The Internet and Your Brain

I still remember the night that convinced me I finally needed to join the twenty-first century.

I had just finished a long day helping as a judge for a debate tournament. By the time I finally headed home it was dark. Or at least, I thought I was headed home. However, the further I drove, the less I recognized of my surroundings. As the road progressed further and further up into the mountains, I remembered my young children waiting at a friends’ house for me to collect them. Finally, the road abruptly ended. Literally, it just ended. I had no choice but to turn around and start over.

At about midnight I finally pulled into the drive-way of my friends’ house to collect my tired children. I determined never to let myself get lost again: I would finally invest in a GPS.

A few weeks later I went into an electronics store and asked for a device that had GPS capabilities. They sold me an Android tablet. I quickly discovered that the tablet was more than just a GPS: it was also an audio player, a camera, a gaming device, even a flashlight. Moreover, the tablet had a perpetual connection so it was always online. Continue reading

Is Wikipedia an Acceptable Source for Research?

In one of the discussion boards for the Master’s in Information and Library Science that I’m taking, I was asked to comment on the following. Wikipedia is (or is not) an acceptable source to use for research because . . . . Here’s what I wrote.

Wikipedia is an acceptable source to use for research because computer simulations have proved that it has a remarkably effective infrastructure for weeding out “epistemically disruptive agents” (read: disinformers and trolls).

From the abstract to Valentin Lageard’s article, ‘Trolls, bans and reverts: simulating Wikipedia‘:

The surprisingly high reliability of Wikipedia has often been seen as a beneficial effect of the aggregation of diverse contributors, or as an instance of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon; additional factors such as elite contributors, Wikipedia’s policy or its administration have also been mentioned. We adjudicate between such explanations by modelling and simulating the evolution of a Wikipedia entry. The main threat to Wikipedia’s reliability, namely the presence of epistemically disruptive agents such as disinformers and trolls, turns out to be offset only by a combination of factors: Wikipedia’s administration and the possibility to instantly revert entries, both of which are insufficient when considered in isolation. Our results suggest that the reliability of Wikipedia should receive a pluralist explanation, involving factors of different kinds.

That said, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for citing in academic papers, because it has not gone through the same peer review process that we expect of scholarly publications. There is a type of peer review that happens in Wikipedia, to be sure, and this is quite effective when it comes to raw facts, as Lageard showed with the computer simulations. But this is not the same type of peer review that goes into scholarly publications, which takes many things into consideration which Wikipedia, by its very nature, cannot. If one could cite Wikipedia in papers then theoretically a person without intellectual integrity could edit Wikipedia to reflect some particular bias or error, then quickly quote Wikipedia before the error has been corrected, saying something like “Wikipedia, as accessed on 10/16/19.”

Another reason that Wikipedia should not be cited in academic papers is because the standards ensuring good quality prose are very poor. The result is that some very bad prose emerges from the online encyclopedia (Nicholas Carr has collected some examples). The fact that so much work has been done to ensure or prove the factual accuracy of Wikipedia, compared to little to no work on Wikipedia as good prose, reflects the positivist and pragmatic bent of our anti-intellectual moment. 

There are also ethical reasons not to allow Wikipedia the dignity of being a respectable source for citation since it is both a symptom and a cause of what Nicholas Carr called “the self-reinforcing power of the web’s centripetal force.” From his book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations:

Wikipedia provides a good example of the self-reinforcing power of the web’s centripetal force. The popular online encyclopedia is less the sum of human knowledge than the black hole of human knowledge. A vast exercise in cut-and-past paraphrasing (it explicitly bans original thinking), Wikipedia first sucks in content from other sites, then it sucks in links, then it sucks in search results, then it sucks in readers. And because it prevents search engines from taking account of its outbound links to the sources of its articles, through the use of ‘no follow’ tags, it reinforces its hegemony over search results. Light comes in but doesn’t go out. One of the untold stories of Wikipedia is the way it has siphoned traffic from smaller specialized sites, like the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, even though those sites often have better information about the topics they cover. Wikipedia articles have become the default external link for many creators of web content, not because Wikipedia is the best source but because it’s the best-known source and, generally, it’s ‘good enough.’ Wikipedia is the lazy man’s link, and we’re all lazy men, except for those of us who are lazy women.

At best, Wikipedia is great as a springboard towards further research, and it is also great for fact-checking, or for settling disputes with friends (at least for disputes involving facts, such as the year of George Washington’s birth or the mating habits of dolphins). A librarian may also find Wikipedia helpful in conducting a facet analysis, or doing pre-search activities before putting a query into a databases. Consider that sometimes it can be very hard to help a library patron conduct effective research if it is a topic you know nothing about. Wikipedia is a good way to bring yourself up to scratch on something quickly. In fact, it is such a good tool at doing this, that many people stop there and don’t go any further.

To sum, it is acceptable to use Wikipedia for some of your research, but you shouldn’t quote from it when writing papers.

The AI Apocalypse is Happening Right Now…but not in the way you think

Person of Interest was an American sci-fi crime drama created by Jonathan Nolan. It aired from 2011 to 2016.

I have to confess, I’m fascinated by artificial intelligence. My favorite TV show, Person of Interest, explores what happens when a machine develops human-like intelligence. I am currently watching through the entire series (for the first time) with my son Timothy.

Why I’m Fascinated by AI

There are a number of reasons for my fascination with AI. One reason is that you can tell a lot about a culture’s unconscious fears by looking at the angst that emerge in their stories and myths. In the early 19th century, when people were afraid of increasing mechanization following the industrial revolution, stories like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tapped into these latent anxieties. As the 19th century progressed and the theories of Darwin took root in public consciousness, a number of stories began to emerge that gave voice to the fear that the demarcation between man and beast might be porous (Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is probably the most well-known example). Accordingly, I find myself asking if the current popularity of contemporary stories about AI (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Person of Interest, etc.) might be giving voice to deep-seated and widespread fears that we have been ceding important aspects of our humanity to digital code.

Continue reading

Alexa and Siri Are Not Your Friends

A 2018 report from National Public Radio and Edison Research reported that 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers. By 2021, there will be almost as many personal-assistant bots on the planet as people.  Amazon has sold tens of millions of their Echo devices.

Should we be concerned about machines that hang on our every word, eager to help? Judish Schelevitz thinks we should be concerned. Writing for The Atlantic last November, Schelevitz makes the following observations:

Continue reading

2-Part Podcast Series on EQ

Last month, my friend Mark Weisman came over to my office to discuss empathy, emotional intelligence and technology. We looped Jason Boom into the conversation through Skype. It was a fascinating conversation about some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). In a follow-up conversation, we discussed specific techniques people can practice for increasing their EQ skills.

During these discussions, Mark Weisman was able to contribute valuable insights from his perspective working for years in the tech industry, as well as from his experience as a husband. We explored what the latest brain science is showing about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation. 

We syndicated these two conversations to The Robin & Boom Show  which you can listen to below.

 

The Robin & Boom Show #13 – Attentiveness, Technology, Empathy and Stillness (Part 2 of series with Mark Weisman)

Mark Weisman

Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom continue the discussion with Mark Weisman on technology, empathy, attention and EQ. In this podcast you will learn what Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and the Great Tradition tell us about bringing attentiveness into our relationships. You will also learn the importance of slowing down to take a reflective turn, how to leverage neuroplasticity for good, and the relationship between the brain, body and emotions. Questions discussed include:
  • What tools and  best practices are available for families who want to push back against the culture of distraction?
  • Is empathetic listening an ability that some people simply have while others do not, or is it a skill that can be developed with practice?
  • How does awareness of one’s own feelings relate to sensitivity towards the emotions of others?
  • How can we develop the intellectual virtue of contemplation, and how does this affect our relationships?
  • How does the Sabbath commandment reflect natural law?
From the podcast:
“…be aware of what other people are feeling, and listen to the emotions behind what they are saying rather than just being quick to respond to surface issues. Go deeper and really try to listen with your heart and with empathy. Often we get into fights and arguments about issues that are really just proxies for deeper emotional issues, and these deeper emotional issues, when they’re not being adequately addressed or listened to, can cause problems abort issues that are not really the issue.”

How Video Games are Bad for Your Brain

Beware of the what video games are doing to your brain, or to the brain of your child!

In Nicholas Carr’s book Utopia is Creepy, he has a chapter called ‘Grand Theft Attention’, where he reviews the latest research on video games and the brain. The chapter is a reprint of his 2011 blog post ‘Grand Theft Attention: video games and the brain.’

A 2009 study by a different group of Iowa State researchers, published in Psychophysiology, investigated the effects of video-gaming on cognitive control, through experiments with 51 young men, both heavy gamers and light gamers. The study indicated that video-gaming has little effect on “reactive” cognitive control – the ability to respond to some event after it happens. But when it comes to “proactive” cognitive control – the ability to plan and adjust one’s behavior in advance of an event or stimulus – video-gaming has a significant negative effect. “The negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control,” the researchers write, “is interesting in the context of recent evidence demonstrating a similar correlation between video game experience and self-reported measures of attention deficits and hyperactivity. Together, these data may indicate that the video game experience is associated with a decrease in the efficiency of proactive cognitive control that supports one’s ability to maintain goal-directed action when the environment is not intrinsically engaging.” Video gamers, in other words, seem to have a difficult time staying focused on a task that doesn’t involve constant incoming stimuli. Their attention wavers.

Further Reading

The Robin & Boom Show #12 – With Mark Weisman on Empathy, Technology, and EQ (Part 1)

Robin and Jason are joined by Mark Weisman to discuss some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). Mark Weisman contributes to this discussion from his perspective working for years in the tech industry. In this podcast you will learn the difference between “emotional empathy” and “cognitive empathy”, and why EQ is central to human flourishing. You will also learn what the latest brain science shows about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation. (For more on this topic, visit out emotional intelligence archives.)

View all Episodes of The Robin & Boom Show

The Black Hole of Information

From Nicholas Carr’s, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations:

Wikipedia provides a good example of the self-reinforcing power of the web’s centripetal force. The popular online encyclopedia is less the sum of human knowledge than the black hole of human knowledge. A vast exercise in cut-and-past paraphrasing (it explicitly bans original thinking), Wikipedia first sucks in content from other sites, then it sucks in links, then it sucks in search results, then it sucks in readers. And because it prevents search engines from taking account of its outbound links to the sources of its articles, through the use of ‘no follow’ tags, it reinforces its hegemony over search results. Light comes in but doesn’t go out. One of the untold stories of Wikipedia is the way it has siphoned traffic from smaller specialized sites, like the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, even though those sites often have better information about the topics they cover. Wikipedia articles have become the default external link for many creators of web content, not because Wikipedia is the best source but because it’s the best-known source and, generally, it’s ‘good enough.’ Wikipedia is the lazy man’s link, and we’re all lazy men, except for those of us who are lazy women.

Refuge in Insignificance

Moore’s law, which expresses itself in computers becoming smaller and smaller, seems to parallel what is happening in our machine-mediated discourse. Our public discourse has been shrinking at a rate rivaled by the speed at which the integrated circuit has diminished in size.

When fax machines first appeared, it was like magic precisely because they could transmit so much text. I remember standing in wonder at the fax machine in my father’s bookstore as it dropped page after page on the floor. When email appeared, it was again astonishing that so much text could be sent over the computer. People would spend hours crafting careful email messages that drew on the tradition of letter writing.

That didn’t last very long. As our communication media have evolved through instant messaging, text messaging and finally Twitter, what has come to attract us is not length but brevity. Our communication media orient us to eschew complexity and depth, to give preference to what is brief and transitory.

At least, that is what dawned on me when reading Nicholas Carr’s chapter on Twitter in his brand-new book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations. This chapter, which is a reprint of Carr’s 2007 blog post, points out that Twitter’s great accomplishment has been to fragment the fragments, enabling us to turn any event in our lives, no matter how trifling, into a headline. Twitter dignifies the banal and glorifies the boring by enabling us to turn any experience into a stop-the-press bulletin. Twitter thus “wraps itself and its users in an infantile language” in which we can take refuge in the insignificant. Carr’s closing paragraph connects Twitter to emerging Virtual Reality technologies:

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.