(cave person) Sure, me think fire is cool. But me worry about its impact on our brains.
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<a href="http://www.robcottingham.ca/cartoon/archive/this-brain-this-brain-fire/"><img src="http://www.robcottingham.ca/cartoon/wp-content/webcomic/noise-to-signal/2012.06.13.firebrains.png" width="500" height="617" alt="(cave person) Sure, me think fire is cool. But me worry about its impact on our brains." title=""></a><br><a href="http://www.robcottingham.ca/cartoon">Noise to Signal Cartoon</a>

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This is your brain. This is your brain on fire.


It isn’t easy to find the right balance between rah-rah bring-on-the-Bluetooth-brain-implants cheerleading and will nobody think of what it’s doing to the children?! fear-mongering. Certainly science doesn’t exactly offer definitive answers; Wikipedia conveniently gives you lots of evidence to support whichever position you feel like adopting.

(There’s also the argument that we’re pretty unlikely to turn away en masse from our screens, so let’s make the best of it.)

 As a parent, I can see my kids being changed by everything they do, from playing with Lego to taking hikes in the Endowment Lands to learning to read to, yes, surfing the net. And as a guy who insists that the social web is transformational, I have to be open to the likelihood that we’re being changed just as surely as institutions and organizations are. But is there anything especially surprising about the observation that change changes us? Is there something especially insidious, or necessarily bad, about change that’s digitally mediated?

I circle around questions like these pretty often, but here’s where I keep finding myself landing:

At a time when we’re facing urgent civilization-level questions around energy, climate change, food security, massive income disparity and several other issues, we’ve also developed tools that can connect us in ways that were unfeasible one generation ago; fantastical two generations ago; and barely imaginable three generations ago.

We’d be crazy not to ask how they change us, but the idea that we should reject them out of hand because, well, have you seen the way kids congregate staring at their devices? strikes me as even crazier. We have to draw on those tools, and more importantly the connections they make possible, to answer those questions together.

Maybe Nicholas Carr’s right, and it’s turning us into shallow, short-term thinkers. (Attention, people who use tl;dr the way other people use commas: you’re not helping.) I find it easier to believe that maybe there’s some good in there, too, as Dr. Gary Small suggests, and there’s some hope of using the web to improve our thinking – while we apply a little attention to make sure we remain empathetic, decent people.

Posted on June 15, 2012 at 11:19 pm in Uncategorized as part of Noise to Signal « Noise to Signal and tagged with , , , . Follow responses to this post with the comments feed. You can leave a comment or trackback from your own site.

2 Comments

Hi Rob,

just to let you know that this is one of the best comics you have published (IMO) and I keep referencing it in a lot of stuff I write on mailing lists and IRC, etc. (John’s comment is amusing too.). I recall being told that Gutenberg’s Bible was visibly of lower quality than the equivalent ones written by Monks (in a much more time-consuming manner), and its quality is now mostly unparalleled among modern printed stuff. So Hand written works → Gutenberg’s Press → Ben Franklin’s Press → Typesetting systems (TeX/Troff) → Word processors → HTML → Blogs → Twitter/Facebook/Google+ etc. I’m not saying social networks will completely displace blogs, or that captioned images (lolcats/etc.) will completely displace web comics (and Jewish scribes still write Torah books by hand, because quality cannot be high enough, and there are other cases for that.) , but they have a lower barrier for entry and so maximise the high points as well as the low points and that’s a good thing.

It may seem funny to us that the Roman Catholic Pope now has a Twitter account (and he does), but back in the middle ages, people probably thought the same about the Roman Catholic church approving of Gutenberg’s Bible, which may have seemed to many people like a negative trend and what they really hoped will be a fad. The various Internet mediums have brought change and will bring even more change, but like you said “change brings change”.

@John Erle Mundle: funny comment and so true.

Regards and thanks,

– Shlomi Fish


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