Your Brain on Digital Media: Changed

There can be no doubt that we are changed by the technologies we use.

Corresponding to the significant sounds in our utterances, ancient alphabets allowed thoughts to be preserved and extended the human writ, which made possible civil institutions and empire building. More recently, the plow and refrigeration affected where we settled, as well as the quality and kinds of foods we ate. Paved roads and reliable motorized transportation expanded commerce and eased the flow of human capital.

In each of these cases the full revolutionary effects these new technologies could not have been known in advance. So it is in our current moment.

Clive Thompson, who will speak at IdeaFestival 2014, identifies three biases in the sudden bloom of information devices and, consequently, our always-on culture. Occupying trillions of waystations in the form of IP addresses, these tools do more than simply connect us to each other. They affect what and how we think.

Digital Tools Have a Mind of Their Own:

First, they allow for prodigious external memory: smartphones, hard drives, cameras, and sensors routinely record more information than any tool before them. We’re shifting from a stance of rarely recording our ideas and the events of our lives to doing it habitually.

Second, today’s tools make it easier for us to find connections—between ideas, pictures, people, bits of news—that were previously invisible.

Third, they encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing.

In the midst of this revolution, many not-quite-right-not-quite-wrong predictions are being made. And, as Thompson hints at in his third point, the surfeit of information comes at a cost. That's because insofar as we can intimately know anything, physical experience must play a role. Indeed, the irony of the current moment is that the creators of the artificial intelligences have come to understand that our minds can be found in our arms and legs, which is to say biologically distributed, and are striving to bring context to their intelligent machines, while the human beings who work online markets, in possession of the gift of consciousness, have ruthlessly pursued a highly constrained measure of the mind, which is our collective willingness to click on one suspect lede after another. The bargain, sadly, is one-sided. And since our machines are incapable of interpreting our silence, more's the pity. This surfluity and the resulting digital detritus certainly provides ample room for others to sow Onion'y fields of mocking plenty.

No one now knows what will be wrought by the current technologies, only that everyone now has access to a medium through which they may make their thinking known. As for me, I'm certainly looking forward to hearing Thompson expand upon the biases in our tools at IdeaFestival 2014. The medium will include a comfortable seat in an air conditioned theater.

Please be aware that the price for a IdeaFestival 2014 Festival Pass will go up at 10a ET, Thurs., Sept. 4! But between now and then you can get your discounted pass here.

Stay curious.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Janelle Monae - "When your heart is breaking"

Wow. Just wow. Thanks to Geoff Oliver Bugbee for this wonderful image of Janelle Monae in concert.

For many other pictures from the IdeaFestival, please visit our Flickr pool. It's open to your contributions.


You Really CAN Hear Yourself Think

What do you know? You can hear yourself think.

Appearing in the current Nautilus issue on "nothingness," author Daniel Gross writes about the missing modern commodity of silence, and about how neuroscience can map the brain quietly at work during periods of silence, the corrosive effect that consistently high decibel levels have on our states of mind and Finnish efforts to market the quiescence of its legendary Birch expanse.

In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran and colleagues wrote the brain’s default mode network 'is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.' During this time when the brain rests quietly,' wrote Moran and colleagues, 'our brains integrate external and internal information into 'a conscious workspace.'

Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.

It's a good reminder that we are not mere ordinators for whom more information is always good, but biologies that are always "weaving ourselves into the world," consciously or not. And despite the overwhelming visual nature of contemporary society, throughout history sound has guided creatures through life. Today, the decibel count, even in our own homes, has been raised to levels that would have been alarming just a few decades ago. This is quickly evident in the aftermath of ice storms and power outages, which produce a gulping silence that can be unnerving if you've ever experienced it. Still, it's no coincidence that faith-based traditions call on their adherents to practice quiet, that the benefits of meditation are now widely praised for giving us access to an ever-elusive inner world and quiet is a universal and ritualistic part of public commemorations. I liked how Gross says it "unites the quiet without and within," and elsewhere in his piece describes how silence can produce "thoughts and feelings that aren't audible... in daily life."

Read This is Your Brain on Silence for yourself. I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!

Stay curious.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee


Sam Van Aken's Tree of Life

Sam Van Aken, an art professor at Syracuse University who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm, will speak on creativity and disruptive thinking at the IdeaFestival.

He was recently profiled on CBS' This Morning program.

His "Tree of Life" project grows 40 varieties of old stone fruits on a single tree using a process known as grafting, a technique used by orchardists to bud sports of desirable fruits and nuts onto a compatible root stock. The root stock supplies energy for growth. The grafted limb bears the desired fruit.

His project, I have to say, has a special poignancy in this summer of violence and conflict. It instantly brought to mind the soundtrack from the film Tree of Life, particularly the haunted and operatic beauty of Lacrimosa. If you get a chance today, listen to it, and then go read Walt Whitman's O Me! O Life! and be reminded that life is good and precious.

I hope to see you at the IdeaFestival! Please be aware that prices for a festival pass will increase on Sept. 2, so if you're planning to attend now is the time to reserve your spot.

Stay curious.


Starflower: Origami-Inspired Solar Arrays

Origami insights have been applied to everything from the design of heart stents to robots that ship flat to pop-up urban environments.

The origami-inspired solar arrays pictured in the video here are another lovely example of such cross-disciplinary thinking. BYU engineering students, in this case, study origami to find and exploit "compliant mechanisms" useful in spaceflight.

You'll be amazed at what they can fit into a four-inch by four-inch space.

I would be willing to bet those skilled in the practice might have something to add to topology, a branch of mathematics used to study properties of space preserved under deformation, and used by theoretical physicists, for example, to explore dimensions beyond the familiar three that we know so well. On much smaller scales, those artists might help biologists visualize the connection between enzymes and DNA.

If you're planning to attend IdeaFestival 2014, please be aware that the price for a Festival Pass will go up one week from today, Tuesday, Sept. 2. Don't wait to get yours!

Stay curious.


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