Monthly Archives: May 2012

Sherlock, or Why Engineers Need to be Involved in the Christian Commentary on Technology

SherlockA while back, my wife and I were trolling the streaming options on Netflix, when we came across what looked to be an interesting setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. This recent BBC series is simply titled “Sherlock,” and unlike the other versions we’ve seen, which had been set in Doyle’s original context of late 19th and early 20th century England, these episodes are set in the present day. Sherlock still solves perplexing crimes with his amazing powers of deduction, but now he uses a mobile phone instead of his usual network of street-savvy children. Watson still serves as his assistant, but he now reports their adventures via a blog instead of the newspaper.

The series is really fantastic, but what I find most fascinating about it is the way in which the writers had to sift and separate which elements of the original characters and stories were truly essential, and which were merely accidental, contextual, and contingent. In other words, they had to extract and maintain what made Sherlock truly Sherlock; the rest they could then update and play with to better fit our current context. Writers are, of course, the best equipped to do this kind of thing with stories, as they have the skills and sensitivities necessary to analyze the various components and ascertain which elements must remain, and which could be different.

In a similar way, engineers are the best equipped to do this same kind of work with technology. Engineers are trained to look inside the “black box” of a given device or system and separate which features are absolutely necessary to its function, and which are the products of relatively arbitrary decisions made by the original designers. In other words, engineers are uniquely equipped to look deep inside a given technology and highlight the aspects that could be changed without sacrificing the device’s core function.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why engineers need to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology. Too often, technological critics treat the targets of their ire as black boxes, failing to separate the things that are essential to the way something works from those things that could easily be modified and reshaped. In this kind of analysis, one is often left with the impression that the entire device must be resisted if any of its present behaviors are found to be undesirable. But if those undesirable behaviors are not really essential to the way the device functions, a new possibility emerges: we can domesticate the device by altering those accidental behaviors so that they better fit with our existing social values.

Let me try to make this more concrete with an example. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that hypertext is inherently more difficult to read than traditional linear text because each hyperlink requires the extra cognitive task of deciding whether to follow the link or not (126-129). He supports this argument by citing a number of studies where researchers asked one group of students to read a story in a traditional printed form, and another group to read the same story decorated with hyperlinks that when clicked, took them to different parts of the narrative. Those who read the hyperlinked version tended to score lower on comprehension tests administered after reading, and several subjects complained that the story was hard to follow. Conclusion: hypertext is inherently distracting and harder to read.

I have a lot of sympathy for this conclusion, as I too have experienced my fair share of badly-designed hypertext that I found frustrating to read. But notice the way that Carr is treating “hypertext” as a black box. There is no discussion here of how the particular text was designed: how many links there were, whether the links took the reader to something related or helpful versus something tangential, and how the links themselves appeared and behaved on the screen. All of these things are actually quite flexible, and can be altered by the individual designer without loosing the essential feature of hypertext. In order for hypertext to be hypertext it must contains a few links, but as any web developer knows, the design of those links can make an enormous difference in how effective the text is.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, developers actually had very little control over how hyperlinks were formatted on screen. Web browsers almost universally rendered them in bright blue, heavily underlined text, which made them stand out from the other text on the page (sadly, this is also the style used by this WordPress template, and writing this post has made me realize I need to change that). This kind of styling made the links not only highly noticeable, but also visually distracting, resulting in the kind of extra cognitive load that Carr describes. But starting in the mid-1990s, browsers began to support features that enable page developers to control the visual appearance of hyperlinks, allowing one to style links in more subtle and less visually distracting ways. One can even make links look very similar, or even identical, to the surrounding text, but then become more noticeable when the reader hovers the mouse pointer over the link. This sort of styling allows readers to generally ignore the links until they decide to interact with them. Browsers also added scripting features that have further enabled developers to alter the behavior of an activated link—I’ve seen several sites that display a definition for the word clicked upon in a small floating panel in the same page, so that the reader does not navigate away and lose context.

The structure of a hypertext—how many links are used and what those links connect to—also makes a significant difference in how one experiences the content. Excessive use of links, or links that take the reader to seemingly unrelated pages, commonly lead to confusion and lack of comprehension. In the early 1990s, page designs tended to use hyperlinks like Visual Basic developers used 3D effects when they were first introduced—far too often and without consideration of whether the effect was actually improving usability or just creating unnecessary visual distraction. A more judicious use of subtly-styled links that connect to truly useful and related content would no doubt result in hypertexts that would fare better in the kinds of studies that Carr refers to.

After looking through Carr’s footnotes and doing some searching (which, I must say, would have been much easier had I been able to click on the footnote as a hyperlink, and then click on his citation to view the original paper), I found some of the studies he referred to, and as I suspected, their results were actually a bit more nuanced than what he portrays in his book. Although the stories the researchers tested were harder to read in hypertext than traditional linear form, the researchers also noted “Hypertexts that were structured to capitalize on the inherent organization of the domain (usually hierarchical structures for information content) often resulted in better comprehension, memory, and navigation” (DeStefano & LeFevre 2007, 1636). Extra markers that indicated the kind of content a given hyperlink would lead to also improved navigation and learning. Sadly, the researchers did not explore whether more visually-subtle link styles decreased distraction and improved comprehension, but one would assume that these kinds of links would require less cognitive load than highly-noticeable ones.

My point is really just this: when we critique new technologies, we need to separate between the elements that are truly essential to their functions, and those that are more accidental, contextual, and contingent. In many cases, the latter can easily be changed so that the devices fit better into our lives. Engineers are well-equipped to make these kinds of distinctions, which is why, I think, more engineers need to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology. Additionally, if we fail to make these kinds of distinctions, those who do understand these technologies will no doubt find our critiques to be short-sighted, and therefore dismissible.

If you’re an engineer and you’re now convinced that you’d like to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology, there is an excellent opportunity to do so coming up very soon: The Digital Society Conference, which will be held June 22-23 on the Seattle Pacific University campus. You can read more about our motivations in my blog post about the conference, and get more details and register on the conference web site. Hope to see you there!

Google Doodle for Bob Moog’s Birthday

Moog Google DoodleDid you see the Google Doodle for today? It’s a functional model of an analog synthesizer in honor of what would have been Bob Moog’s 78th birthday. You can adjust the oscillator, filter, and envelope settings to create a wide range of sounds. It even has a recorder attached to it so you can capture your creations and share them with others!

Over a year ago now, I wrote a couple of posts about Moog (rhymes with ‘rogue’) and his synthesizer. The first was inspired by a documentary about Moog and his work. Here is a trailer for that, in which he discusses how people reacted to the synthesizer when it was first introduced:

Moog recounts how critics at the time really didn’t know what to make of his creation. For them, “real music” came only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. These new electronic synthesizers seemed more like sophisticated noise-makers, something useful for sound-effects engineers, but hardly something that could be categorized as a “musical instrument.” Moog’s most strident critics actually accused him of “destroying music” by introducing a most “unnatural” device.

The synthesizer’s shift from “noise-maker” to “musical instrument” is captured well in Pinch and Trocco’s book Analog Days, which was the subject of my second post on Moog. These authors trace the early days of the Moog, describing how it quickly became a staple feature for psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. But in the fall of 1968, a recording was released that completely changed how people thought about what the synthesizer was, and was good for. It was called Switched on Bach, and as the title implies, it featured the works of Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on the synthesizer. The album was an instant hit, and was one of the first classical recordings to ever go platinum. That album inspired many other keyboardists to explore the potential of the synthesizer and integrate it into their creative work.

I think the history of the synthesizer is valuable for two reasons. First, it reminds us to be careful about conflating the concepts of “natural” and “traditional.” The synthesizer was certainly untraditional when it was introduced, but is was just as much an artifact, and therefore unnatural, as a violin or saxophone. And instead of destroying music, it opened up entirely new sonic possibilities that helped expand the creative potential of musicians. We need to be careful when making dire predictions about how this or that new device will destroy some aspect of our traditional culture—it may very well turn out to be quite the opposite.

Second, the synthesizer, like the iPad or the telephone, is the kind of device that requires a bit of “working out” before a culture decides what it actually is and what it’s good for. The synthesizer’s social meaning was underdetermined and somewhat flexible when it was first introduced, and the way it turned out was influenced just as much by its initial users as it was by those who designed, produced and marketed it. Early adopters often play key roles in redefining and reshaping new devices so that they better fit into the target culture.

OK, enough theorizing—now go make some music!

The Digital Society Conference

Digital Society Conference Logo

A little over a year ago, I attended a conference on technology, culture, and Christian spirituality down at Laity Lodge in Texas. That conference featured Albert Borgmann, the well-known philosopher of technology, as well as those who have found his work to be an inspiration for their own.

It was an engaging and fun conference, but my colleague Al Erisman and I returned from that trip feeling that something was missing from the discussion. Both of us felt that the practical experiences of those who design, develop, and direct technical projects were not yet integrated into the theoretical perspectives of the academics. I also felt that the insights from more recent science and technology studies could add more nuance and balance to the discussion.

In response, I started this blog, and Al started writing some pieces for his journal Ethix. We both spent some time working out our thoughts, and when we met again last fall, we decided to organize another conference, one that would continue the great work done down at Laity, but also build upon it and push the conversation forward in light of our current context.

I want to invite you to join us at this conference. We seek to gather a diverse set of people who are interested in rethinking the Christian commentary on technology for the digital era. Our aim is to start a new conversation that blends the theoretical perspectives from academia with the practical experiences of those who actively work with and on information technologies. Al, myself, and several of our speakers have worked in both arenas, and know how valuable it is to have each of these perspectives inform the other.

The conference will be held this summer, June 22-23 on the Seattle Pacific University campus (Seattle, WA, USA). We have a fantastic set of keynote speakers, the names of which regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognize:

They will be joined by several other panelists who will discuss the Christian commentary on technology thus far, how communities and individuals are flourishing (or withering) in online spaces, and how we can integrate our Christian faith with our engineering practice.

Space constraints require us to limit the size of this conference, so register early to guarantee your place!

If you know someone who would be interested in this conference, please forward this post to them, or send them a direct link to the conference web site: http://www.spu.edu/digitalsociety.

I hope to see many of you at the conference!

The Shallows (a Review)

[updated on 12 May: I was in a bit of a bad mood when I wrote the original version of this review, and I think I got a bit too snarky at points. This obviously irritated a few people (see comments below), and probably made it more difficult to understand what I was saying. I’ve updated this to remove the snark, and clarify a few things that were missing from the original review. My apologies to those who found the original irritating; hopefully this version will be less so.]

The ShallowsScattered. When I talk with friends about their lives these days, I often hear that word. They feel like there’s far too many things vying for their attention, too much information to absorb, too many things to keep track of. They wonder what happened to all that time that our labor-saving devices were supposed to reclaim for us. But more importantly, they worry about how their constant flitting from one thing to another is altering the ability to concentrate, to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. They are concerned that the manifold distractions that seem to multiply like furry tribbles are keeping them from contemplating and reflecting on what really matters most in life.

Similar concerns underlie Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr states in the introduction that over the last few years, he had noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one particular thing for any length of time. It was much harder for him to sit down and get lost in a book, or to follow an extended argument in an academic paper. Instead, he gravitated towards the short snippets of information he received via his various information technologies: emails, blog posts, web pages, tweets and the like. Although he was getting older, he suspected that the real cause of his increasingly scattered mind was those chaotic and insistent flows of information, so he set out to research what neuroscience has discovered about the ways information technologies effect our brains.

Carr’s book is essentially an attempt to put some scientific muscle behind one of Marshall McLuhan‘s most provocative statements: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios and patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (Understanding Media, 31). Carr argues that these changes in “sense ratios and patters of perception” are actually material, structural changes that occur within the brain, changes that affect the way our brains work, and the kinds of tasks we are able to do.

It turns out that our brains have a certain degree of “plasticity.” That is, our brains are constantly changing, physically reacting to the stimuli we receive, the tasks we do often, and the tools we use to do those tasks. Like water carving out a channel, neural pathways that fire often become stronger and more conductive over time, making it easier for us to leverage that part of our brain in the future. Sometimes this even causes a physical enlargement of our brain cells. For example, Carr discusses how cabbies in London have a measurably larger posterior hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for storing and manipulating spatial information.

But this plasticity can also have a “dark side,” Carr asserts. If we spend more and more time consuming small bits of disconnected information, our brains will physically restructure to optimize for that kind of thinking, and thus we will lose our ability to perform what he calls “deep reading.” Such a loss, Carr declares, will be detrimental not only to our creative engagement with the world, but also our general cultural wisdom.

Carr does an excellent job reviewing the scientific evidence for neuroplasticity, leaving little doubt that the things we use to convey information shape the physical makeup of our brains. He also stresses that these changes happen very rapidly, regardless of age or prior education/experience. He highlights a study in which the brain patterns of those who had not previously used the Internet began to resemble long-time users after just six days of exposure (121). In the afterword, he also makes it clear that generational differences, or the kind of education one has had, should make no difference:

I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young ‘Internet natives’ and old ‘Internet immigrants.’ Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid (226-7).

In many ways, we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that our brains physically change to accommodate new tools. Each new technology requires some getting used to, and over time we develop new skills and abilities that we didn’t have before. The question is, however, do these physical changes actually affect the way we think and behave? If so, do they do so deterministically? If six days of exposure to the world wide web were enough to make the study subjects’ brain patterns look like long-term users, does that mean that those subjects would now start to think and act just like those long-term users as well?

Carr seems to answer this in the affirmative, but I think this is where his book is the weakest. Although he includes a paragraph to acknowledge that technological determinism is problematic, he nevertheless argues like a determinist throughout the rest of the book. His basic premise seems to be that reading books always creates a linear, logical, focused, detached mind, while using the Internet (in any shape or form) always creates a non-linear, reactionary, distracted, tribal mind. This assertion, of course, is based on similar ones made by McLuhan and Ong, but I’ve always been rather suspicious of it. In addition to being a bit insulting to pre-literate societies and those who don’t typically read books, I think it also suffers from a lack of necessary distinctions.

Carr echoes the media studies claim that reading printed books always results in the same kind of psychological and cultural effects, regardless of the content of those books. He notes that “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same” (72). The implication is that synaptic effects result in psychological and behavioral effects as well, so he would expect that someone who reads mostly escapist fiction, or even pornography, should end up with the same sort of mind as someone who reads mostly philosophy. Carr takes this even further, however, and says that these same changes happen very quickly and regardless of age or previous education or experience. The implication is that if you stop reading printed books and only read on the web, you will quickly become a distracted, shallow thinker.

I remain unconvinced by this argument for a few reasons. First, Carr seems to be lumping a wide array of information technologies into what he calls “the Internet.” He makes no distinctions between demand-pull media (such as web pages and ftp file downloads) and instant-push media (such as SMS text messaging or Twitter); instead he just declares that all of it is designed to convey a constant, unstoppable stream of distractions. He also discusses eBook readers without making any distinctions between genre; escapist fiction might work perfectly fine as an eBook, while other genres might not.

Second, Carr also seems to be assuming that all people gain wisdom and creatively engage with the world in the same way. Recall that his argument hinges on the idea that physical changes to the brain will result in particular psychological effects, regardless of age or prior education/experience, and this, he warns, will result in a loss of cultural wisdom and a decline in creativity. But I have known many people that I would not hesitate to call ‘wise’ who no longer read books at all. Instead, their wisdom is of a different kind, and comes from a long and persistent engagement with the material world: gardening, farming, fishing, etc. To say that wisdom comes only from reading printed books seems to me to be a bit problematic.

Third, I find his claims about a loss of creativity to be a bit surreal given the explosion of creativity enabled by digital tools and social media. Yes, much of it is inane and derivative, but one must also consider the degree to which these tools have also enabled talented artists to make new kinds of work, and get that work in front of more people. One might try to argue that on the whole, average cultural creativity is declining, but I think that would require some harder data, and I don’t think Carr provided them.

Lastly, my own experience with the book also raises questions about his thesis. I’ve used a computer since 1980, have programmed them for a living for many years, and have spent quite a lot of time on the Internet. Yet I was able to sit down and read Carr’s book over the course of a few days. I followed his argument closely, engaged critically with his claims, and creatively wrote a review of it on this blog. If, as he claims, the Internet will quickly turn me into a shallow and uncreative thinker, regardless of my age or previous experience/education, how was all of this possible?

Despite these shortcomings, Carr’s book will no doubt remain an enduring fixture in the debates surrounding the Internet, mobile communications, and social networking. Those interested in the topic will no doubt want to become familiar with the book, which is very easy to do, as Carr’s writing style is easy to read and very approachable.