The Tender Ears of the Blogosphere

Pretty much everyone and their dog has commented on Nick Carr's piece
"Is Google making us stupid?"  Most offer up banal anecdotes to counter
Carr's claim but ignore the primary sources/studies he mentions.  I
didn't offer my own opinion because I don't think this is a matter of
opinion, it's a matter of science.  Either research shows there is a
new effect or it doesn't.

Two responses in particular bother me.  First, Seth Finkelstein
criticised Carr for not being "technology-positive" enough and for
writing too much in the style of "fogeyism."  His worry is that techies
won't listen to people who sound old or cranky.  That may be true but
the answer isn't to water down criticism.  Part of growing up is
learning to listen to people unlike yourself — even people you
disagree with.  A technology background does not teach you to think
critically about technology and society; if anything it leaves you with
a deficit (yes, I speak from experience).


second response is by Danah Boyd and I don't know whether she's talking
about Carr's piece or something else, but I'll assume she is (my second
guess is Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation).  Her post is another
meta-comment and is about how to respond to "quasi-legitimate trolls in
an attention economy."  She characterizes some writers as
attention-seeking trolls and is having trouble ignoring them so asks
for advice.  I asked in a comment for clarification of what
defines a troll vs. a rational critic you disagree with and also what
books she was talking about.  I was rebuffed so I won't ask again —
I'm afraid of appearing to be a troll myself.

My problem with Boyd's point is that it's grossly unfair to call
Carr or Bauerlein trolls (Keen and Siegel may be a little closer, but
still don't meet the definition in my opinion).  To be a troll (a term
borrowed from the Internet, of course) implies an irrational
attention-seeker who ignores logic and simply repeats their opinion to
annoy someone.  These writers, however, are drawing on real evidence to support
their arguments and are engaging in rational discussion.  They may be wrong but they deserve an intelligent response.

There's an irony in Boyd's post — she claims Internet-style trolls
are showing up more and more in real life.  What she misses is that
maybe real life is the same and what has transferred over from the internet is the habit
of labeling people as trolls as an excuse not to listen to them.


started this blog three years ago to try to point out the many good
books that have been written on technology's impact on society, as well
as the excellent work that continues to be done by people in fields
such as science and technology studies.  What still surprises me is how
shallow and closed-minded most discussion on the Internet tends to be. 
Most of the smartest stuff is still offline.

The net has no time for respect

The Internet got and spread the news of Tim Russert's death a whole 30 minutes early, subverting NBC's wishes to keep the news private until Russert's family could be informed.  The person who "broke" the news, on Wikipedia, has been fired from his job at an NBC-affiliated company.  Peter Kafka at Silicon Alley Insider writes "Well, Internets, time to rally around your Woodstein."  (Wikipedia/Tim Russert Deep Throat: Fired)

Oh please.  Without knowing the details of the employee's contract, it's hard to judge whether firing was warranted, but still — the comparison is just silly.

From the New York Times: Delaying News in the Era of the Internet.

More hydrogen

There's lots of debate happening about this topic, of course.  Romm sounds convincing but I don't know enough to say whether he's correct.  I just listened to a debate about this topic on CBC Radio's Ideas: The Hydrogen Solution (it's a 3-part series, but I've only heard part 3).  David Scott argued the pro-hydrogen side and Norm Rubin argued the anti- side.  It was interesting but I came away feeling more confused (though still leaning towards anti) because both were pretty good at demolishing their opponent's arguments.  Scott did a good job of poking holes in some standard environmentalist lines against hydrogen and nuclear.  Rubin sounded at times suspiciously like a climate change denier, so I don't know how credible he is.

Hydrogen Car Hype

Joseph Romm has a good post at Technology Review debunking the current hype about hydrogen cars.  Excerpt:

Would you buy a car that costs 10 times as much as a hybrid
gasoline-electric, like the Prius? What if I told you it had half the range of the
hybrid? What if I told you most cities didn't have a single hydrogen fueling
station? Not interested yet? This should be the deal closer: what if I told you
it wouldn't have lower greenhouse-gas emissions than the hybrid?

Other than the traditional media, which is as distracted by
shiny new objects as my 16-month-old daughter, nobody should get terribly
excited when a car company rolls out its wildly impractical next-generation
hydrogen car. Too many miracles are required for it to be a marketplace winner.

Take Honda's new FCX Clarity. As the
New York Times reported
, "the
cars cost several hundred thousand dollars each to produce," although Honda's president
Takeo Fukui "said that should drop below $100,000 in less than a decade as
production volumes increase."

But why would production volumes increase for a car that
delivers no real value to the consumer and has no significant societal benefit
to motivate government support? Answer: They wouldn't, so prices may never drop
below $100,000.

And who, exactly, is going to buy a car that can't easily
find fuel? On the other hand, who is going to build tens of thousands of
fueling stations–price tag $2 million apiece or more–until the cars are
wildly successful? That is the so-called chicken-and-egg problem, which is
especially acute for hydrogen. After all, why should oil companies spend tens
of billions of dollars building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, which at
best will take away business from their tremendously profitable gasoline sales,
and at worst will be a complete business loss, assuming, as now seems likely, that
hydrogen cars never catch on?

And yet the media can't get enough of these hi-tech Edsels.

Link: The Last Car You Would Ever Buy — Literally.

Twitter Your Book

Too frazzled to sit down and write more than 140 characters at a time, but still want to write the great American novel? Quillpill may be for you. It lets you spit out your novel in tiny pieces over your cellphone.

I'm sure some creative people could make good use of this, but most of the results will probably be crap. This is not to say that novels in fragments haven't been done well before — they have, but not by people who just twittered them out (see most of David Markson's books, starting with Reader's Block, and Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines, for example).

(Via TechCrunch.)

Aging with Aubrey de Grey Event

Aubrey de Grey's Methuselah foundation is having an event in LA later this month called Aging 2008.  From the description:

Applying the new technologies of regenerative and genetic medicine, the engineering approach to aging promises to dramatically extend healthy human life within the next few decades.

How do you and your loved ones stand to benefit from the coming biomedical revolution? Are you prepared? Is society prepared?

At Aging 2008 you will engage with top scientists and advocates as they present their findings and advice, and learn what you can do to help accelerate progress towards a cure for the disease and suffering of aging.

It looks to be a fairly one-sided affair, with no ethicists or skeptics on the program, but nonetheless it's free and might be interesting if you want to hear more about what these people are up to.

You can win "VIP" entry to the event and free admission to a dinner with Aubrey et al. by going to a contest page and describing what you'd do if you lived to 150.

Tech firms fighting information overload

From today's NYT:

The onslaught of cellphone calls and e-mail and instant messages is fracturing attention spans and hurting productivity. It is a common complaint. But now the very companies that helped create the flood are trying to mop it up.

Some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google and I.B.M., are banding together to fight information overload. Last week they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers — theirs and others — cope with the digital deluge.

Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

The big chip maker Intel found in an eight-month internal study that some employees who were encouraged to limit digital interruptions said they were more productive and creative as a result.

Intel and other companies are already experimenting with solutions. Small units at some companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently, to send group messages more judiciously and to avoid letting the drumbeat of digital missives constantly shake up and reorder to-do lists.

Link: Lost in E-mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast

Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

Nicholas Carr has a great article at the Atlantic about the effects of the Internet on attention and reading and writing.  From the intro:

"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the
malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory
circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an
uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with
my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My
mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not
thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m
reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be
easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the
argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of
prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often
starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the
thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always
dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used
to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve
been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes
adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a
godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the
stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A
few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the
telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working,
I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading
and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos
and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.
(Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t
merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

Link: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

You really ought to read the whole thing ("if you can," as he says at his blog).