Your Brain on Technology, A Saturated Sponge?

Last Sunday, I found myself sunk in my couch, arranged with a plate of chicken and rice for dinner, a drink in one hand and a remote control in the other. I had a blanket over my legs and my iPhone on the cushion next to me. I was ready to watch my favorite television shows on HBO. Gradually, however, a thought began to inch into my mind. Like a tick, this thought began to discomfit me. I wanted my laptop. I could see it in the other room. It beckoned me. How was I supposed to surf the Internet during my shows without it?

I observe situations like this almost everywhere I go: I notice it on the elevator when I grab for my iPhone to avoid interacting socially with the strangers in my proximity; I see it at the gym when exercisers flip through television channels as they pump their legs on treadmills; I see it at dinner parties when my friends lower their eyelids like poker players to tap out texts during a lull in conversation. It appears that now, with cell phones in our pockets and with Google algorithms primed fantastically to feed us answers to our questions, the tiniest windows of time are being filled with media. And while this media can turn moments of downtime into productive blips, a long-standing debate over the pros and cons of constant connectivity is becoming more volatile.

A study from the University of Michigan tested the capacities of two groups of people to concentrate and learn information. Before studying identical information, one group took a stroll in nature and the other group took a stroll in an urban setting. The nature group learned significantly better, leading the researches to conclude that processing a lot of information, characteristic in urban environments, causes the brain to tire. Therefore, giving the brain time to recoup, as it did in the natural environment, enhances its capacity to learn.

Perhaps even more alarming is the assertion by Harvard-educated scholar, Nicholas Carr, who wrote an article called, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” In the article, Carr explains that the rapid functionality of the Internet—with pop ups, links, email notifications, and a tendency toward shallow consumption of information—is actually rewiring the circuitry of our brains. Carr writes, “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr contends that our ever-malleable brains are constantly being remodeled as nodes are unplugged and new circuits are routed. Since our brains adapt so quickly, the old channels that used to serve higher concentration on, say, books or creativity, are becoming eroded. This erosion, some scientists suggest, could lead to attention deficit disorder or depression.

It’s not all bad though. Camped on the other side of the debate are people like Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson. In his essay, “the New Literacy” Thompson argues that people are reading and writing far more than they did during the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s when television was the main medium. Thompson writes, “Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text…they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.”

Thompson also points out that the new type of writing, geared toward reaching an audience, requires concise and communicative prose, a positive step away from the esoteric pontifications of writers before. In his assessment, this democratizes the language. Where people used words like esoteric and pontification, they are now tending toward words like lofty and preachy—which the average reader understands. For Thompson, Twitter updates and text messages are a far cry from defilers of the English language. They are the promoters who bring regular people into it.

Taking the argument even further is writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky, whose idea of “cognitive surplus” posits that the low cost and the ease-of-sharing associated with the Internet has been a boon to creativity. In a TED presentation, Shirky explains that advances in technology have opened up vast amounts of free time for human beings. Until the Internet, this free time used to be eaten up by passive entertainment like television or video gaming. Now that the Internet is available, Shirky says, a shift has occurred in that humans with free time are devoting it to creating.

“The very nature of these new technologies fosters social connection—creating, contributing, sharing,” Shirky said in an interview with Wired Magazine. “This lets ordinary citizens, who’ve previously been locked out, pool their free time for activities they like and care about.”

Shirky says the free time we have for creating, or “cognitive surplus,” is poured into everything from the trivial site, where people post funny pictures of cats, to serious political activities like, where people update and map instances of social suffering. Though some sites are less substantial than others, they still spark peoples’ creativity.

More importantly, when people collectively collaborate on the Internet new feats of humanity and knowledge become attainable. Shirky sites Wikipedia as an example. The articles, the edits, and the arguments behind the articles represent about 100 million hours of human labor. Wikipedia, the most extensive encyclopedia, was built virtually for free through collective cognitive surplus.

So where does this leave us? Are we doomed to being shallow-thinking automatons ruled by Google, or is the Internet helping us dig deeper to reach new potentials of creativity and collective conscious?

Most are inclined to think it’s a combination of both. These are the typical convulsions of new technology. Plato lamented the invention of the written word, saying it would supplant the need to exercise memory. Yet, he couldn’t see the vast historical repository, the potential for teaching, the aid in deeper contemplation that the written word brought about.

This past summer a group of neuroscientists from both sides of the argument went on a rafting trip down Glen Canyon, Utah to study the effects of nature’s respite on the brain. At the end of a lengthy New York Times article, the scientists remained unconvinced either way. They felt relaxed after having been in nature, to be sure. However, they said the adaptability of the brain allows our circuits to become exercised and better able to cope with the barrage of information that we are constantly immersed in during our urbanite lives.

At the end, they recommended the Golden Mean: if your thinking gets cluttered, go for a stroll without your earbuds and your iPod.

Maybe instead of getting up for my laptop, I should’ve given my brain a rest by eating my Sunday night meal in the sanctity of my own thoughts.

India Temporarily Extends BlackBerry’s Lifeline

The Indian government delayed a ban on Blackberry services, which was threatened for Tuesday, allowing the wireless company, Research in Motion, to continue operations pending a 60-day security test.

This is the latest development in an ongoing tug-of-war between RIM and India, who are debating how much access the country’s government should get to Canadian-based BlackBerry’s encrypted data services.

The Indian government says access to email and data services are essential in maintaining the country’s national security; meanwhile, RIM is reluctant to turn over peoples’ private correspondence to the government.

It appears that the parties reached some sort of agreement, though it remains unclear what consensus was struck.

In a statement, the Indian government said Blackberry allowed access to certain portions of information, which would be operationalized immediately. However, the government showed some skepticism saying, “The feasibility of the solutions offered would be assessed thereafter.”

The Indian government, along with several others, says terrorists exploit the encrypted data services, using them to correspond clandestinely. The government says terms of use agreements obligate wireless phone companies to divulge information as it is requested by law enforcement agencies.

RIM says that it can’t provide unencrypted messages and e-mail. The only servers that can decode the messages are owned privately by RIM’s corporate customers. So, messages are encrypted automatically by the phones and reach RIM’s servers in Canada in encrypted form.

The battles between RIM and countries like India and the United Arab Emirates have caused skepticism among investors, causing the company’s shares to drop significantly. On Monday shares closed at $45.59, down .88 percent.

Cisco Makes Bid to Acquire Skype


Cisco reportedly made an offer to acquire Skype in an effort to nab the telephony company before its IPO, according to a source who spoke with the technology blog, TechCrunch.

The source said that Cisco may be looking to acquire the company with an offer in the ballpark of $5 billion, though TechCrunch has been unable to confirm the report with an official statement.

The secrecy is apropos of a company that is on the verge of an IPO, a move that usually requires high degrees of confidentiality—especially in the stages right before going public.

Some analysts say that $5 billion may be a little much, especially since Google recently released its own version of VoIP powered through Gmail. These analysts point out that the VoIp atmosphere is heating up, so the increased competition may cause a devaluation of Skype. Also, Ebay recently sold its 70 percent share of Skype and valued the company at $2.75 billion.

As of the time of this writing, neither Skype or Cisco have issued any statements concerning the matter, though some analysts say it’s likely that Skype will accept the offer so they can remain competitive with Google.

More updates as the story unfolds.


AccuConference Announces Fax to Email Service

AccuConference would like to announce the unveiling of our new option, fax to email — a service that will enable customers to receive their faxes via email.

Fax to email is all about the streamlining of our customers’ communications. It’s a practical application that will convert faxes to PDF’s that will arrive in our customers’ inboxes. These faxes are archived digitally, allowing customers to sort, store, print and review them as if they were a typical email.

For less than $2.50 a month, customers get a dedicated, uniquely assigned fax number. In addition to fax-to-email conversions, it allows customers to receive faxes in an electronic Web format, which puts them at customers’ fingertips and makes them viewable from any browser. Fax to email also grants access to a customer site where customers can log in and view all of their faxes and calls.

Fax to email is a modern opportunity that chimes with modern businesses in the information age. With so much inflow of information, the ability to organize and archive digitally is essential.  The fax to email service fulfills that need.

Airlines Consider Worldwide Mergers

Pan-continental airline mergers seem to be creeping more and more into the airline industry’s horizons, now with the CEP of the International Air Transport Association saying that consolidations around the globe are the next step.

Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, told the Dow Jones Newswires that airlines would need to consolidate beyond national borders to maximize margins in the future.

He also bemoaned the current restrictions, which exist in the U.S. and abroad, that prevent foreign airlines from owning over 49 percent of domestic carriers.

Airline mergers in the U.S. have been profitable for the airlines, but somewhat controversial among consumers who often wind up with fewer flight choices.

Domestically, Delta has completed a merger with Northwest and United Airlines is in the process of merging with Continental, along with other major-carrier combinations still underway.

Most domestic airline CEOs are of like mind with Bisignani, saying consolidations result in higher margins.

In Europe, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, the German airline that accreted with three airlines last year, officially reported that they would be on board with the trend too.

Bloomberg reported that Stefan Lauer, a Lufthansa executive, said mergers were very likely and that they were an exciting prospect for the airline industry.

Industry analysts point out that the mergers will help airlines stay afloat and could lower prices for larger companies. However, it also reduces competition as there are fewer players in the game.

Shorter flights either atrophy or become more expensive as the larger companies look more toward increasing longer, more popular flights. 

Netflix Introduces Streaming App for iDevices

The Netflix application that has been so popular on iPads was made available for iPhone and iPhone touch users today.

The free app, version 1.1.0, universalizes television and movie streaming for the iOS-based devices and is a move that will spearhead Netflix’s mobile penetration plan

The 15 million-plus users who have Netflix memberships, which start at $8.99 a month, can now view all of the movies available for streaming directly through the app.

I snagged the app and tapped into my basic membership as soon I heard to indulge in some streaming-goodness. I played a snippet from the Big Lebowski and the dude looked pristine as ever over my iPhone screen. The load time was surprisingly quick over 3G too—probably just as fast as my iMac at home. I connected some speakers for a little surround sound and almost forgot I was at work!

Also, I was pleased to see that the iPhone/iTouch version was formatted for the smaller devices, unlike the iPad which uses the same interface as the Netflix site. Tabs along the bottom let you browse genres, search for specific movies and put movies in your Instant Que. Little play buttons display over the movie covers so clicking and playing is pretty simple.

The app’s only demerit is that you can’t even view the titles of movies that aren’t available for streaming. Which means, I can’t manage my normal queue on the go, only the instant queue is accessible. 

Google Unrolls Voice in Gmail

Google held a press conference today to discuss their newest feature: the ability for people to place VoIP phone calls with Gmail accounts through Google Voice integration.

The company appended the feature to the Google Chat window, which has previously allowed Gmail users to chat with their contacts.

Starting today, there will be a call/dialer function that will be accessible to all people with Gmail accounts. The feature is fully integrated with peoples’ email contacts, allowing them to call other Gmail users by selecting their names and pressing call.

Users can call people who are not sitting at their computers too. According to a Gmail Blog post today, people can call any phone from Gmail by dialing on a computer-based keypad. The blog says calls to the U.S. and Canada will be free, while calls to other countries will be billed.

“We’re rolling out this feature to U.S. based Gmail users over the next few days, so you’ll be ready to get started once “Call Phones” shows up in your chat list,” the blog says. It adds that users who wish to use the service will first have to install the voice and video plug-ins.

The service is similar to Skype, except that it’s integrated with email and charges for cross-country connections.

Google will sell its own credits for the program through Google Checkout, a shopping-cart application that users will have to pre-pay through for international calls.

Senators Concerned About Chinese Telecom Bid

Eight republican congress members sent a letter to the Obama administration last week asking that they closely review a bid by a Huawei Inc., a massive Chinese telecom corporation, to supply equipment to Sprint Nextel in the U.S.

The letter sites national security concerns as Huawei purportedly had business ties with Saddam Hussein and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, which was previously sanctioned by the U.S. for its role in weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

The letter states, “A Chinese company with such a leading role in Iran’s economy, and close relationship with the IRGC, should not be able to do business in the U.S.”

Among the senators who sent the letter were Jon Kyl of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri. They expressed concern that Huawei’s position would be threatening because Sprint Nextel supplies equipment to the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies.

“Is there any concern that Huawei, if it gained any measure of control over a U.S. contractor involved with sensitive U.S. government contracts, would present a national security threat for technology leakage or enhanced espionage against the United States?” the letter asks.

The move points out a debate that has been taking place for some time now, where a balance is yet to be struck between open trade and national security—especially when Chinese companies are trying to invest in sensitive U.S. industries.

Huawei executives countered the letter saying that the company only wished to do business with its counterparts in the U.S., and that the Chinese government and military had no sway over the company’s dealings.

The senators dismiss this claim as posturing, pointing out the contracts between the company and the military and government, as well as saying the Chinese government may have directly funded Huawei.

The Senators asked the Obama administration to appoint an investigative team to fully examine the company, its dealings and the potential risks of a deal with Sprint Nextel.

Airport Security Testing Palm-Down Body Searches

With new, more aggressive pat downs being tested at Logan International Airport in Boston and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, privacy advocates have already begun lamenting the new levels of airport-security friskiness.

The Boston Herald reported that Transportation Security Administration screeners will be using the “enhanced patdown” method that lets screeners go palm-forward on the torso—instead of the usual backhanded approach.

The American Civil Liberties Union is questioning the procedure, saying that there seems to be a constant erosion of privacy as security grows more and more invasive.

According to the Boston Herald, passengers who have undergone the new searches feel overly probed and excessively scrutinized by Big Brother.

The story quoted several Boston-area travelers who narrated the screening processes as they recalled them.

One man, named Rob Webster, said there was “probing and pushing” of his genital area, and added, “if anyone ever groped me like that in real life, I would have punched them in their nose.”

The TSA defends their position, saying that it is a needed addition to enhance the multi-layered security approach—especially when terrorists are devising bombs that are undetectable by the magnetometers.

Looking ahead most airports will give passengers the option of the “enhanced screening” or full body scanners, which take x-ray pictures of peoples’ bodies beneath their clothes.

Travelers Burdened With City Taxes

Travelers are seeing a new array of taxes levied on them, this time, from cities, which are facing budgets that are increasingly strict and porous.

According to a recent report by the National Business Travel Association, cities are shaking travelers for revenues through bed taxes, airport concession taxes and car rental taxes.

These taxes are being appropriated to fund tourism campaigns, bolster failing budgets and fund airport improvements.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that cities are trying to get lean in general, with some selling off their zoos, parking garages and airports.

When added to sales taxes, travelers can expect to pay an average of $28 in taxes a day on their cost of lodging, car rentals and meals in the nation’s top 50 destination cities, according to the NBTA.

The cities with the highest taxes on travelers were Chicago ($38.75), New York ($36.53), and Boston ($36.47).

The cities with the lowest tax burden on travelers were Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Portland and Detroit.