» Archive for September, 2012

If Technology Makes Us Dumber, Why Are We Getting Smarter?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Downloading higher IQ in 3, 2, 1...

We often think of Information Overload as sapping our intelligence and decreasing our reasoning powers, but, starting in the early 1900s and continuing to the present day, Americans who have taken standardized IQ tests have gained on average three points per decade. Despite claims that texting and Twitter have watered down literacy and the ability of young people to write, research from Stanford that covered writing samples from 2001-2006 shows that students were writing far more than previous generations did. Perhaps as significantly, the study found that they were adept at tailoring their style for a specific audience (i.e. no emoticons in a class essay).

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James A. Flynn, explains an interesting theory about the reasons behind this. Flynn is the researcher and creator of the Flynn effect, which first acknowledged the trend of rising IQ scores. He notes in his recent article Are We Really Getting Smarter? that one of the main differences between us and our forebears is how the modern world we live in both embraces the hypothetical and values classification. We tend to look for what traits things have in common (as opposed to what traits are different), and are willing and able to imagine possible outcomes.

These differences make us better suited for exercises such as IQ tests that measure the ability to analyze and extrapolate patterns, or use logic to determine the answer to a hypothetical question. Treating hypothetical situations as legitimate thought experiments also enables a writer to visualize his audience and shift tone and style appropriately.

Of course, higher scores on IQ tests alone don’t mean that we are necessarily smarter. Interestingly enough, it seems that we are continuing to improve the specific skill sets that the tests measure, not by studying for the test, but in natural reaction to changes in our environment. In a sense, our mental abilities are evolving by chance in the same direction as the way the tests were originally created.

Information Overload, although detrimental in a variety of documented ways, in this case may not be so bad. Our fast-paced world throws so much information at us on a daily basis that learning how to classify incoming data is a critical survival skill. Given how many different ideas we are exposed to through media, the Internet, and our hyper-connected social lives, it is no surprise that our ability to conflate concepts and scenarios to create hypothetical situations is growing stronger.

The downside of Information Overload is clear: shortened attention spans, lost time and productivity, Internet addiction, and health issues. Nonetheless, there may be a few positive benefits from the barrage of information we receive today, at least as far as IQ scores are concerned.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

All the News That’s Fit to View

Friday, September 21st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

So much news, so little time...

The volume of news we create, and by news I mean news reporting, not newsworthy events, is mind-boggling. As someone who studies this as a form of Information Overload, the sheer quantity of reporting never ceases to amaze me – and it is this quantity that makes it difficult to search and find items of interest.

Starting with early news programs such as the Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze and You Are There with Edward R. Murrow, and moving into the current 24-hour news cycle that started with the advent of CNN, a good part of the population has come to depend on television to keep current.

This is all well and good but, unlike newspapers, which today are easily searchable online and previously somewhat searchable using microfiche and microfilm, it was not possible to easily go back and find TV news spots on a particular topic.

Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, wants to change that. For the past few years, the archive has been digitizing news broadcasts from twenty outlets and over 1,000 programs. This means every last second of every CNN broadcast as well as all sixty minutes of 60 Minutes.

Currently the archive has collected over 350,000 news programs that are fully text searchable, thanks to the archive’s using the closed-captioned text that accompanies the videos.

To use the system, I clicked through to TV News on the Internet Archive’s website. There I found a dedicated page with a cloud tag showing recently accessed topics. One can search all sources or narrow the search down by network (e.g. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, etc.) or program name (e.g. BBC World News, ABC World News Tonight, Meet the Press, Nightline, and more).

I searched on (fasten your seatbelts here) “Information Overload.” The system returned 98 results, displayed horizontally (out of 248), with a video above and the relevant text excerpt below. The video was almost always queued to start at the right place, i.e. where the person was starting to mention “Information Overload” and I was generally satisfied with the choice.

The interface itself is easy to use and features a handy timeline for moving quickly to a specific spot in time, for example, looking at a spike in coverage in December 2011.

The Internet Archive has already digitized almost every Web page known to man as well as millions of books, much in the style of the ancient Library of Alexandria. Thankfully, the archive has not resorted to stopping travelers at Egypt’s borders to confiscate their books so they could be copied to the library (anecdotally, the travelers sometimes received the copies back, not the originals). All that the Internet Archive has really needed were very large hard drives and a mission to preserve our history as told to us by newscasters.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Are You Sleeping Well?

Friday, September 14th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

All that is missing is darkness...

Look around your bedroom. Are there tiny beams of light, maybe blue ones and/or green ones? Or a red one? Is there a glow emanating from a digital clock or clock radio?

According to both common sense and the National Sleep Foundation, one’s bedroom should be dark, but in the past decade that sanctuary has been infiltrated more and more by electronic devices. In addition to a clock or clock radio (which should automatically dim when the lights are out), there’s the settop box (did you know you can turn the clock off on most of them?). Then there are the tiny beams of light generated by your mobile phone when it’s charging, your laptop if it’s in the bedroom, and perhaps even your high-tech desk phone (for those still with landlines).

There may be more such devices in the bedroom these days because, increasingly, more people find it difficult to disconnect and they bring their smartphones and tablets into bed with them before going to sleep. Seeing these, perhaps as a substitute for reading a good book, many are unaware that studies, including one from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have shown that exposure to light from a computer tablet could lower the level of melatonin in the body, and therefore impact one’s sleep cycle adversely. (Melatonin levels are regulated by the pineal gland, which responds to darkness by releasing the hormone, triggering drowsiness and sleep; any increase in light impacts the release and thus limits one’s ability to sleep soundly.)

The Rensselaer study, published over the summer in the journal Applied Economics, examined the impact of self-luminous tablets on 13 individuals. “Our study shows that a two-hour exposure to light from self-luminous electronic displays can suppress melatonin by about 22 percent,” stated Mariana Figueiro, the study’s director.

Last November, Cody Burke wrote about the findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 “Sleep in America” survey. They bear repeating:

- 39% of Americans bring their mobile phone into bed with them and end up using it in the hour before they go to sleep. The number is even higher for younger Americans, 67% of 19-29 year olds. 21% of Americans end up texting during this time.

- Those individuals that end up texting in the hour before sleep are more likely to report bad sleep and not feeling refreshed.

- 1 in 10 Americans is awakened by mobile phone alerts from texts, calls, and e-mail. The number rises to nearly 1 in 5 for 19-29 year olds.

- 36% of Americans use their laptop in bed before they go to sleep, and this group reports that it is less likely to get a good night’s sleep.

Since a lack of sleep can impact one’s productivity and feeling of well-being, take steps to improve your sleep hygiene. Well before going to sleep, stop looking at (and thinking about) e-mail, stop texting, and turn off and tune out. You’ll be surprised at how much better you sleep.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

We Are Talking And Singing on Mars Now

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by Cody Burke
Rendering of Curiosity Rover

Rendering of Curiosity Rover

The sheer volume of information and content that is produced on Earth is mind numbing. For example, over 35 hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube every minute. But earthly boundaries aren’t enough. Now, we are accepting submissions from the red planet.

Robotic rovers and satellites have been sent to Mars before. They have gathered images, video, and other data from the planet and sent them back to Earth. Now, for the first time, Earth has received our own voices, broadcast from Mars.

The Curiosity Rover, NASA’s most recent visitor to the surface of Mars, last week broadcast the first human words from another planet. A statement read by Charles Bolden, administrator of NASA, was transmitted to Curiosity, and then back to NASA’s Deep Space Network facility on Earth. The message thanked all of the individuals who worked on the Curiosity mission, and is the first time a recorded human voice has traveled between another planet and Earth.

Not content to stop there, NASA then proceeded to make history once again by broadcasting the first song from another planet, “Reach for the Stars,” an original song by Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame and technology enthusiast.

Impressive work for a robot that can only broadcast at 10,000 bps, or ca. one 10 megapixel image per day. Indeed, Curiosity’s speed is on par with a 1984 computer modem.

Curiosity is also very active on Twitter (@MarsCuriosity), with over 1 million followers, and an irreverent style of tweeting that frequently references dance moves. Sample tweet: “1st drive complete! This is how I roll: forward 3 meters, 90º turn, then back. Electric slide, anyone?”

What NASA has demonstrated with Curiosity thus far shows both scientific advancement pushing the boundaries of what can be transmitted between planets, and also a social savvy that is engaging and exciting space fans and non-fans alike.

(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)