Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

A Stray Shopping Cart Safari

Now and then, for creative purposes, I need to stray a little ways away from the stated theme of Banapana: “Our Minds on Media.” I also find that some of the subjects I write about, like advertising, and putting microchips in our brains gives me agita. I need a break if I’m going to keep consistently writing. And I’m not entirely sure that Marshall McLuhan would not argue that shopping carts are a medium. He made the argument that the wheel was a technological extension of the foot and therefore a medium. Does this not make the shopping cart an extension then of the foot and back. If human history had taken some different development track in which we never developed a consumer culture—a really difficult hypothetical for me to imagine—would the shopping cart even exist? It’s an artifact of us, but also our economy.

And what happens to these artifacts of economy in nature? To answer that question, it is best to turn to “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America” by Julian Montague.

This beautiful tome is either the result of a sincere artist or a wry comedian; I’m honestly not sure which. Upon receiving this as a Christmas gift from my sister, I was immediately reminded of books like “How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants”—whew!—by David Rees. When I first randomly encountered this book at Powell’s Bookstore, I was angry and pulled it off the shelf and rifled through it with fury. This artisanal crap had gone too far! Then, I found the chapter on how to break into a friend’s place and sharpen their pencils and the word “SATIRE” blinked on and off in my vision. Mr. Rees is willing to wink at the audience to let us know what’s up. Mr. Montague, on the other hand, doesn’t flinch. Reading the Afterword, one finds that this is serious social commentary. No offense to him, I can’t help but read it as dry wit and I find it hilarious.

The book is gorgeous.

There are simple and easy-to-read diagrams to determine the type of stray you have documented.

There are lots of photos of shopping carts in various situations.

I adore the fact that it presents a sincere identification system. This accomplishes two things. One, it presents an opportunity for the author to show a lot of photos of shopping carts that are not just a random collection. The overlay of logic helps to give reason and order to the collection. Like a Linnaean taxonomy system, any one can present a pile of animal photographs, but placing them in relation to one another makes it an investigation. Two, (and I think this may be an unintended result) it makes for a great safari guide!

So, book and phone in hand, I headed to the nearest supermarket near me. My first encounter was to be expected. I had merely parked in the grocery store parking lot and immediately I found three Class A, false strays.

Two large and one small false strays of Type 1. Close false.

From there, I ventured into the surrounding woods behind the supermarket complex. Not surprisingly, within 200 yards of the main parking lot, I discovered this specimen. According to the guide, since this cart is within “two blocks” it should be categorized as a close false. However, an examination of the close false carts in the above photo reveals green handles and seat flaps. This might indicate that the cart in the woods is from elsewhere. So, at the moment, the categorization of this stray cart remains fuzzy to me. I intend to check on it again in a matter of weeks.

A clearly abandoned stray filled with kitty litter. Note that there is no branding on the cart.

Thanks to the early work of Julian Montague and his stray shopping cart project I hope to further my own research to other shopping complexes in the area and find more strays. Stray shopping cart safaris such as these can take hours of time and careful orienteering when looking for the truly outlying stray. Luckily, unlike many fauna, stray carts do not spook easily. I’ll return with more updates as the hunt progresses. Until then, happy shopping!

A Cabin With Walls That Are Not There

A lovely cabin I visited in Oconee County State Park.

One of the most difficult things to do when starting out with a meditation practice is quieting your thoughts. While I won’t delve into meditation lessons, take a brief, thirty second pause here, with your eyes closed.

You are likely to find that your brain will introduce thoughts like things you need to do, some errant memory or earworm, something you desire, etc. This is a busy mind and it’s natural. How many of those thoughts were questions you wanted answered or weird trivia you wanted to verify? A while back, I stayed at a cabin without internet, and I noticed an entirely different mental phenomenon from having a busy mind. Nor was I put off by a silent mind. There was an unsettling feeling of being walled in beyond the heavy log walls of the cabin.

Don’t mistake me for being a back-to-the-Earth naturalist either. I had a laptop, an iPad, and my iPhone. (I also had two paper books.) I had intentions of writing, reading and hiking. I’m familiar with the term FOMO, but that, to me, has more to do with seeing whatever is on the social networks and knowing you’re missing out. I didn’t have any social networks to let me know what I missing. Plus, I meant to be missing out on the news. This eerie silence should have felt welcome—I had pursued it, after all. I’ve been trying to put my finger on the feeling since I experienced it, and concerning most things having to do with media, I asked WWMMT (What Would Marshall McLuhan Think)?

McLuhan’s observations about media go beyond popular recognition. His thinking goes, media are extensions of ourselves: the alphabet an extension of our speech, the wheel an extension of our legs, television an extension of our sight. Much like wireless headphones cutting off your music when too far from your device, the feeling is disruptive, akin to amputation. Your car breaking down is equally if not more crushing. And now, we are entering an era where our media our extensions of our minds.

That was more the feeling I had in the cabin. I could watch a movie, read a book, write an essay—there was no FOMO, no boredom, no ennui. However, it did feel like part of my mind had been amputated, namely; the part that could answer any question, give me any name, take me anywhere in history. While writing, I had to leave brackets where I needed to fill in some fact or thought later during the writing process.

The eerie feeling left me after a few days, but there I was, contemplating what it had been and what it meant for us going forward. While we typically think of ourselves as having five senses, neurologists have been identifying additional senses for years. Most neurologists would tell you that we have on order of twenty or more senses. There’s proprioception—the sense of where your body is in space. There’s equilibrioception, your sense of balance. Some individuals have been shown to have magnetoception, or the ability to detect magnetic fields.

As we continue to explore the brain and potential uncover more of these senses, we will also be able to develop the technology to use and manipulate and extend them? Perhaps, as the example of the internet-free cabin taught me, what will it feel like to lose these extensions? As we increasingly exist in a more media dense world, we are finding that it may be causing more problems than we realize. How much anguish are our social networks really responsible for, and how much anguish might their disappearance cause as well?

This is all food for thought at the moment, but I would love to coin a term for the feeling I experienced—the inability to flex a mental muscle I had grown all too accustomed to. On some level, I recognize that it might just be a form of sensory deprivation. However, as McLuhan wisely pointed out, our media inventions tend to be two-way streets. “The medium is the message” was the cryptic mantra that emerged from his work, and I, for one, am still puzzling over it.

Notes on Cognitive Liberty

My academic background includes study of the subjects of neurology and artificial intelligence. However, I have kept those fields in two different compartments in my head until now. The reason for the shift in my thinking is that these two subjects are now inextricably intertwined. I came to this conclusion thanks to a podcast called “Ologies.” In particular, episode 336 titled “Neurotechnology (AI + BRAIN TECH) with Dr. Nita Farahany.”

My interest lay with Dr. Nita Farahany, because given the title of the episode, you might presume her to be an artificial intelligence researcher or a neuroscientist. But regard! She is a lawyer, and because I have been on the side of those who say that A.I. is potentially one of our most dangerous technologies to date, and that it could spell the end of humankind if mishandled, I wanted to know more.

It doesn’t have to be a terminator-style extinction. An A.I. tasked with making paper clips and given no upper limit might learn how to divert resources to its task to the point of disrupting our economy or even starving us to death. So, I’m for legislation and regulation, but that’s where my pontificating stopped. I have no suggestions for how to curb these new A.I. programs that are emerging. What regulations will be good enough?

We’ve seen how effective OSHA, the EPA, and ATF were when a fertilizer factory exploded after years of ignoring regulations and falsifying reports, killing 15 people, injuring 160 people, and destroying 150 nearby buildings. With A.I. one such mistake could cause far more damage. Plus, it’s a lot easier for a teenager to build an open source AI than it is for them to build a nuclear reactor—not that they can’t do it, but building an A.I. doesn’t require you to get your hands on regulated, hazardous materials.

Dr. Farahany has some ideas about where to begin and she really got me thinking. For instance, she used the term “cognitive liberty”—a term that is Orwellian in its nature simply because it begs questions like can our minds be read for abuse in the justice system? Do we have a right to the privacy of our own thoughts. Twenty, or even ten years ago, why would this be a concern? Now, however, when A.I. is helping the medical world see what you see inside your brain and interpret what is happening, we are coming much closer to an era where even your dreams could be rendered. So, how many steps does it take for images to be injected into the brain in such a fashion? How far are we from, say, companies advertising in our dreams? Ugh. We definitely need some boundaries here.

Some of these potential laws seem obvious after the fact. Identification is one. If you are communicating with a generative A.I., it must identify itself as one. There are currently crimes in which A.I. voices resembling a loved one are scamming individuals for money—to the tune of $11 million in 2022. Are criminals going to obey laws that make them identify their A.I. partners in crime? No. But the existence of such a law could go a long way to making it easier for victims to re-coup their losses.

In China, the operators of bullet trains are made to wear EEG helmets that allow others to monitor their attention-levels. As much as China gets a well-deserved rap for being authoritarian, I can think of a few environmental disasters that might have been avoided with the use of such technology. But how far does this go? Should factory workers have to wear such devices to monitor productivity? They’re already pretty heavily monitored when it comes to bathroom use, so I think we can expect a company like Amazon to at least try this methodology.

Other companies will extol the virtues of these devices, but make no provisions for your privacy, because as with social media, the data you produce has sales value. I predict that what will happen is that the companies will offer the device to you as a method of, say, improving your meditation regime. They’ll also offer you the ability to track that information in the cloud and back it up safely for yourself. Buried somewhere in their terms of service will be a statement that says they have the right to do what they want with that data, including selling it. You may ask, “What harm is there in someone having data about my meditation habits and abilities?”

If you are indeed saying this, I must reply, “Have we learned nothing?” Of all the data hacking, stolen passwords, and identity thefts that occurred because of Facebook, one thing Facebook did that was trivial on its face and yet caused a lot of people crises, was simply to post your birthday on your profile page. Your birthday, your name and a list of people that you know—an identity thief’s paradise. Corporations are just not incentivized to take the necessary precautions to protect your data; they never will be. The bottom line will always be more important than the next best level of security.

Let’s say someone invents (and they will) a device that can tune into your Broca’s area. The Broca’s area is a small module of your brain that is responsible for generating speech. It should be possible to create a device that scans that area and lets you dictate text via thinking. Should that data be available to corporations to back up on the cloud, and aggregate and sell? Even if a corporation that sold such a device had high ethical standards and went to great lengths to not aggregate and sell your thoughts, could they really guarantee protection against determined hackers? Could they avoid being sold to another company that had no interest in protecting your thoughts? What sort of recourse would you have if you signed a End User License Agreement (EULA) and that companies’ lawyers protected the company (as they often do) by inserting a statement that says you don’t have the right to sue them if they lose or damage the data?

We need serious law in this area; not congress passing the buck to some new regulatory agency. This level of danger requires constitutional change. With the advent of A.I., we will not only see the technology present its own danger, but with its help, we will eventually see it enter our brains with ever-increasing fidelity. You have the right to free speech. Shouldn’t you have the right to free and private thought? Shouldn’t that right not be defended by a bureaucracy, but rather writ large as an amendment to the US Constitution? Perhaps, we can count on our A.I. overlords to change the constitution for us, since our Congress is so unlikely to do what’s necessary here.

2024 Bingo Card

2024 Bingo Card

I think 2024 is going to be a serious year, so I decided to take my bingo card seriously, too. These are all legitimate predictions. Some of them (like Betelgeuse going supernova) are pretty low probability, but they’re within reason! For instance, scientists have discerned that Betelgeuse has entered its carbon fusing stage, which means it will blow within decades, not centuries! Don’t worry, it poses no danger to us. It will, however, be a bright spot in the sky that you can see during the day. It will be as bright as the moon! So, like I said, some of these items are low probability, but still possible.

Even Mr. Jefferson Knew

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day”

—Thomas Jefferson

In other words, those that don’t take in the news media are uninformed; those that do are misinformed.

What’s Good on the Tubes?

Over on the Banapana Medium publication I’ve updated my list of the best of original, creative content on Youtube. I’ve tried to put together a smallish list of what I’ve found on Youtube that I think is the cream of the crop when it comes to well-made, creative, original material.

My criteria for this list is as follows. I’m not going to cite any talking heads. Even if they’re riotously funny, I’m citing material that has a plot, at the very least—even a modicum of a plot if it’s a series. So that also means no music videos. And I’m not going to mention anything that’s “meta”. If it’s a video that borrows, critiques or even steals, from someone else’s intellectual property, they don’t make the list. So no parodies. Anything that delivers information is right out.

Banapana is Back

Banapana is Back

On January 13, 2005, I first posted to my brand new blog, Banapana, Our Minds on Media. I kept it running, mostly with a post a week until March 30, 2013. Then, I was done. Blogging had turned into Twittering. People were moving away from the blogosphere to other platforms and the site no longer felt relevant to me. But the concept of “Our Minds on Media” never got too far from my thinking.

On January 25, 2005, I tried to coin the term LUI or Language User Interface. Nobody really cared. We were dealing with some pretty dumb chatbots and I was thinking about A.I. in the Unix command line. In fact, in 2005, I would have hesitated to call anything A.I., but rather it was all ML (machine learning) to me.

Now, in 2023, A.I. has become vogue like never before with ChatGPT, Bard, Orca, Pi, etc. In fact, the Media has retroactively—wait, what is the comic book term for this? Retcon!—The Media has retconned machine learning algorithms, like your email spam filter, as A.I. Since the aforementioned A.I. have arrived, I feel like I was pretty correct about the idea of the LUI. And I feel like I have been correct about other matters regarding how media is changing our thinking.

So, ten years after Banapana closed up shop, I think it’s time to re-open. It’s not just what’s going on with AI1. There are other significant developments occurring in which media is affecting our cognition that merit a closer look. iPhones being dopamine delivery systems that rob people of money, for instance.

I feel the need, more than ever, to remind people of what Marshall McLuhan espoused in his 1964 masterwork “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man“—media are just extensions of a human’s abilities and sense. We are arriving at two interesting points simultaneously. One, there are a hell of a lot more senses than five. Most neurologists will argue that there are more like 30-35 senses. We’re just beginning to understand human thinking. If video is an extension of vision, then what is the extension of Proprioception? Two, we’re starting to simulate all of those senses with a new type of intelligence—one that won’t think and feel like we do. Things are getting weird and that’s what Banapana is to me. It’s time to start it back up.

I’ve started a Substack (to be a thoroughly modern writer) and I’ll be posting more here on Medium. The old WordPress version of Banapana is available and I’ll keep posting there until I convert it to a Sveltekit blog before the end of the year! See you there.

  1. If everyone on Earth is going to use sans-serif fonts, can we all agree to use A.I. as opposed to AI, because in a sans-serif font it just looks like Al. I mean, to quote Paul Simon, “I can call you Betty and Betty when you call me, you can call me Al.” 

Weaponizing Bits

From Bits to Bullets

For a long time now, my views have been influenced by a remarkable editorial by Nicholas Negroponte in Wired magazine entitled “Bits and Atoms“. In that editorial from 1995, Negroponte spoke of how numerous goods were making and would make the transition from reality to the digital landscape and how the valuation of such digital goods was often wildly inaccurate because of our emphasis on things atomic. To make his point, he tells the amusing story of returning from abroad and having to declare the value of his laptop upon arriving at customs. The value of the laptop was, in his estimation, one to two million dollars. The security agents were, of course, skeptical and after examining the device, estimated its worth at about US$2000. What they missed were the bits. Negroponte, a well-known MIT professor, had a laptop with a hard drive that was no doubt packed with papers, published and unpublished, documentation and certainly software, perhaps even experimental unreleased projects. Surely all those bits were worth something. Still, today, We often overlook bits and how they change the value of goods, or in the case of the weaponization of bits, how they change the value of human life.

Whereas commerce has seen a sneaking and disruptive transition from atoms to bits with regards to its goods, war is undergoing a somewhat different change. That is, the bits of war are having a distinct affect on the material world; namely the de-localization of war and the disintermediation of the suppliers of weapons. Chief among the developments of the weaponization of bits are drones and 3D printers.

Read more…

Banapana In Brief for 2/5/13

Cognitive Restructuring

First off, some nice thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy finds its roots in the 1970s schism of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology, and I suppose, in some ways, is an attempt to reconcile the two. In brief, strict behaviorists argue that thinking is merely a side effect of behavior that is driven by external stimulus. If an animal (including humans) receives some stimulus, there will be a resulting physical “output” which includes activities such as thinking. Cognitive psychology research, however, had its roots in reaction to behaviorism by focusing on things like language which appear to be mental activities capable of occurring without external stimulus. To see more on the differences, check out this nice video on the matter. My personal favorite demonstration of the incompleteness of behaviorist theory is Roger Sheppard’s mental rotation problems. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy then, in large part, makes the argument that thinking can change behavior, and in particular, thinking about your thinking. And Psychology Today has a nice summation of some of those techniques. Of interest to the concept of minds on media is that one common tool in all of these techniques is the use of media (yes, that includes paper) record objective measurements of thinking in order to reflect and act on them. The truth is, human memory is pretty shoddy and its easy to remember just the outliers of bad outcomes or be deluded into thinking that bad thoughts and actions are useful. Yet, the simple act of writing down three happy things in a journal at the end of each day improves your overall happiness. And, you guessed it, there’s an app for that and more.

The Monoculture

I’m always grappling with why the concept of the monoculture bothers me quite so much. On the one hand, there is something unsettling about billions of people all going to the same restaurant to eat the same subpar meals. Where is the uniqueness of life in that picture. On the other hand, the idea that even McDonald’s is a homogenous thing the world over is pretty handily dismantled by this entertaining posting over at the Awl petitioning for the creation of a “McWorld” restaurant in Times Square that features all the different food fare from McDonald’s around the world.1. Still though—and I’m still scouring the science on this one—it seems to me that healthy brains like new things and the Monoculture seems to work against the creation of brain healthy environs in that regard. So, if you’re like me—a little suspicious of the monoculture—be sure to increase your awareness of corporate infiltration in your like with this excellent graphic from Visual.ly that illustrates how most of your household products are produced by only five firms: Five companies that make 60 household products

Droning On and On

When taking a McCluhan perspective on media (as this blog frequently does) one sees media developments as extensions of the human anatomy and senses. Writing extended (over distance) our communication and roads extended our legs. It is no wonder that one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world was Rome, which made extensive use of roads and writing. Turning to a more modern empire, we have the United States, and its particular brand of sense extension in the drone. Drones have been quite the trending topic this month with people becoming more and more aware that this is a weapons delivery system out of control of the usual checks and balances of the US government. Let me be perfectly clear: You, as a US citizen, can be put on a kill list by the CIA, by executive order, and executed by drone attack. That’s why there’s a lawsuit. And don’t think this couldn’t happen, it has and other innocent US citizens have been caught in the crossfire. If you want more details on the rise of the drones, I highly recommend this article from Time; “Drone Home.”

  1. Of course, different by no means implies healthy. 

Banapana In Brief for 1/29/13

Terrorist Twitterers

Boing Boing reports that a twitter account associated with Somali terrorists has been suspended. The terrorists have issued statements to the effect that they believe this has occurred because the West is afraid of them getting their message out through non-mainstream channels. From Reuters:

“They shut it down because our account overpowered all the Christians’ mass media and they could not tolerate the grief and the failure of the Christians we always displayed (online).”

Aside from it being somewhat humorous that they sound like incensed teenagers, I find it hypocritical that they don’t seem to recognize Twitter as an invention of the West. It’s kind of hard to believe that if they had their desired caliph-state (see Afghanistan pre-2001) that they would have come up with Twitter… or the Internet for that matter—kind of a Western-scientific invention, that.

On That Note

The Internet is going to transform the way that government works. No, seriously, it is, one day. That’s sort of the topic of Clay Shirky’s engaging Ted talk. From Ted:

“Clay Shirky argues that the history of the modern world could be rendered as the history of ways of arguing, where changes in media change what sort of arguments are possible — with deep social and political implications.”

Clay Shirky’s best idea yet (IMHO) is that the Internet is creating spare cognitive cycles that he calls a cognitive surplus. In short, the human race (in first-world counteries, anyway) have been largely a consumption-oriented group because of the nature of our broadcast media. The Internet has largely turned that idea on its head and is maker producers of us all, as well as allowing for the coordination of groups across the world to create markets that would otherwise be relegated to obscure micro-niche status. How McCluhan! He details this in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. I haven’t read it yet, but this is definitely on the short list of books to review here on Banapana.

Is Siri the Future?

This one’s been being bandied about for a while. I wrote about it in 2005 along with DJ Adams over at Openp2p primarily asking the question if a language user-interface (LUI) might be the next real option to the graphic user interface (GUI). I think so, but the cognitive power behind these systems really still has a ways to go, as evidenced, I think, by the fact that we were asking this question in 2005. Still, Kontra, of CounterNotions adds to the debate pointing out some new developments such as Siri operating without a screen in cars as adopted by nine different automakers. To me, processing power in the client device is still a big stumbling block for this interface. Play a game with a friend to see my point. Arm yourself with iPhones and try to answer some inane question1 like “What was the name of the comedian that starred with Kevin Bacon in ‘A Few Good Men’?” All results will get you to the IMDB page for “A Few Good Men”—definitely where the answer is. (Hint: the comedian’s name is Kevin, too.) To put it mildly, Siri will take longer, but not, because the answer is elusive, but rather because parsing that particular question takes a while—it’s a long question is my point. I suppose that if you’re not great at thumb-typing, the advantage is moot. Looks like it’s time to update my LUI editorial. 🙂

  1. Really inane. There are still lots of simple questions that totally stump Siri and Google Now 

Data-driven Willpower

In a world where many of us have our attention dominated by computer screens, debates rage about whether doing so has made us more productive or less, Are they helping us to socially connect or keeping us from making deep connections? These screens of ours have helped us calculate, helped us to communicate, but there is a new category of computer application that seems to be on the rise: applications that help us to decide things. They can be as simple as telling you to bring an umbrella to how to get where you’re going. So far so good, but is there any way that this breed of decision apps might work to make us healthier, happier or wiser by strengthening our willpower?—or perhaps even substituting for it.

Read more…

Google Goggles

I’ve been away from the blog a bit working on an academic project for graduate school, but how could I not take time out of my day to comment on Google Glass? This blog is subtitled “Your mind on media,” isn’t it? And the idea of this project couldn’t be closer to that theme. So here’s my comment: I would rather have my eyes removed than put Google in charge of them. Their wonderful little concept video (seriously, Google, do you even make things anymore?) is nothing what this interface will ultimately look like. After the advertisers and marketers and spammers and trolls have had their way with this project, it will likely look much more like this and that concept video should make you want to shed virtual tears. This is Google we’re talking about. They don’t say it outright, but openness to them means curated as little as possible. Anyone can put their software on the Android system and if it happens to exploit your phone and steal your information, that’s your problem. Do they really believe that they can create a clean, curated augmented reality experience? They simply don’t possess the corporate psychology to do so; they’re motives are simply not aligned with such a design project. First known for search, their search results aren’t even that great anymore. Why? Because they are an advertising company, plain and simple. What they are motivated to do is put ads in front of you. Aren’t we kidding ourselves a little bit when the concept video for this technology contains no ads served by the Google Goggles? Yes. We are.

Update: Someone has created a more genuine version of the Google Goggles project video.