Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

01 APRIL, 2011

5 Questions x 8 Interesting People x SXSW 2011

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This year, we went to SXSW and decided to ask 8 of the most interesting people we know — including The New York Times’ David Carr, Behance founder Scott Belsky, and Fast Company’s Alissa Walker — 5 questions about technology, innovation and the information economy. We photographed them with their answers and used projeqt, the wonderful storytelling platform we introduced a few months ago, to share their answers.

The questions:

Go ahead and explore this visual micro-portrait of today’s tech landscape. And we’d love to hear what you — yes, you — would’ve said, so drop us a comment below if you’d like to share your 5 answers.

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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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25 MARCH, 2011

40K Books: 99-Cent Essays by Million-Dollar Authors

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Trying out the Italian cyberpunk job, or how to buy brilliance for under a dollar.

Over the last few months we’ve taken a few trips to the frontier of electronic publishing to see how various digital developers are building out the landscape. One such new settler is 40K Books, so named because its 99-cent essays and novellas take 40 minutes to just over an hour to read. The Milan, Italy-based startup has put out a series of original works in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, both from new writers and established authors and thinkers like Bruce Sterling and Paul Di Filippo. Its non-fiction selections focus on the consequences of and ways in which our “culture is going digital,” while the short fiction skews toward futurist, sci-fi topics. We were sold by 40K’s bold graphic style but stuck around for the imaginative content of the work itself. Here are three favorites from the first run of releases.

FROM WORDS TO BRAIN

MIT graduate student and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne penned the fantastic essay From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?), which uses the children’s classic “Little Red Riding Hood” to investigate the complex neural connections that take place while we read. Like the TEDBooks series, Blackburne’s piece contains big ideas in a compact, engaging, and accessible package.

For most of human history, written language didn’t even exist. Reading as a cultural invention has only been around for a few thousand years, a snap of a finger in evolutionary terms. We have not, and will not, within any of our lifetimes, evolve a genetic program for reading. Yet our brains are so adept at this skill that it become as reflexive as seeing itself.”

SELLING STORIES SUCCESSFULLY

British marketing professor Stephen Brown authored the highly entertaining piece Selling Stories Successfully, at once a manifesto for “self-promotion and shameless authorpreneurship” and an exploration of what makes for good contemporary fiction. We took assiduous notes – or rather annotated our digital text – while reading this guide for writers who want to see their work get onto shelves and screens.

You have to persuade people to buy it, both literally and metaphorically. You’ve woken up to the fact that storytelling and storyselling are two completely different things. As J.G. Ballard once ruefully observed: ‘any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.'”

BLACK SWAN

Master of cyberlit Bruce Sterling spins this enthralling tale about an Italian technology blogger, his unexpected hacker ally, and their discovery – something that threatens to revise history as we know it. We started reading Black Swan and couldn’t put down our Kindle until the last word.

I could explain now, in grueling detail, exactly what memristors are, and how different they are from any standard electronic component. Suffice to understand that, in electronic engineering, memristors did not exist. Not at all. They were technically possible – we’d known that for thirty years, since the 1980s – but nobody had ever manufactured one. A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns.”

After these action- and insight-packed reads, we’re very much looking forward to seeing what stakes 40K Books pitches next.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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