Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘futurism’

14 JULY, 2011

The Influencing Machine: A Brief Visual History of the Media

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What a statue of Saddam has to do with cognitive bias, or how to think critically about improving information.

One of the coolest and most charming book releases of this year, The Influencing Machine is a graphic novel about the media, its history, and its many maladies — think The Information meets The Medium is the Massage meets Everything Explained Through Flowcharts. Written by Brooke Gladstone, longtime host of NPR’s excellent On the Media, and illustrated by cartoonist Josh Neufeld, The Influencing Machine takes a refreshingly alternative approach to the age-old issue of why we disparage and distrust the news. And as the book quickly makes clear, it has always been thus.

Tracing the origins of modern journalism back about 2,000 years to the Mayans — “publicists” generating “some primordial P.R.” — Gladstone and Neufeld walk through our journalistic roots in the cultures of ancient Rome, Britain, and Revolutionary and early America. With this as background, the book then dives into our contemporary media condition, tracing how we got from Caesar’s Acta Diurna to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation: its corrupt or craven practitioners, its easy manipulation by the powerful, its capacity for propagating lies, its penchant for amplifying rage. Also present was everything we admire — and require — from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoking to power. Same as it ever was.”

The Influencing Machine then turns to the timely, framing in pragmatically optimistic terms the impact of the Internet not only on traditional news outlets, but on our minds themselves.

Brain studies suggest that consuming information on the Internet develops different cognitive abilities, so it’s likely we are being rewired now in response to our technology. That process doesn’t stop. It can’t stop. And even the most strident critics of the Internet cannot truly wish for it to stop, considering how far we have come since we grasped that first tool.”

Although edification was a welcome byproduct, we were thoroughly entertained by The Influencing Machine, and know it will find ardent fans among comic collectors, history buffs, and anyone with an interest in how information makes its way from the original source to our brains — and more critically, how we can make it better.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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14 JUNE, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect

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Unspoken speeches, the root of Beethoven’s misanthropy, and why we need a secretary of the future.

Last month, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional interviews with luminaries were the most-shared piece on Brain Pickings. Revisiting the book reminded me of two things: One, the world lost one of its greatest observers of and commentators on culture the day Vonnegut died; two, how fantastic the 2009 anthology Armageddon in Retrospect is — the first posthumous collection of 12 never-before-published stories by Vonnegut, including fiction, nonfiction and, perhaps most notably, his last speech, which he wrote in 2007 and was meant to deliver in April of that year, but passed away shortly prior, so his son Mark delivered it in his stead. (Segue to reminder about last week’s selection of 5 timeless graduation speeches.)

If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Vonnegut also penned the beautiful introduction to the book, in which he offers a priceless slice-of-life perspective on his father’s writing process, worries, and joys.

He taught how stories were told and taught readers how to read. His writings will continue to do that for a long time. He was and is subversive, but not the way people thought he was. He was the least wild-and-crazy guy I ever knew. No drugs. No fast cars.” ~ Mark Vonnegut

Amidst the stories of war, peace, and the human predilection for violence hides a a rare selection of Vonnegut’s artwork that articulates the iconic author’s frustrations with humanity in a simple and even more poignant way.

As usual, Vonnegut’s contemplative dismay at the state of mankind permeates the narrative:

Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

But, also as usual, it’s underpinned by an honest hope for humanity’s future, for our capacity to change and better ourselves, which makes Armageddon in Retrospect — and his work in general — as sticky and powerful as it is.

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31 MAY, 2011

E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

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What the future of personalized medicine has to do with the cross-pollination of design and engineering.

Last year, I had the pleasure of profiling the extraordinary artist Daisy Ginsberg for Wired UK. (We also shared a crazy New York adventure that involved a Russian homeless man with Cheetos in his beard and anterograde amnesia.) I called Ginsberg a “postmodern Michelangelo” — and she very much is one, working at the fascinating intersection of design and research as she explores the bleeding edge of art and science, particularly the field of synthetic biology.

Photo by Leon Csernohlavek

E.chromi is one of Ginsburg’s most notable projects — an ambitious collaboration in which she and designer James King partnered with seven Cambridge University biology undergraduates to develop a designer strain of bacteria capable of detecting and notifying you of the concentration of pollutants in water by secreting colors visible to the naked eye. The team designed standardized sequences of DNA called BioBricks, each containing genes from existing organisms capable of producing color, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.

The project won MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in 2009 and the film about it recently won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world’s first synthetic biology film festival.

Synthetic biology is promising to change the world, from sustainable fuel to tumor-killing bacteria. But personally I’m skeptical about how we should use it — just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” ~ Daisy Ginsberg

What makes E.chromi most fascinating are its diverse and tremendously valuable real-life applications, from testing groundwater for arsenic to producing natural, chemical-free colorings and dyes for food and textiles to personalized disease monitoring via custom probiotic yogurt.

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26 MAY, 2011

Follow For Now: A Time-Capsule of Contemporary Thought

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What the changing guard of design has to do with evolutionary theories of network dynamics.

Much of today’s fixation on retrofuturism and the paleofuture meme has to do with the pleasure we take in fact-checking the visions and predictions of the past against the commonly agreed upon reality of the present. And while there’s an undeniable luster to the shiny jetpack visions of yesteryear’s gadget-dreaming, what I find even more fascinating are the cultural and intellectual movements that powered these visions. In Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, Roy Christopher collects over seven years’ worth of conversations with contemporary cultural luminaries, including TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, street artist and remix culture frontman Shepard Fairey, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, Brain Pickings favorite DJ Spooky and 39 more.

The book was originally published in 2007, which makes it a rare, paradoxical and infinitely fertile cross between sort-of-contemporary cultural critique of the present and near-prophetic time-capsule of the recent past, swiftly fluttering across disciplines and ideologies to deliver a powerful cross-pollinator of modern intellectual and creative curiosity.

I love Steven Johnson, so it’s no surprise his interview is one of my favorites. Here, he captures precisely where I stand on the debate on what the internet is doing to our brains and the future of information:

Popular culture, on average, has been growing more cognitively challenging over the past thirty years, not less. Despite everything you hear about declining standards and dumbing-down, you have to do more intellectual work to make sense of today’s television or games — much less the internet — than you did a few decades ago.” ~ Steven Johnson, No Bitmaps for These Territories

The time elapsed since the book’s publication makes it particularly fascinating to reverse-engineer how the ideas in recent popular books by these thinkers originally germinated. For instance, Albert-László Barabási‘s interview presages his excellent 2010 book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do:

For many decades we believed that networks are random. Whenever we had to face a very complex system, such as people are connected by social links (society), chemicals in the cell connected by chemical reactions, webpages connected by URLs, we assumed that the links are thrown randomly around. In the last few years, we learned that this is not the case. Instead, networks hide wonderful order and are described by rather rigid evolutionary laws. These laws lead to the emergence of hubs, nodes with an extraordinary large number of links, that partly dominate real networks but they also keep them together.” ~ Albert-László Barabási, Think Networks

And as a longtime fan of Shepard Fairey‘s (whose portrait of Blondie’s Debbie Harry is my favorite piece of art that I own), I enjoyed this 2002 peek inside his creative reservoir, pre-Obama notoriety.

I like people who blur the line between fine art and graphic design. There are a lot of people who have grown up with a lot of advertising and sensory over-stimulation from video games and MTV, who are making very smart and engaging art and graphics. I don’t know what to call this movement [but] I really think the changing of the guard in the art and design world is beginning.” ~ Shepard Fairey, Giant Steps

Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.

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30 MARCH, 2011

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

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What African drum languages have to do with the future of the Internet.

The future of information is something we’re deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. That, in the context of so much more, is exactly what iconic science writer James Gleick explores in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood — a new book that may just be the book to read this year, flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes to deliver an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern “creatures of the information,” to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges’ much more dystopian take on information in the 1941 classic, “The Library of Babel,” which casts a library’s endless labyrinth of books and shelves as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Gleick concludes The Information with Borges’ classic portrait of the human condition:

We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”

For a closer look at The Information, we highly recommend Freeman Dyson’s fantastic essay, How We Know, in this month’s New York Review of Books. Publishers Weekly also just released an excellent interview with Gleick, very much worth a read as well.

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