Archive for October, 2007

Remembering in Public

I was listening to the second chapter of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, and the authors quote the creator of the social bookmarking site del.icio.us Joshua Schacter as explaining that he created this site “as a way to keep track of all the things he was thinking about posting to his blog. He calls the service ‘a way to remember in public. . . The actual database represents crystallized attention–what people are looking at, and what they’re trying to remember'” (42).  This reminded me of my recent post regarding memory in the age of electracy.  In fact, I said almost the exact same thing: 

If del.icio.us is a way to publically remember personal websites, then networking with others on del.icio.us is a way of adding other people’s memories to your ownWho you know becomes how you know:  epistemology as community.

I *promise* that I did NOT read this chapter before writing this post! 

I tried explaining the advantages of del.icio.us to a colleague today, and I said to him that searching for a topic in del.icio.us is different than searching in Google insofar as it’s like searching other people’s memories.

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17 October 2007 at 7:09 pm Leave a comment

The Cortical Efficiency of Alphabetic Literacy

As a follow-up to my previous post about “efficient computation,” I wanted to note that I came across the word “efficiency” again in another brain-book titled Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf. In her brief history of the alphabet, she has occasion to note the “cortical efficiency” or “cognitive efficiency” that results from the use of an alphabet. As she writes,

The cortical efficiency gained from a smaller number of symbols–whether alphabet or syllabary–and the consequent developmental efficiency gained during their acquisition mark one of the great transitions in the history of writing. (64)

Because it’s easier to learn an alphabet of 26 letters (or even a syllabary of 86 characters as in Cherokee) vs. 40,000 characters of Chinese, “children learning more regular alphabets, such as Greek and German, gain fluency and efficiency faster than children learning less regular alphabets, such as English” (64). She makes a point to emphasize that “efficiency is not reserved for alphabet readers alone. . . more than one adaptation can lead to efficiency.” The issue, though, is “whether fluent reading in each type of system is equally achievable by most readers” (61). For this reason, she sees the Greek alphabet as “the beginning democratization of the young reading brain” (66).

When considered in light of Read Montague’s notion of “efficient computation” and energonomics, the learning of alphabetic literacy is a better form of psychic energy management (psychoenergonomics):

The efficient reading brain, which took Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian pupils years to develop, quite literally has more time to think. (54)

11 October 2007 at 5:26 pm 1 comment

Memory in the Age of Electracy

I am reading Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which talks about the neurological effects of learning to read–that is, how written words changes our mindbrains and possibly enables new levels of thought, changing the process of thinking itself. This book is absolutely fascinating and an important one for “grammatologists” (those who study the theory and history of writing). At one point she speaks of Socrates’ objections to writing as a threat to oral culture and the kind of learning he valued. Wolf is a kind of modern-day Socrates who wants us to consider what we are losing in the transition from literacy to “electracy” (i.e. the “literacy” of new electronic technologies).

As I read the part that mentions Socrates’ concern that writing would destroy memory, I thought of how the new technologies are changing the nature of memory. If we think of these technologies as “mnemonic prosthetics,” that is, as extensions of our memories, then our memories are changing quite radically. If books were a way to distribute our memory in physical form, web 2.0 is a way to distribute our memory into other people. Pierre Levy would call it “collective intelligence.”

I am thinking of two forms of social networking software–the social bookmarking site http://del.icio.us and http://slideshare.net (which lets you share powerpoint slideshows). I have used these over the past year and have experienced the “networking” aspect. People on slideshare.net, for example, offer to have me as a contact. Del.icio.us lets you add people to your network, and if they add you to their network they become one of your “fans.” These examples show me the value of having “friends”: they become, in a way, an extension of our memory. These are complete strangers, but we share common interests, and therefore the part of their (extended, technologically-enhanced) memories that correlate to this area of common interest are of potential use to me. If del.icio.us is a way to publically remember personal websites, then networking with others on del.icio.us is a way of adding other people’s memories to your own. Who you know becomes how you know: epistemology as community.

Pierre Levy’s vision in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace is to have communities of individuals who publically map their skills so that everybody else in the community is aware of who has what available skills. The following excerpt from an interview with Levy shows this possibility of what is perhaps to come, which the above social networking examples anticipate:

We are not talking about the kind of communication where one person sends a message to another who, in turn, may pass it on elsewhere. What we are taking about is more the kind of communication in which a member of the group transforms his own image and in doing so sends everyone a message that his images has been transformed. Simultaneously, the overall map of the group is transformed.

11 October 2007 at 1:25 pm 1 comment

The Energonomics of the Brain

I started another book by a neuroscientist–Read Montague’s Why Choose This Book?  How We Make Decisions (I’m always starting books!) and discovered my concept of energonomics to be a guiding principle of his exposition of decision-making.  He speaks of the need for evolving creatures to be efficient in order to get “the best long-term returns from the least immediate investment.”  Montague presents the brain as a “computer that cares” and speaks of “principles of efficient computation” as a way of connecting neural function to psychological function (in a “computational theory of mind”–CTOM).  He introduces the concept of energonomics when he begins to talk about evolutionary theory:  “Life is unforgiving, and so life’s mechanisms had a constant pressure to be efficient–to capture, store, and process energy efficiently. . . . Organisms that manage energy efficiently will do better than those that don’t” (17, 24).  He also launches into a fascinating passage comparing the energy efficiency of the human body to a light bulb:

The energy efficiency of operation for the entire human body is staggering.  The average hundred-watt lightbulb costs about a penny an hour to run, at average market rates for electricity in the United States in 2005: around ten cents per kilowatt-hour. . . . A human being sitting comfortably in a chair consumes energy at a rate of about a hundred watts, roughly equivalent to the average lightbulb! And this consumption is running literally everything–digestion, blood pumping, breathing, mental function, and a myriad of other processes. The brain consumes about a fifth of this rate; therefore, while sitting, the brain costs about a penny every five hours to operate, less than a nickel a day–now, that’s an efficient machine! (25-26)

This reminds me of a book I started a little while back called In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature, (see my entry “On Growth and Form” from June 2007) which I am now eager to pick up again and finish. 

I was also reminded of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee while reading of the second principle of efficient computation, (“save space”), where he concludes, “The moral of this story: The smallest representation is not always the best in the presence of limited resources, that is, all real-world situations” (41).  My entry titled “The Energonomics of Evolution” touches on this same point in light of energonomics.

I’m looking forward to reading more about how our decision-making (a form of goal-setting and pursuit) reflects a form of energonomics at the level of cognitive neuroscience.

9 October 2007 at 8:44 pm 2 comments

Energy as Divine

Though I never intended to, I have started to read Deleuze and Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus. After my previous post (see “A Philosophy of [Energy] Flows”), I picked it up and read the following:

If what we term libido is the connective ‘labor’ of desiring-production, it should be said that a part of this energy is transformed into the energy of disjunctive inscription (Numen). A transformation of energy. But why call this new form of energy divine, why label it Numen, in view of all the ambiguities caused by a problem of the unconscious that is only apparently religious? The body without organs is not God, quite the contrary. But the energy that sweeps through it is divine, when it attracts to itself the entire process of production and serves as its miraculate, enchanted surface, inscribing it in each and every one of its disjunctions. Hence the strange relationship that Schreber has with God. To anyone who asks: ‘Do you believe in God?’ we should reply in strictly Kantian or Schreberian terms: ‘Of course, but only as the master of the disjunctive syllogism, or as its a priori principle (God defined as *Omnitudo realitatis*, from which all secondary realities are derived by a process of division).’

Now of course that’s a mouthful/headful, and I couldn’t begin to tell you what is meant here by “miraculate” and “disjunctive inscription.” However, with reading like this I latch onto the pieces that I can grasp and hold on for dear life. They follow this passage with the following: “Hence the sole thing that is divine is the nature of an energy of disjunctions” (13).

It never occurred to me when I began this process of investigating energy flow that I would end up returning to my philosopher(s)-of-choice (kind of like a “drug of choice”). Before I finish with this passage, I have to mention the part of Manuel Delanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History which makes the concept of the BwO (“Body without Organs”) as clear as I’ve ever understood it to be, tying it in as he does to these notions of (energy) flow:

Since what truly defines the real world (according to this way of viewing things) are neither uniform strata nor variable meshworks but the unformed and unstructured flows from which these two derive, it will also be useful to have a label to refer to this special state of matter-energy information, to this flowing reality animated from within by self-organizing processes constituting a veritable *nonorganic life*: the Body without Organs (BwO). . . . The label itself is, of course, immaterial and insignificant. We could as well refer to this cauldron of nonorganic life by a different name. (Elsewhere, for instance, we called it the ‘machinic phylum.’) Unlike the name, however, the referent of the label is of extreme importance, since the flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms, money (and other ‘stuff’) are the source of just about every stable structure that we cherish and value (or, on the contrary, that oppresses or enslaves us). (260-61)

In fact, a little bit later Delanda summarizes his book, more or less, as an attempt “to describe Western history in the last one thousand years as a series of processes occurring in the BwO. . . .” (262).

4 October 2007 at 7:45 pm Leave a comment


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