Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

28 OCTOBER, 2013

Letter to Borges: Susan Sontag on Books, Self-Transcendence, and Reading in the Age of Screens


“Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence.”

In October of 1982, 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, who at that point had been blind for nearly 30 years, gathered sixty of his closest friends and admirers at a special dinner in New York. Susan Sontag was there. Speaking to a reporter covering the event, she captured the enormity of Borges’s spirit and significance with her signature eloquent precision, saying: “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer … Very few writers of today have not learned from him or imitated him.”

Borges died four years later.

On the 10th anniversary of his death, Sontag revisited her admiration for his work and the enormity of his cultural legacy in a short and beautiful essay titled “Letter to Borges,” penned on June 13, 1996, and included in the altogether fantastic 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls: Essays (public library).

Sontag begins the letter, the proposition of which she deems not “too odd” since Borges’s literature has always been “placed under the sign of eternity,” with a sublime paean to his genius and humility:

You were very much the product of your time, your culture, and yet you knew how to transcend your time, your culture, in ways that seem quite magical. This had something to do with the openness and generosity of your attention. You were the least egocentric, the most transparent of writers, as well as the most artful. It also had something to do with a natural purity of spirit.

She considers him a wizard of time-warping and a masterful, respectful practitioner of the art of remix who brought to the inevitable borrowing of ideas a kind of integrity the opposite of Coleridge’s unapologetic plagiarism and Duke Ellington’s uncredited appropriations:

You had a sense of time that was different from other people’s. The ordinary ideas of past, present, and future seemed banal under your gaze. You liked to say that every moment of time contains the past and the future, quoting (as I remember) the poet Browning, who wrote something like “the present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past.” That, of course, was part of your modesty: your taste for finding your ideas in the ideas of other writers.

Above all, however, Sontag holds Borges as an essential antidote to the tortured-genius myth of literary success, an antidote which Ray Bradbury also embodied and Charles Bukowski championed in verse. She writes:

The serenity and the transcendence of self that you found are to me exemplary. You showed that it is not necessary to be unhappy, even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is. Somewhere you said that a writer — delicately you added: all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. (You were speaking of your blindness.)

But Sontag’s most timeless and soul-stirring meditation transcends Borges himself and extends into the magic of literature itself — a singular yet equally stirring articulation of Carl Sagan’s assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic” and E. B. White’s proclamation that reading possesses “a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.” Sontag ends the essay with a poignant and prescient reflection on just what’s at stake if we turn away from books and reduce reading to a mechanized function of transient technologies:

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic.” Of course, it means nothing less than the death of inwardness — and of the book.

Sontag signs off by tying the two — the beauty of Borges and the beauty of books — back together with her signature blend of deeply personal reflection and universally resonant insight:

Dear Borges, please understand that it gives me no satisfaction to complain. But to whom could such complaints about the fate of books— of reading itself— be better addressed than to you? (Borges, it’s ten years!) All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this twenty-first century, will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.

Complement this double dose of literary timelessness with a parallel reading of Borges on writing and Sontag on writing, then revisit Sontag’s wisdom on why lists appeal to us, literature and freedom, photography and aesthetic consumerism, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2013

“Tip-of-the-Tongue Syndrome,” Transactive Memory, and How the Internet Is Making Us Smarter


“A public library keeps no intentional secrets about its mechanisms; a search engine keeps many.”

“The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1946, decades before the internet as we know it even existed. Her fear has since been echoed again and again with every incremental advance in technology, often with simplistic arguments about the attrition of attention in the age of digital distraction. But in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (public library), Clive Thompson — one of the finest technology writers I know, with regular bylines for Wired and The New York Times — makes a powerful and rigorously thought out counterpoint. He argues that our technological tools — from search engines to status updates to sophisticated artificial intelligence that defeats the world’s best chess players — are now inextricably linked to our minds, working in tandem with them and profoundly changing the way we remember, learn, and “act upon that knowledge emotionally, intellectually, and politically,” and this is a promising rather than perilous thing.

He writes in the introduction:

These tools can make even the amateurs among us radically smarter than we’d be on our own, assuming (and this is a big assumption) we understand how they work. At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.

Page from 'Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life'

But Thompson is nothing if not a dimensional thinker with extraordinary sensitivity to the complexities of cultural phenomena. Rather than revisiting painfully familiar and trite-by-overuse notions like distraction and information overload, he examines the deeper dynamics of how these new tools are affecting the way we make sense of the world and of ourselves. Several decades after Vannevar Bush’s now-legendary meditation on how technology will impact our thinking, Thompson reaches even further into the fringes of our cultural sensibility — past the cheap techno-dystopia, past the pollyannaish techno-utopia, and into that intricate and ever-evolving intersection of technology and psychology.

One of his most fascinating and important points has to do with our outsourcing of memory — or, more specifically, our increasingly deft, search-engine-powered skills of replacing the retention of knowledge in our own brains with the on-demand access to knowledge in the collective brain of the internet. Think, for instance, of those moments when you’re trying to recall the name of a movie but only remember certain fragmentary features — the name of the lead actor, the gist of the plot, a song from the soundtrack. Thompson calls this “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome” and points out that, today, you’ll likely be able to reverse-engineer the name of the movie you don’t remember by plugging into Google what you do remember about it. Thompson contextualizes the phenomenon, which isn’t new, then asks the obvious, important question about our culturally unprecedented solutions to it:

Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.


What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?

Vannevar Bush's 'memex' -- short for 'memory index' -- a primitive vision for a personal hard drive for information storage and management. Click image for the full story.

That concern, of course, is far from unique to our age — from the invention of writing to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, new technology has always been a source of paralyzing resistance and apprehension:

Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.

Thompson reminds us of the anecdote, by now itself familiar “to the point of banality,” about Socrates and his admonition that the “technology” of writing would devastate the Greek tradition of debate and dialectic, and would render people incapable of committing anything to memory because “knowledge stored was not really knowledge at all.” He cites Socrates’s parable of the Egyptian god Theuth and how he invented writing, offering it as a gift to the king of Egypt, Thamus, who met the present with defiant indignation:

This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

That resistance endured as technology changed shape, across the Middle Ages and past Gutenberg’s revolution, but it wasn’t without counter-resistance: Those who recorded their knowledge in writing and, eventually, collected it in the form of books argued that it expanded the scope of their curiosity and the ideas they were able to ponder, whereas the mere act of rote memorization made no guarantees of deeper understanding.

Ultimately, however, Thompson points out that Socrates was both right and wrong: It’s true that, with some deliberately cultivated exceptions and neurological outliers, few thinkers today rely on pure memorization and can recite extensive passages of text from memory. But what Socrates failed to see was the extraordinary dot-connecting enabled by access to knowledge beyond what our own heads can hold — because, as Amanda Palmer poignantly put it, “we can only connect the dots that we collect,” and the outsourcing of memory has exponentially enlarged our dot-collections.

With this in mind, Thompson offers a blueprint to this newly developed system of knowledge management in which access is critical:

If you are going to read widely but often read books only once; if you going to tackle the ever-expanding universe of ideas by skimming and glancing as well as reading deeply; then you are going to rely on the semantic-memory version of gisting. By which I mean, you’ll absorb the gist of what you read but rarely retain the specifics. Later, if you want to mull over a detail, you have to be able to refind a book, a passage, a quote, an article, a concept.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, ca. 1566

This, he argues, is also how and why libraries were born — the death of the purely oral world and the proliferation of print after Gutenberg placed new demands on organizing and storing human knowledge. And yet storage and organization soon proved to be radically different things:

The Gutenberg book explosion certainly increased the number of books that libraries acquired, but librarians had no agreed-upon ways to organize them. It was left to the idiosyncrasies of each. A core job of the librarian was thus simply to find the book each patron requested, since nobody else knew where the heck the books were. This created a bottleneck in access to books, one that grew insufferable in the nineteenth century as citizens began swarming into public venues like the British Library. “Complaints about the delays in the delivery of books to readers increased,” as Matthew Battles writes in Library: An Unquiet History, “as did comments about the brusqueness of the staff.” Some patrons were so annoyed by the glacial pace of access that they simply stole books; one was even sentenced to twelve months in prison for the crime. You can understand their frustration. The slow speed was not just a physical nuisance, but a cognitive one.

The solution came in the late 19th century by way of Melville Dewey, whose decimal system imposed order by creating a taxonomy of book placement, eventually rendering librarians unnecessary — at least in their role as literal book-retrievers. They became, instead, curiosity sherpas who helped patrons decide what to read and carry out comprehensive research. In many ways, they came to resemble the editors and curators who help us navigate the internet today, framing for us what is worth attending to and why.

But Thompson argues that despite history’s predictable patterns of resistance followed by adoption and adaptation, there’s something immutably different about our own era:

The history of factual memory has been fairly predictable up until now. With each innovation, we’ve outsourced more information, then worked to make searching more efficient. Yet somehow, the Internet age feels different. Quickly pulling up [the answer to a specific esoteric question] on Google seems different from looking up a bit of trivia in an encyclopedia. It’s less like consulting a book than like asking someone a question, consulting a supersmart friend who lurks within our phones.

And therein lies the magic of the internet — that unprecedented access to humanity’s collective brain. Thompson cites the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, who first began exploring this notion of collective rather than individual knowledge in the 1980s by observing how partners in long-term relationships often divide and conquer memory tasks in sharing the household’s administrative duties:

Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory.” We’re aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we’re good at intuiting the abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you begin to realize that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. So you begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to them, treating them like a notepad or encyclopedia. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to these devices, because what we lose in accuracy we make up in speed.


Wegner called this phenomenon “transactive” memory: two heads are better than one. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter — expanding our ability to understand the world around us.

This ability to “google” one another’s memory stores, Thompson argues, is the defining feature of our evolving relationship with information — and it’s profoundly shaping our experience of knowledge:

Transactive memory helps explain how we’re evolving in a world of on-tap information.

He illustrates this by turning to the work of Betsy Sparrow, a graduate student of Wegner’s, who conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that when we know a digital tool will store information for us, we’re far less likely to commit it to memory. On the surface, this may appear like the evident and worrisome shrinkage of our mental capacity. But there’s a subtler yet enormously important layer that such techno-dystopian simplifications miss: This very outsourcing of memory requires that we learn what the machine knows — a kind of meta-knowledge that enables us to retrieve the information when we need it. And, reflecting on Sparrow’s findings, Thomspon points out that this is neither new nor negative:

We’ve been using transactive memory for millennia with other humans. In everyday life, we are only rarely isolated, and for good reason. For many thinking tasks, we’re dumber and less cognitively nimble if we’re not around other people. Not only has transactive memory not hurt us, it’s allowed us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone. It wasn’t until recently that computer memory became fast enough to be consulted on the fly, but once it did — with search engines boasting that they return results in tenths of a second — our transactive habits adapted.

Outsourcing our memory to machines rather than to other humans, in fact, offers certain advantages by pulling us into a seemingly infinite rabbit hole of indiscriminate discovery:

In some ways, machines make for better transactive memory buddies than humans. They know more, but they’re not awkward about pushing it in our faces. When you search the Web, you get your answer — but you also get much more. Consider this: If I’m trying to remember what part of Pakistan has experienced many U.S. drone strikes and I ask a colleague who follows foreign affairs, he’ll tell me “Waziristan.” But when I queried this once on the Internet, I got the Wikipedia page on “Drone attacks in Pakistan.” A chart caught my eye showing the astonishing increase of drone attacks (from 1 a year to 122 a year); then I glanced down to read a précis of studies on how Waziristan residents feel about being bombed. (One report suggested they weren’t as opposed as I’d expected, because many hated the Taliban, too.) Obviously, I was procrastinating. But I was also learning more, reinforcing my schematic understanding of Pakistan.

But algorithms, as the filter bubble has taught us, come with their own biases — most of which remain intentionally obscured from view — and this requires a whole new kind of literacy:

The real challenge of using machines for transactive memory lies in the inscrutability of their mechanics. Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work — where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. You can certainly learn how they work and develop a mental model of Google’s biases. … But search companies are for-profit firms. They guard their algorithms like crown jewels. This makes them different from previous forms of outboard memory. A public library keeps no intentional secrets about its mechanisms; a search engine keeps many. On top of this inscrutability, it’s hard to know what to trust in a world of self-publishing. To rely on networked digital knowledge, you need to look with skeptical eyes. It’s a skill that should be taught with the same urgency we devote to teaching math and writing.

Thompson’s most important point, however, has to do with how outsourcing our knowledge to digital tools actually hampers the very process of creative thought, which relies on our ability to connect existing ideas from our mental pool of resources into new combinations, or what the French polymath Henri Poincaré has famously termed “sudden illuminations.” Without a mental catalog of materials which to mull and let incubate in our fringe consciousness, our capacity for such illuminations is greatly deflated. Thompson writes:

These eureka moments are familiar to all of us; they’re why we take a shower or go for a walk when we’re stuck on a problem. But this technique works only if we’ve actually got a lot of knowledge about the problem stored in our brains through long study and focus. … You can’t come to a moment of creative insight if you haven’t got any mental fuel. You can’t be googling the info; it’s got to be inside you.

But while this is a valid concern, Thompson doubts that we’re outsourcing too many bits of knowledge and thus curtailing our creativity. He argues, instead, that we’re mostly employing this newly evolved skill to help us sift the meaningful from the meaningless, but we remain just as capable of absorbing that which truly stimulates us:

Evidence suggests that when it comes to knowledge we’re interested in — anything that truly excites us and has meaning — we don’t turn off our memory. Certainly, we outsource when the details are dull, as we now do with phone numbers. These are inherently meaningless strings of information, which offer little purchase on the mind. … It makes sense that our transactive brains would hand this stuff off to machines. But when information engages us — when we really care about a subject — the evidence suggests we don’t turn off our memory at all.

He illustrates this deep-seated psychological tendency with a famous 1979 experiment:

Scientists gave a detailed description of a fictitious half inning of baseball to two groups: one composed of avid baseball fans, the other of people who didn’t know the game well. When asked later to recall what they’d read, the baseball fans had “significantly greater” recall than the nonfans. Because the former cared deeply about baseball, they fit the details into their schema of how the game works. The nonfans had no such mental model, so the details didn’t stick. A similar study found that map experts retained far more details from a contour map than nonexperts. The more you know about a field, the more easily you can absorb facts about it.

The question, then, becomes: How do we get people interested in things beyond their existing interests? (Curiously, this has been the Brain Pickings mission since the very beginning in 2005.) Thompson considers:

In an ideal world, we’d all fit the Renaissance model — we’d be curious about everything, filled with diverse knowledge and thus absorbing all current events and culture like sponges. But this battle is age-old, because it’s ultimately not just technological. It’s cultural and moral and spiritual; “getting young people to care about the hard stuff” is a struggle that goes back centuries and requires constant societal arguments and work. It’s not that our media and technological environment don’t matter, of course. But the vintage of this problem indicates that the solution isn’t merely in the media environment either.

In the epilogue, Thompson offers his ultimate take on that solution, at once romantic and beautifully grounded in critical thinking:

Understanding how to use new tools for thought requires not just a critical eye, but curiosity and experimentation. … A tool’s most transformative uses generally take us by surprise.


How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers?

Think of harder questions.

Smarter Than You Think is excellent and necessary in its entirety, covering everything from the promise of artificial intelligence to how technology is changing our ambient awareness.

Donating = Loving

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30 AUGUST, 2013

Rare Book Feast: John Christopher Jones’s Seminal Vintage Vision for the Future of Design


Sowing the seeds of human futures, one pioneering worksheet at a time.

More than two years ago, Nate Burgos of Design Feast brought us the first installment of Rare Book Feast — an ongoing video series celebrating the timeless joy of books in the era of digital ephemera and spotlighting yesteryear’s out-of-print gems. Now, he’s back with the second installment: Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures (public library) by John Christopher Jones, the very first professor of design at Open University, originally published in 1970 — a seminal treatise exploring the process of design and its impact on countless facets of society.

From practical strategies for generating ideas, complete with worksheets, to a bigger-picture vision for areas as wide-ranging as urbanism and the relationship between people and objects, the methods Jones examines were devised or borrowed from different disciplines in response to “a world-wide dissatisfaction with traditional procedures,” seeking to offer novel insight for all those “concerned with creative behavior and with technological change” and framing design as a powerful tool for public decision-making.

Three decades later, Jones followed up with The Internet and Everyone (public library) — an even rarer gem, featuring a remarkable series of letters from the dawn of electronic communication, in which Jones evolves his thinking on human-dependent technology as he explores the strange new immediacy of information networks.

Design Methods was reprinted in 1992 and is thus still available, but at $93 for a paperback and a whopping $85 for an ebook version, which instantly renders it the most expensive Kindle book I’ve ever encountered, one has to wonder whether we need a separate category for books that aren’t quite out-of-print, but rather out-of-reach such baffling reasons as publishers pricing the unlimited resource of bits the same way that limited atoms are priced.

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You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.