The Internet and Our Minds


Spark recently featured a great interview with Nicolas Carr, which discuses his new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr is well known for his 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, which examined the impact of Google, hyperlinks, and the internet in general, on how we process information.

Carr’s new book continues to discuss the changes to how we process information. He argues that the changes in our methods of processing information, is in part due to neurophysiology. Our brains automatically strengthen the habits which we frequently use, while less commonly used processes are forgotten or weakened. Thus, given the onslaught continuous of information, it is hardly surprising that our ability to concentrate on a single item at a time has decreased.

Additionally, Carr also highlights the rise of the ‘real-time web’ and our growing craving for immediacy and new information. We crave new information, regardless of how trivial it is. How many times have you glanced at a twitter API or your RSS feed while doing other work? The information your receiving via twitter usually isn’t life altering, but it is new and that’s something which humans tend to be drawn to.

The real-time web environment has also contributed to the mentality that unless we see and use information immediately, it is no longer relevant or useful. There is so much information out there, that older information is often discarded as useless. Information has become like a child’s toy. The toy is great when it’s brand new and shinny, but it’s quickly forgotten when another new toy is discovered. The historian in me cringes at this thought, the newness of information is should not determine its validity. Validity should be based upon the quality and the source of the information.

Despite this, I admit to being a bit of an information addict. I feel out of sync with the world if I haven’t checked my RSS feed or TweetDeck. Sometimes the appeal of the new is just too hard to resist. Is this information addiction a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure. I’m still able to sit down and give my undivided attention to a book. However, if I want to accomplish anything using a computer disconnecting from the internet does marvels for my productivity. Perhaps this multitasking mode of thinking isn’t better or worse than how our minds use to think, just different or evolved.

Mishaps in a Machine Readable World

The Canadian history magazine The Beaver recently announced that the publication is changing its name. This name change is based in the desire to be more accessible to the online community. Currently the magazine’s title is often caught in spam filters due to the title’s possible sexual connotation. This name change is just one of the many examples of the importance of naming with machines in mind.

One of my personal favorite examples of names in a machine readable world is the band Live. Googling ‘live’ or ‘live+band’ in an attempt to find more than a Wikipedia entry on the band is an exercise in futility. On the other hand, such a common name makes it difficult to download the bands music. Depending which side you’re on, the inability to easily download their music could be considered a great thing or a horrible thing.

Both of these examples highlight the importance of naming schemes being machine readable. Names can no longer merely be catchy, they need to also be searchable. I’m just waiting until children’s names are picked with machines in mind….

Infomation Junkie and RSS Readers

I will openly admit that I am a bit of an information junkie. Twitter sustains my information addition to a degree. But, I find if I am off-line for any amount of time it’s easy to miss complete conversations or ideas. As a result I have a bit of an addition to RSS feeds. They allow me to catch up with all the blogs and sites I follow at my convenience, instead of at the demanding pace of Twitter.

I have been using Bloglines as my RSS reader for ages. Some long built up frustration with bloglines has resulted in me switching over to Google Reader. Below is some of my thoughts on the pros/cons of each particular RSS reader.

Bloglines:
One of my main frustrations with Bloglines is that often it does not update promptly.
-Bloglines has a very uncluttered and easy to read user interface, which is simple to navigate.
-Bloglines displays the number of followers to each RSS feed in plain sight. To see this number in Google Reader you have to access the additional details.
-Bloglines has the option of viewing merely titles, summaries, or full entries.

Google Reader:
Unsurprisingly, the search and recommended feeds feature on Google Reader is far superior to the search function on Bloglines.
-Initially I found Google Reader a bit flashy. There are many more additional features on Google Reader which have the potential to be useful, but also clutter the interface a bit.
-The trends feature in Reader allows you to see what in the past month you have read, starred, noted etc. Which is kind of a neat feature.
-I think my current favorite feature of Google Reader is the homepage. Bloglines homepage was not overly interactive or useful. Reader’s homepage lists the newest ‘stories’, highlights anything recently starred, and show recently read items.

Similarities:
Both allow you to use keyboard shortcuts to mark feeds as read, and perform other basic tasks when reading and organizing your RSS feed.
-Both readers have share/like/star options. They vary slightly in their names and display qualities, but essentially serve the same purpose.

Both services do what they are expected to do, and collect feeds in spot neatly. I found the major difference between Bloglines and Google Reader to be Google’s inclusion of many supplemental features not available in Bloglines. The improved search feature in Google Reader is also a huge bonus. I’m going to attempt to avoid the temptation of using the familiar Bloglines, and stick with Google Reader for at least awhile longer.

More Connected by the Minute.

I came across yet another neat social networking tool that has the potential to be used in the academic world. FriendFeed allows you to connect to a variety of people, and condenses all the various multimedia tools people use into a single feed. It essentially creates individual user feeds which can contain almost anything. Some common items included are: blogs, twitter postings, amazon favorites, flickr accounts, facebook postings, youtube videos etc. Users can then subscribe to groups or other users based on their interests. So far the best way I can describe the site is to say that it is something like a glorified RRS feed with a community attatched to it.

In addition to the RRS feed type component of FriendFeed, the site is easily searchable, provides possible ‘friend’ recommendations, allows you to keep track of other sites which are not linked up to FriendFeed and lets users select their level of privacy. The site could easily be used by academic users who are attempting to keep on top of various times of media which is relevant to their work. My only qualm thus far is that because there is such a wide range of features on the site it does take a little bit of time to attempt to understand how everything works and connects.