Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘social web’

26 JANUARY, 2012

Laconia: An Architecture of Thinking

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Multimedia landscape as a language pattern, or what Ezra Pound has to do with Twitter.

In LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film, Masha Tupitsyn explores the curious intersection of the print tradition of books and the micronarrative model of Twitter. The project is essentially an experiment that appropriates the forms of social media — soundbites, fragmented commentary, quotes, condensed reactions — in a work of film criticism that preserves the cultural purpose of the genre but divorces it from its traditional medium of essayistic narrative. What makes Tupitsyn’s project exceptional, however, is that it reverse-engineers the now-familiar frameworks of Twitter anthologies — unlike Tweets from Tahrir, for instance, which sought to capture of a slice of the social narrative about the Egyptian revolution by culling tweets after the fact, Tupitsyn’s approach put the intention of the book before the composition of each tweet, so that every tweet was deliberately crafted with the larger narrative in mind. Rather than a cohesive analysis of one idea at length, however, that narrative instead connects dots across diverse sources and constructs a mosaic of cultural patterns that explore the relationships between films.

LACONIA is, in essence, an architecture of thinking. It is also a book that shows its skeleton. That tackles the multi-media landscape as a language pattern rather than a material phenomenon.” ~ Masha Tupitsyn

At its heart, the book is as much about film itself as it is about how Tupitsyn thinks about film in the age of infinite connectivity and on a platform that has more in common with poetry than with prose. In Tupitsyn’s own words:

In some ways, I think I was born to write this kind of book because for me writing always starts with: a line, a phrase, a fragment. Modeled on the aphorism, while updating and tailoring it to film and pop culture, the goal in LACONIA was to zoom in rather than to zoom out, to write in close-ups, so that every word, to quote Ezra Pound, could become ‘charged with meaning.’ Like the aphorism, which according to James Geary in The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, must be ‘brief, definitive, personal, philosophical, have a twist,’ and reveal some larger truth, each tweet in LACONIA is a miniature exegesis; an appraisal of the world through film and media since our understanding of the world has become increasingly, if not entirely, shaped and mediated by both.”

In a way, LACONIA is akin to John Chris Jones’s classic, The Internet and Everyone, substituting tweets for Jones’s lengthy letters to piece together a dimensional meditation on a medium through thoughtfully engineered fragments.

Spotted via The Millions, who have a wonderful piece on the future of fragmented reading.

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19 JANUARY, 2012

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

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Why “information overload” is the wrong lens on the issue, or what sugar and fat have to do with Hollywood.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings — a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption — an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Johnson — best known for managing Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, then directing Sunlight Labs at government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation — draws a parallel between the industrialization of food, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and ushered in an obesity epidemic, and the industrialization of information, arguing that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity. Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in engineering a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.

In any democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. That’s why personal responsibility in an age of mostly free information is vital to individual and social health. If we want our communities and our democracies to thrive, we need a healthier information diet.”

(For a piece of timely irony, consider the fact that the book came out at a time when the U.S. government is considering a policy that not only attempts to regulate access to information, but does so for the purpose of force-feeding the public Hollywood’s entertainment lard.)

Johnson begins with a familiar quote from Steve Jobs:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

He builds on the analogy between food and information by arguing that just like we know we’re products of the food we eat, we must understand just how much we’re products of the information we consume — and consume accordingly. Yet the sheer amount of information available to us — 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day, expected to increase 44-fold by 2020 — is mind-boggling.

Using Google’s n-gram viewer, which searches the occurrences of a particular phrase in a corpus of English books from the past 150 years, Johnson points out that the term “information overload” became popular in the 1960s, surging 50% by 1980 and then again by 2000.

But, Johnson is careful to point out, the term itself is semantically broken:

The concept of information overload doesn’t work, however, because as much as we’d like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don’t actually die of overconsumption: we don’t see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it’s unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens.”

Johnson argues that instead of the lens of productivity and efficiency, which have become a false holy grail for our inbox-zero-obsessed culture, we should consider this through the lens with which we assess what we consume biologically: health. Because the problem is now larger than a mere matter of getting things done:

It’s a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.”

Still, Johnson cautions that we’re wired to love certain kinds of information, most notably affirmation, so we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. (Cue in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?”

Ultimately, at the heart of The Information Diet lies an urgency to not only recognize, but also act upon, something we all intuit but have a hard time enacting:

Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.

To aid in that, Johnson has provided a toolkit of helpful (mostly) free software for a healthy information diet on the book’s site, ranging from productivity apps to ad blockers to various setting hacks to make your favorite services and social web platforms more conducive to info-wellness.

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Bippolo Seed: Seven Rare Dr. Seuss Stories Brought to Light

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How eBay uncovered a buried literary treasure, or what a Massachusetts dentist has to do with vintage magazines.

It must be the season for posthumous anthologies of treats by beloved children’s authors. After Shel Silverstein’s Every Thing Thing On It comes The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories — a fantastic new collection of seven rarely seen stories written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, published in magazines between 1948 and 1959. But what’s even more remarkable than the book itself is the story of how it came to be.

In 2001, “dentist by profession and Seussologist by obsession” Charles Cohen, discovered the first of these lost stories in vintage magazines on eBay and set out to find the rest, eventually acquiring multiple copies of some. He then started listing these extra copies on eBay, noting the lost Seuss stories they contained. The listings caught the eye of Random House art director Cathy Goldsmith, who had worked on books with Seuss himself. The rest was history.

In the 50s, and in the 40s before that, this was the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway tried out stuff in short stories in magazines. And Ted was among them. This is the point at which Dr. Seuss is becoming Dr. Seuss.”

More than just a literary gem, which it certainly is, The Bippolo Seed is also a wonderful embodiment of two of today’s most beautiful phenomena: the notion that anyone with a passion and an vision can leave an imprint on culture, as Cohen did in discovering these buried treasures, and the power of a great, curious curator in bringing that vision to the forefront of culture, as Goldsmith did in discovering Cohen.

Images courtesy of Random House

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