Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 7, 2017

Smartphones killed the fabulist

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 1:26 pm
EVIL!!!

In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

April 4, 2017

Our conversations don’t matter so much

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 7:25 am

One of the things about being on the internet is your local social and communication network looms really large. Controversies or concerns in your part of the pool seem to take up all your energy and attention. But it’s a big world out there. I’ve been using the internet since 1994, and one of the aspects I’ve observed is how geographically insulated we are. Back then I remember being excited to have an e-mail exchange with a sysadmin in Oxford or a high school student in Quito (real examples). Today my conversations are much more narrowcast. Yet the internet is so much more diverse and there are billions instead of tens of millions conversing every day.

In my case I even have family which lives in a foreign country. Many of them are now my Facebook friends and we “like” each others photos, but that’s about it. There’s not much conversation. I suppose we are busy with life…but the internet perhaps foregrounds in some ways how little we have in common, because we can’t even be bothered to talk.

I’ve collected Google Analytics for the main Gene Expression domain since 2006. Below are the top ten nations in terms of accesses (the USA is 60% in 2007 and 50% in 2017, to give you a sense that the proportions haven’t changed much.

Top countries of origin for GNXP.com accesses by year
2017     2007
USA USA
UK Canada
Canada UK
Australia Australia
India Germany
Germany India
France Sweden
Sweden Finland
Japan Ireland
Netherlands France

There are many conversations out there happening in other languages and nations. I do wondre what they are.

November 28, 2010

Internet usage by country

Filed under: Culture,data,Data Analysis,Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 1:14 pm

In my post below on the rise of China, I ran into the data on internet usage by country again. I was online regularly by the spring of 1995, and it’s amazing to think that there are hundreds of millions of Chinese on the internet now! The World Bank estimates that both China and India have exhibited an increase of internet usage by an order of magnitude from 2000-2010, though from different bases. So while there are ~300 million Chinese users of the internet, there are ~50 million Indians. But who would have guessed that Nigeria has more per capita internet users than India? See below.


Now check out this plot of more advanced economies of internet penetration by % of households vs. income per capita.

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