Archive for July 2008

Happy Birthday, Marshall McLuhan

July 21, 2008

July 21. It would be great to have you back with us again. I’d love to know what you would say of the Google dialogues we’re having on Transformation.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, C.C. (July 21, 1911December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar — a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communications theorist. McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions “the medium is the message” and the “global village.”

Last year on his birthday, a group of us got together in Toronto to celebrate and marched a local parade to the Coach House. We watched a little-known video of McLuhan speaking at a Ryerson College conference, I believe interviewed by a Professor Gillies. He was talking about the need for and design of the University of Canada North, (which then did not happen.) This year, a friend reminded me he had just seen a blurb in the paper.

And who out there, other than McLuhan scholars, is using the Tetrad for media analysis?

Cognitive impacts of Google’s info hegemony

July 19, 2008

Referring to the prior post, the title was meant to provoke and reprieve the Atlantic article thesis. As with many technological aids to cognitive augmentation, the answer is “both” dumber and smarter.

Perhaps we are all still only in the first few years of a new media behavior, and like “boiling frogs” we cannot see the effects on ourselves yet.  Surprisingly, there are no in-depth research studies on Google-think. As somone who’s researched and observed information behavior in the search and research domains for over 10 years, I want to consider longitudinal aspects, not just whether Google makes us “feel” smarter or dumber.

I have researchable concerns over the universal casual acceptance of Google’s information hegemony.  We are smarter in some ways, for sure – but I have also sensed a rapid dismissal of Carr’s (Atlantic article) thesis, as if it were obvious he’s just making a fuss. There may be ways – ways in which we don’t have easy access to awareness – that continual Google use makes us dumber.

How do we know what behaviors will be obviated by growing up with a ubiquitous search appliance whose evolution of relevancy reflects popular choices? (Over time, anything popular reverts to the mean, which is not exactly “smart.”) PageRank bases relevancy on (among other things) having the highest number (and weighting) of citing pages to the given page. It displays (by default) only 10 items on the results, and overwhelmingly people select the top hit in a search. While Google is powerful, the results display is not as helpful for browsing as – for example – the clustered responses of Clusty, or search enginers like Scirus being used in science research.

It rides our cultural proclivity toward instant gratification – we get a sufficient response VERY quickly, making a compelling argument to rapidly explore the top hit. How often do we pursue the hits on page 3 or further? Do we know what knowledge we are avoiding in our haste? Why do we think the most-referred to pages are the most “relevant” to our real needs? This “instant good enough” may lead us to demand that value of other types of services and supposed knowledge.

Kids may then demand this type of easy, superficial access from their teachers. A quick relevant story: The  teacher I probably learned the most from in all my years of formal education was Dave Biers, graduate psychology research methods and stats. Rather than laser print his worksheets clearly, he insisted on using old blurred, photocopied mimeo. The formulas were barely readable – so you HAD to pay attention in class, where everything was explained and scrawled on the board. This made you attend class, and attend in class. If you didn’t understand, you couldn’t act as if you did. Illegibility was a deliberate learning device.

In a 2005 article in Cognition, Technology and Work I reported on a study at Univ of Toronto on information practices in scientific research. I reported on the trend of grad students using Google and PubMed instead of the expensive, dedicated research tools often used more by their faculty, such as SciFinder, Medline, Web of Science. The earlier use of the more “opaque” search interfaces, now being obsoleted, had at one time trained a generation to think about the terms used in the domain of their research.Opacity is helpful when it reveals opportunities for further learning that you would miss if in a hurry.

This may have also enabled serendipity.Discoveries in science often happen by analogy and serendipitous relationships. Google’s ruthlessly immediacy and transparency of the “top” answers bypasses some of these learning and suggestion opportunities. Even Google Scholar hides a lot more than it shows. How do we actually “slow down” the process of info foraging so that we can find patterns in a problem domain and not just assume the top hits are best?

Now consider the McLuhan tetrad model of the replacement of an older media by a newer regime. The tetrad is a model for thinking through trends and impacts of media transformation. It is also a helpful way to map out the impacts of a new media and to make predictions of its future directions.

So using the tetrad  on Google we get:

  • What does the medium enhance?  Information foraging – finding many sufficient, alternative responses to a given question that can be described in simple keywords. Google amplifies our temporal effectiveness – it gives us the ability to respond quickly in time to almost any information need. It enhances our ability to communicate, by giving us access to other people’s points of view for a given topic of interest. It augments our (already-weakened by infoload) memories by allowing us to neglect exact dates, names, references until the point of need.
  • What does the medium make obsolete? Published encyclopedias, and many types of indexes. It obviates the memorizing of factual details, which can now be retrieved quickly when needed. (Exact retrieval is not a typical competency of human cognition). It reduces the importance of directories, compiled resources, catalogs, list services, even editorial compilations such as newspapers.
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? Do we know yet? It may return the ability to create context across domains of learning. It may enable multi-dimensional thinking, that was more common in the 18th and 19th centuries than today. Recent re-readings of Emerson and Thoreau have left me astonished at the breadth of lifeworld of authors of that time. They had a Renaissance-person grasp of culture, news, politics, geography, literature, scientific developments, and the intellectual arguments of their time. Our culture lost much of this in the specialized education created to satisfy the demands of industrialization. I have hope that searching may lead to a broader awareness and access to the multitude of meaningful references that can be positioned into waiting dendrites in our pre-understanding of things.
  • What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes? Google is flipping into itself. Google has already flipped into the world online library (Print and Books), it has flipped into the world online geosearch (Earth) and navigation (Maps). Images. News. Video. These are not just object types – these are new media with new possibilities. What’s next? Immersive broadband imagery by your preferred channel of perception.

What it does not help us with is version control. I had to rewrite the tetrad from memory after (apparently) clearing the WordPress editor somehow and clicking Save. Then finding the editor empty – why isn’t there yet a Google Undo?

Feeling dumber? Maybe it’s just Google-think.

July 13, 2008

Maybe it’s in the secret sauce?  In the last month, I’ve heard several commentaries on the notion that sustained use of Google is affecting our thinking processes. As if Google were the “bad television” of the 21st century, the meme apparently suggesting overuse of Google searching is dumbing us down because of our passive/receptive way of literally consuming information.

The Atlantic’s recent article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (July/August issue) is the most immediate and critical reading for interested information seekers. Google, Nicholas Carr suggests, has perhaps caused a permanent alteration of our information and reading behaviors, not just searching, but browsing, reading texts, researching, and sensemaking. We (many of us) now skim the surface, jump around from link to link, and cannot attend to an entire article online, let alone an entire book offline (remember, they are still available in printed form). He cites a few examples of Very Smart Persons exhibiting these symptoms. Perhaps he’s right.

My wife Patricia, being an artist, was on the leading edge of this wave. She was concerned that Google was interfering with her imagination, which is the source and font of all wonder for the creative life. She was searching Google in her dreams. And she reports that she finds herself doing similar behaviors, of relentless surfing and wandering the Net, losing total track of time. But she insists its a positive modification of mental life, if it is indeed permanent (she says “it’s the network, you’re able to see all the interconnections of things you never could before, you learn what’s behind everything.”) Something like, that anyway. Maybe she’s right – a couple of years ago she was on about Tristram Shandy being the first hypertext novel, and how that really heralded post-modern thinking. So maybe people were trying to think like Google makes us way back in 1759.

And just recently at the ELPUB conference in Toronto, in an offline conversation, John Senders (what, no Wikipedia article?), one of the founders of the field of human factors (from at least 1942), was observing basically the same thing (the “television is bad for you part”) about Google.  His observation was in effect that Google was changing the way children were learning and interacting with knowledge. Rather than trial and error, observation, finding out for themselves, etc., young children would (and do) just search and rely on whatever they locate online. His main concern was for the eventual (or even current) dumbing down of the future generations as they developed intellectually though their chief years of learning by relying on the common information appliance. He wanted to pursue the issue as a social science experiment, which is a good idea. Maybe John is right as well.

Carr’s article cites Larry Page’s statement to the effect that Google is creating a type of Internet AI, that we are all smarter when we tap into the world’s published information whenever we have a question or problem. I cite Carr’s concern that follows, that perhaps “easy access” is not the highest human or social value associated with information seeking.

“Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”… Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

Carr also cites the UK’s JISC/CIBER program, a 5 year + study on online information behavior in UK education and society. I also found this provocative publication just in time to cite and interpret for the current Redesign Research study of eBooks user experience at the University of Toronto Libraries. CIBER essentially suggests the Google Generation is trending toward a style of thinking and working characterized by endless skimming, jumping around, and scavenging rather than thinking for oneself.

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Maybe they are right as well. What do you think? Are we becoming Borg’d? Do you feel your link to the Matrix yet? Have you read a NOVEL lately? I will post my responses (agreements, disagreements, expansions) in a later post.