I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 22, 2010

Resources on how your privacy online is threatened

A recent Wall Street Journal series, “Your Privacy Online: What They Know”, described the efforts by internet marketers and tracking firms to compile information on just about everyone.

Other resources

Center for Democracy and Technology

CDT’s Guide to Online Privacy


CDT’s Deeplinks Blog covers issues ranging from Anonymity to Locational privacy to Online behavioral tracking.


Describes what information about you is gathered online and how it is used. Sponsored by ACLU of Northern California.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center – http://epic.org/

Covers a wide range of privacy issues.

April 4, 2010

Are we too busybusybusy?

I reencountered a song a week or two ago that is absolutely hilarious.

“BusyBusyBusy” (sung by Kevin Kline, Song #13 in Philadelphia Chickens [1])

First verse and refrain (imagine this sung non-stop with almost every syllable being sung on an eighth note—and with no rests in each verse):

very, very busy
and we’ve got a lot to do
and we haven’t got a minute
to explain it all to you
for on SundayMondayTuesday
there are people we must see
and on WednesdayThursdayFriday
we’re as busy as can be
with our most important meetings
and our most important calls
and we have to do so many things
and post them on the walls.

Perhaps because of the song I pulled Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses[2] off the shelf it had sat on for a while and flipped through it.

A couple of chapters immediately caught my eye.  With chapter titles ranging from “A.D.D. Nation” and “24/7 Connectivity” to “The Infidelity of Busyness” and “Interrupting Ourselves” to “Overwhelmed” those alone sound what life is like nowadays.

Kabat-Zinn says that our entire society suffers from ADD and ADHD.

Learning how to refine our ability to pay attention and to sustain attention may no longer be a luxury but a lifeline back to what is most meaningful in our lives, what is most easily missed, ignored, denied, or run through so quickly that it could not possibly be noticed.

Kabat-Zinn notes that the combination of increasing processing speed and miniaturization and cheaper and cheaper electronics…

proffers a seduction in computer systems for work and home, consumer products, games, and portable electronic devices that can easily lead to outright addiction and the loss of all measure of direction as we respond willy-nilly to the increasing volumes of e-mail, voice mail, faxes, pages, and cell phone traffic coming in from all corners of the planet.

Hmm, makes me wonder whether he’s heard “BusyBusyBusy”:

we have to hurry far away
and then we hurry near
and we have to hurry everywhere
and be both there and here
and we have to send out messages
by e-mail, phone, and fax
and we’re talking every minute
and we really can’t relax
and we think there is a reason
to be running neck-and-neck
and it must be quite important
but we don’t have time to check.

I guess what I find most fascinating about this song is that while this might be what an adult’s life looks like to children at times, this is often how my life feels like to me.  Boynton (and Kevin Kline) capture that feeling perfectly.

And so Kabat-Zinn’s question resonates.  “But what about balance,” he asks, “and how do we regulate the pace of instant and ubiquitous connectivity, and the expectation of instantaneous responding?”  He notes that with our cellphones and wireless devices we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time.  “But,” he continues, “have you noticed that, in the process, we run the risk of never being in touch with ourselves?”

Saying that our primary connection to life is through experiencing our own bodies and our own senses, he says “we need moments that are not filled with anything, in which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add to our to-do list, even if we can. Moments of reflection, of mulling, of thinking things over, of thoughtfulness.”  (Reminds me of Elaine Aron’s advice to Highly Sensitive Persons about what is needed to avoid becoming overwhelmed.  Everyone needs downtime.  Unfortunately with the world becoming increasingly frenetic, it seems that we are all less likely to get it and indeed burn ourselves out.)

Kabat-Zinn asks:

With all this talk of connectivity, what about connectivity to ourselves?  Are we becoming so connected to everybody else that we are never where we actually are?

As noted in “BusyBusyBusy”…

we have to hurry to the south
and then we hurry north
and we’re talking every minute
as we hurry back and forth
and we have to hurry to the east
and then we hurry west
and we’re talking every minute
and we don’t have time to rest
and we have to do it faster
or it never will be done
and we have no time for listening
or anything that’s fun.

In starting to read Coming to Our Senses I’ve realized how far I have to go.  (So is that why I’m sitting here at this computer typing another blog post? Ah, irony.)

1. Philadelphia Chickens. [Book and CD] Music by Sandra Boynton & Michael Ford. Lyrics and Drawings by Sandra Boynton. New York: Workman Publishing, c2002.

One of the interesting things about this book and CD is that among the singers and performers were the Bacon Brothers (one of whom is, yes, Kevin Bacon), Meryl Streep, Scott Bakula, and the late Natasha Richardson.  If you have young kids (or nieces or nephews) it would make a great gift.  (I have not checked to see if “BusyBusyBusy” is available for listening anywhere on the Web, but perhaps you can find it somewhere.)

Note: A portion of the proceeds from the book goes to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation on behalf of all the artists who performed on the album.

2. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion, c2005.

March 21, 2010

Games, cortisol, epigenetics, and behavior

Haven’t really dealt with the digital lifestyle recently (see earlier posts The Virtual Frontier and Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities).

The following was thought-provoking:

The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s

Also came across the following that struck me as a nice summary of both positive and negative effects of video games (and, by extension, of online games as well).

How Video Games Affect Health (from fat food)

Notes that many negative effects aren’t directly caused by games, but by an excessive amount of time spent playing them.  (Of course, that’s true of many things.)

Still, given the possibility that outside stimulation might actually affect how the brain is wired (see below), I’m certainly going to be a little more cautious.

From Maternal Care Affects Adult Stress (a little dated—though I think I’ve seen something recently about maternal behavior can effect epigenetic changes):

The studies, presented at a [2003] conference on the fetal and infant origins of adult disease, found that baby rats who were licked by their mothers a lot turned out to be less anxious and fearful as adults and produced lower levels of stress hormones than those who were groomed less.

The scientists found that the mothers’ licking caused the baby’s brain to crank up a gene involved in soothing the body in stressful situations.

The rat research was led by Michael Meaney, a professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

How the mothers’ grooming is thought to have affected their offspring’s behavior:

The brain contains receptors for stress hormones such as cortisol. The more receptors there are, the more sensitive the brain is to cortisol and the easier it is for the brain to tell the adrenal glands when to stop cranking out the hormones. The receptors set the tone for how the body responds to stress.

Meaney found that the rats who were reared with much licking had more cortisol receptors in their brains than the others and he determined why and how. He examined the DNA of about 50 rats who were licked a lot and another 50 who were not.

March 3, 2010

Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities

While there’s no denying that kids need to learn about computers and the Web, my biggest fear is that the constant bombardment by media in all its channels will have a negative impact on attention and being able to focus and synthesize information.


One of the things that struck me most watching that video was how much time kids spend being “plugged in.”  I’m not opposed to the use of “engaging technologies” in schools, but there should be a way to transition kids more gradually than just plugging them in all the time.

For the past several years John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge (which has been referred to as an online salon), asks a question of scores of philosophers, scientists, scholars, technology analysts, software gurus, and so forth.

This year’s question was How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? There were many, many fascinating answers.  Here are links to just a couple answers that I think reflect on the issue of computer and media literacy.

Paul Saffo, in “A Third Kind of Knowledge,” notes Samuel Johnson’s observation that there were “two kinds of knowledge: that which you know, and that which you know where to get.”  Saffo says that we now have need of a third kind:

The Internet has changed our thinking, but if it is to be a change for the better, we must add a third kind of knowledge to Johnson’s list — the knowledge of what matters. … Knowing what matters is more than mere relevance. It is the skill of asking questions that have purpose, that lead to larger understandings.

It is being able to learn Saffo’s third type of knowledge, and the ability to concentrate and focus so that kids can synthesize data and information into those larger understandings, that I am concerned about.

Author Howard Rheingold, in “Attention Is the Fundamental Literacy,” says, “Every second I spend online, I make decisions about where to spend my attention.”  He says that people lacking in attention and other essential literacies like “crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness” can be prey to dangers such as “shallowness, credulity, distraction, alienation, [and] addiction.”

Rheingold says something similar to Saffo, in distinguishing between “know-how” and “how-to-know,” and says that the mental temptations of the Web pose dangers only for the untrained mind.  Rheingold places the ultimate responsibility of the health of the Web on whether enough people become responsible “Netizens.”  (So where does that leave us if that doesn’t happen?)

Saffo would probably agree with Rheingold’s basic assessment, but given Saffo’s opinion of what people are using the Web for, I suspect that he’s a bit more pessimistic:

Now we revel in search, but most of what we search for isn’t worth seeking, as the top search lists on Google, Yahoo and Bing make clear. Couch potatoes who once channel-surfed their way through TV’s vast wasteland have morphed into mouse potatoes Google-surfing the vaster wasteland of Cyberspace. They are wasting their time more interactively, but they are still wasting their time.

(For some reason this calls to mind Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”)

Regarding who’s responsible for how we use the Web, Larry Sanger, cofounder of Wikipedia and Citizendium, in “The Un-focusing, De-Liberating Effects of the Hive Mind,” asks:

Do we have any choice about ceding control of the self to an increasingly compelling “Hive Mind”? Yes. And should we cede such control, or instead strive, temperately, to develop our own minds very well and direct our own attention carefully? The answer, I think, is obvious.

Sanger takes more of a middle road than many of those who opine about the Web.  He’s skeptical of the claims of some who argue that we don’t need to memorize facts anymore and that we can just plug into the “group mind” of the Web.  On the other hand, he’s also critical of those who feel that they are compelled to participate in social networks by a “collective will.”  He notes that “the exercise of freedom requires focus and attention” and says that we retain free will.

“…we obviously have the freedom not to participate in such networks. And we have the freedom to consume the output of such networks selectively, and holding our noses — to participate, we needn’t be true believers.”

“So,” Sanger continues:

…it is very hard for me to take the “woe is us, we’re growing stupid and collectivized like sheep” narrative seriously.  If you feel yourself growing ovine, bleat for yourself.

But perhaps his true feelings are best reflected in his comment regarding the argument that social networks are turning too many kids into a bunch of ignoramuses (“as Mark Bauerlein argues cogently in The Dumbest Generation“) when Sanger states “For the record, I’ve started homeschooling my own little boy.”

While I agree with Sanger that adults bear responsibility for themselves, it is because of children that I have the biggest problem with his argument.  Children are subject to a lot of peer pressure, both explicitly and implicitly.  Do they have the willpower and self-discipline to know when enough is enough?

(If this post doesn’t make sense it’s probably because I’ve spent too much time on the Web!)

February 23, 2010

The Virtual Frontier

Filed under: Digital life,Internet,Metacognition — Myles Tougeau @ 1:02 am
Tags: , ,

While setting up a blog for a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., it finally dawned on me that “Hey, I could be doing this for myself, too!”

However, unlike the American frontier of the 1800’s, it seems that the virtual frontier (taken from the subtitle of a FRONTLINE special, Digital_Nation: Life on the virtual frontier) is not that far from the frenzy of “the madding crowd.”

In fact, it’s all around.  24/7 stimulation.  Of course, how different is that from all-night cable shows and radio stations that you could watch or listen to or even call in to?

I’m not sure.  What is all of this doing to us?  To our minds?  What’s happened to introspection?  To contemplation?  Can we even think anymore?  Or do we just react?

Where did all the peace and quiet go?!  (And how did I, a simple country boy, end up here?)

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