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Pervasive Technology & Your Brain on the Web

Bill Thompson (@billt) gave a rousing talk on 'the left behind' in digital culture. 

He asserted that if you're already not mostly 'living outloud, online' you've ceeded a great deal of power and (rights?) to those that do. 

Most people that talk about the invention of the internet and collaborative digital culture from a starting point of the invention of the printing press. Thompson says that the digital culture in which we now live is more pervasive and more important than that: it actually began with the invention of 'writing' (which is to say, the first pictoral symbols used to express ideas). 

Below I've pulled out a few quotations from notes and a couple of clips from Future Everything conference in Manchester on 12-13 May (last week) for you to intellectually chew on:


(Attn: what follows are the words of Bill Thompson in italics and idented. My thoughts are not italisised nor indented. Follow? Good.)


“It’s part of the growing understanding that we don’t live in a digital world…. But calling this a digital world or a digital age is just foolish because we are as located in the real as we ever were, as physical objects —bodies— as engaged with other physical objects— people and things— and whilst most of the data we deal with on a day to day basis is now digital — ones and zeroes— or has been at one time digital: every book you read, every newspaper you look at, every television or film program you see, has had some form of digital processing, the world is not itself digital. It is a digital culture.” 

“The liminal space between the digital, virtual, and the real physical has grown to encompass everything. This very narrow space that was carved out when the internet was turned on… this narrow space between the real and the virtual has become the space within which those of us who are lucky enough to live in advanced western economies… now live always within that space.”

“My model of consciousness, of what happens in my conscious mind is very much a systems model in which there are competing subsystems and my consciousness— my strain of conscious thought that I have through the day is really just a narrative constructed by the dominant subsystem at any one time that try to make sense of the chaos of existence….

Some of the parts of me that are always thinking but are not necessarily always conscious are always online, are attached to things that are happening in the virtual space….There are parts of my consciousness that are always engaged with that but they are not always dominant.

To go offline, then, what is essentially to cut off parts of my mind is deliberately to decide to use less than my full faculty when I’m thinking because those parts are fully integrated. Why would anyone want to do that?"

This is interesting to me because what he's asserting here is something I've been chewing on as well. I've noticed that my note taking habits have changed a lot since my memories of even my MSc days a few years ago: I like to be able to annotate the papers I read, insert disagreeing or reinforcing quotation in notes in document from other sources. I get frustrated when I can't.

Thompson sited a new book called Proust and the Squid in which the author, Maryann Wolf, discusses what it's like to read when you're dislexic. Apparently, according to Wolf (via Thompson), 

“learning to read changes your brain. That teaching someone to read is doing brain surgery without a scalpel... If this is the case that the reading brain works differently, I see no reason why digital tools would not also be having an effect on the way our brains are wired up… I think it’s highly likely that we use these tools and we use these technologies and not that they change the way we think, but the way our brains work and hence the way we think.”

Thompson shared his observation that more and more digital communication is visual. Info graphics and datavis is trendy, but is it more than just a trend?

“…visualisation and the way tech disappears from view, about the digital environment that we are constructing, all will support and sustain those changes those changes in the way we construct reality and hence the way that language relates to that perceived reality.”

I've noticed myself, lately -- and I don't know if this is to do with that I'm learning animation and filmmaking-- I've begun to think more visually than I used to. When I start writing a blog post and telling a story, I have a harder time making myself just use words. I often start thinking up animations but have to temper that desire because I don't have that much time and in some cases the skill level to produce them.

I asked Thompson if we are returning, to some extent, to a culture of oral learning? This is his answer:

“ I don’t think we’re moving back towards a culture of oral learning. I think it’s always been there, it’s just been hidden from view. Much of what people learn is told to them and the manuals or the textbooks and the notes from your parents on fridge have reinforced and supported that. 

So I think it’s more that it’s now possible to share those materials because the network allows them to become public. It’s possible to have access to them whenever you want them, so instead of just relying on a colleague popping over to your desk, they are available to you anytime you want.” 

“The growth of online video is in itself a challenge to the written forms of communication. I think there’s something much more subtle going on— that’s still not worked out— in the relationship between the written and the visual and the encoded that a real book is one without pictures, and as Alice famously said, ‘what’s the use of a book without pictures?’ A real book is a solid piece of linear text that works in a certain way. 

That— the idea of the book as being the machine that does the heavy lifting of ideas— that is what’s being challenged and undermined by hyper-textuality and the multi-media elements of that mean that many other elements apart form the text are being incorporated. So I think we are finding new ways of doing instructions and telling stories that remove texts from being primary but still leave text as being a vital component.”

The implication of not being digitally literate, according to Thompson, is this: 

Start noshing.


N.B. I have a full recording of his talk at futr11. @ me on twitter , leave a comment (by which I will have your email address), or email me (see contact link at top of page) to ask for it.

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