Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Nothing’s Ever Cut and Dry

Mostly I find nostalgia annoying. Complaining about how things used to be only moves one further away from the real issues. In other words: Change happens, deal with it.

Memory, it turns out, is a perfect topic for the nostalgic set. Ever since Plato mentioned it in Phaedrus 300 years before Jesus, people have been bitching about how the kids can’t remember anything anymore.

Two recent articles stoked the flames again for me. Though both went in decidedly different directions, in each one I thought I was going to hear a story about how digital technology is killing memory and how it’s a BAD thing. The first, an article on Britney Spears’ miserable VMA performance from the Times includes this paragraph: “Performance anxiety, heavy drinking and even hair extensions have been variously blamed for these lapses. But why blame the victims? They are just products of a culture that does not enforce the development of memory skills.” The second article comes from the always brilliant Clive Thompson and is a lot more insightful. When I started reading his Wired article, I thought I was having deja vu:

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative’s birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

Now to be completely fair, I wouldn’t call either author nostalgic. In fact, Thompson brings some real nuance to the argument and it makes for quite a good read. But you know there are people who will read each and moan about the state of things: Remembering back to the old days when knowing things was more important than knowing where to find them.

But that’s not our world any longer. In the same way calculators made it hard to justify knowing how to do higher order math by hand, computer, and specifically sites like Google and Wikipedia, have made knowing vast amounts of facts seem like a waste of time.

I, happen to think all this change is a good thing. The best ideas come out of connections between disparate things. Our brains are especially well suited for making those connections, as it mirrors how we actually learn (as I understand it, neural pathways form when connections are made). What if we were actually made for a digital world?

Obviously, it’s not so cut and dry. But nothing ever is. Whenever someone tells me that IM or text messaging is ruining interpersonal communications I take offense. In fact, I take offense when someone tells me that face-to-face conversation is preferable to email. It’s not that I don’t enjoy chatting with people in person, but rather that you can’t compare media like that. We’re not dealing with apples and apples. Face-to-face is great in some contexts, but email can be much better when you don’t know someone so well, want evidence of the conversation or just need a quick answer.

When I saw Steven Johnson and Henry Jenkins speak a year ago, one of them (think it was Johnson, but can’t remember exactly) gave a nice anecdote on this topic. In response to the violence in video games like Grand Theft Auto, he suggested that there was another very popular tradition amongst teenage boys that encourages violence and often the objectification of women. What’s more, high school football is a school sponsored activity.

Nothing is ever cut and dry.

September 27, 2007