Category Archives: technology

Retreating to Study Technology’s Cognitive Impact

Five neuroscientists travelled into deepest Glen Canyon, Utah, to contemplate how technology has changes their behaviour. Some were sceptics and some were believers, and by taking this forced break from their computers and gadgets (there was no mobile phone reception or power) they were determined to find out whether or not modern technology inhibits their “deep thought” and can cause them anxiety.

This bit of self-experimentation and cognitive reflection is a bit too light on the conclusions for my liking, but this article, from The New York Times‘ Unplugged series that examines “how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave”, does have this that’s worth thinking about:

[By day three] the group has become more reflective, quieter, more focused on the surroundings. […]
The others are more relaxed too. Mr. Braver decides against coffee, bypassing his usual ritual. The next day, he neglects to put on his watch, though he cautions against reading too much into it. […]

Mr. Strayer, the believer, says the travelers are experiencing a stage of relaxation he calls “third-day syndrome.” Its symptoms may be unsurprising. But even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.

“If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

“Third-day syndrome”. I like that, and it rings true. Weekends away to nearby cities don’t do it for me in terms of disengaging and allowing free thought; I need at least four days.

One more comment that was a bit too close for comfort:

Technology has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get information and respond to it? The believers in the group say the drumbeat of incoming data has created a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s ability to focus.

Inventive Ways to Control Trolls

To keep the peace on the ever-expanding Stack Exchange Network of online communities, owners Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood introduced the timed suspension of disruptive users’ accounts. Over time the transparency of the timed suspension process proved to be occasionally inefficient when discussions arose regarding the merits of certain suspensions. This led the administrators of the communities to investigate other ways of moderating problematic users.

What they found were three fantastically devious secret ways to effectively control trolls and other abusive users on online communities: the hellban, slowban, and errorban:

A hellbanned user is invisible to all other users, but crucially, not himself. From their perspective, they are participating normally in the community but nobody ever responds to them. They can no longer disrupt the community because they are effectively a ghost. It’s a clever way of enforcing the “don’t feed the troll” rule in the community. When nothing they post ever gets a response, a hellbanned user is likely to get bored or frustrated and leave. I believe it, too; if I learned anything from reading The Great Brain as a child, it’s that the silent treatment is the cruelest punishment of them all. […]

(There is one additional form of hellbanning that I feel compelled to mention because it is particularly cruel – when hellbanned users can see only themselves and other hellbanned users. Brrr. I’m pretty sure Dante wrote a chapter about that, somewhere.)

A slowbanned user has delays forcibly introduced into every page they visit. From their perspective, your site has just gotten terribly, horribly slow. And stays that way. They can hardly disrupt the community when they’re struggling to get web pages to load. There’s also science behind this one, because per research from Google and Amazon, every page load delay directly reduces participation. Get slow enough, for long enough, and a slowbanned user is likely to seek out greener and speedier pastures elsewhere on the internet.

An errorbanned user has errors inserted at random into pages they visit. You might consider this a more severe extension of slowbanning – instead of pages loading slowly, they might not load at all, return cryptic HTTP errors, return the wrong page altogether, fail to load key dependencies like JavaScript and images and CSS, and so forth. I’m sure your devious little brains can imagine dozens of ways things could go “wrong” for an errorbanned user. This one is a bit more esoteric, but it isn’t theoretical; an existing implementation exists in the form of the Drupal Misery module.

The Demand for Product Obsolescence

Years ago (and still, for certain products) consumers decried the idea of planned product obsolescence in industrial design: the intentional engineering of products to have a limited useful life, such as with products produced with sealed-in batteries or fridges that will only function for seven years.

In recent years, however, the need for planned obsolescence has moved from the supply side to the demand side, with consumers themselves requiring that their gadgets don’t last so long that they become a burden: it’s desired functional obsolescence. Writing about the influence this has on our consumption habits, Rob Walker takes an interesting look at trends in product obsolescence and the rise of functional obsolescence as a demand-side phenomena rather than a supply-side one.

Consider that most ubiquitous gadget, the mobile phone. […] The typical American gets a new one every 18 months. […] The problem, if that’s the right word for it, is that new devices perform more functions, faster—and people, as a result, want them. […] The light-speed innovations in consumer electronics have turned many of us into serial replacers. A dealer in vintage home-entertainment equipment recently convinced me that it used to be possible to buy a top-notch stereo system that really would function admirably for decades. Imagine, by contrast, that tomorrow some company unveiled a cell phone guaranteed to last for 20 years. Who would genuinely want it? It’s not our devices that wear thin, it’s our patience with them.

The very real problem of electronic waste makes people like me hesitate to replace good-working-order possessions. Yet at the same time, we like to stay current with new technological innovations. So rather than provide evidence of some cynical corporate strategy, our gadgets’ minor malfunctions or disappointing features or unacceptably slow speeds largely provide an excuse to replace them—with a lighter laptop, a slimmer tablet, a clearer e-book reader. Obsolescence isn’t something companies are forcing on us. It’s progress, and it’s something we pretty much demand. As usual, the market gives us exactly what we want.

A Primer on Behaviour Change

Three necessary elements must be present for a behaviour to occur: Motivation, Ability, Trigger — and understanding this is fundamental to understanding how to change behaviour. That’s according to B.J. Fogg and his team at the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, as described by their Behaviour Model.

To make behaviour change easier the team identified the fifteen ways that behaviour can be changed, described each with precision, and related them to a specific “psychology”. Together this information became the Behaviour Grid:

Behaviour Grid

To use the behaviour grid and to see the detailed information and advice for each behaviour type, follow the necessary steps in the useful Behaviour Wizard tool or view the grid directly.

How to Internet: Epilogue

I’ve only scratched the surface of things that you may or may not want to do on the internet. I know that, I accept that, and I hope you don’t mind.

Two things I might have liked to address but didn’t: podcasts and Twitter. These were both kicked in preference to what I did address because they’re rather easier and better known than the topics I did write about. For 90% of podcast listeners iTunes does “podcatching” so effortlessly they didn’t know that was a word. Twitter is world-famous and pretty well understood, so my advice would mostly be superfluous.

But what I want to take a second to say is this: don’t wait for perfect understanding of something to give it a try. As Merlin Mann makes clear, the first time, perhaps times, you do something you’ll really be terrible at it. As Ze Frank said, saving up ideas with nothing but the notion that you’ll one day execute them perfectly and be greeted with immense volumes of praise and money is a sure recipe for stagnation.

The internet’s the native home for amateurs. It’s a place where 90% of the stuff is made by people who could never have convinced someone to pay them for what they built but felt a strong enough desire to that they put it out here on the web for us. The purpose of learning How to Internet is so that you can better deal with the wealth of that diversity of stuff that exists on the internet and use it to entertain, inform, and improve yourself.

The internet is a freer place than any other because of the twin engines of anonymity and low costs of entry. Surely anonymity has problems, which /b/ shows well, but it also creates scary brilliance. Imagine how unlikely someone would have been to publish LOLcats if they were risking their reputation on it.

A low barrier to entry makes it possible in a way it never was to be only constrained by your effort. This is incredibly empowering and a little scary. Never before have you been so able to rise through a rather pure meritocracy, never before have you been so unable to blame some gatekeeper for your lack of success.

Great things are afoot on the internet. Mind-bendingly great things are produced every single second of the day and put on the internet. What I hope I managed to give you this week was a competent sampling of the tools you can use to find, follow, and share those great internet things you love.

Thanks for your time and attention.