The effects of new technology on our minds and culture

This is the background research for a project I am working on this winter. I have asked several friends and family to document their lives for 8 days. Essentially, the goal is to determine if their thoughts are affected by their technology or if they realize the effects of their technology on their thoughts. This is an age-old question starting back in the days of Plato and the invention of texts. I will be publishing more of my “findings” however unscientific, in the coming weeks.

Artist Statement

I will design an experiment centered around the influence of constant digital and analog (real-life) communication on thoughts, behavior, and language.

Research

In Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, character Lord Henry Wotton tells character Dorian Gray, “Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passion. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sin, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him” (p. 16). It is this idea of influence that I am pondering within my experiment in which I examine the effect of constant digital and analog (real-life) communication on thoughts, behavior and language.

The idea of consciousness and self-identity have been long been an issue of anxiety for artists of all types. In fact, Harold Bloom, an academic of writing and theory with an almost obsessive focus on the distinctions between tradition and innovation, cited this very struggle in letters by poets such as, Wallace Stevens. Bloom’s essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” describes the poet’s desperate need to differentiate himself from predecessors and contemporaries. The only way to do this, Bloom states, is through the denial of all influence and a misunderstanding of his actual sources. In other words, a self-creation based on an internal spring of inspiration that is untainted by outside forces. Bloom’s view is that we are inevitably influenced by our readings, but in order to create new art we must rid ourselves of past influence. However, the hyper-self-aware process of this cleansing is actually detrimental to our creations over time.

In 1962, Marshall McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. This publication studied the effect of media on the cognitive process as well as a broader influence on culture, proposing that any new communication technology such as an alphabet, book, or electronic medium that is able to affect our social world, will then alter the makeup of our culture. He writes “[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.”

Essentially, this is a study of the distribution of information and how the availability of that information affects our behavior and thoughts as a society and leads to the creation of what he calls the “global village.” He predicted the influence of the electronic media would lead us to a state where, “Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.”

Author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr, takes McLuhan’s affirms McLuhan’s projections in his article “Is Google Making us Stupid” through antidotes from various academics who profess to no longer be able to focus on longer texts. He proposes “Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self.”

Carr brings up the influence of context as well suggesting that reading on a screen will create a different set of patterns within our brains than reading from a printed text, “We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.” Carr also mentions the self-fulfilling effect of these newly woven circuits, “The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.”

John Lehrer, in his article “Our Cluttered Minds,” which is a review of Carr’s book, he states “One of Carr’s most convincing pieces of evidence comes from a 2008 study that reviewed 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005. While the digitization of journals made it far easier to find this information, it also coincided with a narrowing of citations, with scholars citing fewer previous articles and focusing more heavily on recent publications. Why is it that in a world in which everything is available we all end up reading the same thing?”

This concern is not unique to Lehrer, in fact the “filter bubble” has become a point of interest and alarm for author of “The Filter Bubble” and TED speaker, Eli Pariser. He worries that the personalized search intended to provide us information more relevant and useful to the user may actually be narrowing our worldview. Pariser examines how the actions we take while on the Internet determine the unique Internet experience that is created for us in the future. The point being, what we read today, will impact what we read tomorrow. Beyond that, there are, at the time of the talk, 57 pieces of information that Google is using to tailor your search results, even from the first search on your very new computer.  He warns the audience that, “your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”

There was no research or theories regarding the argument that the Internet was not affecting the way we think or form language that I could uncover. It seems that every generation has a technology that the culture believes changes them. For Plato it was the written word, later it was the printing press, then the radio, and then the television. Overall, the theories are often associated with fear or anxiety surrounding the impact of the new technology. The effects are assumed to be negative on the mind and the culture. However, looking back, it is clear that the technologies developed up to this time have actually benefited culture and the mind overall. I searched for anything that took the point of view that this was just another disruption that causes unease but turns out to be beneficial, but I was unable to find this.

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Bloom, H. (1973). The anxiety of influence: A theory of poetry. US: Oxford University Press.

Carr, N. (2008, 07 01). Is Google making us stupid. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/

Lehrer, J. (2008, 06 03). Our cluttered minds. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Lehrer-t.html

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Pariser, E. (Performer) (2011). Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

Wilde, O. (1890). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.

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I Must Have Pens And I Must Have Zen

Recently, we read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit which included a section on an exercise she refers to as “scratching.” Essentially, this is the time when your creativity has stopped and despite your dedication to practice, you are stuck. Writers call this “writer’s block.”

I decided to analyze the way I perform my version of a Scratching Exercise based on my preparation for a final project I have due in a little over a month. This is what I determined, ultimately, I have the heart and mind of an English major.

The strategy I generally take when trying to generate some form of creativity is less full of action and more of methodical thinking. This is something that I have been doing for a very long time, although I never had a name to put to it. Basically, these are the steps. First, understand the problem. What am I trying to figure out? What is the real question? This could involve reading the assignment and studying the key elements or it could be considering a challenge I have in work. Second, I let the idea bounce around in my head for a while. This could be hours or it could be days depending on the amount of time I have to get to the answer. Third, I sit down somewhere and I think of all the possible components of the answer and I write them down in a list. Often, only a few of the items on the list actually go into the final answer but it is important to examine all aspects in order to get an idea of what the issue and possible solutions are. Fourth, I research. Research is a loose term. It could be sitting, staring at the wall and allowing my thoughts to travel down one string of ideas to a conclusion, then traveling down another and another until I come to the realization of what I must do. Or, research could mean going to a book and reading something that seems related. I could do this on the internet as well by searching for information on one of those items on the list I wrote down. Eventually, I gather a lot of information during the research stage. Fifth, I look over the research I have gathered and I try to arrange it in a logical manner. This could be chronological, cause and effect, or some other way based on the issue. Sixth, I write. I don’t consider what I am writing too deeply beyond the fact that it takes in all that I have generated up to this moment. At the very end, I will review and edit out what no longer fits or add in what I now realize I am missing. Basically, the scratching exercise is methodical, like Tharp suggests about being creative. But even so, this is just the beginning of the creative process or something that I do to generate more ideas. Now, with this information, I have my blank canvas to express my art. In the picture below, you can see the aftermath of a scratching exercise. Notes throughout, books, computer, iPad, too many pens, and some zen. I must have pens and I must have zen.

Aftermath of a Scratching Exercise

Aftermath of a Scratching Exercise

Leading Through Change

I have been thinking a lot about leading through change, especially about how, even though I am not a leader by title, I can still be a leader by example. My work is currently going through some changes. They are all good and I am excited to see where they take us. But they are hard, because change is hard, on everyone. Even something as simple as rearranging the furniture and changing desks can trigger something in people that makes them forget why they come to work every day.
The other interesting piece is talking with customers as they adjust to changes in their relationship with the company. We recently made two major announcements, one that had a generally positive effect on people, even though they felt it was negative, and a second which either positively affected a member or had a significant negative affect on them. Ultimately, both changes were necessary for our company to maintain sustainability and be able to offer even greater benefit down the road. But change is hard, especially when it comes in the form of less dollars in a pocket. Part of my job is to assist my CEO with answering the barrage of questions he gets when announcements are made. I write in his voice, he approves, edits and the messages are sent to our members. Suddenly, I am acting the leader and am leading through change.
This is what I have learned from assisting my CEO in this way.
  • Start with empathy and understanding.
  • Provide them an avenue to express their concerns.
  • Let the team know you are listening to what they have to say.
  • Give reply to their concerns with heartfelt sincerity and as much transparency as is possible.
  • Make changes to your change when necessary and where possible.
  • Reassure them by providing extra resources to aid in their understanding of why the change is necessary.
  • And finally, you will not be able to please everyone. You will lose members of your customer base, you may lose members of your team.
  • Keep your sights on the vision and what is best for the company. Do not allow the negative to bring you down or second guess your capability.
Reading John Maeda’s book and then reading the articles and learning about the vote of no confidence and talking in class, brought a lot of this into perspective. It is hard to say if he was a success or not at his school, despite the number one ranking. Ultimately, we do the best we can through change and with each failure we must pick ourselves up, see what we’ve learned and try again. A good leader will get it right most of the time.

“The Scared is scared”

I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to write about tonight because there is so much. I just finished reading “Redesigning Leadership” by John Maeda, it felt honest, unassuming, forgiving and kind to read. There are a lot of leadership books where ego gets in the way of the lesson; they feel like a “you’re doing it wrong” read. Just from this 80-ish page book, I have five items I want to work on personally in my professional life.

The first is less emoticons in emails. I’m not over the top but I tend to default to them, either to indicate a literal smile or to soften a disagreement. It is like I am yelling, “I am still on your side! I still support you! (But this is wrong and here is my idea.” That doesn’t make sense. People know who I am; I do not need to reassure them of anything.

The second is no arm crossing in meetings. I’m aware of this as it is and try to smile to counteract the arm crossing. It is just more comfortable, but I’ll figure something else out.

The next is related, be a “wannabe.” We all have meetings we don’t want to go to. But I love my job, so I wannabe there. Show it.

Similarly, be open-minded. I get protective of my projects, but different perspectives make them better.

And finally, remember “intention at the beginning matters.” If I intend to improve all these things because I want to be a better co-worker, employee, leader, etc. people will see that and I will get there.

I also want to say that Bianca Giaever’s video was a timely reminder to use my overactive imagination to imagine away the scared and focus on the positive. Who doesn’t need that?

the Scared is scared from Bianca Giaever on Vimeo.

This is not art for art’s sake anymore

Photo: The art of Frank Wright

Icarus: The art of Frank Wright

Andy Fife is the Director of Shunpike and an Independent Consultant for Art Strategy and Innovation according to his LinkedIn profile. From reading the title alone, you may not fully understand the philosophical depth of Fife’s work and the impact he has made through successful integration of this philosophy.

I was able to hear Fife talk on Saturday at the University of Washington and was thrilled to gain a deeper understanding of his perspective on art and strategy as well as learn more about what his title really means.

From my understanding, Fife believes that the integration of art is intrinsic and absolutely necessary for a project’s ultimate success. Without it we will miss something valuable. In his philosophy “art is the how not just the why.”

This means we use the culture we already have around us to inform our decisions on business, health care, or transportation. We need to do this because people are making art every day in their homes, in their work, in their communities. It is on a small scale, not an opera house or a theatre, but in parlors, offices and public parks.

With this in mind, Fife believes “we can create something together and you do not have to have all the answers in order to create something beautiful.” The art is part of the process and the process illuminates the culture and the decisions that must be made.

Fife’s talk paralleled the thoughts within Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception. Godin proposes the idea that everyone is an artist and that it is our responsibility to ourselves as well as our society to break free from the comfort zone we have been taught in order to create art. This art isn’t something that hangs on the wall, Godin clarifies, it is something that stretches us beyond where we currently stand in order to impact an audience we are trying to reach. Ignore the crowds, Godin says, the crowds are always wrong.

Fife’s work is along these lines. He is creating his art by weaving art into questions generally unassociated with art. It is not art for art’s sake, it is art for a reason. Godin’s art has purpose too. Godin specifies, if your art is not connecting with your audience, you have failed. If you have created art and it is never published, you have failed. For both, art is for change. And for both, art is within every person. There is no scarcity of art in our communities. We just need to harness it and make an impact!

The Need to Create Outside of the Safe Zone

@Maggiebrookes Instagram

@Maggiebrookes Instagram

One of my favorite quotes from The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin is “You have no idea what you’re doing. If you did, you’d be an expert, not an artist.” I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur when I was in business school. I saw those people and thought that isn’t me. Reading the interview with Jeff Fluhr, I am reinforced with the idea, that I am not that person. I do not take risks that throw me off the plan – high school, college, job, graduate school, better job. The plan is my safe zone.

But Godin challenges that significantly and inspires the potential for change. The quote from the beginning reminds me that I do not have to have all the answers in order to put my best into something and to create art. And that it is the creation of art that will make me, my company and the stakeholders successful. It is a reminder that there is more to business strategy and to creation than the standard step-by-step process. Being an expert in a field can only get me so far. I can know everything there is to know about content strategy, but if I use the same formulaic strategy as everyone else, I will accomplish nothing. I need to step outside of the safe zone into the artist’s realm and learn to create something from nothing.

Addendum to My Terms of Engagement.

As my first class in a graduate program came to an end, I looked back over everything that had been discussed, considered, and studied over the last few months. There were many moments that opened my eyes to a concept I had never considered or perspective I couldn’t imagine on my own. I am deeply thankful for these moments. Most of them came within the first few classes when Brent or Hanson were presenting. But the very first came as a note on my original terms of engagement submission.

“My advice to you on that front is to actually change your perspective somewhat: given the incredible pervasiveness of digital in our lives, it actually is “real.” Perhaps you may want to consider framing it as, say, online vs. face-to-face? To me, both matter greatly in the art of persuasion.” Hanson

This seems like an obvious fact. Growing up with technology at my fingertips my whole life, why do I still tend to think of the digital world as a different platform? Maybe it comes from working with members of an older generation or maybe it is because I am still amazed how fast we are moving. Or maybe it is just that they still are separated from each other. We spend a lot of time immersed within the digital world, but we can disconnect. We may Tweet a lot, but we have to get in the habit of remembering to Tweet. Five or ten years ago, it would not be a thought to send a Tweet regarding a disaster that is happening in front of our eyes, and for some it still would not be. But there are a growing number of people who do think this way now and are never truly unplugged. Their habits and thought patterns revert back to social digital sharing.

I am going back and forth on this issue. My conclusion is that the digital world may still be separate from our life but the gap is shrinking every day and with every new smartphone owner and new social media account created. If we want to be forward thinking, we need to consider this change in everything we do and with every marketing and communications decision we make. This is the world now. Online is IRL.