Friday, July 31, 2009

Internet Ephemera, the Extended Mind, and the Death of the RSS Feed?

I am a Google Reader fiend.
I am subscribed to over 100 active feeds.
Every day when I wake up, I check my e-mail and then I check Google Reader. It usually takes me about half an hour to wade through everything.

Mostly I'm subscribed to blogs. I read blogs on topics like movies, feminism, Boston-interest, PR, cupcakes, sports, music, and technology. A handful of my friends have personal blogs which I read. I'm also subscribed to about a dozen webcomics. It's convenient to have them all show up in one place so I don't have to visit each website separately. The other major category of feeds that I'm subscribed to are updates - when the latest chapter of a manga or video series is released. Whenever possible, I like to direct all my daily or regular web content into Google Reader.

My weakness is what I call internet ephemera - blogs such as Photoshop Disasters, Ugly Overload, Sorry I Missed Your Party, Cake Wrecks, Overheard in New York, and Contrariwise - blogs that collect things. These are usually the first to be marked as read if I fall behind. I myself am a collector of things, a pack-rat. I don't throw out fortunes from fortune cookies - I keep them in a jar. (Maybe someday I'll do something with them, right?) I save ticket stubs from movies, concerts, and sports games. I have a box of programs from theater shows. I save all my graded papers. I am loath to throw anything away. It makes it very difficult to clean my room, I must add. But it's easy to see why I'm attracted to blogs like these. They don't add much to my day. I don't gain any information from them. At most, I get a chuckle out of them and move on. But I can't bring myself to unsubscribe!

It's the same sort of compulsion that drives me to bookmark sites on delicious. It's my collection of references and information. I don't have to remember the recipe for Andrew W.K.'s party pan-friers as long as I remember that it exists and that I have it bookmarked. (Tags: andrewwk snacks recipes) In the alt-text of an xkcd comic, Randall Munroe refers to "Wikipedia's role as brain-extension." That's how I feel about the entire internet sometimes - it's a repository of information. I don't have to store certain information in my memory because it's at the tip of my fingers. Carl Zimmer recognizes this in his article "How Google is Making Us Smarter." He writes:
The Internet and iPhones seem to be crashing the gate of the mind, taking over its natural work and leaving it to wither away to a mental stump. As plausible as this picture may seem, it does a bad job of explaining a lot of recent scientific research. In fact, the mind appears to be adapted for reaching out from our heads and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself.

This concept of the extended mind was first raised in 1998, right around the time Google was born, by two philosophers, Andy Clark, now at the University of Edinburgh, and David Chalmers, now at the Australian National University. In the journal Analysis, they published a short essay called “The Extended Mind” in which they asked a simple question: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” Most people might answer, “At the skull.” But Clark and Chalmers set out to convince their readers that the mind is not simply the product of the neurons in our brains, locked away behind a wall of bone. Rather, they argued that the mind is something more: a system made up of the brain plus parts of its environment.
Inside our heads, instead of making a perfect replica of the world, we focus our attention on tiny snippets, darting our eyes from point to point. We extract only the information we need for whatever task is at hand, whether we’re sorting the laundry or climbing a mountain.

The extended mind theory doesn’t just change the way we think about the mind. It also changes how we judge what’s good and bad about today’s mind-altering technologies. There’s nothing unnatural about relying on the Internet—Google and all—for information. After all, we are constantly consulting the world around us like a kind of visual Wikipedia. Nor is there anything bad about our brains’ being altered by these new technologies, any more than there is something bad about a monkey’s brain changing as it learns how to play with a rake.

Neuroscientists will soon be able to offer fresh ways to enhance our brains, whether with drugs or with implants. To say that these are immoral because they defile our true selves—our isolated, distinct minds—is to ignore biology. Our minds already extend out into the environment, and the changes we make to the environment already alter our minds.

Pretty cool stuff.

But back to Google Reader. Lately, there has been a change taking place. The instrument of that change is Twitter. Now when I come across a new blog I want to follow (such as Insanewiches), I have a choice: I can subscribe to their RSS feed or I can follow them on Twitter. If I pick the former, I can view new posts in Google Reader as I do with all those other blogs I read. I can scroll through without reading if it doesn't interest me. If I pick the latter, their tweets will show up on my Twitter homepage announcing when they have a new post. I can choose whether to click the link or not.

The difference is in where I go for my information: Google Reader or Twitter. Of course, I could subscribe to the RSS feed of tweets - I did say that I like having all my web content in one place. But I'm curious as to the greater implications of such a choice. If Twitter truly is The Next Big Thing, and if it's here to stay - at least for a little while - then perhaps we'll see a move away from syndicated feeds in favor of the Twitter platform. But maybe this is not a case of VHS vs. Betamax: maybe they can coexist. RSS will stay strong among those who already use it and Twitter will offer an alternative for those who prefer to be updated in bite-sized chunks. Time will tell, I suppose.

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