To lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves

    Sometimes I think we’re living in the end times:

    Out for dinner with another writer, I said, "I think I've forgotten how to read."

    "Yes!" he replied, pointing his knife. "Everybody has."

    "No, really," I said. "I mean I actually can't do it any more."

    He nodded: "Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it."

    I wrote my doctoral thesis on digital literacies. There was a real sense in the 1990s that reading on screen was very different to reading on paper. We've kind of lost that sense of difference, and I think perhaps we need to regain it:

    For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, "the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse." The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we've inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

    We don't really talk about 'hypertext' any more, as it's almost the default type of text that we read. As such, reading on paper doesn't really prepare us for it:

    For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I'm not the reader I was.

    Me too. I train myself to read longer articles through mechanisms such as writing Thought Shrapnel posts and newsletters each week. But I don't read like I used to; I read for utility rather than pleasure and just for the sake of it.

    The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn't surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn't come easy and it was never "natural." Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.

    It's funny. We've such a connection with books, but for most of human history we've done without them:

    Literacy has only been common (outside the elite) since the 19th century. And it's hardly been crystallized since then. Our habits of reading could easily become antiquated. The writer Clay Shirky even suggests that we've lately been "emptily praising" Tolstoy and Proust. Those old, solitary experiences with literature were "just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access." In our online world, we can move on. And our brains – only temporarily hijacked by books – will now be hijacked by whatever comes next.

    There's several theses in all of this around fake news, the role of reading in a democracy, and how information spreads. For now, I continue to be amazed at the power of the web on the fabric of societies.

    Source: The Globe and Mail

    Why do some things go viral?

    I love internet memes and included a few in my TEDx talk a few years ago. The term ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins who coined the term in the 1970s:

    But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?
    Memes aren't things that you necessarily want to find engaging or persuasive. They're kind of parasitic on the human mind:
    Dawkins’ memes include everything from ideas, songs, and religious ideals to pottery fads. Like genes, memes mutate and evolve, competing for a limited resource—namely, our attention. Memes are, in Dawkins’ view, viruses of the mind—infectious. The successful ones grow exponentially, like a super flu. While memes are sometimes malignant (hellfire and faith, for atheist Dawkins), sometimes benign (catchy songs), and sometimes terrible for our genes (abstinence), memes do not have conscious motives. But still, he claims, memes parasitize us and drive us.
    Dawkins doesn't like the use of the word 'meme' to refer to what we see on the internet:
    According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.
    So... why should we care?
    While entertaining bored office workers seems harmless enough, there is something troubling about a multi-million dollar company using our minds as petri dishes in which to grow its ideas. I began to wonder if Dawkins was right—if the term meme is really being hijacked, rather than mindlessly evolving like bacteria. The idea of memes “forces you to recognize that we humans are not entirely the center of the universe where information is concerned—we’re vehicles and not necessarily in charge,” said James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s a humbling thing.”
    It is indeed a humbling thing, but one that a the study of Philosphy prepares you for, particularly Stoicism. Your mind is the one thing you can control, so be careful out there on the internet, reader.

    Source: Nautilus

    Privacy-based browser extensions

    I visit Product Hunt on a regular basis. While there’s plenty of examples of hyped apps and services that don’t last six months, there’s also some gems in there, especially in the Open Source section!

    There’s a Q&A part of the site where this week I unearthed a great thread about privacy-based browser extensions. The top ones were:

    The comments and shared experiences are particularly useful. Remember, the argument that you don’t need privacy because you’ve got nothing to hide is like saying you don’t need free speech because you’ve got nothing to say…

    Source: Product Hunt

    It's not advertising, it's statistical behaviour-modification

    The rest of this month’s WIRED magazine is full of its usual hubris, but the section on ‘fixing the internet’ is actually pretty good. I particularly like Jaron Lanier’s framing of the problem we’ve got with advertising supporting the online economy:

    Something has gone very wrong: it's the business model. And specifically, it's what is called advertising. We call it advertising, but that name in itself is misleading. It is really statistical behaviour-modification of the population in a stealthy way. Unlike [traditional] advertising, which works via persuasion, this business model depends on manipulating people's attention and their perceptions of choice. Every single penny Facebook makes is from doing that and 90 per cent of what Google makes is from doing that. (Only a small minority of the money that Apple, Microsoft and Amazon makes is from doing that, so this should not be taken as a complete indictment of big tech.)
    Source: WIRED

    The internet needs distributed DNS

    This article talks about hyperlinks, because that’s what mainstream audiences understand, but the issue is the internet’s Domain Name System (DNS):

    Domain Name System (DNS) servers power every hyperlink. They rapidly translate the text of a dotcom address into numbers that can then pinpoint the root server and map the precise locations of every every web page, every image, video, file -- no matter where it is worldwide.

    Good DNS services speed up web sites, balance traffic loads and protect against a wide spectrum of cyber threats. Bad DNS makes sites slow and unstable and makes it easy for criminals to change the address of links on a web page to their malware.

    Source: ZDNet

    We're still figuring out what it means for everyone to be connected

    Part of what’s happened over the last 18 months can be attributed to us just getting used to having daily interactions with people around the world. I started doing that 20+ years ago as a teenager, so it’s difficult to imagine what that must be like if you haven’t grown up with the increasing power of connectivity.

    Rick Webb points out that the view that we’d automatically be better, connected, might just be incorrect.

    We are biological organisms with thousands of years of evolution geared towards villages of 100, 150 people. What on earth made us think that in the span of a single generation, after a couple generations in cities with lots of people around us but wherein we still didn’t actually know that many people, that we could suddenly jump to a global community? If you think about it, it’s insanity. Is there any evidence our brains and hearts can handle it? Has anyone studied it at all?

    It’s quite possible that the premise is completely false. And I’m not sure we ever considered for a moment that it could be wrong.

    Source: NewCo Shift