Technology

Scratching the Surface: Your Brain on the Internet

“Blah, Blah, Blah” (partial) by Mel Bochner

What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasing amounts of information?

Today we may marvel at the extraordinary technological advances of the digital age and how the high-tech revolution has dramatically altered our culture and our brain’s neural pathways. (Gary Small & Gigi Vorgan, iBrain, 2008)

What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasing amounts of information? When Nicholas Carr published his essay, ”Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic magazine last summer, I was deeply intrigued, as well as empathetic to Carr’s plight.

Carr postulated that reading online is a more shallow experience, in terms of the reader’s comprehension, than traditional reading in print. The more we become accustomed to clicking on links, following snippets of text, and quickly deciphering the presumed meaning behind ambiguous messages merely a few words in length (I’m looking at you, Twitter), the less information many of us retain.

Carr’s metaphors of skimming across text and the overall message in the article pointed to a suspicion that we may be unable to put this process in reverse: our brains and neural pathways may actually be changing with this new information processing behavior. We have no way of telling at this point whether the change will be permanent. We also have no way of measuring the impact this potential change may have on human productivity, creativity, or quality of life.

Some of us have grown up surrounded by all things digital, while others have joined the Internet age later in life, after already forming personal reading habits and mental patterns of information retention. But whether an individual chooses to immerse himself in digital text or merely dip in occasionally, digital information is nearly ubiquitous and we are only starting to understand the repercussions of our interactions with it.

Those who have grown up with the Internet are often referred to as ‘digital natives’, while those who came to the party later are sometimes called ‘digital immigrants’. Born in 1980, I feel my reading habits lay on the cusp between these two groups of information users, and perhaps that is why I am so interested in the concept of the changing brain. Are we being rewired, as Carr suggests?

Book: Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing the World

Author: Don Tapscott

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Publication date: 2008-10

Length: 384 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/t/tapscott-grownup-cover.jpgDon Tapscott writes in his recent book Grown Up Digital:

There are many reasons to believe that what we are seeing is the first case of a generation that is growing up with brains that are wired differently from those of the previous generation. Evidence is mounting that Net Geners process information and behave differently because they have indeed developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.

Tapscott started writing on this subject a decade ago, in his previously published Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998). In the late ‘90s it was still difficult to see the more subtle effect the constant availability of the Internet might have on the way people process information, but Tapscott presented some intriguing thoughts about the possible effect on our brains of interacting with digital text. At the very least, he recognized that young people were handling digital text differently from those who did not grow up with a mouse in hand. A decade later, more research, and a whole lot of commentary, is available on the topic.

Preliminary investigation suggests that the physical makeup of the brain of a digital native functions and develops in a different manner from that of a digital immigrant. One way to examine whether our brains are changing in the way they process information (and thus potentially physically, as certain neural pathways are reinforced and others neglected) is to look at information seeking behavior in Internet users.

Book: iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind Author: Gary Small, Gigi Vorgan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2008-10

Length: 256 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $24.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/i/ibrain-cover.jpg Early in 2008 a report was released based on a University College London (UCL) study, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, which examined how young people and school children look for information in comparison with older generations. The report was commissioned by the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) as part of the British government’s effort to understand how information literacy is changing alongside technological developments.

The UCL report concluded that the majority of online information seekers look at only a percentage of an e-book or electronic journal article’s content before moving on, usually never to return. The study also points out that young people (born after 1993) “tend to move rapidly from page to page, spending little time reading or digesting information and they have difficulty making relevant judgments about the pages they retrieve.”

Spoiled for choice when it comes to finding content online, digital natives often have difficulty evaluating the information they find, according to the UCL report. Meanwhile, Carr argued in the Atlantic article that members of all generations are coming to rely on Google to sift through mountains of digital information because it is so hard to process as an individual. Frequently, Carr proposes, we start reading one piece of text only to get distracted and move on before we finish what we started.

Skipping from textual crumb to snippet to fragment, many of us, even digital immigrants, are falling out of the habit of devoting our full attention to long sections of text, let alone full-length books. And the generation the UCL study focuses on may have never needed or wanted to train their mental faculties on the task of processing lengthy swaths of text.

It’s possible that the more we reinforce the new pathways formed in our brains by spending ever-increasing amounts of time online, albeit while decreasing our actual engagement with text, the more other areas of the brain become weakened (Small, iBrain, 2008). It’s worth reflecting on how the human brain has evolved to develop the ability to read at all, before pondering the direction our brains may be headed, as exposure to digital text continues.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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