies were making the syllogism, if you put new technology into an existing situation, and new behaviour happens, then that technology caused the behaviour. But I’m saying if the new technology creates a new behaviour, it’s because it was allowing motivations that were previously locked out. These tools we now have allow for new behaviours – but they don’t cause them.”

On the debate about whether the internet is changing the way we think, he makes an interesting point:

“But the alarmism around ‘Facebook is changing our brains’ strikes me as a kind of historical trick. Because we now know from brain science that everything changes our brains. Riding a bicycle changes our brains. Watching TV changes our brains. If there’s a screen you need to worry about in your household, it’s not the one with a mouse attached.”

He also has some interesting thoughts on the ‘pay-for-news-online’ debate, but you’ll have to read the whole interview yourself for that. I recommend you do – it’s remarkably insightful.

To Link Or Not To Link

Nicholas Carr, the writer who I’m fond of quoting, has once again managed to stir up a controversy. This time it’s about links, specifically links in a piece of online text.

Carr argues that links embedded within a text are disruptive and interfere with a proper reading of the text. He claims putting links to other webpages referred to in a text are best put at the bottom of the text. A quote:

“Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.”

Once more I’m inclined to agree with Carr, and once more Carr has his share of vocal critics.

The web is definitely doing something to how we think and how we consume information – be it through bite-sized chunks of media, distracting hyperlinks, or just excessive porn – and we need to understand exactly what is happening to us and how it affects us.

It may turn out to be a positive effect, or it may turn out to be harmful. But the web’s effect on our brains is very real.

  • 4 Comments
  • Filed under: health, internet
  • I was briefly registered at Randstad in Belfast when I was looking for work, so I wasn’t surprised when I got this email today in my Gmail inbox:

    Randstad Belfast email blunder 1

    Nothing wrong with that message, right? A mass mailing to their whole email database, that sounds like a good idea on the surface. What better way to get a good response than to blast it out to all your contacts?

    But look a little closer…. That link at the top saying ‘show details’, where in Gmail you can see to what email addresses the message was sent….

    Surely a professional organisation like Randstad wouldn’t just put all email addresses of a mass mailing in the To: field? Surely they’d use BCC or an email marketing system?

    Wrong:

    Randstad Belfast email blunder 2

    All addresses were put in the To: field. The image above is just a tiny sample. There are no less than 1273 email addresses right there, visible for all recipients.

    One of those 1200 recipients, someone greedy and web savvy, could easily sell that list to spammers for a few bucks. Or if any of those 1200 recipients has a virus or malware program running on their PC that harvests email addresses for spammers, all those addresses are going to end up on spam lists around the world in no time.

    So what have we learned today, kids? That’s right, never use the To: field when sending out mass emails.

    P.S. anyone want to buy a good list of 1200 email addresses?

  • 1 Comment
  • Filed under: business, internet
  • Deconstructing the Internet

    Best article I’ve read all week. I’d say more about it but yesterday was St Patrick’s Day and I haven’t recovered yet. Read it for yourself:

    NYTimes.com: Reading and the Web – Text Without Context.

    An excerpt:

    “Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.”

    Now that the Dutch cabinet has fallen and new elections are on the horizon, Dutch digital rights organisation Bits of Freedom has started a Digital Rights 2010 campaign to create awareness among political parties of the issues of internet freedoms.

    As any regular reader of this blog knows I’m a fierce advocate of digital freedom, firmly believing in the ideal of an open, free, and unregulated Internet.

    Nefarious closed-door treaties like ACTA are threatening to destroy everything that made the Internet so successful.

    Now more than ever we need political strength and vision to oppose corporate forces. Media corporations, focused single-mindedly on profit and profit alone, will always choose greed over freedom, lawsuits over expression, and censorship over innovation.

    So I would urge you all to support Bits of Freedom. Put the banner on your site, spread the word via Twitter/Hyves/Facebook, and spam your political party of choice with questions about their stance on digital rights.

    The next Dutch government may last the full 4 years – an eternity on the Internet. If we get it wrong this time, we might have missed the opportunity entirely. In 4 years’ time the corporate lobbyists may have succeeded in pushing their greed-inspired agenda, and the open & innovative nature of the Internet may be destroyed for good.

    But only if we let them.

    Is the Internet Rewiring our Brains?

    I’ve written before about the influence of Internet use on our brain functions:

    » Digital Overload
    » Is Google Making us Stoopid

    The BBC now adds to the debate with an upcoming episode of their documentary series The Virtual Revolution. The Telegraph has done a piece on it:

    » Students brains ‘rewired’ by the internet.

    An excerpt:

    “Documentary presenter and social psychologist Dr Aleks Krotoski said: ‘It seems pretty clear that, for good or ill, the younger generation is being remoulded by the web.

    ‘Facebook’s feedback loops are revolutionising how they relate.

    ‘There is empirical evidence now that information overload and associative thinking may be reshaping how they think.'”

    I still haven’t made up my mind whether time spent online is good or bad for me. I do sometimes have difficulty with concentrating on large pieces of text. But whether this is because my brain function has been affected by time spent online, or the text in question is just mind-destroyingly boring, I can’t say. A bit of both, perhaps.

    And if the Internet is rewiring my brain, I’m doomed anyway. My whole career is based online, and I like it too much to change tracks and do something offline.

    Last week I wrote a perfectly respectable article for the Belfast Telegraph which got published under the unassuming headline ‘The changing face of SEO’. That original version of the article contained no images and only one reference to Britney Spears to illustrate a point.

    Then the digital editor of the Belfast Telegraph decided to ‘sex up’ the article a bit. On Friday he added a Beyoncé Knowles reference and a bunch of pictures of Beyoncé and Britney.

    Obviously not content with this minor assault on my reputation as a serious (*cough*) search engine optimiser, the editor decided on Monday to spice it up even more and added Angelina Jolie in the article’s headline.

    The end result is this:

    The changing face of SEO on the Belfast Telegraph site
    My article on the Belfast Telegraph site

    By virtue of the Belfast Telegraph’s status as an official and respectable news site, the article has since shown up consistently in Google search results for the term ‘seo’, both under its old headline and the various sexed up versions:

    The article in Google search results

    Now I could claim this was all done without my knowledge and consent and that I severely object to this abuse of my professional reputation just to score pageviews.

    But then I’d be lying.

    I was informed of these changes beforehand and I wholeheartedly agreed. Having one of my articles serve as a live test case on a high traffic news site is a wet dream come true. I love this stuff.

  • 0 Comments
  • Filed under: adamus, internet, media
  • Adamus

     Adamus
    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

    Identity 2.0

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