Pixelated Brains and New Media

Blah Blah Blah by Louise Campbell (thanks to Elizabeth Watkins for finding the artist attribution)

In Pixelated Brains, a four-part section spanning June and July, we consider: R WE UNABL 2 THNK & COMMUNIC8 N MENINGFL WYZ NE MORE?

Edited and Produced by Karen Zarker

There’s a great deal of concerned talk, talk, talk out there about our shortening attention span, and it seems our demise (because let’s be frank – the overall tone is that whatever is happening to us is bad for the species) is all thanks to the advent of New Media. You know, all those pixel bits of blog entries, TV news quips shouting at us between blaring 30-second commercials, three-line gossipy blips under BIG PICTURES in glossy mags, proper grammar and punctuation lost to text messaging, sound bytes bouncing along the airwaves at varying decibels ... Via these methods we nibble from an array of fast foods for thought, taking from what’s presented that which we like, eschewing the rest and flitting off, or perhaps Twittering off, to the next pretty shiny thing.

Consider, too, the shortened attention span of not only the reader (recipient/viewer), but the writer (sender/artist). Is micro-blogging unleashing the true power of citizen journalism? Or is it yet another symptom of the presumed ever shrinking attention span of the populace and the accompanying inability to concentrate on one thing for too long?

We remember reading about this phenomenon somewhere … where was that …?

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson (Prometheus, June 2008)

“Is Google Making us Stoopid? What the Internet is doing to our brains” by Nicholas Carr (Atlantic, July/August 2008)

“Will Blogs Kill Writing: Why I Blog”, by Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic November 2008)

And PopMatters columnist and blogger Rob Horning is often addressing this subject, as well. And … but we’re getting distracted.


If so, is the effect the New Media is having on the homo sapien mind bad for the species? Are we going to be incapable of reading and writing complex texts in the future? Is thorough and deep understanding of complicated ideas doomed? Really?

In a four-part section spanning June and July, PopMatters essayists are divided: some think we’re doomed to an eventual brain-sucking, Borg-like existence; others think that this is yet another step in the stairs that we delightedly skip and hop upon in the playful climb that is the evolution of the species.

In 24 Tweets, Michael Dare plays humorous curmudgeon with his Twitter addiction.

In YouTube’s Budget Travel through Space & Time – Yours & Mine, Devin Harner hops aboard the YouTube time machine.

In The Power of Story in the Digital Age, Catherine Ramsdell argues that from the random bits and bytes of inter- and disconnected factoids emerges the ancient art of storytelling. The New Technology will not destroy this form communication, but rather enhance its value in modern human society.

With Ramsdell’s point of view in mind, we encourage our readers to check out Bill Wasik’s book, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, reviewed here on PopMatters. "Wasik examines nanostories and how they are spread through the viral culture of the Internet", writes Jason Buel, "The book is impeccably organized, full of sharp analysis, witty, and thoroughly entertaining and informative -- everything a cultural study ought to be. Given the quality of writing, the relevance of the subject matter and the lack of much in-depth, critical writing on the Internet's effect on culture, this may be one of the most important works of non-fiction of the digital age."

D.C. Elliott, however, believes that we are in the early stages of permanently altering the fundamental DNA of human communication. In Screaming in Digital: The New Media Generation’s Inner War, he convinces us that Twitter and Facebook force us to inject our organic humanity into the cold, artificial realm of networking technologies. "In order to do so,” Elliott writes, "our humanity – the elusive qualities that make us who we are – does not survive the conversion process from something living and organic to our digital counterparts.

Will this new form of communication leave us drifting alone in cyberspace? "On the Internet, we must continually ask ourselves what we are doing, to borrow Twitter's slogan," writes Liz Colville in her PopMatters column, Backslash, "which sounds at turns like a taunt, a greeting, and an admonishment from God.” Is Digital Technology Destroying Relationships?, she asks. Read on, and then you decide if your time online leaves you feeling like a lonely little robot.

In The Public Display of the Private Individual, Ben Medeiros argues that the Big Brother-era of paranoia that once infected society has given way to the collective need to be watched in order to be validated. It makes one wonder: If no one is remotely interested in tweeting / blogging / texting you, do you cease exist?

In Zachary Houle’s review of Hal Niedzviecki’s book, The Peep Diaries, we learn that traditional notions of privacy are falling by the wayside, and the Internet is increasingly populated by voyeurs who are in turn, exhibitionists, themselves. We will gaze unblinking at others through the lens of our electronic devices and we will stand before them, too, as if prancing before a mirror. Just don’t ask to meet over drinks.

In We Are United in our Digital Isolation, Emily Popek is simultaneously heartened – and disheartened – about the socially empowering possibilities the online world offers. The paradox of the new media, she says, is that for each face-to-face interaction we sacrifice, we open up the possibility of connecting with thousands of like-minded people … whom we will never really get to know.

In Google and the End of Wisdom, Bob Batchelor is convinced that thanks to easy access to online resources, today’s colleges are producing a generation of lazy thinkers. This is more than just an old fashioned, curmudgeonly professor demanding that people crack open a book once in a while – and actually read and comprehend it -- it’s a concern that there may be a real cultural decline in critical thinking skills that is enforced, even rewarded, by modern educational institutions.

Far from being the great liberator, computers, author David Golumbia insists in his book, The Cultural Logic of Computation, actually serve to fix us in the grid of global capitalism while concentrating power and shifting it upward to those who control the networks we are enmeshed in. In Rob Horning’s reading of this book, he notes that to remain human, we must always be able to respond to situations in a way that we could not have already anticipated.

What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasingly amounts of information? asks Lara Killian in Scratching the Surface: Your Brian on the Internet. Changes in our information seeking behavior may be the canary in the proverbial coal mine, she warns, as it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate information sources when faced with a virtual avalanche of hyperlinked text.

As digital technology consolidates its conquest of the known universe, emptying our living spaces and assimilating our lives, all that will be left in our future is space. Lots and lots of empty space. With this chilling thought, we revisit Michael Antman’s essay, The Future is an Empty Room.

Oh, geez, we’re not dead yet, nor even doomed, writes Sara Cole in her discussion of "The Iconographis” comics series: I Saw You. "I Saw You’s project further advances the argument that the internet can be a connecting force, and that rather than de-humanize, the internet has the ability to render individuals at indeed their most human: when they’re embarrassed, attracted to others, fumbling, and in love,” she assures us.

Lest we take ourselves too seriously, PopMatters columnist and humorist Glenn McDonald presents the first installment of PopShots: 15 Second Theater -- Radically distilled dramatic readings designed to accommodate the contemporary attention span. Oh, wait… on second thought, maybe we should take ourselves seriously!

Read on in this digital format -- while the power still flows through those ol’ power lines.

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