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.