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It’s Friday, Friday: A New Age in Communication

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Rebecca Black’s video for her song “Friday” is one of the most widespread internet memes of all time. At this point, I’m sure our whole class (aside from Professor Rejack… perhaps) could easily sing along to the mindless lyrics of this unintentionally hilarious and addictive new formulaic pop song. According to Youtube, “After attracting less than 1,000 viewers during its first month, the video went viral on March 11, kicking off a bizarre media craze that dominated national news for weeks. Before the month was up, “Friday” had cracked the Billboard charts and racked up more than 64 million views on YouTube, despite an almost universally negative response from media outlets.” And now, just a few weeks after this craze peaked, Rebecca’s song has nearly 120,000,000 views.

While certainly humorous, this video’s popularity says a lot more than just that “everybody’s looking forward to the weekend.” Rather, it sheds light on the growing power of social media in global communication. How could a piece of information – even if it is just a terrible, formulaic pop song – spread to reach 120 million people so quickly?

Social media and networking websites like Twitter and Facebook played a huge role in the spread of this video. In the past decade, these types of social media websites have evolved and grown to encompass much of the world’s population. As Kaitlin discussed in her blog post on social media, “Anyone who was anyone in middle school had a Myspace,” and even though Myspace has decreased in popularity, “through Myspace failings came new social networking sites that remain popular today.” With each new social media site more popular than the previous, it seems that online dispersal of information – through Tweets, Facebook posts, or other media – will only continue to grow as it becomes the leading form of communication.

Of course, while the accessibility of information online is certainly powerful, it comes with inherent costs. Katie remarked in a post about twitter, “It is somewhat creepy to me how much we can quickly learn about each other through the Internet.” Most people have become aware of this (through Facebook stalking, for example), and have in response learned to limit or at least think twice about what they share online. However, in this new digital age in communication, we are not always in control of what information about us is shared online or who it will reach. Certainly Rebecca Black did not anticipate 120 million people around the world seeing her video (or 2 million clicking the “dislike” button), but at least she was responsible for this video being released into the public internet realm. With websites like CollegeACB, dark truths or fictional (and dangerous) rumors about a person may spread across a campus without the subjected individual even knowing, much less consenting. In her post about CollegeACB, Christina concluded that “The internet (in the form of CollegeACB and other sites like it) is becoming the virtual avenue for the collegiate-level bullies, where they can gang together to pick on their fellow classmates. However, the internet becomes even more dangerous than the playground because no “time-outs” are ever handed out.” This dangerous anonymity is inherent in the nature of online communication. Overall, this all shows how technology shapes culture and human relationships around the world. As online communication has become the leading medium for spreading information, new risks and benefits have emerged that have changed the way humans communicate forever.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Opposite of a Cyborg?

March 31, 2011 Leave a comment

While we have defined a cyborg, or cybernetic organism, as a human who has certain electromechanical features or technological implants, we have not yet explored the opposite end of the spectrum of life-machine hybrids:  machines wired with certain living features to help their function.

In the next issue of Science News, an article discusses new research into implanting nerve cells in computer chips.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and collaborating researches have lead this research and now, according to the article, “created tubes of layered silicon and germanium, materials that could insulate electric signals sent by a nerve cell. The tubes were various sizes and shapes and big enough for a nerve cell’s extensions to crawl through but too small for the cell’s main body to get inside.”

Artist rendition of nerve cells connecting to each other as they grow through system of tubes

The nerve cells have shown a consistent tendency to grow into these tubes and form physical connections with each other, however it is still unclear as to what kind of signals they will be able to communicate between each other.   With more research and time however, these nerve cells could provide a whole new way to communicate the electromagnetic pulses and other signals that help run various hardwares.  It will also help researchers study how nerve cells respond to different stimuli or medication.

As combinations of life and technology advance further, the defining line between life and technology begins to blur.  It seems that as time and research move forward, the hybrid fusion of man and machine will only evolve to even greater levels.  At least in this case it seems to be life that is taking over the machine, rather than the machine over life.


Link to article: Science News

Categories: Uncategorized

Kevin Kelly: What Does Technology Want?

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

In this TED Talk, executive editor of Wired Magazine and digital culture enthusiast Kevin Kelly leads a discussion about our relationship with technology and its effect on our human nature and life experience.

I highly recommend watching the video in its entirety in order to fully understand Kelly’s concepts, but here are a few of his ideas that I found particularly thought provoking:

Technology as the 7th Kingdom of Life

Kelly explains this concept by comparing the evolutionary adaptations of organisms to “hacking” the rules of life.  Organisms tend to adapt in unique ways that advance the way they live out their lives and interact with their surroundings.  One example he cites is a solar power sea slug that incorporates chloroplasts inside of its body to serve as an energy source.  This sea slug has found ways to use resources around it to advance its own life.  Furthermore, it seems that all classifications of life have a natural tendency to evolve in similar thematic directions, which Kelly narrows down to: ubiquity (spreading of life all over the world), diversity, specialization, complexity, and socialization.

Of course, these trends also apply to technology.  As technology has advanced, it has also become more ubiquitous, diverse, specialized, complex, and socialized.  Technological advancements seem to mirror the evolutionary adaptations of organisms, in a way creating a new kingdom of life as technology itself.

The Infinite Game

Kelly also describes life as being an infinite game.  What he means by this is that a finite game is one played to win, whereas an infinite game is one that is “played to keep playing.”  Life, therefore, seems to be an infinite game in that during our lives,  as Kelly says, “every person has an assignment.  Your assignment is to spend your life discovering what your assignment is.”    The infinite nature of this game of life is what perpetuates life and has fueled life forward throughout time in a constant effort to advance the ways life is lived.  And since life is about survival, and evolution is about extending and improving life by “hacking” or adapting, technology can be seen as a way of advancing evolution.  Kelly describes technology as “the medium in which we play the infinite game.”

If these ideas sound confusing and complex, it is simply because… they are.  Watching Kelly’s full lecture is the best way to grasp his concepts, since he does the best job of explaining them.  After watching his lecture though, there are many questions to contemplate:

-Should technology really be considered it’s own kingdom of life (even as an extension of humanity)?  Or is it better to see it simply as a tool that humanity uses in order to better our own lives (perhaps like the sea slug that takes advantage of the chloroplasts)?  Is technology more than just a medium of human expression?

-In what ways does technology effect and define our life experience as humans?  Is it inherent in our nature to produce and advance technology?

And taking that one step further…

-Is technology an invention of mankind, or is it simply a natural “cosmic force” that drives the infinite game of life?

Kelly may not provide definite answers to these questions, but his musings on these subjects and his unique perspective certainly make for an interesting discussion about technology.

Categories: Uncategorized

Jeopardy! Hosts Epic Battle of Man Versus Machine

February 17, 2011 3 comments

This week marked a historical landmark for game show fans and technology enthusiasts alike.  Over a two-game competition, Jeopardy’s two highest-winning contestants of all time competed against an IBM-designed supercomputer, Watson, in a new test of man against machine.   Relying on the equivalent of 2,800 powerful computers connected in a high speed network, with a memory capacity of over 15 trillion bites, Watson functioned independently to communicate with Alex Trebek and respond to clues – with neither internet connection nor human assistance to aid him.

Representing the human race were Ken Jennings, who in 2004 earned over $2.5 million over a 74-day winning streak, and Brad Rutter, who accumulated over $3.2 million in regular season-play and other Jeopardy tournaments since his debut in 2000.

Watson (middle) displays its superior handwriting

This situation raises some interesting questions about the competitive relationship between man and technology.  To what extent can a man-made machine surpass the potential of man himself?  Can a machine comprehend complex information provided directly from human interaction?  How autonomous are modern super computers?  Do machines appreciate Alex Trebek’s dry humor?

Watson’s performance alone answered many of these questions.  Between the two games, Watson’s winnings accumulated to $77,147, compared to Jennings’ measly $24,000 and Rutter’s embarrassing $21,600.

Watson, deep in thought and looking confident

While the large supercomputers that power Watson had to be kept in a room backstage, the avatar that stood behind the podium between Jennings and Rutter had a unique presence on the show, seeming at times to be wiser than a mere collection of wires and hardware.  Aside from having a human name, Watson’s “face” would change colors and display threads of light representing thoughtwaves based on its progress and confidence as it pondered its answers.  Additionally, its monotonous electronic voice seemed to possess an unwavering air of superiority.

When asked about his experience competing against Watson, Ken Jennings stated, “I had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat.  It’s not about the results; this is about being part of the future.”  Spoken like a true second-place competitor, Jennings did not seem overly concerned about seeing a machine beat him at his greatest skill in life, playing Jeopardy.

Should we really be as excited as Jennings about this future?  Watson already displayed his dominance over Jeopardy – how long will it be until future generations of super computers exceed human ability at other tasks?  If Watson can play Jeopardy, what other jobs could it be programmed to do?  Surely it could handle the analytical demands of many popular American jobs, and don’t forget – Watson doesn’t show up late for work, sleep on the job, take sick-days, or demand comfortable work conditions or a fair salary.

Perhaps Watson’s success marks a step forward  in time toward a world in which man himself will fall obsolete to the power of his constantly evolving technology.  But even though Watson was able to answer questions more accurately and quickly than its human competitors, it does not necessarily represent a threat to mankind’s mental capacity and dominance.  To prove this, I have one question for Watson:

How did it feel to compete on Jeopardy?

Not so smart anymore, Watson.  Machine may have won this round, but the future of man’s relationship with technology is still in our hands.

For more information on the technology behind Watson, and to watch Watson compete on Jeopardy, watch this recording of the episode on YouTube: