This is the second time I’ve been interviewed for GoodGame, the ABC TV’s flagship weekly videogame show, and this time they didn’t cut down the entirety of a two hour interview to one grab of me saying something about “homoeroticism”. Which is nice.
I’ve been thinking recently about attention and concentration. Part of my PhD is contingent on the idea of technology transforming the human brain/psyche/consciousness, and I’m particularly interested in how internet technology can help or hinder concentration. So too, apparently, is Nicholas Carr.
As a brilliant illustration of the point, right as I was trying to write the second sentence in the above paragraph I was interrupted, this time by the television, and I had to take a break from trying to write, temporarily unable to concentrate on the task. Interruptions like this happen all the time – in fact, we’ve developed a society based on the right to interruption. For this reason, I am more than a little sceptical of many of the claims that Nicholas Carr presents in his occasionally excellent, occasionally over-the-top book The Shallows. Carr positions Internet technology as one that is fundamentally interrupting (though he never considers it in so many words, and perhaps if he did he’d see the problems with his thesis) and he talks much about the speed with which we mutli-task, switch browser windows to check emails, tweets, Facebook and other internet services.
Carr seems to think these interruptions are somehow more common, more distracting, or somehow categorically different from the cacophony of non-digital interruptions that routinely happen as part of modern living. An example I’ve been considering of late, and one so ubiquitous it’s effects are virtually invisible, is the car. The car is a fundamentally interruptive technology, yet you won’t hear Carr railing against the noise pollution the motor vehicles put out and the disrupting and degenerate effects it has on people who live with the constant interruptions typical of high traffic environments.
More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Cities are full of cars and other vehicles. The sound of vehicles is fundamentally an interruption: a listener has no say over when a car arrives, it’s convenience and degree of interruption left mainly up to chance, and one can easily come to dominate the soundscape (particularly if it’s fitted with an obnoxious muffler). It is every car drivers right to interrupt your train of thought with the sound of their approaching vehicle, not just those drivers who sit on their car horns. By driving down my street, a car’s operator interrupts the evenness of whatever I was aurally percieving (consciously or otherwise) by asserting their presence sonically. Yet when confronted with this ‘evidence’ of the combustion engine’s fundamentally disruptive nature, most sane and rational people would simply suggest I move to a quieter suburb or obtain ear-plugs. So why isn’t Carr satisfied with advocate moving to a quieter digital suburb? Apparently it’s not possible to switch off your phone, ignore your emails, or even deliberately neglect your Facebook account.
Interruption is a right built into the very foundations of our society. Even beyond the objects with which we give explicit permission to others to interrupt us (the telephone, the email client, the IM chat window, the social network, the emergency siren, the car horn) we give permission to things like: other people’s stereo’s and televisions; to chairs as people scrape them backwards to stand up; to keyboards and appliances as they click and whirr in the office space; to the aircraft flying overhead; even something as common as the speech of anyone within ear-shot… interruption is an officially sanctioned part of society.
But imagine if we prioritised the ability to concentrate over the ability to ‘actually get things done’ (which inevitably will require at some stage being loud and/or interruptive). Imagine if the rights of everyone else to be uninterrupted by your presence and activities superseded your right to be loud, or to be heard, or to drive a car, or to walk with heavy footfalls, etcetera, etcetera. Imagine if we wrote it into our laws. It’s an impractical world from the current perspective, and for various reasons, but it’s also not an impossible one. We could never truly silence everything (animals, plants, the wind, etc) but nor would we want to. The differences between these sounds and human made sounds however is that the latter often conveys semantic information (i.e. ‘this is a car approaching’, ‘there are road-workers in that direction’). And studies have found that restoring human capacity for attention involves the kind of non-semantic, unfocussed attention that is most often associated with staring at plants (to put it overly simply).
Obviously I’m overstating the case against interruption here, but only for the sake of rhetorical comparison. Does Carr do any less? Flip open any page of The Shallows and pull out a quote at random warning of the dangerously interruptive properties of digital technology. Here’s one plucked at random from the page where I’m currently reading:
“…the powerful tools for discovery, filtering, and distributing information developed by companies like Google ensure that we are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us – and in quantities well beyond what out brains can handle. As the technologies for data processing improve, as our tools for searching and filtering become more precise, the flood of relevant information only intensifies.” (p.170)
Lets re-write the above as if it were about the interrupting effects of the motor vehicle:
“…the powerful tools for transport, contact, and distribution developed by companies like Ford ensure that we are forever inundated by motor cars of immediate interest to us – and in quantities well beyond what our brains can handle. As the technologies for motor vehicle travel improve, as our tools for directing and guiding traffic become more precise, the flood of relevant information only intensifies.”
It’s more than a little bit specious an example, but it’s not entirely beyond the scope of imagining. When read as a lament aimed at ‘interruption’, many of Carr’s assertions about the fundamentally brain-altering nature of the Internet tend to lose their persuasiveness. Perhaps, however, they actually should be taken seriously – but rather as a generalised caution about the problems involved with a whole suite of interruptions. It seems quite unlikely, however, that this idea could ever be taken seriously outside the pages of Sci-Fi.
Good news everyone! Ben Abraham dot Net is now accessible via the address: http://this.isnotablog.com/. While my audience’s expectations around my blog are largely out of my control, I can still give hints:
- If you believe blog readers do posess the inalienable right to leave a comment beneath a blog owners own words: http://this.isnotablog.com/
- If you believe blogs have to adhere to the techno-utopian promise of a democratization of publishing: http://this.isnotablog.com/
- If you believe a blog cannot be a place guided by aesthetics and beauty: http://this.isnotablog.com/
- If you believe a blog cannot be one persons voice cast out into the ether without respect to audience or intended reception: http://this.isnotablog.com/
- If you think this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, are all not blogs: http://this.isnotablog.com/
Thanks for visiting. Enjoy your stay.
Or rather, what is inherent to the blog format? This is partially a response to Dilyan, who took umbridge at my comments on the latest CDC podcast. He wrote a response on his own blog which further betrays some of the unspoken assumptions he holds about the blog format and comes awfully close to usefully articulating some differences between blogging and publishing.
One of the great things about working with the internet and digital media is that it is so binary – situations and digital functions are often quite black and white. So lets put ourselves in the ‘digital’ frame of mind – what is the standard of ‘reality’ we can appeal to when talking about blogs and the lke? I believe it’s code; it’s protocol; it’s a close reading of the content of this digital technology.
A blog is a specific subset of a website. Websites are built generally on HTML and can be as complex or as simple as the limits of processing power allow. Close to the simplest website possible would be an empty “index.html” file in the root directory. In this situation the server upon receiving the request to load the page over TCP/IP finds the index.html and serves it up to the user. This bare-bones structure meets the minimum requirements for ‘being a website’ if the server is accessible from ‘the internet’, i.e. it’s has a unique address recorded on a DNS server. What the server does, in fact, is almost irrelevant to the status of the website – worldwide accessibility from the internet (a function of its address being recorded in a DNS server) is the only necessary component of a website.
It is probably not possible to itemise all the expectations one could hold, or have ever been held, about websites quawebsites, but for the sake of comparison to blogs, certainly no one expects websites to inherently possess comments. It would be equally rare to find someone in this day and age who expects a website to be completely static. Websites change, are redesigned, go offline, come back online, and fluctuate through many series of transformations, entirely without generating much protest (with a few exceptions less related to their status as websites and more to their function as other things; portals, as community hubs, etcetera). The timeline for these changes, however, is often on the scale of weeks, months, or even years.
Let’s contrast that to blogs: are they inherently expected to change, or ‘update’? If a blog does not update for a long time (i.e. stretches of years or more) does it become any less of a blog than it was when it was in the middle of a regular posting (i.e. ‘update’) schedule? No, therefore it is far to say that regular updating is not an essential quality that goes into making a blog a blog (even if it is an expected one).
At last we come to it: Are comments an inherent function of blogs? Again, it would be impossible to itemise every expectation held about a blog in the whole wide world so what does the reality of the ‘code’ tell us? Better still, what does the code of one specific blog platform, WordPress, tell us?
It tells us that comments are a function of WordPress, but like many other functions it can be enabled or disabled. Only in the absolute strictest sense can this be construed as making comments an ‘inherent’ part of the blog format. They are only inherently in that they can be “there or not there” which is a meaningless observation to make. It’s certainly an unfalsifiable statement, thereby failing scientific (and logical?) rigour. In what conceivable circumstance would that sentence ever be wrong? Only if something could be both there and not there at the same time (quantum mechanics suggests possible situations but lets not go there).
What then, if removed, would prevent a blog from being a blog? Nothing to do with appearance (Cf. – a feedburner RSS feed of an actual blog). Not comments, as we’ve already established. No. Instead there are three things I count as being inherent and necessary components of a blog:
– Reverse chronological presentation.
– One or more posts (or updates).
– A (semi)permanent archive.
I think I’ll write about these three in greater detail at a later date.
‘Illustration: KillScreen online editorials 003‘ by Dan Purvis at Purvis’ Perspective.
…consumer reviews are shit. They mean nothing to the world. That’s where Kill Screen reviews are different. They want to mean something to somebody. And, I believe they will.
‘The Very Important List of PC Games, Part 5/5‘ by Kieron Gillen at Rock Paper Shotgun:
I’m not entirely sure RPS would exist without In Memoriam, but I’ll get to that.
Anyway – brilliant little game. Its UK Publisher – Ubisoft – clearly didn’t agree. They didn’t send any review copies out to anyone. Walker only ended up playing it because I commissioned him to write it as I grabbed it from the shops when trying to fill the pages on PC Gamer. And he comes back amazed – this is actually really fucking good. Except, being John, he probably didn’t swear. This lead to us shouting how good it was to other magazines, and getting it reviewed all over the place. We’d discovered a game, and brought it to people who wouldn’t know anything about it without us shouting about it. I realised that in my time at Gamer, I’d only ever really had a chance to do that twice – once with In Memoriam, and once with Uplink. Why didn’t we get to do this more? Wouldn’t be awesome to have a venue to do this more often?
It was the final puzzle that In Memoriam presented us, but we solved it eventually.
‘The Complete Rebel Without A Pause Key‘ by Kieron Gillen at Rock Paper Shotgun.
Part 1: Introduction
Watch out forces of conservative oppression: I’m all hopped up on Lentils, I’ve been listening to Rage Against The Machine for the last four hours and I haven’t tidied my bedroom.
Liberal Crime Squad, as the name may suggest, places you as the sort of Terrorist organisation who spend a lot of time listening to the MC5 loudly. Its tongue is firmly in its cheek, but I suspect that wouldn’t stop some people finding it offensive. “Some” being defined as “Probably not the counter-cultural Bakunin-lovin’ readers or Rock Paper Shotgun”, or at least hopefully. In it, you’ve basically got to forward the liberal agenda by any or all means. It usually ends with your glorious Liberal hippies besieged in their safe houses by The Man.
There are few others whose reasoned and considered opinion I value more than David Carlton’s, so his sympathetic response to my argument on the CDC podcast about blog comments is heartwarming. Here’s his extension of my own logic, elaborated somewhat better than I could do in the actual podcast itself:
As a blog author, you may prefer some sorts of response to others. And, to some extent, this is in your control. If you want responses on Facebook or Buzz, you’ll forward your posts there; if you don’t, you won’t. (Not that you can prevent other people from linking to your posts in those fora, of course.) If you want responses on your own blog, you’ll have it open for comments; if you don’t, you won’t.
It strikes me as entirely reasonable to value and hence want to actively encourage some of these forms of discussions more than others. Roger Travis, for example, has decided that he finds Buzz discussions more useful than comments on his blog posts, so he’s turned off comments on his blog posts and encouraged people to comment on Buzz.
I confess, I had no idea Roger Travis prohibited comments on his blog, instead directing discussion onto Buzz. I think that’s absolutely brilliant, and somewhat hilarious that his decision has been so non-controversial while mine seems to remain so (especially since there are heaps of people that don’t even use buzz). I am willing to bear my ‘no comment’ cross, however (heh), if it gets people thinking about the ways the internet (technology) structures associations.
A special Search Engine Optimization themed selection of pieces presented without comment, for your casual perusal.
‘Trouble in the House of Google‘ by Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror:
Throughout my investigation I had nagging doubts that we were seeing serious cracks in the algorithmic search foundations of the house that Google built. But I was afraid to write an article about it for fear I’d be claimed an incompetent kook. I wasn’t comfortable sharing that opinion widely, because we might be doing something obviously wrong. Which we tend to do frequently and often. Gravity can’t be wrong. We’re just clumsy … right?
I can’t help noticing that we’re not the only site to have serious problems with Google search results in the last few months. In fact, the drum beat of deteriorating Google search quality has been practically deafening of late…
‘A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web‘ by David Segal at The New York Times:
Not only has this heap of grievances failed to deter DecorMyEyes, but as Ms. Rodriguez’s all-too-cursory Google search demonstrated, the company can show up in the most coveted place on the Internet’s most powerful site.
Which means the owner of DecorMyEyes might be more than just a combustible bully with a mean streak and a potty mouth. He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship — utterly noxious retail — that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.
‘The Dirty Little Secrets of Search‘ by (guess who) David Segal at The New York Times:
Despite the cowboy outlaw connotations, black-hat services are not illegal, but trafficking in them risks the wrath of Google. The company draws a pretty thick line between techniques it considers deceptive and “white hat” approaches, which are offered by hundreds of consulting firms and are legitimate ways to increase a site’s visibility. Penney’s results were derived from methods on the wrong side of that line, says Mr. Pierce. He described the optimization as the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen.
Here’s the only report I’m filing here about GDC (follow my twitter for up to the minute inanity and the occasional live-tweeting):
Mixture of homesickness, tiredness, POPtimism, excitement, pre-nostalgia, sadness, coffee, tinitus, dirt, discomfort, hunger, interest and disinterest, gratitude and apathy. GDC.