Tag Archives: education

Getting off of Social Media

The Internet

This is the fifth part of “Thinking about Thinking:” a series of posts about how our brains react to technology.

A lot of people are experimenting with escaping from technology.  In my last post, we looked at the adventure of five neuroscientists who went on a rafting trip to escape technology.

The group was studying “how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”  The New York Times chronicled their adventure in an article called Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain.

In September, Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg University of Science and Technology enacted a week-long social media blackout for all students in residence, encouraging them not to use Facebook and Twitter for that week.  The students were forbidden from using TwitterFacebook, instant messaging and any other online communication, except for e-mail, during that week.

Obviously, students could get around such bans fairly easily – going off campus was one solution – but many students said they enjoyed the freedom from social media.

In FutureThink, written by the esteemed Edie Weiner and Arnold Brown, the authors introduce the idea of a “Countertrend.”  A Countertrend is essentially a social backlash to a ubiquitous trend.

In this case, the trend is increased use of social media.  For the first time ever, internet users are spending more time on Facebook than on other sites – most notably, Google.  The countertrend: neuroscientists, students, and others are disconnecting – even if temporarily – from social media.

In this case, the trend towards more technology use will almost inevitably prevail.  For example, at the Journalism 2.0 Summit at the Urban Hive last night, reporters from television, radio, print, web, and more noted the usefulness of social media as a tool to convey news.  More and more people are turning to social media to not just connect with friends, but consume, share, and sometimes create news.

So, technology is a part of life.  So is social media.  This isn’t particularly groundbreaking.  However, there are a lot of people very interested in exploring life without it.  There will certainly still be occasions when it will be okay – even encouraged – to disconnect from technology and social media, and experience what life was like – calamity! – before the not-so-long-ago days of 100% connectivity.

Note: Before anyone says it: yes, I did post this on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  And yes, I recognize the irony.😉

Information Overload Recap

For those of you who’ve been busy, I’ve put together a quick recap and reference guide to the Information Overload series.  The series looked at how to deal with the extreme amounts of information we’re faced with on a daily basis. I wanted to put everything in one place for ease of navigation.

You  might consider this the “lite” version of the series – all of the information distilled into one place.  This post is helping you deal with information overload … right now! Continue reading

How to Deal with Too Much Information: Two Predictions

"Modern Book Printing" sculpture, commemorating Gutenberg, the inventor of the Printing Press.This is the final part of a five-part series about information overload in the age of the Internet.  This post is a modified and extended version of an essay I wrote recently.

For much of the history of humanity, we’ve been presented with increasing amounts of information.  One might say, were one a futurist, a statistician, or a singularitarian, that the rate at which we acquire information has been accelerating.  We’re getting more information more quickly.

On the blog over the past few weeks, we’ve been dealing with this idea of information overload.   Put simply, information overload is having too much information and not knowing how to process it.

At the beginning of the series, I was struggling with the idea that having too much information might have negative consequences.  This was a difficult concept to keep down.   I’ve always been of the opinion that having more information is better.  Withholding information sounds a bit too much like something out of 1984.  So what’s the solution?  How do we handle this influx of information without eliminating some of it? Continue reading

Kurzweil’s Unfortunate Irrelevance


Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil didn’t even attend his own conference this year.

And perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

Kurzweil is the futurist generally credited with forwarding the idea of the Singularity.  In conjunction with the Singularity Institute and Peter Thiel, Kurzweil founded the Singularity Summit conference in 2006 to encourage dialog about his idea.

Yet, despite his role as the father of the Singularity,  Kurzweil presented at Singularity Summit remotely.  He was vacationing in Massachusetts, which is apparently where he broadcasted from.

His talk, similarly to the one he presented at World Futures, wasn’t elucidating.  He blasted through a slide deck of exponential growth graphs, which were essentially the graphs from his 2005 book with a few extra years of data tacked on.  Suffice to say the audience reception was lukewarm.

The premise of Kurzweil’s talk was that we’ll be able to reverse engineer a brain within the next ten years.

His thesis was promptly and roundly assaulted by the media.  In an attack that very quickly turned into a public debate, PZ Myers wrote last week, “There [Kurzweil] goes again, making up nonsense and making ridiculous claims that have no relationship to reality.” Myers heatedly pointed out a number of apparent logical errors and evidence of basic misunderstandings of biology in Kurzweil’s talk.  Kurzweil answered Myers’s critiques in an open letter that essentially regurgitates the Law of Accelerating Change.  Myers crafted another scathing post in reply.

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Singularity University, at NASA Ames in Mountain View.  The university aims to “assemble, educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges.”  Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis founded the program in 2007.  Currently, Singularity U is hosting 80 students from all over the world for the annual 10-week program.  The program, which features a variety of speakers and tours, culminates at the end of this week with student project presentations.

However, according to one student at the university, Singularity U tries very hard to disassociate itself from many of Kurzweil’s ideologies.   The students at Singularity U very firmly do not call themselves Singularitarians, viewing such ardent followers of Kurzweil as rather cultish.  Singularity U students don’t focus on the blending of humans and mechanics.  Instead, they’re really only interested in exponential growth of technology.  Apparently it’s a PR nightmare trying to explain that subtle difference to the media.

While it’s clear that Kurzweil contributed to, and essentially founded, the Singularity movement, it may be that his best contributions to the field are in the past.  I think that the organizers of Singularity Summit realized that this year, which could have been one of the reasons Kurzweil did not attend live.

The Singularity movement has expanded far beyond its roots.  It’s grown past Kurzweil’s definition of it, to include an ever-increasing range of ideas, sciences, and academic fields.  While Kurzweil’s contributions have undoubtedly been substantial, it may be time to admit that the field has outgrown the founder.

Nonhuman Intelligence: Where we are and where we’re headed

Irene Pepperberg

Irene Pepperberg is an expert in animal cognition.  She works with animals, like parrots, to understand how they learn.

She covered a lot of ground in her talk, and raised a lot of very interesting questions.  For example:

  • How do we measure the value of an animal?
  • How should we interact with different animals? Sometimes they’re beasts of labor, and sometimes they’re”companions.”
  • What does the future of our relationships with animals hold?
  • What are our emotions, and reasons, behind getting into animal research?

This is a huge field of research.  It’s a complex area to tackle in such a short time.

She finished off her talk, appropriately, with the clip below from the Twilight Zone.

The Darwinian Method

When people first hear about the Singularity, they ask “Is it Science, or is it Science Fiction?”

This morning, Michael Vassar, President of the Singularity Summit, picked a very appropriate topic to kick off the Singularity Summit.  What is Science?  How is it different than math, logic, and engineering?  How does it lead to progress?  Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, sailing ships, and market prices are all rational.  However, they are not scientific.  Before science, we had math, logical argument, and engineering, but not much naive empiricism or common sense, Vassar said.

Vassar said that Science has the following characteristics:

  • Hypothesis Testing
  • Organized Literature
  • Publication Standards

Therefore, good science has an element of scholarly rigor.  Vassar went on to define the process by which Science is achieved: The Scientific Scholarly Method.  Here are the steps.

  • Identify people who learn well.
  • Teach them to notice ignorance, and to want to cure it.
  • Have them read broadly, guided by curiosity and seeking surprises.
  • Have them seek, and write about, diverse life experiences.
  • Look for convergence in what they say.

Vassar summarized the Scientific Scholarly Method like this.  It’s “when you go around, make observations, and then more or less make hypotheses independently of one another.  The fact that multiple people generate the same hypothesis is, in itself, evidence.”

When multiple people come up with the same hypothesis or conclusion, it’s evidence that we might be getting closer to finding the right answer.

Vassar touched on an important point with this method – it requires constant inquiry.  It requires rethinking assumptions.  It requires coming to the table with a new way of looking at the problem.

Edie Weiner and Arnold Brown, in their book FutureThink: How to Think Clearly in a Time of Change, say that “Even the most brilliant thinkers of every age are stuck in their mental trenches.”  Vassar concurs.  He said, “The older you get, the more you see what you expect to.”

Vassar says travel, read new books, and find new experiences.  If we try to expose ourself to new ideas and create hypotheses, together we’ll have a pretty good shot at generating scientific progress.

World Future Wrap-up: The Virtualization of America (And the World)

Michael Rogers is an author, journalist, and futurist.  He attended Stanford, where he double-majored in physics and creative writing.  After graduating, he turned down a job at Intel to write for Rolling Stone.

I always look forward to hearing journalists speak, and Rogers did not disappoint.

After a jam-packed weekend of ideas, theories, and predictions, Rogers’s talk was the perfect capstone.  He provided a snapshot of the current state of affairs in the world of technology and touched on a number of points that had been discussed throughout the weekend.  Rogers elegantly drew together many different ideas, and, without overwhelming his audience, succinctly summarized the weekend.  Here are a few of the topics he discussed and how they related to the rest of the event.

Rogers identified three main challenges going forward concerning the virtualization of the world.

  1. Creating New Laws.  This was addressed at a both the Nebulous aspects of Cloud Computing break-out session and the Space Tourism break-out session.  The main issue here is that the internet is essentially the Wild West of computing — there are no overarching governmental standards or regulations at the moment.
  2. Implementing Accountability via Real Identities. The future of anonymity on the internet was one of the topics discussed at the Pew Research Internet Evolution break-out session.
  3. Employing Taxation or a Virtual Currency.  Edie Weiner touched on the virtual currency aspect of this at the Unemployment Conundrum break-out session.  Many break-out sessions, such as the Nebulous Aspects of Cloud Computing and the Human-Computer Interface, also referenced issues surrounding virtual ownership.

Rogers ended the session with a question.  In the transition from the physical world to the virtual world, Rogers asked, what will be lost?  What aspects of the physical world will not be translatable to the virtual world?

This weekend has been a whirlwind of ideas.  Right now, they’re simmering in my head, waiting to be sorted and dissected over the next few weeks.  This weekend has been inspirational on a variety of levels, not the least of which is that it has reaffirmed my desire to return to school.  The world seems full of possibilities for the future – both global and personal – in a way that it didn’t a week ago.  Short-term, however, many posts on blog posts exploring many of these topics will follow.

While Rogers asks what we will lose in this transition, I want to leave you with a different question.  All of these ideas – technical, biological, virtual, faith-related, academic – open doors for new opportunities to explore and understand the human condition.  Yes, we may lose some things, but that always happens when technology advances.  Rather, I would like you to ask yourselves the following.

In the transition from the physical world to the virtual world, what will we learn about ourselves?  At the end of the day, what will we gain?