Is Technology Changing Your Brain? (Josh Hanagarne) #internetlibrarian #il2014

Josh Hanagarne, the “world’s strongest librarian

Had a dream about a highly anticipated speaker, who turned out to have a fish head. He starts his speech with, “Call me Fishmael.”

Hasn’t been a manager except a short stint as a branch manager. Killed it with the mending cart, though!

His Tourette’s means that he has had to learn to pay attention.

Library school recruiters told him he would be the “steward of democracy.”

After an intense year of library school (including a lot of time online), went back to reading for pleasure. Used to read 200-300 pages a day (doesn’t get much sleep because of Tourette’s). Could not read in the same way.

He pays close attention to his brain, so he knew something had changed.

He spent time doing breathing exercises and had a year without Tourette’s. An MRI shoed that his brain had actually changed during that time. (It’s gotten worse since then.)

Like HAL from “2001”: “Dave, I can feel it, my mind, it’s going.”

When reading, would get antsy three paragraphs in.

(Reference to “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr, which says the Internet is changing us. Not paranoid like “The Net Delusion.”)

Will never stop being a heavy Internet user and wouldn’t want to reverse progress. But assuming the Internet is changing our brains, we should think about that.

T. S. Eliot felt that his sentences got shorter and he lost subtlety when he started writing on a typewriter.

According to a biographer, Nietzsche’s writing changed to aphorisms and puns when he started using a kind of typewriter (“under the sway of the machine”).

Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian”: “A man’s at odds to know his mind” (because you have to use your brain to know your own brain).

A brain is a lump of pink and gray goo. How does it do what we do? We get up, recognize things and people, agree on our observations of reality. We know we are ourselves, because we have a mental record of our past.

Is your memory decreasing apart from age? Carr uses a metaphor of sticky notes as short-term memory and a filing cabinet as long-term memory. Memory depends on getting those sticky notes into the filing cabinet.

Believes Internet addiction is real and that he has it.

How many of you have already logged into Facebook this morning? (Maybe a quarter of hands went up.)

His definition of addiction: something makes you feel way better than it should and you have an unwillingness to become uncomfortable.

Loneliness and jealousy: Facebook can make you feel worse afterward. (Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together”)

Does it change our habits and manners? How many have answered a text message while talking to somebody else?

Does it change the way we think? He is addicted to one-star reviews on Amazon.

Does it change the way we think about ourselves? People at the library ask for help getting a Facebook account. They have to answer all kinds of questions about what they like.

“You as dropdown menu.” You have to choose from a finite list of options. What if they don’t have your option? We are defined by software somebody wrote. Book: “You are not a Gadget.”

Does it change the nature of experience? It used to be you could eat celery or go on a hike without sharing a picture.

Pictures of celebrities now often have the person taking the selfie in the foreground.

Do you get excited about doing something or sharing that thing on social media?

Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” Hanagarne (and I) say, it’s only nine pages, read it.

When a subject is drained of its images, it loses emotional power. So we have euphemisms like “ethnic cleansing” rather than what it really is.

If all writing is meant to be skimmed, we lose the power of writing to convey what’s really going on.

What if we could agree on what feminism is and how we could achieve its aims, but only if we all read a 50-page complex document sentence by sentence?

How does it work? Any problem you want to solve, you have to ask this question. Kids were shown a drinking bird toy and wouldn’t even guess how it works, because they could look it up on their phone.

What does it mean to know something? Knowing where an answer is can feel like knowing an answer.

What might this mean for libraries?

Books: wants people to be able to take a big, complicated book off the shelf and get something from it.

What are libraries for? Libraries are a place to dream with your eyes open (Stephen Abram). Not much time to dream in between tweets.

Freedom is at stake. A library makes people freer than they otherwise would be. You are not free to ask a question that would not occur to you. Everyone has manacles on their minds; they are the questions we don’t ask. The library gives you more questions to ask.

There is no off switch to adaptation. You will get better at whatever you do. If reading seems to be harder, it’s because it is getting harder.

Our mission is to keep as many minds in play and playful. We need to fight for literacy and openness. This is part of that.

The only ones we’ll be able to trust are those who are still trying to think, who still know that words means something.

Questions and answers:

Working on a YA novel, another memoir on faith.

He’s working on expanding his limits. Read until it gets hard, but keep expanding that time. Didn’t want to associate reading with a freaked-out state.

One questioner says she can read the way she used to at a cabin with no phone and no Internet access.

Hanagarne’s great reading list from this talk has been compiled at www.libconf.com/2014/10/29/wednesdays-keynote-reading-list/#.VFGbPEBCEYo.twitter/

Edited to add: a few things including the link above.

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