Tag Archives: Internet

Updating McLuhan: How the Internet and the human brain can reinforce each other


A review of Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Taking up where Marshall McLuhan left off and bringing his thinking into the 21st Century, Tiffany Shlain explores an extended metaphor in this tiny e-book published as an Amazon Single. She characterizes the Internet as “an extension of our brains — an extension of us,” just as McLuhan saw the book as an extension of the eye and electric circuity as an extension of the central nervous system. In fact, Shlain’s metaphor stands up to greater scrutiny than McLuhan’s. She makes a powerful case.

The similarities between the human brain and the Internet have been pointed out before, of course. However, Shlain delves deeply into contemporary neurological science, recent studies in childhood development, and the emergent properties of the Internet. She delivers up a convincing argument that we humans can vastly expand the scope of our understanding and insight by broadening the reach of digital media and engaging an ever-greater portion of humanity in taking advantage of the World Wide Web as a mechanism to share our ideas. Today, only about one-third of humanity — about 2.4 billion people — have access to the Internet. Shlain posits a near future when everyone who wishes may get online and share any thought with anyone else on the planet. By making judicious choices of what we share and what we read or experience online, we can literally reshape our brains.

This surprising claim is borne out by science, as Shlain reports. The human brain at birth is effectively a blank slate, composed of about 100 billion neurons, “the same number an adult brain has — but most of the connections between all those neurons aren’t there yet.” And it’s the connections that determine how we sense the world around us and how behave in response. The first 2,000 days of life — about five years — are critical, because during that time a child’s experiences determine which connections are made, which are strengthened, and which are left by the wayside. However, the process of reshaping the brain doesn’t end at age 5. Throughout our lives, the connections among the neurons in our brains continue to grow, shrink, and shift, the result of all we learn and experience and do as the years go by.

Already, digital “[t]echnology is rewiring the human brain” just as earlier technologies such as the book profoundly changed the ways we think and behave. For example, according to a California neuroscientist whose work Shlain cites, “social networking produces a burst of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding, empathy, trust, and generosity.”

Hence, Shlain writes, “If we’re at the metaphoric first 2,000 days of life for the Internet, then right now is when we need to pay close and careful attention to developing its brain.” With a trillion webpages now online, about 10 times the number of neurons in the human brain, the capacity for new insight by increasing the connections among them is already vast. “Both a young brain and our young, global Internet brain are in highly creative, experimental, innovative states of rapid development — just waiting to make connections.”

Our job is to ensure that the right choices are made to nurture empathy, creativity, and sharing behavior in both. In raising children, this means minimizing the activation of stress hormones in the early years, since “prolonged activation . . . can actually reduce neural connections in important areas of the brain — such as those dedicated to learning and reasoning — while increasing neural connections in the parts of the brain dedicated to fear and aggression.” In managing digital media, we need to ensure that the Internet remains open, so that limitless connections are possible. This means rejecting attempts by corporations and rebelling against those by governments to establish control over the Internet.

Tiffany Shlain has written a thought-provoking little book, entirely worthy of the TED label that promises “ideas worth spreading.” A winner of numerous awards, Shlain is an innovative Bay Area filmmaker who founded the Webby Awards a decade and a half ago and is now pioneering in “crowd-filmmaking.”

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A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

A review of The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

We have yet to grasp more than a hint of the forces unleashed by the creation of the Internet and, more recently, the World Wide Web. The Fear Index dramatizes one possible chain of events that could upend human society.

This chilling novel is set in Geneva, home of CERN, the European scientific research center that houses the Large Hadron Collider and which spawned the World Wide Web in 1991. There, an extraordinarily brilliant and eccentric American physicist, Dr. Alexander Hoffmann, exercised his passion for artificial intelligence (AI) for several years until his experiments ran afoul of his superiors at the lab. Shortly afterward, Hoffmann entered into a partnership with Hugo Quarry, an English financier who volunteered to provide him with the virtually unlimited data needed to pursue his research. Their partnership, a hedge fund, is based on Hoffman’s evolving AI research. The fund quickly grew to multibillion-dollar proportions because of the accuracy of the securities-trading algorithms developed by Hoffmann and his band of eccentric young mathematical researchers.

Though this novel may come across as sheer fantasy, and Harris’ depiction of AI is off base in some respects, it’s grounded in reality. Many hedge funds do conduct automatic trading using algorithms to make decisions by the millisecond. And the events that dominate The Fear Index bear an unsettling resemblance to a very dark day in Wall Street’s recent history.

The action starts quickly in The Fear Index and builds steadily to a crescendo in a deply troubling conclusion. A synopsis of the action would make little sense. Read it yourself, and you’ll probably have trouble putting it down.

The Fear Index is British writer Robert Harris’ 14th book. His previous seven novels were Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, and The Ghost (released as a feature film under the title The Ghost Writer). If those titles seem familiar, it’s no accident: every one sold well, some were bestsellers, and several were adapted for film or television.


Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction

Help stop Big Media from censoring the Internet!

The video http://vimeo.com/31100268 explains exactly why every American should be screaming bloody murder about the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation the big media companies are trying to rush through a Congress dominated by people who don’t have a clue about the Internet. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is Hollywood talking: it’s the huge robber-baron media moguls, including Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, and the like as well as Disney and the other big studios.

Go HERE — http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/ — to lodge your protest.

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The Facebook Effect, by David Kirkpatrick


@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re an American and you have a connection to the Internet, there’s roughly a one-in-three chance you have a Facebook page. If you’re Canadian, the chances are nearly one in two. Worldwide, the number of Facebook members is fast approaching ten percent of the global population. Clearly, those numbers justify the need for an in-depth book about the evolution of Facebook — an intimate account based on exhaustive research, including lengthy interviews with all the principals.

In many ways, David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is that book. Kirkpatrick, a longtime technology reporter for Fortune magazine, invested considerable time over several years to interview founder Mark Zuckerberg and a great many of his closest friends and collaborators, repeatedly in many cases. Although he did not interview Zuckerberg’s most vitriolic critics — and there are several — his account is nonetheless reasonably well balanced. The company’s major missteps — and there are many of those as well — are described in what must seem excruciating detail to insiders. Mostly, however, The Facebook Effect is a straightforward tale about one of the most astonishing success stories in the history of business on planet Earth.

Soon after this post appears, Facebook will announce that its membership has topped half a billion. Membership is growing at the rate of 25 million per month, and it’s been several months since the service passed the 400-million mark. These numbers alone are enough to raise eyebrows even in an industry long since grown used to meteoric growth. But what is even more astounding about Facebook is that its members spend extraordinary amounts of time within its boundaries. Facebook has become a world in itself — a virtual world that’s all too real for its hundreds of millions of loyal members, because it’s so engaging.

Kirkpatrick emphasizes — perhaps overemphasizes — some of the most familiar aspects of the Facebook story. That Zuckerberg was 19 years old in 2004 when he started the service as a Harvard undergraduate. And that he almost invariably dresses in T-shirts and flip-flops. Yet throughout The Facebook Effect, Kirkpatrick treats us to scene after scene in which Zuckerberg transcends his age by decades, displaying a depth of understanding, a mastery of strategy, and a steadiness of purpose worthy of the most seasoned CEO.

It’s well known that Facebook has taken its lumps again and again for violating its members’ privacy. What Kirkpatrick explains so well is that these crises were the inevitable result of Zuckerberg’s passion for transparency. Transparency — the sharing of information without limit — is the principle at the heart of Zuckerberg’s strategic vision. As Kirkpatrick notes, the young CEO truly believes that sharing information more freely and more widely, as enabled by Facebook, will make life on earth better. Though there are logical arguments against this proposition, it’s difficult to argue with passion.

The book’s title is a version of the well-known “network effect,” familiar to the increasing numbers of us who are actively aware of the networked world in which we live and work. The principle is simple: the bigger the network, the more interconnections among its nodes (in this case, members), and thus the more powerful it becomes. As Facebook may already be the largest human network on Earth, we can only begin to speculate what it might become if and when it grows to the one or two billion members Zuckerberg envisions.

ISBN-10: 1439102112

ISBN-13: 978-1439102114


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Losing the News, by Alex S. Jones

1@@@ (3 out of 5)

The subtitle of this impassioned essay — ” The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy” — tells half the story, one that’s familiar to any alert reader of today’s major newspapers. The other half of the story, equally familiar, is about how the Internet is undermining the newspaper industry and, in the process, steadily replacing the world as we know it with a frighteningly unknown future.

Alex Jones, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, comes to these themes honestly as the scion of a small-town Tennessee newspaper family. It’s no wonder he feels threatened.

In all fairness, there is considerable reason for apprehension over the decline of America’s major newspapers. Reflecting shrunken profits, repeated staff layoffs, closed news bureaus, and greater reliance on syndicated material, the nation’s once-fat dailies are slimming down at a terrifying pace. In place of the papers’ often earnest efforts at “objectivity,” we are increasingly basing our views on the unedited diatribes to be found on the likes of Fox “News” and the daily blogosphere. The perils for democracy in America are obvious. For example, could the so-called “Tea Party” have thrived in a world largely dependent on newspapers for its information? Or is that sad testament to the profound ignorance of the American people a product of Fox News, talk radio, and organized Internet rumor-mongering? You won’t be surprised to learn that there is no question in my mind that, despite its familiarity to the 19th-Century No-Nothing movement, I’m convinced the Tea Party is an artifact of the channels through which we now receive so much of our political information.

Jones writes well, and my harsh criticism may not be entirely deserved. However, it comes from my nagging feeling as I read this book that its underlying theme is nostalgia, a craving for the day when so much of the news that appeared in the nation’s dailies and on the air originated in the early edition of the Old Gray Lady, The New York Times. Those days are fast receding into history, and as Jones himself writes, there’s not much anyone can do about it other than “Adapt or Die.”

ISBN-10: 0195181239

ISBN-13: 978-0195181234

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