This Is Your Brain; This Is Your Brain Online

I’m a different person online. I’m more social. I’m funnier. Or so I like to tell myself. In face to face encounters I feel awkward and slow. According to my online bio , I am “Jennifer, aka Jenn, aka JeSais….a creative writing student ….currently living in New Mexico.” I paint words on paper sculpting my life into stories. I am messy. I love the feeling of cool sand between my toes and the salty tang of ocean on my lips. Also:

I speak Spanish
and a little Portuguese
some French
and even a few words of German:
koenntest du mir bitte die butter reichen. please pass the butter.
(don’t laugh, it came in handy when my roommate’s parents came to visit.)
My favorite tea is Blood Orange Rooibus Herbal Tea from the New Mexico Tea Company.
I’m in grad school to get an MFA in Creative Writing.
I read.
I like brussel sprouts.
I make awesome pozole.
I love to write with a purple Sharpie(r) Ultra Fine Point Permanent Marker.
I think David Byrne is a musical genius.

In the comments section, my friend Karin added, “And you make the best salads ever!”

Contrary to recent studies I feel smarter online. I have at my fingertips (which can type 85 words a minute) a search engine that can answer almost any question, and an RSS reader loaded up with feeds so I can quickly scan for new information from around the internets: NPR, Salon.com , to “Brevity’s Creative Nonfiction Blog” and “Dating in the Odyssey Years” (a friend’s blogs), and more.

GOOGLE READER August 30, 2010 (a sampling):
SALON: Howard Kurtz and WashPost’s contempt for its readers
TWC: Eight Things Mrs. G is Loath to Admit
NEW PAGES: Writer Beware Reveals Media Error
NPR: University Attendance Scanners Make Some Uneasy
NPR: Our Storied Lives: The Quest for ‘Something More’
NPR: Freddie Mercury: Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Humble Showman

And so, within about seven minutes:

  • I had learned the Mrs. G (a blogger) doesn’t trust Bill Maher, did not like Avatar, did like All About Steve, once called a suicide hotline and was disconnected and now associates Slurpees with perseverance (you have to read the post for yourself).
  • I also learned that a six year old really didn’t land a million dollar book deal, and something about using scanners to track college student attendance (I didn’t actually READ the articles).
  • I did scan the article on NPR about “our storied lives” about how we constantly re-arrange the narrative of our lives—and how that sense of “story” of our own lives influences how we experience our lives, which sounded a lot like some points Judith Herman made in her book Trauma and Recovery which I had read in a graduate level creative writing seminar I had taken last year, so I shared the link on Facebook with the note “Attn folks from Daniel Mueller’s Trauma Drama seminar… any of this sound familiar?”
  • I also clicked on the Freddie Mercury story, then went on a little journey through my memory, first searching Wikipedia for “Freddie Mercury”. I had forgotten Freddie Mercury died from AIDS. I had forgotten he was so young. Only 45. People live with AIDS so much longer these days. He would have been 64. Then I remembered gym class, circa 1978. GIRLS gym class. Wearing polyester one-piece zip-up-the-front blue rompers, we played field hockey. My team won. We sang, at the top of our lungs “We are the champions… no time for losers, CAUSE WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS… of the world.”

* * *

A NOTE ABOUT FORM:
In the print version of this essay hyperlinks will be footnoted. In the online version, they will be hyperlinked with anchor text, as indicated by a different color font and will be underlined. On some websites once a link has been clicked, the color of the font will change. Currently, my website is set for the font to appear green and underlined, and stays that way even when clicked. Rather than a stylistic choice, it is evidence of my lack of CSS skills.

* * *

So does this seven minute romp through my online life prove that I am smart? Nicholas Carr would not think so. In 2008 he wrote an article for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” in which he posits (and backs up by some pretty impressive research) that the use of the internet is actually re-wiring our brains; it is changing the way we think, and is ruining our ability to think deeply, to read and absorb long articles of complicated text. In June 2010 when Carr published a book expanding on the topic, The Shallows, a New York Times review dismissed many of Carr’s conclusions, including his contention that the “incessant noise of the internet….has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic.” Times critic Jonah Lehrer instead noted that while it is true that the internet is changing our brains, “everything changes our brain.” Lehrer cited a study by neuroscientists from the University of California, Los Angeles:

leftquote

rightquote….performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid —it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.

Technology writer and New Media expert Clay Shirky also disagreed with Carr. In an article he wrote for the The Wall Street Journal, “Does the Internet Make Your Smarter?” Shirky argued that the internet is in fact where we are sowing the seeds of a new culture of reading and writing:

leftquote

rightquoteThe case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture.

My roommate Matt knocks on my door and asks, “Have you been to El Morro National Park?” Matt is a fourth year medical student doing a month-long rotation here at the University of New Mexico hospital. He arrived a few days before his start date with his boyfriend, Oz, who will return to Tel Aviv in a couple of days. They are trying to see as much of New Mexico as they can.

“No. Where is it?” I ask, as I pull up Google Maps, and start to type EL MORRO… “Do you mean ‘El Morro National Monument’?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Have you been there?”

“No, I’ve never even heard of it,” I say. “And their website sucks,” I mutter to myself as I click broken link (Trails…) , after broken link (Ranger Programs…)

I’m not sure where I stand on the debate. Sometimes I feel wiser online. I like that I have at my fingertips a ton of information. But does that make me smart? Or just quick with a query?

Sometimes I feel disjointed, unable to concentrate. To give something a deep read I need to print it out and feel the words with my fingertips, and carry the paper to another room—away from the computer. But sometimes I feel high on information, and it feels good. I’m answering emails, writing blog posts, instant messaging a friend, posting a link on Facebook…. Simultaneously. And I feel powerful, in control, a multi-tasking master of the internet! I am Google Girl! Or maybe not.

French researchers Etienne Koechlin and Rene Marois studied the multi-tasking brain . And while I’d like to think my brain is better than the average person’s brain, I must admit that more than likely, in its functioning, it is probably not too different. Their study suggests that when two tasks are assigned, the brain parses them out to the two frontal lobes, if a third task comes along one of first two tasks in essence bows out, suggesting that the brain “can’t maintain more than two tasks.” For example, Marois says, someone who is writing a report might be able to take on a second task, like checking e-mail, without losing their train of thought. But if that e-mail asked for a decision about something, that would amount to a third task, and the brain would be overwhelmed, he says. Throw Facebook into the mix and I’d guess there’s no telling how well the brain can really function.

Although Facebook is a distraction, a big time suck, full of useless drivel, for me it has also been a lifeline of communication, an office water cooler in the face of telecommuting, of working alone in my home office without office mates, without a “hey what did you do this weekend” by the coffee pot, or a “did you read that article….” over lunch from Surf Brothers Teriyaki or Rubio’s (God, I miss fish tacos).

Facebook also offers tremendous power for networking, for making connections to actual people online. I have 182 friends. If I send out a message, or post something, and each of my friends forwards that to their friends (I counted them), I can reach nearly 50,000 people. I can share links:

And people can reach me. Cynthia Patton, a fellow writer that I met at a summer writing conference replied to the Kenyon Review link “Jenn, please tell Randi that I read her story and I liked it.” A friend in Seattle, Michael Allen Smith, commented on the job posting, “I remember during the dot-com days, when webmasters made almost $50/hour in the DC area. Crazy times.”

Rich Baiocco, a short story writer in New York who used to be in a read and critique group with me in San Diego writes on my wall:

Hey Jesais, lemme know what you think about this post. I usually have no qualms with “borrowing” but this opened my eyes. The writer gets completely screwed (and maybe this happens a lot) and the editor is a total nutjub! Has this ever happened to you?

Illadore’s House o Crack – Copyright Infringement and Me

I reply:

why yes, Rich I do know something about this… and your best bet is to use the big guns… Google. If you report a copyright violation, of some thing that can be found in their database, they will do your dirty work for you and contact the offending website and send what is called a takedown notice. If the offending site does not comply… they could be removed from Google’s database, which for any business is death…  http://www.google.com/dmca.html

In fact, a while back I wrote an article about copyright, “Copyright Maintenance is Everyone’s Business, Part 1” (I never did a Part 2) for a blog, The Ultimate Corporate Entrepreneur.

In September I was asked to participate in the Albuquerque Cultural Conference , to sit on a panel, “Performance and Electronic Media: from Spoken Word to Social Networks.” I was a last minute fill-in, for someone who, I can only assume, was too overwhelmed to participate. The subject of copyright was not addressed in the session. I advocated that artists need to utilize the same online tools that businesses use to make art and “market” their art: email, Facebook, Youtube, specialized social networks, social bookmarking, bulletin boards.

These digital tools are much more accessible than they used to be. I should know, I’ve been online since the mid-80s. In fact, I think I tested the internet that Al Gore invented when I worked for the International Visitors Council of San Diego. We arranged for visitors to meet their professional counterparts and enjoy “home hospitality” with “real” Americans. We had email. It was awesome. The national office would send electronic documents which meant that instead of re-typing the visitors’ biographical information into letters and welcome packets, we (mostly I) could copy and paste. I was the only one who saw the value in this (I was also the only one under 30); everyone else was eager to get a fax machine….

Admittedly the old ARPANET system (a precursor to “the internet”) was cumbersome and clunky to use… And while a lot of things have changed, it is important to remember that some of the tools that are available are still, to those who are not computer savvy, cumbersome and clunky to use. Even some of the younger folks that we (older folks) consider to have grown up in the digital age are not as savvy about some of the really valuable communication tools that are out there today. Just because you can text and facebook like a fiend does not mean you know how to utilize these tools to create art, or build online community and encourage action.

GOOGLE READER November 7, 2010 (a sampling):
DATING IN …. Good Stories and Bad. Or Why the Word “Dating” Sucks.
JOE CRAWFORD: Color Vision & Art
SALON: I Remember Nothing: Nora Ephron on life, death, hot dogs
SALON: My grandpa’s redneck wedding
BREVITY: Hayden’s Ferry Review Says “We Want Short Forms!”
NPR: Dead Drops: Plugging Your Laptop Into Strange Places
NPR: Old White Man Turns Into Young Asian Guy Midflight

Checking the Reader was merely a diversion tactic. A way to avoid doing the thing I was supposed to be doing, which of course is/ was to write this essay. And so I clicked, not on my friend’s blog post, or the call for submission, or on the link to WebExhibits, “an interactive museum of science, humanities, and culture” that my friend Joe shared. I clicked on “My grandpa’s redneck wedding.” It turned out to be a pretty good essay by Jeramey Kraatz in a section of Salon.com called, “Real Families: a personal essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century.” A potential outlet for an as yet unwritten, or not quite ready for prime time creative non-fiction essay: I considered posting the link on Facebook, then forgot. Maybe I’ll remember later.

At the Albuquerque Cultural Conference I met a poet named Jeanette Calhoun Mish (we’re now Facebook friends). Her presentation at the conference included showing “In Verse: Women of Troy.” Found on Vimeo, this video was created by In Verse, “a multi-media project that combines poetry, photography and audio footage to create ‘documentary poems’ for radio, the web, print and iPhone.”

I googled “documentary poem.” I found an article from 2008, “Gray Matters: Philip Metres immortalizes our town’s gloomy days in ‘A Cleveland of the Mind” at Cleveland Magazine’s website. The article quotes Metres: “In essence, the documentary poem is not unlike documentary film in that it takes pieces of life and shapes it in different ways.”

Philip Metres, Poet, Translator, Scholar, Activist, currently teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University. His website showcased a project from one of his classes, Poetry in the Everday, a “collection of poems reincarnated into installations, broadsides, flyers, recitations and performances.”

I watched a YouTube video of a sidewalk chalk presentation of Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” five minutes of watching people walk over the poem scrawled across the concrete. More interesting was a dance performance of Carl Sandberg’s “Autumn Movement.” The dancer’s movement and the music brought the words to life in a beautiful way jogging a memory of a live performance I attended back in 2000 of a Southern California trio, Drought Buoy, featuring poet Brandon Cesmat, dancer Terry Sprague and jazz bassist Gunnar Biggs. There is no video online and I couldn’t find any event listings beyond 2006, but if I close my eyes I can almost see the movement, hear the poetry and feel the bass… almost. Eight years later, only a feeling remains, and a question: maybe Drought Buoy only exists in my memory.

I joke that unless a business has a web presence it doesn’t exist in my mind. That is to say I don’t use a phone book, I google. By extension, if a person doesn’t have a website, or a reference online, or some kind of online persona, I wonder, does that person exist? According to Social Media Researcher danah boyd, “To exist in mediated contexts, people must engage in explicit acts to write themselves into being. On social network sites, this means creating a profile and fleshing out the fields as an act of self-presentation.”

I keep mistaking boyd’s phrase “self-presentation” for “self-preservation.” Is my brain giving me some sort of subliminal message? a mental Freudian slip? They say (and I’m not really sure who “they” are although if I googled I’m sure I could find them) that once a thing (a photo, an audio clip, an article) is online, between downloads, hyperlinks, social bookmarking, and being cached in various search engine databases it is near impossible to get rid of, that in the ethereal and digital nature of the internet there is some kind of permanence. Perhaps the internet is the great collective brain of our time, a place where experience is created and memories are preserved. I’d like to think so; it would make all the blogging and status updates important in some way.

* * *

I don’t know if the internet is making us smarter or dumber, but I do know that lately I feel scattered, constantly distracted and somewhat overwhelmed. I can’t concentrate on one thing for too long. I like the instant gratification I get from finding an answer in Wikipedia or Google, or on the Internet Movie Database the minute the question flashes across my neurons. But at the same time I get frustrated that I can’t retrace my steps, and if I have not bookmarked a website or somehow taken note, I can’t re-find something to re-engage more deeply at a later time. Perhaps the answer is not less or more information, but rather finding tools or strategies for managing the information we are interacting with on a daily basis. Perhaps the secret is not in the query but rather in the cataloging, in learning to prioritize the onslaught of information and perhaps even, learning to step away every now and again and just breathe.

# # #

MORE NOTES ABOUT THIS ESSAY:

  • this essay may be edited in perpetuity;
  • this essay may be cross-posted on any number of blogs;
  • links included within this essay may be broken;
  • I may or may not check and fix links within this essay;
  • this essay may disappear from my website at the request of a publisher, in which case you can assume that I have “sold out” for publishing creds;
  • thanks to Dana Levin for the assignment that inspired this essay.

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6 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain; This Is Your Brain Online

  1. You hit on everything I’ve been wondering about for so long. But best of all, you started off by calling Facebook the water cooler of today’s world. And I like that. It gave me a sense of relief because I feel guilty that I poo poo Facebook as a waste of time, but since I work at home, I have no social interaction during the day (unless you count the fellas at Postal Plus). But you brought back a memory of when I worked in an office, and there were times when I needed a break and I could just want down to the lunch room with the excuse I was getting a cup of coffee or water, and then I’d hang over the edge of someone’s cubicle and we’d chat for a bit about nothing. A few laughs or venting, then back to my desk and the task at hand. Often, I could concentrate better when I stepped a way for a bit. Thanks for the reminder that I need that, while it’s not face-to-face, it’s human interaction. Now, I still don’t understand why folks who do have constant face-to-face want to go online to be friends instead. Oh well. I’ll let them worry about that. Or maybe you’ll write another essay. Great job!

    Like

  2. Great post. I stumbled across your name (link) at the UNM creative writing blog, so here I am. I enjoy your writing style and will poke around your site a bit more. I’m missing NM too much these days – hope you are enjoying your life there. I’ll be back soon! Regards, Corrie Ann

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